Some more backyard science. Well, training room science perhaps.
This one was prompted by occasional power training forum discussions relating to the setting of torque zero on a power meter, and the auto-torque zero feature on some crank based power meters.
It was also prompted by an addition to my training room set up, which now means I am able to view on a computer screen my SRM zero-offset numbers. That's kind of handy as anyone with an SRM Powercontrol knows, the zero-offset screen only stays on long enough to do a check and set the zero-offset, but then reverts back to the main display screen after a short delay, which is fine for its intended purpose. Since I'm doing something unintended, having the zero-offset on permanent display helps.
So for some fun I put my phone in front of the screen to video record my SRM's zero-offset numbers while testing a few things, namely, how the zero-offset numbers vary from unclipped to being clipped into the pedals. How stable was zero-offset when clipped in? When moving a little but still not attempting to put pressure on the pedals? And what happens when I back pedal?
And while this was on an SRM, the issues arising are applicable to all crank based power meters.
This was the result. It's a 3-minute long video.
OK, so my video ed skills ain't quite up to Francis Ford Coppola standards. The white noise you can hear is my fan that I had left running. Summary thoughts are shown in the video.
Just for the record - here are some more thoughts on this subject:
SRM have an auto-torque zero feature on their wireless units. If you are using an SRM Powercontrol, the auto-zero feature can be enabled or disabled. This is how the auto-zero function operates:
1. Speed must be > 0.
2. Cadence must be 0 for at least 5s.
3. The Zero offset must not vary by more than +/- 4 Hz.
If all three of these conditions are met, the new zero offset is the average of the values over the 5s.
Thanks to the contributor that updated me on the SRM function from the German manual.
It's my personal experience that it can generate zero-offset values that are way off. I recommend disabling auto-zero and doing manual zero-offset checks (the same as you do with older wired models). Interesting that SRM says it requires speed > 0, as that implies it also requires a speed separate speed sensor for auto-zero to work.
However, if you use a Garmin device as your head unit with your SRM, then you will have no choice as you presently cannot disable the auto-zero function (as at time of writing March 2013). In my view that's a significant functional flaw that Garmin and SRM should fix. How significant? For example, I would not rely on Garmin captured data from an SRM when performing aerodynamic field tests. Use an SRM Powercontrol.
Quarq does not have an auto-zero function, the user needs to choose to perform a torque zero (which is fine by me, it's far better than having an auto-zero you can't disable and have no control over or knowledge of when it happens). A torque zero can be done manually as normal or by back-pedalling the cranks a sufficient number of rotations (at least four).
Back pedalling to set a torque-zero is convenient for sure but introduces an error similar to that described in the video. The size of that error will vary and depends on how different your individual reading is compared to the fixed back pedal torque value assumed by Quarq. Best to check and set your torque-zero manually, and unclipped from the pedals, and preferably not when coasting either (on many bikes this latter item is no big deal but some have a bit of freehub drag that can apply positive torque to the cranks while coasting).
Power2Max enables you to do a manual torque zero check as normal and it also uses an auto-zero function which you cannot disable (at least not with a Garmin). P2M have publicly stated the auto-zero function will only trigger if the torque readings are stable for a period and presumably the crank is not rotating for a few seconds. The maximum torque variance that would trigger an auto-zero being no more than one "ppm", with "ppm" being the unit the P2M uses for torque measurement (each power meter reports using different units).
Using a filter of stable torque readings makes sense to prevent erroneous torque-zero values but I wonder how often that actually happens given it was not easy for me to keep a stable zero-offset even when on a trainer and able to focus on doing just that.
P2M's reported torque units are about one-quarter to one-fifth as sensitive as those displayed by an SRM. So the torque values a P2M would interpret as being a stable zero point and trigger an auto-zero, would be the equivalent of an SRM zero-offset value being within a range of ~5-10Hz. So while it seems likely that the P2M will trigger an auto zero when coasting with reasonable frequency, the consequence of this level of (in)sensitivity in the torque range used to trigger an auto-zero means it could well introduce a random error of up to +/- 5W in power readings.
Powertaps of course are not subject to the same issue of trying to deal with pedal forces when coasting since they are measuring torque at the freehub, and so an auto-zero can be invoked as the hub will know when it is coasting (and hence no torque is being applied). It's not perfect either, and there are situations when it might be fooled, but in general it works reasonably well.
Note that the Powertap auto-zero feature when using a Powertap Cervo head unit (Little Yellow Computer) will only work if the torque-zero is not too far out of range to begin with (up to 8 Powertap torque units I think but that's from the dark recesses of my memory), so it's important to perform a manual torque-zero check before starting any ride. I don't know if this function is the same when using Garmin head units. Auto-zero on a Powertap can be disabled on both the LYC and Garmin.
Finally, the torque units reported by a Powertap and used to invoke an auto-zero are about one seventh as sensitive as those on an SRM (it depends on the gearing used and the range is typically one-quarter to one-tenth as sensitive as an SRM for an equivalent crank torque), but at least it has the advantage of being isolated from pedal forces by the freehub.
As a general comment, power meter head units really should be recording torque-zero values and keep a log of when and to by how much those torque-zero values have changed. This is important data to enable forensic examination of a power meter's performance and accuracy. At present, the only power meter head unit to record a torque-zero value in its file is an SRM Powercontrol. Even then, it only records the most recently set zero-offset value.
So while we keep seeing a stack of features being implemented in each new generation of head units, the most basic, fundamental and important feature of a power meter, i.e. the quality of the power data, does not always get the attention it deserves.