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Valve Actuators

Automatic valves are commonly considered as control valves that operate in conjunction with an automatic controller or device to control the fluid flow. The “control valve” as used here actually consists of a valve body and an actuator. The valve body and actuator may be designed so that the actuator is removable and/or replaceable, or the actuator may be an integral part of the valve body. This section covers the most common types of valve actuators and control valves with the following classifications:

• Two-way bodies (single- and double-seated)
• Three-way bodies (mixing and diverting)
•Ball valves
• Butterfly arrangements (two- and three-way)

The valve actuator converts the controller’s output, such as an electric or pneumatic signal, into the rotary or linear action required
by the valve (stem), which changes the control variable (flow). Actuators cover a wide range of sizes, types, output capabilities, and control modes.

Sizes. Actuators range in physical size from small solenoid or clock motor self-operated types, to large pneumatic actuators with 100 to 200 in2 of effective area.

Types. The most common types of actuators used on automatic valve applications are solenoid, thermostatic radiator, pneumatic, electric motor, electronic, and electrohydraulic.

Output (Force) Capabilities. Although the smallest actuators, designed for unitary commercial HVAC and residential control applications, are capable of only a very small output, larger pneumatic or electrohydraulic actuators are capable of great force. The overall force ranges from a few ounces to over 0.5 ton of force.

Pneumatic Actuators

Pneumatic or diaphragm valve actuators are available with diaphragm sizes ranging from 3 to 200 in2. The design consists of a flexible diaphragm clamped between an upper and a lower housing. On direct-acting actuators, the upper housing and diaphragm create a sealed chamber (Figure 9). A spring opposing the diaphragm force is positioned between the diaphragm and the lower housing. Increasing air pressure on the diaphragm pushes the valve stem down and overcomes the force of the load spring to close a direct acting valve. Springs are designated by the air pressure change required to open or close the valve. A 5 lb spring requires a 5 psi control pressure change at the actuator to operate the valve. Some valves have an adjustable spring feature; others are fixed. Springs for commercial control valves usually have ±10% tolerance, so the 5 lb spring setting is 5 psi ± 0.5 psi. Two valves in a control may be sequenced simply with adjustable actuator springs.

Reverse-acting valves may use a direct-acting actuator if they have reverse-acting valve bodies; otherwise, the actuator must be reverse-acting and constructed with a sealed chamber between the lower housing and the diaphragm.

The valve close-off point shifts as the supply and/or the differential pressure increases across a single-seated valve due to the fixed areas of the actuator and the valve seat. The manufacturer’s close off rating tables need to be consulted to determine if the actuator is of an adequate size or if a larger actuator or a pneumatic positioner relay is required.

A pneumatic positioner relay may be added to the actuator to provide additional force to close or open an automatic control valve (Figure 9). Sometimes called positive positioners or pilot positioners, pneumatic positioners are basically high-capacity relays that add air pressure to or exhaust air pressure from the actuator in relation to the stroke position of the actuator. Their application is limited by the supply air pressure available and by the actuator’s spring.

Electric Actuators

Electric actuators usually consist of a double-wound electric motor coupled to a gear train and an output shaft connected to the valve stem with a cam or rack-and-pinion gear linkage (Figure 10). For valve actuation, the motor shaft typically drives through 160° of rotation. The use of damper actuators with 90° full stroke rotation is rapidly increasing in valve control applications. Gear trains are coupled internally to the electric actuators to provide a timed movement of valve stroke to increase operating torque and to reduce overshooting of valve movement. Gear trains can be fitted with limit switches, auxiliary potentiometers, etc., to provide position indication and feedback for additional system control functions.

In many instances, a linkage is required to convert rotary motion to the linear motion required to operate a control valve (except ball and butterfly valves). Electric valve actuators operate with two position, floating, proportional electric, and electronic control systems. Actuators usually operate with a 24 V (ac) low-voltage control circuit. Actuator time to rotate (or drive full stroke) ranges from 30 s to 4 min, with 60 s being most common.

Electric valve actuators may have a spring return, which returns the valve to a normal position in case of power failure, or it may be powered with an electric relay and auxiliary power source. Since the motor must constantly drive in one direction against the return spring, spring return electric valve actuators generally have only approximately one-third of the torque output of non-spring return actuators.

Electrohydraulic Actuators

Hydraulic actuators combine characteristics of electric and pneumatic actuators. In essence, hydraulic actuators consist of a sealed housing containing the hydraulic fluid, pump, and some type of metering or control apparatus to provide pressure control across a piston or piston/diaphragm. A coil controlled by a low- to medium level dc voltage usually activates the pressure control apparatus.


A solenoid valve is an electromechanical control element that opens or closes a valve on the energization of a solenoid coil. Solenoid valves are used to control the flow of hot or chilled water and steam and range in size from 1/8 to 2 in. pipe size. Solenoid actuators themselves are two-position control devices and are available for operation in a wide range of alternating current voltages (both 50 and 60 Hz) as well as direct current.

Thermostatic Radiator Valves

Thermostatic radiator valves are self-operated and do not require external energy. They control room or space temperature by modulating the flow of hot water or steam through free-standing radiators, convectors, or baseboard heating units. Thermostatic radiator valves are available for a variety of installation requirements with remote-mounted sensors or integral-mounted sensor and remote or integral set point adjustment

Control of Automatic Valves

Computer-based control of automatic control valves is replacing older technologies and provides many benefits, including speed, accuracy, and data communication. However, care must be exercised in selecting the value of control loop parameters such as loop speed and dead band (allowable set-point deviation). High loop speed coupled with zero dead band can cause the valve-actuator to seek a new control position with each control loop cycle unless the actuator itself has some type of built-in protection against this. For example, a 1 s control loop with zero dead band could result in 30,000,000 repositions (corrections) in 1 year of service.

Computer-based control systems should be tuned to provide the minimum acceptable level of response and accuracy required for the
application in order to achieve maximum valve and actuator service life.

Two-Way Valves (Single- and Double-Seated)

In a two-way automatic valve, the fluid enters the inlet port and exits the outlet port either at full or reduced volume, depending on the position of the stem and the disk in the valve.

Two-way valves

In the single-seated valve, one seat and one plug-disk close against the stream. The style of the plug-disk varies depending on
the requirements of the designer and the application.

The double-seated valve is a special application of the two-way valve with two seats, plugs, and disks. It is generally applied to cases where the close-off pressure is too high for the single-seated valve.

Three-Way Valves

Three-way valves either mix or divert streams of fluid

The three-way mixing valve blends two streams into one common stream based on the position of the valve plug in relation to the upper and lower seats of the valve. A common use is to mix chilled or hot water. The valve controls the temperature of the single stream leaving the valve.

The three-way diverting or bypass valve takes one stream of fluid and splits it into two streams for temperature control. In some limited applications, such as a cooling tower control, a diverting bypass valve must be used in place of a mixing valve. In most cases, a mixing valve can perform the same function as a diverting or bypass valve if the companion actuator has a very high spring rate. Otherwise, water hammer or noise may occur when operating near the seat.

Special-Purpose Valves

Special-purpose valve bodies may be used on occasion. One type of four-way valve is used to allow separate circulation in the boiler loop and a heated zone. Another type of four-way valve body is used as a changeover refrigeration valve in heat pump systems to reverse
the evaporator to a condenser function.

Float valves are used to supply water to a tank or reservoir or serve as a boiler feed valve to maintain an operating water level at the float level location (Figure 14).



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