Thermocouples (TCs) are used almost exclusively in designing and validating the heat processes needed for sterilization of product in retorts or autoclaves. In this paper we discuss the vexing errors associated with using TCs in a hot, wet environment. Most problems seem to be associated with the action of steam and water on the TC lead wires and/or caused by temperature gradients on lead wire connectors. These errors are particularly troublesome since they are in the range of 1 to 2°C and are random in nature. The use of a pair of continuous wires that is protected or sealed from the wet retort environment, from the TC junction to the measuring instrument, is the most effective way to reduce or eliminate these problems. The hot, wet environment apparently causes electrochemical effects that produce measurable electromotive forces (EMFs) whenever bare wires come in contact with steam or water. However, the effect is greater when the wires pass through water than through steam. For containers that are nonconductors of electricity, such as plastics, grounding of the TC junction has proved necessary, particularly when processing in flowing water. We conclude that TCs can measure temperature very accurately if properly used. We emphasize that the TC system must be adequately calibrated, and that ambient temperature calibration will not compensate for high-temperature water effects and the errors caused by temperature gradients across connectors.

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Author notes

1Scientific Journal Series Paper No. 15,143. Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, St. Paul, Minnesota 55108, on research conducted under Project 18-088, supported in part by Minnesota General Agricultural Research funds and in part by HHS/FDA Contract 223-84-2028 entitled, “Evaluation of Heat Sterilization Process.”

2University of Minnesota

3FDA/HHS