Temperature Measurement Methods & Instruments

Temperature is a measure of the average heat or thermal energy of the particles in a substance; the more thermal energy in the substance the higher it's temperature. This thermal energy is expressed in one of the following units: Kelvin, Celsius, Rankine or Farenheit. See our page on Temperature Conversion to find out more about the origin of each unit, how to convert between them, and a handy online temperature conversion calculator.

Temperature Instruments

There are many different ways to measure temperature all of which infer temperature by sensing some change in a physical characteristic. Of the many different methods of temperature measurement available, the instrument engineer in the process industry is only likely to encounter a handful:


Thermocouples. Probably the most used method. Thermocouples are basically two wires, made of different metals and joined at one end. Changes in the temperature at the joined end induce a change in electromotive force (emf) between the other ends. See our page on Thermocouple Types for a description of the more usual materials used in thermocouple construction, and the benefits of each combination. Alos, view our page on Thermocouple Burnout to read about how to protect your plant against thermocouple failure.
Resistive Temperature Devices. Resistive temperature devices work on the principle that the electrical resistance of a material changes as its temperature changes. There are two main type of Resistive temperature device:
     - Metallic devices (commonly referred to as RTDs). RTDs rely on resistance change in a metal, with the resistance rising more or less linearly with temperature,
    - Thermistors. Thermistors rely on resistance change in a ceramic semiconductor with the resistance dropping non linearly with temperature rise.
Bimetallic devices. Bimetallic temperature measurement devices take advantage of the difference in rate of thermal expansion between different metals. Strips of two metals are bonded together. When heated, one side will expand more than the other, and the resulting bending is translated into a temperature reading by mechanical linkage to a pointer, i.e. they are the basis of most industrial temperature gauges and dial thermometers. Because these devices do not require a power supply they are portable, but they are usually not as accurate as thermocouples or RTDs.
Infrared sensors. Infrared sensors are non-contacting devices. They infer temperature by measuring the thermal radiation emitted by a material. They tend to be used when temperature measurements are extremely high, so are not seen offshore too often.

Temperature Instrument Selection

Each type of temperature instrument has a particular set of conditions for which it is best suited with many of these conditions overlapping between device types, and this makes temperature device selection as much an art as it is a science.
See our page on Temperature Instrument Selection Guide for things to be considered when selecting a device, a comparison of the most commonly used temperature devices, and a temperature instrument selection chart.

Installation of Temperature Sensors

Temperature sensors in the process industries tend to be delicate and need to be protected from the fluid that they are mesuring. The most common method used to achieve this is to use a thermowell i.e. a pressure-tight sheath which surrounds a temperature measuring device.
Thermowells are available with a range of process connections, lengths, shapes and materials of construction. See our pages on Thermowell Design and Specification and Thermowell Wake Frequency for more details on choosing the right thermowell for your application.


temperature sensor selection guide

rtds - how they work

thermocouple selection guide

image curtesy of Jurgen Wagner CC BY 4.0

online temperature conversion




Further Reading - external links

For those who want to delve further into the world of temperature measurement, then the following books may be of interest: