Feedback Loop Control System

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 30th, 2013

Technology 101

Living through Winters became easier with Thermostats

When man discovered how to make fire it changed where we could live.  We no longer had to follow the food south when winter came.  We could stay through the winter.  And build a home.  As long as we could store enough food for the winter.  And had fire to stay warm.  To prevent our dying from exposure to the cold.

There’s nothing like sitting around a campfire.  It’s warm.  And cozy.  In large part because it’s outside.  So the smoke, soot and ash stayed outside.  It wasn’t always like that, though.  We used to bring that campfire inside the home.  With a hole in the roof for the smoke.  And families slept around the fire.  Together.  Even as some fornicated.  To propagate the species.  But that wasn’t the worst part about living around an indoor campfire.

Your distance from the fire determined how hot or cold you were.  And it was very hot by it.  Not so hot away from it.  Especially with a hole in the roof.  Worst, everyone got colder as the fire burned out.  Meaning someone had to get up to start a new fire.  The hard way.  Creating an ember.  Using it to start some kindling burning.  Then adding larger sticks and branches onto the kindling until they started to burn.  Which was a lot harder than turning the thermostat to ‘heat’ at the beginning of the heating season and forgetting about it.  Then turning it to ‘off’ at the end of the heating season.

A Feedback Loop Control System measures the Output of a System and Compares it to a Desired Output

Replacing the indoor campfire with a boiler or furnace made life a lot simpler.  For with a supply of fuel (natural gas, fuel oil, electricity, etc.) the fire never burned itself out.  And you never had to get up to start a new one.  Of course, that created another problem.  Shutting it off.

Boilers and furnaces are very efficient today.  They produce a lot of heat.  And if you let them run all day long it would become like a hot summer day inside your house.  Something we don’t want.  Which is why we use air conditioners on hot summer days.  So heating systems can’t run all day long.  But we can’t keep getting up all night to turn it off when we’re too hot.  And turning it back on when we’re too cold.  Which is why we developed the feedback loop control system.

We did not develop the feedback loop control system for our heating systems.  Our heating systems are just one of many things we control with a feedback loop control system.  Which is basically measuring the output of a system and comparing it to a desired output.  For example, if we want to sleep under a cozy warm blanket we may set the ‘set-point’ to 68 degrees (on the thermostat).  The heating system will run and measure the actual temperature (at the thermostat) and compare it to the desired set-point.  That’s the feedback loop.  If the actual temperature is below the desired set-point (68 degrees in our example) the heat stays on.  Once the actual temperature equals the set-point the heat shuts off.

The Autopilot System includes Independent Control Systems for Speed, Heading and Altitude

Speed control on a car is another example of a feedback loop control system.  But this control system is a little more complex than a thermostat turning a heating system on and off.  As it doesn’t shut the engine off once the car reaches the set-point speed.  If it did the speed would immediately begin to fall below the set-point.  Also, a car’s speed varies due to terrain.  Gravity speeds the car when it’s going downhill.  And slows it down when it’s going uphill.  The speed controller continuously measures the car’s actual speed and subtracts it from the set-point.  If the number is negative the controller moves the vehicle’s throttle one way.  If it’s positive it moves the throttle in the other way.  The greater the difference the greater the movement.  And it keeps making these speed ‘corrections’ until the difference between the actual speed and the set-point is reduced to zero.

Though more complex than a heating thermostat the speed control on a car is pretty simple.  It has one input (speed).  And one output (throttle adjustment).  Now an airplane has a far more complex control system.  Often called just ‘autopilot’.  When it is actually multiple systems.  There is an auto-speed system that measures air speed and adjusts engine throttles.  There is a heading control system that measures the aircraft’s heading and adjusts the ailerons to adjust course heading.  There is an altitude control system that measures altitude and adjusts the elevators to adjust altitude.  And systems that measure and correct pitch and yaw.  Pilots enter set-points for each of these in the autopilot console.  And these control systems constantly measure actual readings (speed, heading and altitude) and compares them to the set-points in the autopilot console and adjusts the appropriate flight controls as necessary. 

Unlike a car or an airplane a building doesn’t move from point A to point B.  Yet they often have more complex control systems than autopilot systems on airplanes.  With thousands of inputs and outputs.  For example, in the summer there’s chilled water temperature, heating hot water temperature (for the summer boiler), supply air pressure, return air pressure, outdoor air pressure, indoor air pressure, outdoor temperature, outdoor humidity, indoor temperature (at numerous locations), indoor humidity, etc.  Thousands of inputs.  And thousands of outputs.  And unlike an airplane these are all integrated into one control system.  To produce a comfortable temperature in the building.  Maintain indoor air quality.  Keep humidity levels below what is uncomfortable and possibly damaging to electronic systems.  And prevent mold from growing.  But not keep it too dry that people suffer static sparks, dry eyes, dry nasal cavities that can lead to nose bleeds, dry and cracked skin, etc.  To prevent a blast of air hitting people when they open a door.  To keep the cold winter air from entering the building through cracks and spaces around doors and windows.  And a whole lot more.  Far more than the thermostat in our homes that turns our heating system on and off.

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