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Directional valve operators

Valve operators are the parts that apply force to shift a valve’s flow-directing elements, such as spools, poppets, and plungers. The sequence, timing, and frequency of valve shifting is a key factor in fluid power system performance. As long as the operator produces enough force to shift the valve, the system designer can select any appropriate operator for the conditions and type of control under which the system will operate.

Operators for directional-control valves are either mechanical, pilot, electrical and electronic, or a combination of these. Different types of actuators can all be installed on the same basic valve design. A common directional valve often is used that makes provision for mounting a variety of different operators on its body.

With a mechanical operator, a machine element or person applies force on the valve’s flow-directing element to move or shift it to another position. Manual operators include levers, palm buttons, push buttons, and pedals. Purely mechanical operators include cams, rollers, levers, springs, stems, and screws. Springs are used in most directional valves to hold the flow-directing element in a neutral position. In 2-position valves, for example, springs hold the non-actuated valve in one position until an actuating force great enough to compress the spring shifts the valve. When the actuating force is removed, the spring returns the valve to its original position. In 3-position valves, two springs hold the non-actuated valve in its center position until an actuating force shifts it. When the actuating force is removed, the springs re-center the valve, leading to the common identification, spring-centered valve. Detents are locks that hold a valve in its last position after the actuating force is removed “ until a stronger force is applied to shift the valve to another position. The detents may then hold this new position after the actuating force again is removed.

Mechanical operation is probably the most positive way to control industrial fluid power equipment. If a valve must shift only when a machine element is in a certain position, the equipment can be designed so that the machine element physically shifts the valve through a mechanical operator when the element reaches the correct position. This arrangement virtually eliminates any possibility of false or phantom signals from shifting the valve at the wrong time.

However, mounting mechanically operated valves on a machine requires some special cautions. The valve and actuator may be exposed to a wet or dirty environment that requires special sealing. The actuator will probably be subjected to impact loads, which must be limited to avoid physical damage. Valve alignment with the operating element also is important, so the valve must be mounted accurately and securely for long service life.

Pilot-actuated valves are shifted by pressurized fluid (air or oil) that applies force to a piston that shifts the valve’s flow-directing elements. An important advantage of pilot operation is that large shifting forces can be developed without the impact and wear that affects mechanically actuated valves. Pilot-operated valves can be mounted in any convenient or remote location to which pressure fluid can be piped. The absence of sparks and heat buildup makes pilot-actuated valves attractive for applications in flammable or explosive environments.

Electrical or electronic valve operation involves energizing a solenoid. The force generated at the solenoid plunger then shifts the valve’s flow-directing element. Solenoid-actuated valves are particularly popular for industrial machines because of the ready availability of electric power in industrial plants. However, mobile equipment makes extensive use of solenoid-operated valves as well. The selection of ac or dc solenoids depends on the form of electrical power available.

There is a practical limit to the force that solenoids can generate. This means they cannot directly shift valves requiring high shifting forces. Furthermore, valves using large solenoids also consume substantial electrical power when valves must remain actuated for long intervals. Heat buildup can also pose problems in these situations. The solution is to use small, low-power solenoids in combination with pilot pressure. The solenoid starts and stops pilot flow, and pilot pressure provides the high force to shift the valve’s flow-directing mechanism.

Many valves have combinations of these operators so that the valve can be shifted in response to more than one type of signal. For instance, the solenoid of a 4/3 valve can shift the valve spool in one direction, and a spring would shift it back to the neutral position when the electric signal ceases. Because many valves use more than one type of operator, it is important to determine the role of each. For example, a pilot-solenoid valve may require pilot flow and electrical power to operate. Or it may use either one: solenoid power if an electrical source is available, or pilot operation if the environment must be explosion-proof.

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