Understanding: On/Off, Floating, Modulating/Proportional Control

First, to understand these types of control you must have the elements of control. The elements of control are the sensor (senses the medium being controlled), the controller (device either preset or programmed to react to the sensor), and the final controlled device such as a damper or a control valve (receives input signals from controller to affect change in controlled medium). These elements are considered the control loop.

On/Off control is the basic type of control in a control loop.  With On/Off control, the sensor senses the controlled medium and sends a signal back to the controller, which processes the signal. For ease of understanding, our example will be a heating application. The set point (the desired control point) in this case is 68 degrees with a temperature differential of 2 degrees for the controller. When the sensor’s signal to the controller reports a temperature of less than the controller’s set point, the controller sends a signal to the final control device (hot water valve) to position to fully open until set point is achieved. When the controller receives a signal from the sensor that the set point has been achieved, the controller then sends a signal to the valve to position to fully closed.  The problem with On/Off control is over-shoot temperature of the desired system set point because of reaction time between sensor, controller, and final control device. Review: With On/Off, the controller asks “Is there an error?” The controller compares the actual value of the controlled medium to the set point through the sensor. As the controlled medium deviates from set point, the controller’s output cycles the final controlled device on, and when the set point is reached the controller’s output cycles the final control device off.

Floating control is a variation of On/Off control that requires a fast responding sensor and a slow-moving actuator connected to the final controlled device (valve or damper). Using the same example as the On/Off example above, when the sensed temperature drops below the set point of 68 degrees by the controlled medium’s sensor, the controller sends a signal to activate the actuator on the final control device. The actuator starts to slowly drive open the hot water valve, increasing the heat in the controlled medium. When set point is reached the actuator stops opening the final control device (hot water valve) and tries to hold at set point. If set point starts to be over-shot, the controller sends a signal to the actuator to start to drive close the valve. Review: Set point control is achieved when the sensor signal (from the controlled medium) starts to deviate from the controller set point. The controller sends a signal to the actuator of the final control device (valve or damper) to slowly drive open. As the set point is approached the controller sends a signal to the actuator, then the actuator stops and tries to maintain set point.  If set point is passed the controller sends signal to the actuator to drive the final control device to a closed position.

Modulating/Proportional represents the higher end of control positioning. In modulating/proportional control the output varies continuously and is not limited to being fully open or fully closed. Proportional means that the size of the output is related to the size of the error detected by the controller. The key phrase for modulating/proportional control is “Continuous Control Action.” The sensor, controller, and final control device act as one unit to maintain constant precise control over the controlled medium. Continuing with the previous example, when a modulating system senses a deviation from the set point of 68 degrees, the controller calculates the amount of the error (1 degree less than set point) and sends a signal to the actuator, which will drive open the final control device (valve or damper) by a certain percentage of the controlled medium’s set point deviation (1/2 degree) to maintain set point without over-shoot. The controller calculates how much the final control device needs to open without over-shoot and will start reversing the actuator to close the final control device to a percentage of the closed position to maintain set point.
Popular modulating control signals include 4-20 ma and 0-10 volts. If you were to look into a control panel like a Hoffman Enclosure you might see controls like a Honeywell UDC3200 that could be taking a 4-20 ma signal from a device like a Hawkeye 908 current transmitter and based on the control input signal from the Hawkeye 908 ( which would most likely be a 4-20 ma signal) the UDC 3200 controller would respond with a 4-20 ma output signal to a device like a Honeywell Variable Frequency Drive which would control either a fan or a pump. This is an example of how a proportional signal like a 4-20ma signal is used in modern HVAC controls.
If you are in Georgia or Florida,the control pros at Stromquist & Company can answer your control questions.


Over 35 years in the controls industry. Mr. Jones, Mr, Jones, Mr. Jones has a good thing going on... and lovin' it. Avid photographer, motorcyclist, and antique motorcycle restorer.

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  1. Eric Stromquist says

    It should be noted that one of the most popular proportional signals is the 4-20ma. At Stromquist & Company our customers will use either 4-20ma or 0-10 volts when controlling anything from a Belimo or Honeywell Direct coupled actuator to a Honeywell or Johnson Controls variable frequency drive.

  2. Jim Galla says

    Doesn’t a Hawkeye 908 output a digital, on-off signal; not a 4-20ma analog?

  3. Bill says

    No the H908 has a N/O dry contact 1.0 amp rated @ 30 VAC/DC. There are other models that will allow a 0-10 or 4-20 output

  4. says

    I’m impressed, I should say. Truly seldom do I encounter a weblog that is each educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you might have hit the nail on the head. Your thought is outstanding; the problem is a thing that not sufficient individuals are speaking intelligently about. I am really pleased that I stumbled across this in my search for some thing relating to this.

  5. Mr.Morley says

    I work for a gas and oil company, and i just recently started getting involved alot more with the automation side of things. When it comes to my auto chokes that run on a 4-20 mA signal i am having alot of problems. I set the set point to 7.243 and the out put only goes to 7.03928 and the process variable bounces around at 7.31938. Just wanted to know if you could explain a little more of how mA signals work.
    Hope to hear back from you soon


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