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Testing Your Laboratory Balance

If you use a laboratory balance in your day-to-day work, you may have wondered whether it is accurate. Here are four tests that you can use to confirm your instrument's accuracy. In this article you will learn to make these tests yourself.

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Repeatability refers to the instrument's ability to repeatedly deliver the same weight reading for a given object when it is weighed several times. It is expressed as a standard deviation. Standard deviation, or repeatability, is often an advertised performance specification for a lab balance.

Corner load errors are those errors associated with different positions on the weighing pan of the object being weighed. A given object should produce the same reading regardless of its position on the weighing pan.

Linearity is the characteristic which quantifies the accuracy of the instrument at intermediate readings throughout the weighing range of the instrument. Since a lab balance will often be used to weigh items much smaller than the capacity of the instrument, this is a critical aspect.

Span refers to the difference between the weight reading of a given mass standard, and the actual value of that standard. This measurement is often done at or near full capacity. This is the test (or adjustment) that most people think of when they refer to calibration of their instrument. For many users, it is the only test or adjustment they will choose to make routinely.

The following pages contain specific instructions for performing these tests.

Preliminaries

Handling test weights

The weights used to test lab balances are precision devices and need to be handled accordingly. When handling weights, avoid direct hand contact with weights by using clean gloves. Avoid sliding weights across any surface, especially across the stainless steel weighing pan of the balance under test.

Environment

In order to pass any test of reproducibility an instrument must be operating in an acceptable environment. A poor environment will degrade the results of a standard deviation (SD) test and falsely suggest that the performance is substandard. There are several aspects of the environment which impact the performance of a lab balance.

Temperature

The accuracy and overall performance of any lab balance is affected by the room temperature. For best stability and performance the room temperature should be regulated to within one degree Fahrenheit without interruption. The instrument should remain with power ON continuously.

Air Drafts

In the cases of measurements with resolution of .001 gram and less, the force exerted by moving air is readily detectable. A shroud or enclosure around the weighing pan will shield the pan from these effects. Avoid plastic materials for draft shields.

Static Electricity

Static electricity exerts a mechanical force which is readily detectable by analytical and microbalances. An example of static electricity exerting a mechanical force would be lint sticking to clothing. Static will be a problem when it exists on the object being weighed, on the person using the balance, on draft shields, or on weighing vessels. Sources of static are carpets, Vibrum shoe soles, plastic draft shields, plastic weighing vessels, and melamine (Formica) table tops. Low ambient humidity exacerbates static problems.

You can test for a static problem easily. On an analytical balance place a metal enclosure (a coffee can works well) over the weighing pan, so that the pan is enclosed by the can but NOT touched by it. If the weight readings stabilize with the can in place, then static may be the cause of the instability. Notice that the coffee can provides an effective draft shield too.

Floor vibration / Table Instability

Many lab balances are extremely sensitive to vibration or movement. If the weight readings change as you walk around the instrument, or if the readings change as you lean on the table or move objects on the table, then the table and floor are affecting weight readings. You can minimize these effects by using an especially sturdy table and minimizing movement. Users of microbalances often need specially built marble tables on concrete floors.

Reproducibility Testing

Reproducibility testing entails repeatedly weighing a given object, recording the results, and analyzing those results. Select a test weight equal to, or nearly equal to, the weighing capacity of the instrument. Utilize the chart titled "Reproducibility Test Chart."

1. Tare the instrument to read all zeros.

2. Place the test weight on the pan. Record the reading in the column labeled "FULL SCALE".

3. Remove the weight (DON'T REZERO), and record the reading under "ZERO"

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until lines 1 through 11 are all filled in.

5. Transcribe the two columns of numbers into a spreadsheet program.

6. Use the program to calculate the standard deviation of both columns of numbers.  (consult the program documentation, or "HELP" system for the spreadsheet)

7. Calculated standard deviations larger than allowed in the instrument specifications indicate that the instrument is either operating in an unstable environment (static, air draft, warm-up, vibration, etc.), or that the instrument is in need of repair.

Cornerload

Cornerload testing verifies that the instrument delivers the same weight reading, regardless of where on the weighing pan the object being weighed is placed. Cornerload performance specifications are often not advertised.

Typical tolerances are shown below.

1. Select a test weight close to the weighing capacity of the instrument.

2. Place the test weight in the center of the weighing pan. Then re-zero the display.

3. Move the weight one half way from the center to the front edge of the pan. Record the reading on the "Cornerload Chart" under the heading "FRONT."

4. Repeat step 3 at the half way locations for right, rear, and left edges, recording the readings in the appropriate spaces in the chart.

5. Cornerload tolerances are often not a component of advertised specifications. The table below shows typical tolerances for instruments operating in both laboratory and industrial conditions. The lab environment presumes a specially built, leveled, rigid table and uninterrupted temperature control within one degree Fahrenheit. The industrial environment includes a sturdy table and uninterrupted temperature control within four degrees Fahrenheit.

Linearity Testing

Linearity testing verifies the accuracy of the instrument at intermediate values of weight. Manufacturers often use the term "accuracy" in advertised specifications.

1. Use two weights, each of approximately one-half the weighing capacity of the instrument. It is imperative that these two weights not be interchanged within this procedure. Refer to the individual weights as "weight A" and "weight B."

2. Rezero the display. Place "A" on the pan (at the center), and record the reading on the "Linearity Chart" in the column marked " 0% – 50% ."

3. Remove "A" and place "B" on the pan next to the center. Rezero the display.

4. Again place "A" on the pan. Record the reading under the column marked "50% - 100%."

5. Calculate the difference between the two (0-50 and 50-100) readings.

6. The difference should be less than the advertised tolerance for linearity or accuracy.

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