I was never very happy with the breath pressure measurements we made in the applied electronics class, because blowing into a little 3/16″ hose did not correspond well with the measurements reported in the literature. For one thing, the professional measurements are not into a closed tube, but into a small chamber that has a 2mm diameter hole as an air leak. My fix for this last year was to ignore breath pressure and concentrate on blood-pressure cuffs instead, which worked pretty well. But breath pressure should be easy to measure also, so this week I started looking at making cheap apparatus for doing breath pressure properly.
My first attempt just stuck a barbed tee into the hose. Since the opening of the tee is about 2mm, this should give the pressure vs. air flow curve we need. This cheap approach sort of worked, but I was not able to get very high pressures recorded—much less than what the literature suggests should be average for a man of my age. I’m pretty sure my lungs are in better than average condition, both for volume and pressure, so I don’t think this simple setup measured breath pressure well. I don’t know whether the problem is the mouth-to-tubing fit, pressure loss along the tubing, or the tee not really behaving like a 2mm orifice—my understanding of fluid flow in tubes and through orifices is rather weak.
In any event, I decided that the solution was to make apparatus that looked more like the equipment shown in the literature. I happened to have a few barbed fittings with 1/2″ pipe threads, so I went down to the hardware store to get some PVC parts: a 1″ tee, a couple of bushings to reduce the 1″ slip to 1/2″ female threads, and a 1/2″ male-thread plug. I drilled a 5/64″ hole (2mm) in the plug and assembled my breath-pressure apparatus:
The screw-in plugs allow replacing the hole, in case I want to experiment with different size air leaks. The 1″ circle of the tee provides an adequate seal around my mouth, but is not particularly comfortable. The parts cost about $5, so the apparatus is cheap enough.
With this device I managed to get breath pressure measurements comparable to what was reported in the literature, though it took some practice to get high pressures—normal breathing emphasizes high volume, not high pressure.
So the breath-pressure apparatus works, but I’ll need to think more about whether to build a dozen of these for the course. There are questions about cleaning the apparatus between users, for example—I don’t want to be spreading cold viruses among my students! Is there a way to make the apparatus more comfortable to use and get a better seal around the mouth. Commercial peak-flow meters use disposable cardboard or plastic mouthpieces that cost about 35¢ each (in 100s from Amazon), and redesigning the apparatus to use them might be worthwhile—but even then the recommendation is to clean the equipment between users, unless one-way (exhalation-only) mouthpieces are used. The standard usage (based on pictures on the web) appears to be to have a mouthpiece small enough to go into the mouth, so that the lips seal around it—my current design does not have that.
Perhaps I should try again with just a 1/2″ female threaded tee—that may be cheap enough that every student can have their own, and only the barbed fittings (which get no flow through them) would be shared. Students wouldn’t even need to buy their own—I could have a stock of 50 of them, and wash them in a dishwasher after the lab. I’ll have to see how well that works.