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.


Direct vs Indirect Mounting of Capacitive Sensors

Direct sensing mount
Figure 1: Direct sensing mount

In liquid level sensing applications, capacitive sensors can be mounted directly in contact with the medium or indirectly with no contact to the medium.

Containers made of metal or very thick non-metallic tank walls (more than 1″) typically require mounting the sensor in direct contact with the medium (Fig. 1). In some instances, a by-pass tube or a sights glass is used, and the senor detects the level through the wall of the non-metallic tube (Fig. 2).

Indirect sensing mount
Figure 2: Indirect sensing mount

The direct mounting method could simplify sensor selection and setup since the sensor only has to sense the medium or target material properties. Nonetheless, this approach imposes certain drawbacks, such as costs for mounting and sealing the sensor as well as the need to consider the material compatibility between the sensor and the medium. Corrosive acids, for example, might require a more expensive exotic housing material.


The preferred approach is indirectly mounting the capacitive sensor flush against the non-metallic wall to detect the target material non-invasively through the container wall.  The advantages for this approach are obvious and represent a major influence to specify capacitive sensors.  The container wall does not have to be penetrated, which leaves the level sensor flexible and interchangeable in the application.  Avoiding direct contact with the target material also reduces the chances of product contamination, leaks, and other sources of risk to personnel and the environment.

The target material also has relevance in the sensor selection process.  Medical and semiconductor applications involve mostly water-based reagents, process fluids, acids, as well as different bodily fluids.  Fortunately, high conductivity levels and therefore high relative dielectric constants are common characteristics among all these liquids.  This is why the primary advantages of capacitive sensors lies in non-invasive liquid level detection, namely by creating a large measurement delta between the low dielectric container walls and the target material with high dielectric properties.

At the same time, highly conductivity liquids could impose a threat to the application.  This is because smaller physical amounts of material have a larger impact on the capacitive sensor with increasing conductivity values, increasing the risk of false triggering on foam or adherence to the inside or outside wall.  SMARTLEVEL sensors offered by Balluff will ignore foaming, filming and material build-up in these applications.

Learn more about Balluff’s capacitive solutions on our website at