What is a Strain Gauge?

Dorothy Distefano

All materials will deform when a stress or load is applied. Strain is a measure of the amount of deformation that occurs when an object is under stress. A strain gauge is an implement that is used to accurately measure this change in a material that is under load. Understanding the dimensional changes that occur when an object experiences strain is important in many mechanical design applications.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Elastic strain occurs when a material is subjected to a low level of stress. It will disappear after the stress is removed, and the material will return to its original state. At high levels of stress, a substance will deform to the point where it will not recover and return to its original dimensions. This is called plastic strain. A strain gauge can be used to determine when a material undergoes plastic strain and permanent deformation has occurred.

The metal-foil strain gauge is commonly used when a very small amount of strain and dimensional change occurs. This type works by measuring the change in electrical resistance that occurs when an electrically conductive material deforms. The metal-foil strain gauge typically consists of a series of very thin parallel lines of conductive metal applied to a thin foil. The foil is attached to a backing material that is electrically insulating, and will not conduct voltage or current.

The metal-foil strain gauge is glued to an object to be measured. As stress is applied and the object deforms, the metallic foil will also deform and its electrical resistance will change. The change in electrical resistance is measured and can be related to the strain in the material. The numerical relationship between the change in electrical resistance and corresponding mechanical strain is known as the gauge factor.

Foil strain gauges require careful calibration to ensure the measurement of strain is accurate. Calibration is completed through the use of an electrical circuit known as a Wheatstone bridge. This is used to determine the gauge factor and also compensates for temperature changes that cause expansion and contraction of the metal foil material, which could generate incorrect measurement results.

Strain gauges are available for a variety of measurement applications. These are used to measure strain due to elongation caused by a pulling force, compression caused by a pushing force, or even pressure applied to a surface area by a weight or other load. Strain gauges are often used for experimental testing in a laboratory and can be permanently mounted to an object to allow ongoing measurement.

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Discussion Comments


@SkyWhisperer - I wonder how much calibration is actually needed to account for temperature changes. Our house is built on a slope (it backs up to a greenbelt) and has had some settling over the years.

The result of this is that the front door is slightly askew, so that it doesn’t shut firmly most of the time. It takes a bit of effort to get it closed.

However, in the winter months that doesn’t seem to be a problem. It closes fine then, and I am assuming that temperature plays a role in this. I assume that calibration for the strain gauge uses some standard temperature as a baseline for making its adjustments.


I’ve never actually seen strain gauge sensors but I know some of their practical applications, especially in the area where we live.

We live in an area where there is a lot of dry, clay soil. Sometimes there are problems with a home’s foundations. Our house doesn’t have those problems fortunately but some houses do.

When that happens, the houses need foundation repair. They use a pier method and it’s my understanding that they use strain gauges to measure the strains that exist on the foundation.

I don’t know how they actually fix the foundation. I think they elevate the house or something like that, but it begins with proper measurements first to determine how much strain has been applied and which has deformed the foundation.

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