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#4 FAQ: vacuum gauges - pressure measurements

Posted: Mon Jun 06, 2005 7:24 pm
by Richard Hull
All who would know specifics in great detail need to fully and completely explore Kurt Leskers website on pressure measurement and look and technical notes and different devices to learn precisely how they work. Go to

Before we even begin....

All gauges of the non-electric/electronic type that have their entire round faced body with a 270 degree sweep needle threaded into the vacuum line or pump are NOT suitable for any type of fusor based vacuum work!!! These worthless gauges are usually calibrated in inches of vacuum. Scientific vacuums that we are dealing with in fusor operation are not spoken of in inches of vacuum. Far finer vacuum levels are needed to be measured. These round, glass faced gauges cannot do that.

The fusor vacuum environment is special in that it is hung squarely between medium and high vacuum and also at a point where gauges at the lower pressure end of medium vacuum "play out" or are getting inaccurate. Likewise, the fusor functions at the high pressure end of the high vacuum region where instruments made for measuring high vacuums are also inaccurate or just starting to pick up data.

We are in a no man's land more or less. There are two fusor types and these normally demand that different pressure measurement systems be in place.

For demo fusor systems:

1. We need to see our demo systems in the lower end of the thermocouple range which is in the 100 micron - 1 micron range.
2. We need to accurately know the running or operating pressures in the 1-50 micron range.

Working fusor- doing fusion:

1. We demand that a good fusor be exhausted well into the high vacuum region and this requires the capability of looking at pressure far into the sub-micron range. This region is usually in the 10e-4 torr to 10e-8 torr range.

2. We demand that the deuterium back fill be closely regulated to great accuracy which demands clean measurement back into the micron range of 1-20 microns. The same high vacuum gauge will typically not work here.

SO...... what do we do?

Units of pressure: What do we use?

There are, seemingly, a million pressure units. The anally retentives and science hard core weenies will use SI units (pascal). No one uses SI units who has been doing vacuum work. (maybe some euro types and paper publishers, but no one else).

The only two units you need fiddle with are the units of yesteryear which are still in nearly universal use.

1. The micron - a very old unit ( one millionth of a meter of mercury in pressure), and actually is the simple unit which hovers just right around the fusors operating pressures. This unit is still the unit of choice on all thermocouple gauges. As most of us will only have a TC gauge, microns is still "good-speak"

Atmospheric pressure is 0.760 meters of pressure or 760 mm of pressure. Very roughly speaking, a micron is about one millionth of an atmosphere. One micron is the air pressure at about 60 miles above the earth.

It is considered bad form in the vacuum biz to speak in terms of 0.05 microns. When we talk sub-micron, we must switch units.

2. The Torr - this is the simplest and most useful of all vacuum units and is universally spoken due to its being constantly discussed as powers of ten. 1 torr = 1 mm of pressure. 760 torr= 1 atmosphere. 1 micron is roughly 10e-3 torr, etc High vacuum begins roughly at 10e-4 torr = 0.1 micron.

At 130 miles above the earth, where the low orbit of the space shuttle lies and a frictionless orbit is found, we are at a high vacuum level of 10e-6 torr or about one billionth of an atmosphere. Still, even in this deep vacuum, there are over a billion molecules of air in every tiny cubic centimeter of space.

If you use a TC gauge you are just going to have to get used to the micron. As both the torr and micron are metric and are just a power of 10 conversion all can be done in one's head and a good feel for vacuum is readily at hand.

Stupid units that have no relation to useful conceptual stuff are the pascal, bars and millibars, inches of mercury, etc.

We all speak in the common vacuum parlance here and if forced to choose one, the torr would be the best.

Gauge selection:

Thermocouple or TC gauge:

Your very first gauge must be a thermocouple gauge. This is mostly due to its low cost and the fact that you can limp through all fusor phases with just this one gauge. This gauge can be very inaccurate just where we need it the most. It will lie about pressures when different gases are used. Off setting this is the fact that a lucky used buy might land a good TC gauge with tube for $50.00. This gauge relies on the thermal conduction of a gas in the sense that the gauge looks at how fast a heater can lose its heat or cool as detected by an electrical thermocouple sensor. This is always a function of the number of molecules per unit volume around the heater and sensor. Most common TC gauge tubes and cables use a common old radio tube base. (octal- 8 pin and it has a keyed center post to align the pins. All tubes only use 4 of the pins, two for the thermocouple and two for the heater. All tubes are internally wired differently and the heaters all draw different currents and the thermocouple typically report differing voltages. So they are pretty much controller specific. (make sure you have the tube that the controller calls for.) Most good controllers will have the tube number they work with printed on the meter face or the cabinet's model number plate. All TC gauges are typically set to be accurate with plain atmospheric gases. Other gases must be adjusted to a proper level on the TC gauge readout or converted from atmospheric calibration.

Brand new TC gauges with tube might cost as little as $250.00. Good used ones are in the $100.00 with tube. A lucky find might snag one with tube for $50.00

Capacitive manometer gauge:

This is just the opposite of the TC gauge and is certainly the best gauge on earth at this time for use with a fusor. A 0.1 torr capacitive diaphragm gauge with controller will give precision pressure readings from 100 microns = 0.1 torr down to about .01 microns=10e-5 torr. This is the only gauge that can do this in one gauge and would be the most perfect of all fusor vacuum pressure gauges to own. Be prepared to see a list price of gauge and controller in the $2000.00 range for a new gauge with controller. Used sensors can be found on e-bay for $100.00 to $500.00 and controllers in the same range. This gauge will give accurate readings regardless of gas type unlike all other gauge types which require conversion factors or re-calibration for specific gas types. New gauges of this type are $1000-$1300 without any controller. But controllers are easy to make with only a little electrical experience.

Ion gauge:

A pretty worthless gauge as it doesn't even work well even near the medium vacuum end of pressures. This gauge is much more common in high vacuum systems where 10e-4 to 10e -9 torr pressures are common. Most ion gauges really shine in the 10e-5 to 10e-7 torr range. Don't consider this gauge unless you get a freebie with controller or plan to work in the 10e-6 torr range and below.

Discharge, Penning or cold cathode gauges:

These gauges are rather rare now, but, oddly, are actually useful for fusor work especially if used with a TC gauge. This gauge is useful from 10e-2 to 10e-6 torr. Its low end is OK for micron reading and its high end is suitable for full neutron fusor evacuation.

This is basically a magnetically enhanced air glow discharge device where the current at a given voltage needed to sustain an glow-discharge in the gas is a function of pressure based on the number of ionic current carriers in the discharge.

This gauge and its controller is sometimes found rather inexpensively at hamfests or surplus dealers. It is gas specific!

Piranni gauge:

This is a Wheatstone bridged gauge that often includes a reference resistance in one of its bridge arms. It is really just a stabilized and referenced TC gauge system. Some of the best Piranni gauges can respond down to 10e-4 torr, gaining a full decade over the TC gauge. The gauges are typically far more expensive that the TC gauge, but used deals can be found in the $100-$200 range. Still not my choice but better than a simple TC gauge. Again this type of gas is also gas specific and requires conversion tables often supplied with the manual that is specific to the piranni gauge

As you can see, no gauge that is cheap or inexpensive can handle the full pressure range of a working fusor and be considered to be very accurate.

Combinational systems:

It is now fashionable to place two of the above sensors in one pressure gauge tube and design a highly intelligent controller which selects the appropriate sensor within the tube to use at its appropriate pressure range. This overlapped, dual sensor system may now be claimed to cover many decades of pressure. Such systems demand the specific controller designed for the sensor. If one sensor goes bad you must throw the good sensor away and buy a complete new head. Such systems are very expensive, even at surplus prices, due to the novelty and newness of these devices.

The ultimate choice of gauge is a function of your desire for accuracy versus the depth of your purse. Lucky purchases not withstanding, you will spend between $200.00 and $2000.00 for your new vacuum gauge.

Duniway Stock Room offers some of the lowest priced new TC gauge systems.

Thanks to John Hendron for the following links.

Wanna' roll your own TC gauge around a common gauge tube?..... checkout.

Want still more general info on gauges and measuremnt units?...... go to

Richard Hull

Re: FAQ: vacuum gauges - pressure measurements

Posted: Thu Sep 22, 2005 3:26 am
by zexelon
This has to be the most helpfull FAQ here.

Thanks Richard


Re: FAQ: vacuum gauges - pressure measurements

Posted: Thu Nov 29, 2007 11:42 pm
by bevan
It may be worth you looking at the wide range combination gauges at Leskers ... LC_910.cfm

Can cover a wide range (1.0 x 10-5 to 1,500 Torr (1.3 x 10-5 to 2,000 mbar)), digital versions of the traditional gauge technology allows it to be controled via a PC and software, meaning you don't have the expense of the control boxes -also are more accurate.

Re: #4 FAQ: vacuum gauges - pressure measurements

Posted: Fri Oct 19, 2018 7:36 pm
by Richard Hull
We have had so many people here ask if the common 270 degree sweep, round, direct reading gauge is good enough for fusor work, I felt compelled to amend the very beginning post of this FAQ to lead off with a statement that such a gauge will not do for fusor based vacuum readings. Dare I hope folks will read this FAQ and we never see the question asked again?

Richard Hull

Re: #4 FAQ: vacuum gauges - pressure measurements

Posted: Sat Oct 20, 2018 6:28 pm
by John Futter
I do take humbrage at your statement of

"Stupid units that have no relation to useful conceptual stuff are the pascal, bars and millibars, inches of mercury, etc".

Both Pascal and millibar are the prefered in the SI system which are used by 80% of the worlds vacuum physicists

one bar = 101,300 pascals
The Pascal is the SI unit
the bar is not but this is what Wiki says

The bar is a metric unit of pressure, but is not approved as part of the International System of ... The International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) lists the bar as one of the "non-SI units [that authors] should have the freedom to use", ...

Edit after Rich
Standard units
The unit of measurement called an atmosphere or a standard atmosphere (atm) is 101325 Pa (101.325 kPa).[5] This value is often used as a reference pressure and specified as such in some national and international standards, such as the International Organization for Standardization's ISO 2787 (pneumatic tools and compressors), ISO 2533 (aerospace) and ISO 5024 (petroleum). In contrast, International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) recommends the use of 100 kPa as a standard pressure when reporting the properties of substances.[6]

Re: #4 FAQ: vacuum gauges - pressure measurements

Posted: Sat Oct 20, 2018 7:56 pm
by Rich Feldman
Oops, compelled to correct a rare mis-statement by John.

One bar is exactly 10^5 pascals. Most meteorologists use millibars to measure, record, and forecast natural air pressure. The "standard" pressure at sea level is 1013.25 millibars. This month's devastating Hurricane Michael had surface pressures as low as 919 millibars.

So the bar qualifies for _my_ undemanding definition of metric. It's an integer power of 10 times a SI base unit.
Some other metric units that aren't SI base units are the hectare, barn, angstrom unit, and (wait for it...) liter and gram.

The bar is easy to confuse with the standard atmosphere, which is exactly 101325 pascals and exactly 760 torr.
No longer does the torr depend on adopted conditions for mercury density and Earth gravity.

I won't cite references here, instead deferring to the Internet. Users are responsible for distinguishing what's real from what's fake.

Re: #4 FAQ: vacuum gauges - pressure measurements

Posted: Sun Oct 21, 2018 5:51 am
by Richard Hull
Most landing here are common folk and not professional vacuum physicists or professional meteorologists. Likewise, the inexpensive vacuum gauges they are most likely to encounter will be in microns. I have already advised these common Joes that when they submit a paper to Nature, or the Journal of Plama Physics in future, that they will have to use SI units.

I'll let them decide for themselves what units they will use in their invariably short journey to fusion, or not.... followed by departure.

Richard Hull