Ensuring Accurate Humidity Measurement

June 16, 2014
Effective, compliant cleanroom humidity control hinges on careful sensor management

Every cleanroom has environmental-control specifications that define the upper and lower limits for temperature and relative humidity (RH). Pressure, flow and contamination must also be controlled. Devices that measure RH (e.g., sensors and transmitters) play a relatively small role in cleanroom management, but their failure can cause significant problems. Operators should bear several factors in mind to ensure that sensors function properly and help maintain the appropriate humidity. 

Good airflow minimizes convective-heat problems, but warm equipment radiates heat, potentially creating temperature discrepancy and corresponding measurement error.

RH is a temperature dependent parameter. This should be taken into account when making decisions about sensor placement and installation. Good airflow in the cleanroom usually minimizes convective-heat problems, but warm or hot equipment radiates heat, potentially creating a temperature discrepancy and corresponding measurement error. Be aware of this, preferably in the design stage, when measurement locations and equipment locations are being defined. Loop-powered devices with a 4–20-mA output dissipate some power as heat, and this dissipation could affect wall-mounted RH instruments. Some wall-mounted RH devices housed in enclosures heat themselves by several degrees and experience significant measurement errors. RH devices with short probes that isolate the humidity-sensing element from the instrument’s electronics preclude self heating issues.

Sensors with external probes have their own vulnerabilities. For example, if only 50 mm of an instrument’s 200-mm long stainless-steel probe are exposed to the process air, the rest of the probe may serve as a heat sink or source, depending on its environment. Thus, the temperature of even a carefully designed humidity-sensing element can change in an unanticipated way and cause an RH measurement error that depends on the difference between the process-air temperature and the environment surrounding the exposed portion of the probe.

Humidity sensors should be protected from moisture. They should be located far enough from cooling coils so that they are unlikely to be affected by entrained water droplets. The sensors also should be kept away from steam-injection or ultrasonic-humidification elements. Many RH probes incorporate filters that eliminate catastrophic errors by protecting the sensing element from water. Water can accumulate on or in the filter material, however, and create a microclimate around the sensor that results in measurement errors.

These situations are among the most difficult to remedy. If the errors are big enough to create out-of-specification conditions, they will trigger service calls, calibration requests and equipment replacement. Personnel can prevent these potentially expensive problems during the design and specification processes for RH sensors.

The instrument-specification process is a good time to think about the accuracy specifications of the various RH sensors available (see sidebar: “Quality Pivots on Instrument Selection). No standard requirement for accuracy has been established, so cleanroom designers must consider their specific applications to determine the accuracy specifications they need. Although they are important, accuracy specifications should not necessarily be the decisive factors for selecting RH sensors. Sensor vendors emphasize these specifications, but performance claims can sometimes be misleading because “accuracy” is a qualitative concept in measurement science and other sensor characteristics should also be considered.

Operators should bear several factors in mind to ensure that sensors function properly and help maintain the appropriate humidity.

Long-term stability is easily the most important performance characteristic of an RH instrument. Long-term stability is the instrument’s ability to make accurate measurements consistently over a long period of time. Reputable vendors perform long-term tests to characterize their own devices. The results of these tests help personnel understand the sensor’s baseline performance, but the performance in individual cleanrooms may be different because of the cleanrooms’ unique conditions. 

A significant threat to the long-term stability of an RH instrument in a cleanroom comes from airborne molecular contamination (AMC). AMCs have many sources, including chemicals and materials that off-gas and enter the air stream. AMCs can cause incorrectly low RH readings in high-humidity conditions if the specific contaminant blocks water vapor molecules from reaching the sensor. Some RH devices are equipped with features that minimize the effect of chemicals. For example, a chemical-purge function heats the sensor quickly to a high temperature (e.g., 160 °C), driving off unwanted chemicals.

Many humidity-measurement problems in a cleanroom such as sensor drift can be anticipated and prevented with thoughtful planning. Care should be taken throughout the entire RH-instrument specification and installation processes. Correct installation location, protection from moisture and vapors, and the instrument’s long-term stability should be taken into account to ensure optimal sensor performance. 

Quality Pivots on Instrument Selection

Any good Quality Manager knows that assumptions about an instrument can lead to unpleasant surprises during the calibration cycle. Test and measurement equipment play a critical role in most production and development processes. It is no surprise, then, that test and measurement equipment calibration regimes are a key element of major quality standards and a common area for close scrutiny by auditors, whether they’re internal from an accreditation body or regulators. What sometimes does not get enough attention and deserves careful consideration is in the selecting of test equipment.

There is a fine balance to be considered when selecting equipment. Certainly cost is always important, but there are other critical issues to consider, for example, the appropriateness of the instrument relative to the process. It is critical that the instrument selected meets the measurement requirements of the process; absolutely when it is delivered new, but also for the period between calibrations.

All measurement instruments are prone to drift over time. From a process view this means there is always some risk that instruments currently in use are actually out of specification. To mitigate risk, calibration intervals are assigned based on manufacturer specifications, process requirements, equipment history and acceptable risk requirements.

Usually manufacturer’s specifications are weighted heaviest when determining suitability of specific equipment for a given process. It can be difficult to properly determine an instrument’s expected long-term performance because its specifications must be looked at holistically to gain valid insight into its performance.

Instrument’s accuracy should not be the sole determining factor; that narrow a focus may not take into account the long-term (or one year) drift of the instrument or its applicability to a narrow operating environment. Not properly understanding the performance of an instrument could lead to a problematic calibration cycle.

Some instrument types and applications tend to be easier to define than others. A high-end digital multimeter used in a laboratory setting can be relatively straightforward. Many manufacturers will state 24-hour, one-week, one-month and one-year accuracies as well as provide guidance about the effect of temperature on the readings. The behavior of these types of equipment is well known and, in the grand scheme of metrology, relatively predictable. On the other end of the spectrum are instruments such as relative humidity meters. These are used in such a wide variety of operating conditions and environments that it is difficult for manufacturers to specify the right instruments for every application. Every environment is different and could have a different effect on the sensors.

When reviewing instrument specifications, always check to see that all the factors are included in the stated accuracy. Often, stated accuracy is only valid for a specific temperature range, or it may not include the calibration uncertainty, or long-term drift. It is important to look carefully at what is and is not being included in an accuracy specification. If the specification does not explicitly say that long-term drift is included in the accuracy, it likely is not and should be taken into account separately. Managers need to be aware of process requirements and how reference equipment will support their process and quality goals. It is critical to gather and understand all the information regarding an instrument before approving it for a process. The repercussions of not knowing could get expensive.

About the Author:
Jim Tennermann is the North American Life Science segment manager for Vaisala, a global leader in environmental measurement. He has 25 years of experience in sales, marketing and business development with various firms that manufacture measuring instruments and systems. He studied mechanical engineering at Syracuse University and has published many papers and articles on the practical use of measurement technology.

About the Author

Jim Tennermann | manager