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Pneumatic valves: How do they work?Directional control valves
- Jul 30, 2018 -

Pneumatic directional valves are available in many sizes, styles and configurations. At the basic end of the spectrum is the simple check valve, which allows free flow in one direction and prevents flow in the reverse direction. These can be installed anywhere from right after the receiver to within a flow control valve itself.

As directional valves grow in complexity, they are specified under a general naming practice related to the number of positional envelopes of the valve and the number of work ports in the valve, and specifically in the order described. For example, if it has five ports, port 1 will be for pressure inlet, ports 2 and 4 for work ports, and 3 and 5 for the exhaust ports. A valve with three positions will have a neutral condition, extend condition and retract condition. Putting it all together, this describes a five-way, three-position valve, also referred to as a 5/3 valve. The common configurations seen in pneumatics are 5/3, 5/2, 4/2, 3/2 and sometimes 2/2 valves.

Also part of the description of a directional valve is its method of both operation and positioning. The valve operator is the mechanism providing the force to shift the valve between its positions. The operator can be a manual lever, electric solenoid, an air pilot, or cam mechanism, to name a few. Some valves are a combination of these, such as a solenoid pilot valve, which is a tiny valve providing pilot energy to move the main-stage valve. Positioning of any valve is achieved by either a spring, such as with a 5/2 spring-offset valve, or with detents in 5/2 detented valves.

A 5/2 spring-offset valve will return to its starting position when energy is removed from its operator, like de-energizing the coil, or removing pilot pressure. A 5/2 detented valve will stay in the position it was last activated to until the operator switches it again.

Pneumatic valves are manufactured in various incarnations. Poppet valves are simple, using a spring to push a face of the poppet down on its seat. Construction can be metal-to-metal, rubber-to-metal or even with diaphragms. Poppet valves can often flow in one direction, just as a check valve, but need to be energized to flow in reverse. They are limited to two- or three-way port configurations, although they can mimic four- or five-way valves when used in parallel. They offer typically high flow conductance for their size, and are generally very resistant to contamination.

Spool valves use a notched metal cylinder that slides within a precisely machined body, drilled with three to five ports, or even seven ports if the valve is pilot operated. Low-end valves consist of only a spool and body, and are prone to internal leakage. Better valves use seals in the body or spool to prevent leakage between ports. High-end spool valves are constructed with precision, often requiring fine lapping procedures during manufacturing, and with their tight tolerances, often require few seals, improving reliability and longevity. Other forms of high-end valves use a sliding block of metal or ceramic, which is not only efficient, but also extremely resistant to contamination, making them great for dirty environments.

Mounting considerations
Pneumatic directional valves come in both standard and non-standard mounting configurations. The non-standard valve is constructed at the whim of the manufacturer, with port layout, operator style and mounting options unique to their product. They can be inline, subplate mounted or sectional stacks mounted in a row. Because each manufacturer does mounting differently, it is best to research the product appropriate for your application.

Luckily, most manufacturers have lines of standardized valves suiting one or more specification, such as ISO 5599-1, with its staggered oval ports; this means one manufacturer’s valve will fit the subplate or manifold of another manufacturer’s. Port and electrical connections are standardized with most valves as well. NPT ports are common, but many new valves come with push lock fittings on the subplate itself. Electrical connectors for standardized valves are frequently DIN, mini-DIN or with field bus connection, making the operation of a dozen valves as easy as one connector.