Some control system components exhibit an inverse relationship between service load (how “hard” the component is used) and service life (how long it will last). In such cases, a way to increase service life is to de-rate that component: operate it at a load reduced from its design rating.
For example, a variable-frequency motor drive (VFD) takes AC power at a fixed frequency and voltage and converts it into AC power of varying frequency and voltage to drive an induction motor at different speeds and torques. These electronic devices dissipate some heat owing mostly to the imperfect (slightly resistive) “on” states of power transistors. Temperature is a wear factor for semiconductor devices, with greater temperatures leading to reduced service lives. A VFD operating at high temperature, therefore, will fail sooner than a VFD operating at low temperature, all other factors being equal. One way to reduce the operating temperature of a VFD is to over-size it for the application. If the motor to be driven requires 2 horsepower of electrical power at full load, and increased reliability is demanded of the drive, then perhaps a 5 horsepower VFD (programmed with reduced trip settings appropriate to the smaller motor) could be chosen to drive the motor.
In addition to extending service life, de-rating also has the ability to amplify the mean time between failure (MTBF) of load-sensitive components. Recall that MTBF is the reciprocal of failure rate during the low area of the “bathtub curve,” representing failures due to random causes. This is distinct from wear-out, which is an increase in failure rate due to irreversible wear and aging. The main reason a component will exhibit a greater MTBF value as a consequence of de-rating is that the component will be better able to absorb transient overloads, which is a typical cause of failure during the operational life of system components.
Consider the example of a pressure sensor in a process known to exhibit transient pressure surges. A sensor chosen such that the typical process operating pressure spans most of its range will have little overpressure capacity. Perhaps just a few over-pressure events will cause this sensor to fail well before its rated service life. A de-rated pressure sensor (with a pressure-sensing range covering much greater pressures than what are normally encountered in this process), by comparison, will have more pressure capacity to withstand random surges, and therefore exhibit less probability of random failure.
The costs associated with component de-rating include initial investment (usually greater, owing to the greater capacity and more robust construction compared to a “normally” rated component) and reduced sensitivity. The latter factor is an important one to consider if the component is expected to provide high accuracy as well as high reliability. In the example of the de-rated pressure sensor, accuracy will likely suffer because the full pressure range of the sensor is not being used for normal process pressure measurements. If the instrument is digital, resolution will certainly suffer as a result of de-rating the instrument’s measurement range. Alternative methods of reliability improvement (including more frequent preventive maintenance) may be a better solution than de-rating in such cases.
Note : Many components do not exhibit any relationship between load and lifespan. An electronic PID controller, for example, will last just as long controlling an “easy” self-regulating process as it will controlling a “difficult” unstable (“runaway”) process. The same might not be said for the other components of those loops, however! If the control valve in the self-regulating process rarely changes position, but the control valve in the runaway process continually moves in an effort to stabilize it at setpoint, the less active control valve will most likely enjoy a longer service life.