Basic principle

The Seebeck Effect if a circuit is made by joining two wires of different metals, any difference in temperature between the joints will produce an EMF which will cause a current to flow in the circuit. Using favourable materials, this EMF will be of the order of 3 to 5 millivolts per 100C difference between the junctions, and has an approximately linear relationship to temperature.

Element materials and colour coding

Thermocouple elements available from Testemp are as follows:

            Iron constantan (Types J or L)                               

            Range :           0          to         750C

            Nickel/chrome nickel/aluminium (Type K)

            Range :           0          to         1100C

            Copper constantan (Type T)

            Range :     -200           to         300C

            Nickel/chrome nickel/constantan (Type E)

            Range :           0          to         800C

            Nicrosil nisil (Type N)                                                                  

            Range :     -200           to         1250C


The temperature ranges listed above are for long-term use. Most types will withstand temperatures outside these limits for short periods. For more technical information see cover.

Selection of thermocouple type

The choice of thermocouple type will be determined mainly by the range and cost. In cases where replacement sensors are required, the thermocouple type will usually be dictated by the existing instrumentation.

Limitation of use in ambient temperature range

Because the output signal is dependant upon the difference in temperature between the sensing junction and the reference junction (often called the cold-junction, and usually situated inside the measuring instrument), thermocouples are not suitable for measuring or controlling temperatures close to ambient unless the system for measuring the reference junction is exceptionally good. Where low-cost industrial instruments with built-in reference junctions are used, thermocouples are generally not considered to be suitable for use at temperatures within 60C of that of the instrument.


The accuracy of thermocouples depends upon the quality of the element materials, and three classes of accuracy are defined by British Standards. Similar classifications apply to other national standards. For further information about accuracy see inside back cover.

Grounded and isolated junctions

Thermocouple assemblies may be manufactured with the sensing junction grounded to the sheath or electrically insulated (isolated) from it. Grounded junctions are usually cheaper to produce and have a faster response, but some control systems will function correctly only with isolated junctions.

Leadwire extension

Whenever a wire in a thermocouple circuit is joined to a wire or terminal made of a different material another thermocouple will be created at the joint. If such connections between the sensing junction and the measuring instrument are at temperatures different from that of the reference junction, errors will be produced. When thermocouple leads are extended it is therefore essential to use cable made of the same materials as the thermocouple or of materials which have the same thermoelectric characteristic at the temperatures likely to occur at the joints. Cable with conductors of the same materials as the thermocouple element is referred to as extension cable, whereas cable with conductors of cheaper materials with similar characteristics is known as compensating cable. As a general rule compensating cable should not be used if the temperature at the joints exceeds 100C.

Similarly, if plugs and sockets or terminal blocks are used in thermocouple circuits, the contacts or terminals should be of the same material as the thermocouple element. Plug and socket connectors and terminal blocks of this type are available from Testemp