Type K is the ‘general purpose’ thermocouple. It is low cost and, owing to its popularity, it is available in a wide variety of probes. Thermocouples are available in the -200 °C to +1200 °C range. Sensitivity is approx 41 µV/°C. Use type K unless you have a good reason not to.
Most measurement problems and errors with thermocouples are due to a lack of understanding of how thermocouples work. Listed below are some of the more common problems and pitfalls to be aware of.
Connection problems. Many measurement errors are caused by unintentional thermocouple junctions. Remember that any junction of two different metals will cause a junction. If you need to increase the length of the leads from your thermocouple, you must use the correct type of thermocouple extension wire (eg type K for type K thermocouples). Using any other type of wire will introduce a thermocouple junction. Any connectors used must be made of the correct thermocouple material and correct polarity must be observed.
Lead Resistance. To minimise thermal shunting and improve response times, thermocouples are made of thin wire (in the case of platinum types cost is also a consideration). This can cause the thermocouple to have a high resistance which can make it sensitive to noise and can also cause errors due to the input impedance of the measuring instrument. A typical exposed junction thermocouple with 32 AWG wire (0.25 mm diameter) will have a resistance of about 15 Ohms / meter. The Pico TC-08 has an input impedance of 2 MΩ so will have an error of less than 0.01% for 12 meters of such cable. If thermocouples with thin leads or long cables are needed, it is worth keeping the thermocouple leads short and then using thermocouple extension wire (which is much thicker, so has a lower resistance) to run between the thermocouple and measuring instrument. It is always a good precaution to measure the resistance of your thermocouple before use.
Decalibration is the process of unintentionally altering the makeup of thermocouple wire. The usual cause is the diffusion of atmospheric particles into the metal at the extremes of operating temperature. Another cause is impurities and chemicals from the insulation diffusing into the thermocouple wire. If operating at high temperatures, check the specifications of the probe insulation.
Noise. The output from a thermocouple is a small signal, so it is prone to electrical noise pick up. Most measuring instruments (such as the TC-08) reject any common mode noise (signals that are the same on both wires) so noise can be minimised by twisting the cable together to help ensure both wires pick up the same noise signal. Additionally, the TC-08 uses an integrating analog to digital converter which helps average out any remaining noise. If operating in an extremely noisy environment, (such as near a large motor) it is worthwhile considering using a screened extension cable. If noise pickup is suspected first switch off all suspect equipment and see if the reading changes.
Common Mode Voltage. Although thermocouple signal are very small, much larger voltages often exist at the input to the measuring instrument. These voltages can be caused either by inductive pick up (a problem when testing the temperature of motor windings and transformers) or by ‘earthed’ junctions. A typical example of an ‘earthed’ junction would be measuring the temperature of a hot water pipe with a non–insulated thermocouple. If there are any poor earth connections a few volts may exist between the pipe and the earth of the measuring instrument. These signals are again common mode (the same in both thermocouple wires) so will not cause a problem with most instruments provided they are not too large. For example, the TC-08 has a common mode input range of -4 V to +4 V. If the common mode voltage is greater than this then measurement errors will result. Common mode voltages can be minimised using the same cabling precautions outlined for noise, and also by using insulated thermocouples.
Thermal Shunting. All thermocouples have some mass. Heating this mass takes energy so will affect the temperature you are trying to measure. Consider for example measuring the temperature of liquid in a test tube: there are two potential problems. The first is that heat energy will travel up the thermocouple wire and dissipate to the atmosphere so reducing the temperature of the liquid around the wires. A similar problem can occur if the thermocouple is not sufficiently immersed in the liquid, due to the cooler ambient air temperature on the wires, thermal conduction may cause the thermocouple junction to be a different temperature to the liquid itself. In the above example a thermocouple with thinner wires may help, as it will cause a steeper gradient of temperature along the thermocouple wire at the junction between the liquid and ambient air. If thermocouples with thin wires are used, consideration must be paid to lead resistance. The use of a thermocouple with thin wires connected to much thicker thermocouple extension wire often offers the best compromise.