Capacitive, the Other Proximity Sensor

What is the first thing that comes to mind if someone says “proximity sensor?” My guess is the inductive sensor, and justly so because it is the most used sensor in automation today. There are other technologies that use the term proximity in describing the sensing mode, including diffuse or proximity photoelectric sensors that use the reflectivity of the object to change states and proximity mode of ultrasonic sensors that use high-frequency sound waves to detect objects. All these sensors detect objects that are in close proximity to the sensor without making physical contact. One of the most overlooked or forgotten proximity sensors on the market today is the capacitive sensor.

Capacitive sensors are suitable for solving numerous applications. These sensors can be used to detect objects, such as glass, wood, paper, plastic, or ceramic, regardless of material color, texture, or finish. The list goes on and on. Since capacitive sensors can detect virtually anything, they can detect levels of liquids including water, oil, glue, and so forth, and they can detect levels of solids like plastic granules, soap powder, sand, and just about anything else. Levels can be detected either directly, when the sensor touches the medium, or indirectly when it senses the medium through a non-metallic container wall.

Capacitive sensors overview

Like any other sensor, there are certain considerations to account for when applying capacitive, multipurpose sensors, including:

1 – Target

    • Capacitive sensors can detect virtually any material.
    • The target material’s dielectric constant determines the reduction factor of the sensor. Metal / Water > Wood > Plastic > Paper.
    • The target size must be equal to or larger than the sensor face.

2 – Sensing distance

    • The rated sensing distance, or what you see in a catalog, is based on a mild steel target that is the same size as the sensor face.
    • The effective sensing distance considers mounting, supply voltage, and temperature. It is adjusted by the integral potentiometer or other means.
    • Additional influences that affect the sensing distance are the sensor housing shape, sensor face size, and the mounting style of the sensor (flush, non-flush).

3 – Environment

    • Temperatures from 160 to 180°F require special considerations. The high-temperature version sensors should be used in applications above this value.
    • Wet or very humid applications can cause false positives if the dielectric strength of the target is low.
    • In most instances, dust or material buildup can be tuned out if the target dielectric is higher than the dust contamination.

4 – Mounting

    • Installing capacitive sensors is very similar to installing inductive sensors. Flush sensors can be installed flush to the surrounding material. The distance between the sensors is two times the diameter of the sensing distance.
    • Non-flush sensors must have a free area around the sensor at least one diameter of the sensor or the sensing distance.

5 – Connector

    • Quick disconnect – M8 or M12.
    • Potted cable.

6 – Sensor

    • The sensor sensing area or face must be smaller or equal to the target material.
    • Maximum sensing distance is measured on metal – reduction factor will influence all sensing distances.
    • Use flush versions to reduce the effects of the surrounding material. Some plastic sensors will have a reduced sensing range when embedded in metal. Use a flush stainless-steel body to get the full sensing range.

These are just a few things to keep in mind when applying capacitive sensors. There is not “a” capacitive sensor application – but there are many which can be solved cost-effectively and reliably with these sensors.

Protecting photoelectric and capacitive sensors

Supply chain and labor shortages are putting extra pressure on automation solutions to keep manufacturing lines running. Even though sensors are designed to work in harsh environments, one good knock can put a sensor out of alignment or even out of condition. Keep reading for tips on ways to protect photoelectric and capacitive sensors.

Mounting solutions for photoelectric sensors

Photoelectric sensors are sensitive to environmental factors that can cloud their view, like dust, debris, and splashing liquids, or damage them with physical impact. One of the best things to do from the beginning is to protect them by mounting them in locations that keep them out of harm’s way. Adjustable mounting solutions make it easier to set up sensors a little further away from the action. Mounts that can be adjusted on three axes like ball joints or rod-and-mount combinations should lock firmly into position so that vibration or weight will not cause sensors to move out of alignment. And mounting materials like stainless steel or plastic can be chosen to meet factors like temperature, accessibility, susceptibility to impact, and contact with other materials.

When using retroreflective sensors, reflectors and reflective foils need similar attention. Consider whether the application involves heat or chemicals that might contact reflectors. Reflectors come in versions, especially for use with red, white, infrared, and laser lights, or especially for polarized or non-polarized light. And there are mounting solutions for reflectors as well.

Considering the material and design of capacitive sensors

Capacitive sensors must also be protected based on their working environment, the material they detect, and where they are installed. Particularly, is the sensor in contact with the material it is sensing or not?

If there is contact, pay special attention to the sensor’s material and design. Foods, beverages, chemicals, viscous substances, powders, or bulk materials can degrade a sensor constructed of the wrong material. And to switch perspectives, a sensor can affect the quality of the material it contacts, like changing the taste of a food product. If resistance to chemicals is needed, housings made of stainless steel, PTFE, and PEEK are available.

While the sensor’s material is important to its functionality, the physical design of the sensor is also important. A working environment can involve washdown processes or hygienic requirements. If that is the case, the sensor’s design should allow water and cleaning agents to easily run off, while hygienic requirements demand that the sensor not have gaps or crevices where material may accumulate and harbor bacteria. Consider capacitive sensors that hold FDA, Ecolab, and CIP certifications to work safely in these conditions.

Non-contact capacitive sensors can have their own special set of requirements. They can detect material through the walls of a tank, depending on the tank wall’s material type and thickness. Plastic walls and non-metallic packaging present a smaller challenge. Different housing styles – flat cylindrical, discs, and block styles – have different sensing capabilities.

Newer capacitive technology is designed as an adhesive tape to measure the material inside a tank or vessel continuously. Available with stainless steel, plastic, or PTFF housing, it works particularly well when there is little space available to detect through a plastic or glass wall of 8mm or less. When installing the tape, the user can cut it with scissors to adjust the length.

Whatever the setting, environmental factors and installation factors can affect the functionality of photoelectric and capacitive sensors, sometimes bringing them to an untimely end. Details like mounting systems and sensor materials may not be the first requirements you look for, but they are important features that can extend the life of your sensors.