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Engine Oil Flow Measurement – Which Flowmeter?
One of the most difficult flow measurements for the automotive engineer is measuring engine oil flow rates under operating conditions. With the engine mounted on the test bench and attached to the dynamometer, the task is a little easier due to increased space availability, but none the less, careful selection and installation of the flow measurement system is essential. Instrument power requirements, space required for installation, and the harsh conditions of the bonnet further limit the flow measurements required in the vehicle’s engine bay.
What are the alternatives to flowmeters? Well, industry standards seem to exist somewhat, but that doesn’t mean they are correct. Let’s look at some options.
(1) Positive displacement meter, this may be in the form of gear meter, piston meter or helical screw. These meters are generally on the higher price side and can cause installation problems due to their relatively high pressure drop. Although they are good at working over a wide viscosity range, they suffer from low viscosity meter drops. Meters vary in size, but can often be installed without any flow conditioning. Some engines use test housings but are not an ideal solution.
(2) Turbine flow meter, generally one of the most widely used flowmeters for engine oil flow measurement, mainly because of its low cost and small size. They can be purchased relatively easily from many manufacturers and have manageable pressures that are not detrimental to oil system performance. They are sensitive to oil and fluid flow profile effects, so it is extremely important to calibrate the flow meter over a range of different oil viscosities and with its installed upstream and downstream flow conditioning tubes. To ensure accurate results during use, it is necessary to match the installed conditions as closely as possible. Often specialist flow calibration laboratories calibrate flow meters on the same engine oil, at the same operating temperature and with the same inlet and outlet connections as the engine installed. Sometimes this can be part of the engine assembly, such as the oil cooler or oil filter assembly, usually the easiest part of the engine where oil flow can be interrupted. Many flow meter manufacturers only provide calibration certificates on water, which can cause large errors if engine oil is used.
(3) Coriolis meter. Very good high accuracy meters, which will only be useful for fixed installations. These meters are very expensive and larger in size as compared to turbine and positive displacement meters. These meters have made great strides over the past 10 years, but are still prone to poor installation, vibration, and zero drift measurement errors. Ideal for test bench use where they are permanently installed, and straight tube models are now the norm, they offer low pressure drop and excellent viscosity range.
(4) Pressure drop characterization. Dropping a flowmeter is an increasingly common method for obtaining accurate measurements without affecting oil system performance. Individual parts of the engine oil flow system are instrumented for pressure tapping locations, and each engine part is flow characterized on a calibration bench for oil flow against pressure drop at the required temperature. Once each system has been characterized, the engine is reassembled and tested, and the recorded pressure measurements are then used to obtain flow rates. This method is commonly used on critical engine lubrication surveys, where dropping a flow meter can have a detrimental effect on the oil flow system.
(5) Ultrasonic clamp on meter. Although an intrusive device, because of its straight pipe installation requirement, it means the system intrudes into the oil measurement system. It is still very expensive to purchase, and currently not tested enough to be a proper contender in these applications, although progress is being made faster than other techniques.
After deciding on your flow measurement method, and performing the required level of flow meter calibration over the operating temperature range, you are close to taking a fundamental step toward achieving better flow measurement results. Engineers relatively new to engine lubrication studies should consult a flow calibration laboratory, which should have adequate experience in this type of flow measurement application and be in a good position to find the best solution for your budget and flowmeter hardware inventory.
Other points to keep in mind. The complex nature of engine oil flow measurement means that obtaining accurate oil flow readings from a running engine is very difficult, but the information engineer can make sound engineering decisions on their measurement process. Note the effects of oil viscosity, oil temperature, flowmeter and meter installation on oil pump performance, oil ventilation, relief valve effects and hysteresis, fuel dilution effects, engine oil level, etc. The next series of discussions will delve deeper. The results of these parameters in more detail.
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