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What is the difference between direct acting and reverse acting actuators?


The choice between direct-acting and reverse-acting actuators can significantly impact industrial processes’ efficiency, safety, and reliability. These two distinct types of actuators diverge in their approach to converting energy into mechanical motion, each offering unique advantages and considerations.

How a Direct Acting Actuator Operates

A direct-acting actuator operates by directly converting input energy into mechanical motion to control the position of a valve. This actuator typically consists of a housing, a piston or diaphragm, and a stem that connects to the valve. When energy, which can be pneumatic, hydraulic, electric, or manual, is applied to the actuator, it initiates the movement of internal components. The energy transfer causes the piston or diaphragm to move within the actuator housing, transmitting this motion directly to the valve stem. As a result, the actuator imparts force to the valve closure element, regulating fluid flow through the valve. The extent of movement of the actuator precisely determines the position of the valve, allowing for accurate control. In automated systems, external signals, such as electrical currents or pressure signals, often control the actuator’s movement, enabling dynamic and precise valve positioning. The simplicity and directness of this operation make direct-acting actuators suitable for applications where immediate and accurate valve control is essential.

Advantages of Direct Acting Actuator

  • Immediate Response: provide a quick and immediate response to control signals.
  • Simplified Design: The design is generally for easier maintenance and lower manufacturing costs.
  • Precise Control: Offer precise control over valve positions, allowing for accurate fluid flow regulation in various industrial processes.
  • Energy Efficiency: Often requires less energy to operate, contributing to overall energy efficiency in valve control systems.
  • Compact Size: More compact, making them suitable for installations with limited space.

Disadvantages of Direct Acting Actuator

  • Limited Force Output: They may have limitations on how much force they can generate, impacting their suitability for high-force applications.
  • Potential for Limited Travel: Depending on the design, direct-acting actuators may have limitations in the travel or stroke length they can achieve, affecting their range of motion.
  • Sensitivity to Vibrations: Direct-acting actuators can be sensitive to vibrations and shock, which may affect their performance in certain operating conditions.
  • Incompatibility with Certain Fluids: Some direct-acting actuators may not be suitable for use with certain aggressive or corrosive fluids.
  • Complexity in High-Pressure Applications: In high-pressure applications, direct-acting actuators may face challenges, and more robust designs or alternative actuator types may be preferred to handle the pressure requirements effectively.

Applications of Direct Acting Actuator

Direct-acting actuators find widespread application across various industries, excelling in scenarios that demand immediate response, precision control, and simplified design.

  • Chemical Processing
  • Pharmaceutical Manufacturing
  • Water Treatment and Distribution
  • HVAC Systems
  • Food and Beverage Production
  • Petrochemical Industry
  • Power Generation
  • Manufacturing and Assembly Lines
  • Oil and Gas Processing
  • Wastewater Treatment

In these industries, the characteristics of direct-acting actuators, including their immediate response, simplified design, and precise control, align with the specific requirements of the processes involved, contributing to enhanced operational efficiency and reliability.

How Reverse Acting Actuator Operates

A reverse-acting actuator functions by converting input energy into mechanical motion that operates opposite to the force applied. In the context of valve control systems, this actuator regulates valve positions contrary to the force applied to the actuator. The assembly typically includes a housing, a piston or diaphragm, and a stem connected to the valve. When energy, which could be pneumatic, hydraulic, electric, or manual, is introduced to the actuator, it triggers the movement of internal components. Unlike a direct-acting actuator, in a reverse-acting mechanism, the force exerted by the actuator moves against the average direction of the valve closure. This setup is often used in specific applications where the default or fail-safe position of the valve is in the closed state, and external energy is required to open it. This design ensures safety by defaulting to a closed position in case of power loss or system failure, preventing unintended fluid flow.

Advantages of Reverse Acting Actuator

  • Fail-Safe Operation: These actuators typically default to a closed position without power or control signals, preventing unintended fluid flow and enhancing system safety.
  • Safety Considerations: Their default closed position adds an extra layer of protection in case of a power failure or system malfunction.
  • Energy Efficiency: Reverse-acting actuators can be energy-efficient as they only require energy input to open the valve against the default closed position.
  • Suitability for High-Pressure Applications: This is well-suited for high-pressure applications where the actuator needs to work against the pressure to close the valve securely.
  • Adaptability to Specific Applications: These actuators are commonly employed in scenarios where a closed default position aligns with the desired safety or operational outcome, making them adaptable to specific industrial requirements.

Disadvantages of Reverse Acting Actuator

  • Slower Response: Reverse-acting actuators may have a slower response time as they must work against the default position to open the valve.
  • Complex Design: The design of reverse-acting actuators can be more complex, potentially leading to increased maintenance requirements and higher manufacturing costs.
  • Limited Range of Motion: Depending on the design, reverse-acting actuators may have limitations regarding their range of motion or stroke length, affecting their flexibility in specific applications.
  • Possibility of Sticking: If not correctly maintained, reverse-acting actuators may be prone to sticking, compromising their reliability and performance.
  • Energy Consumption: This may consume more energy in continuous operations where the valve needs to be maintained in an open position against the default closed state.

Applications of Reverse Acting Actuator

Reverse-acting actuators, known for their fail-safe operation and default to a closed position are preferred in industries where safety is paramount, and a closed valve position is the desired state during system failure or power loss.

  • Oil and Gas Exploration
  • Chemical Manufacturing
  • Nuclear Power Plants
  • Aviation Fueling Systems
  • Fire Protection Systems
  • LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) Facilities
  • Aerospace Industry
  • Pipeline Systems
  • Refineries
  • Automated Shutdown Systems

In these industries, the fail-safe nature of reverse-acting actuators provides an added layer of protection, aligning with the stringent safety requirements and regulations inherent in their operations.

Methods of Operation Comparison

The differences between direct-acting vs. reverse-acting actuators center around the essential elements of a control loop.

Control Signal: The control signal could be the process under control or an alternative variable that governs the valve control. This is the air pressure in a pneumatic valve, and the air temperature in an air heating control valve.

Process Controller: The Process Controller receives the control signal and initiates a control action through the valve positioner.

Valve Positioner: When the valve positioner is in use, its action is determined by the controller’s output.

Control Valve Action: A combination of the control signal, controller, and positioner determines whether the final valve action will increase or reduce flow.

Control Loop Element

Direct Acting Actuator

Reverse Acting Actuator



As the process variable grows, so does the controller output.

As the process variable grows, the controller output drops.




As the input signal to the valve positioner from the controller increases, the output from the valve increases.

An increase in the input signal to the valve positioner from the controller reduces valve output.



Control Valve Action

Increasing the signal from the positioner results in control valve action towards the open position.

The increasing signal from the positioner causes the control valve to close.

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