How To Use a Photo Tachometer

If you’re into anything even vaguely mechanical on the broad hacking spectrum, you’ve come into contact with things that spin. Sometimes, it’s important to know precisely how fast they are spinning! When you’ve got the need to know angular speed, you need a device to measure it. That device is a tachometer. And the most useful tachometer is the non-contact photo-tachometer.

The basic principle of operation of a photo-tachometer is quite simple. The device contains a light source – typically a laser, which can create a focused, coherent beam of light. This beam of light is capable of bouncing off of reflective objects.

To use the photo tachometer, you start by creating a reflective mark on the rotating surface you wish to measure. You must also ensure the rest of the rotating surface is comparatively non-reflective. An easy way to do this would be to create a white spot with a paint marker on an otherwise black or dull-metal shaft. Then, aim the beam of light from the photo-tachometer at the mark on the spinning shaft. Each time the reflective spot passes the beam of the photo-tachometer, some light is reflected back towards the device, where it is picked up by a light sensor. By counting the number of times the light sensor is triggered in a given time, it’s possible to determine the rotational speed of the machinery under test.

For example, let’s say we have a motor spinning at 1200 revolutions per minute. We aim the photo-tachometer’s beam at the white spot we’ve marked on the motor’s shaft. Let’s assume the photo-tachometer counts the number of pulses it sees in a unit time of one second to make its measurements. In one second, the white spot will pass the beam twenty times, triggering our light sensor as it goes by. The microcontroller in the photo-tachometer then does some simple maths – twenty pulses in one second, multiplied by 60 seconds – and we get a rotational speed of 1200 revolutions per minute on the display.

It is easy to imagine that if our shaft is rotating much more slowly, on the order of 10 RPM, our photo-tachometer will only see one pulse every six seconds. If we up this to 12 RPM, it’s still only one pulse every five seconds. Our tach is going to suffer trying to measure such low rotational speeds and it’s going to take a long time for it to notice any changes. Is there anything we can do to help in this situation?

Why yes, there is! We can place additional reflective spots on our rotating shaft. Let’s put ten spots on our rotating motor shaft. Now at 10 RPM, we’re getting a pulse of light every 0.6 seconds, and at 12 RPM, every 0.5 seconds. Our tach is now able to much more quickly respond to changes in speed at the low range – and we just need to remember to divide the display speed by ten to account for our additional markers.

There are other tricks you can use to improve performance, too. Many photo-tachs come with a supply of retro-reflective tape in the box. This is a special tape filled with lots of microscopic glass spheres that allow the tape to reflect light at any angle. Using this instead of white paint on a rotating machine allows us to measure with the photo-tachometer at an angle other than perpendicular to the marking. I used this myself to make a measurement of my car’s engine speed. It was impossible to point the tachometer straight at the crankshaft – but with the retro-reflective tape, I was able to point the laser at the crank pulley from above at an odd angle and still get a good reading.

The real power of photo-tachometers is they make it easy to get accurate rotational speed measurements without having to make any major modifications to the machinery beyond a spot of paint or tape. It’s a great non-contact method of measurement, and a usable photo-tach can be had for under $20 on eBay. I’ve wrapped up a review of the DT2234C+ tachometer on YouTube for your consideration. It’s the kind of thing that you’ll find incredibly useful having stashed away in the back of your toolbox. You’ll never know when you need it!

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