4500-H+ pH VALUE*

* Approved by Standard Methods Committee, 1996.


4500-H+ B. Electrometric Method


1. General Discussion


    a. Principle: The basic principle of electrometric pH measurement is determination of the activity of the hydrogen ions by potentiometric measurement using a standard hydrogen electrode and a reference electrode. The hydrogen electrode consists of a platinum electrode across which hydrogen gas is bubbled at a pressure of 101 kPa. Because of difficulty in its use and the potential

for poisoning the hydrogen electrode, the glass electrode commonly is used. The electromotive force (emf) produced in the glass electrode system varies linearly with pH. This linear relationship is described by plotting the measured emf against the pH of different buffers. Sample pH is determined by extrapolation.

    Because single ion activities such as aH+ cannot be measured, pH is defined operationally on a potentiometric scale. The pH measuring instrument is calibrated potentiometrically with an indicating (glass) electrode and a reference electrode using National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) buffers having assigned values so that:

                                                        pHB = - log10aH+




    pHB = assigned pH of NIST buffer.

The operational pH scale is used to measure sample pH and is defined as:


                                                                  F(EX - ES)

                                    pHx = pHB ±                                          

                                                              2.303 RT




  pHx = potentiometrically measured sample pH,
  F = Faraday: 9.649 × 104 coulomb/mole,
  Ex = sample emf, V,
  Es = buffer emf, V,
  R = gas constant; 8.314 joule/(mole °K), and
  T = absolute temperature, °K.


NOTE: Although the equation for pHx appears in the literature with a plus sign, the sign of emf readings in millivolts for most pH meters manufactured in the U.S. is negative. The choice of negative sign is consistent with the IUPAC Stockholm convention concerning the sign of electrode potential.1,2

    The activity scale gives values that are higher than those on Sorenson’s scale by 0.04 units:


                                            pH (activity) = pH (Sorenson) + 0.04


The equation for pHx assumes that the emf of the cells containing the sample and buffer is due solely to hydrogen ion activity unaffected by sample composition. In practice, samples will have varying ionic species and ionic strengths, both affecting H+ activity. This imposes an experimental limitation on pH measurement; thus, to obtain meaningful results, the differences between Ex and ES should be minimal. Samples must be dilute aqueous solutions of simple solutes (<0.2M). (Choose buffers to bracket the sample.) Determination of pH cannot be made accurately in nonaqueous media, suspensions, colloids, or high-ionic-strength solutions.

    b. Interferences: The glass electrode is relatively free from interference from color, turbidity, colloidal matter, oxidants, reductants, or high salinity, except for a sodium error at pH > 10. Reduce this error by using special ‘‘low sodium error’’ electrodes.

    pH measurements are affected by temperature in two ways: mechanical effects that are caused by changes in the properties of the electrodes and chemical effects caused by equilibrium changes. In the first instance, the Nernstian slope increases with increasing temperature and electrodes take time to achieve thermal equilibrium. This can cause long-term drift in pH. Because chemical equilibrium affects pH, standard pH buffers have a specified pH at indicated temperatures.

    Always report temperature at which pH is measured.


2. Apparatus


    a. pH meter consisting of potentiometer, a glass electrode, a reference electrode, and a temperature-compensating device. A circuit is completed through the potentiometer when the electrodes are immersed in the test solution. Many pH meters are capable of reading pH or millivolts and some have scale expansion that permits reading to 0. 001 pH unit, but most instruments are not that precise.

    For routine work use a pH meter accurate and reproducible to 0.1 pH unit with a range of 0 to 14 and equipped with a temperature-compensation adjustment.

    Although manufacturers provide operating instructions, the use of different descriptive terms may be confusing. For most instruments, there are two controls: intercept (set buffer, asymmetry, standardize) and slope (temperature, offset); their functions are shown diagramatically in Figures 4500-H+:1 and 2. The intercept control shifts the response curve laterally to pass through the isopotential point with no change in slope. This permits bringing the instrument on scale (0 mV) with a pH 7 buffer that has no change in potential with temperature.

    The slope control rotates the emf/pH slope about the isopotential point (0 mV/pH 7). To adjust slope for temperature without disturbing the intercept, select a buffer that brackets the sample with pH 7 buffer and adjust slope control to pH of this buffer. The instrument will indicate correct millivolt change per unit pH at the test temperature.

    b. Reference electrode consisting of a half cell that provides a constant electrode potential. Commonly used are calomel and silver: silver-chloride electrodes. Either is available with several types of liquid junctions.

    The liquid junction of the reference electrode is critical because at this point the electrode forms a salt bridge with the sample or buffer and a liquid junction potential is generated that in turn affects the potential produced by the reference electrode. Reference electrode junctions may be annular ceramic, quartz, or asbestos fiber, or the sleeve type. The quartz type is most widely used. The asbestos fiber type is not recommended for strongly basic solutions. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendation on use and care of the reference electrode.

    Refill nonsealed electrodes with the correct electrolyte to proper level and make sure junction is properly wetted.

    c. Glass electrode: The sensor electrode is a bulb of special glass containing a fixed concentration of HCl or a buffered chloride solution in contact with an internal reference electrode. Upon immersion of a new electrode in a solution the outer bulb surface becomes hydrated and exchanges sodium ions for hydrogen ions to build up a surface layer of hydrogen ions. This, together with the repulsion of anions by fixed, negatively charged silicate sites, produces at the glass-solution interface a potential that is a function of hydrogen ion activity in solution.

    Several types of glass electrodes are available. Combination electrodes incorporate the glass and reference electrodes into a single probe. Use a ‘‘low sodium error’’ electrode that can operate at high temperatures for measuring pH over 10 because standard glass electrodes yield  erroneously low values. For measuring pH below 1 standard glass electrodes yield erroneously high values; use liquid membrane electrodes instead.

    d. Beakers: Preferably use polyethylene or TFE* beakers.

   e. Stirrer: Use either a magnetic, TFE-coated stirring bar or a mechanical stirrer with inert plastic-coated impeller.

    f. Flow chamber: Use for continuous flow measurements or for poorly buffered solutions. 


*Teflon or equivalent.













3. Reagents


    a. General preparation: Calibrate the electrode system against standard buffer solutions of known pH. Because buffer solutions may deteriorate as a result of mold growth or contamination, prepare fresh as needed for accurate work by weighing the amounts of chemicals specified in Table 4500-H+:I, dissolving in distilled water at 25°C, and diluting to 1000 mL. This is particularly important for borate and carbonate buffers.     

    Boil and cool distilled water having a conductivity of less than 2 μmhos/cm. To 50 mL add 1 drop of saturated KCl solution suitable for reference electrode use. If the pH of this test solution is between 6.0 and 7.0, use it to prepare all standard solutions.

    Dry KH2PO4 at 110 to 130°C for 2 h before weighing but do not heat unstable hydrated potassium tetroxalate above 60°C nor dry the other specified buffer salts.

Although ACS-grade chemicals generally are satisfactory for preparing buffer solutions, use certified materials available from the National Institute of Standards and Technology when the greatest accuracy is required. For routine analysis, use commercially available buffer tablets, powders, or solutions of tested quality. In preparing buffer solutions from solid salts, insure complete solution.

    As a rule, select and prepare buffer solutions classed as primary standards in Table 4500-H+:I; reserve secondary standards for extreme situations encountered in wastewater measurements. Consult Table 4500- H+:II for accepted pH of standard buffer solutions at temperatures other than 25°C. In routine use, store buffer solutions and samples in polyethylene bottles. Replace buffer solutions every 4 weeks.

    b. Saturated potassium hydrogen tartrate solution: Shake vigorously an excess (5 to 10 g) of finely crystalline KHC4H4O6 with 100 to 300 mL distilled water at 25°C in a glass-stoppered bottle. Separate clear solution from undissolved material by decantation or filtration. Preserve for 2 months or more by adding one thymol crystal (8 mm diam) per 200 mL solution.

    c. Saturated calcium hydroxide solution: Calcine a well-washed, low-alkali grade CaCO3 in a platinum dish by igniting for 1 h at 1000°C. Cool, hydrate by slowly adding distilled water with stirring, and heat to boiling. Cool, filter, and collect solid Ca(OH)2 on a fritted glass filter of medium porosity. Dry at 110°C, cool, and pulverize to uniformly fine granules. Vigorously shake an excess of fine granules with distilled water in a stoppered polyethylene bottle. Let temperature come to 25°C after mixing. Filter supernatant under suction through a sintered glass filter of  medium porosity and use filtrate as the buffer solution. Discard buffer solution when atmospheric CO2 causes turbidity to appear.

    d. Auxiliary solutions: 0.1N NaOH, 0.1N HCl, 5N HCl (dilute five volumes 6N HCl with one volume distilled water), and acid potassium fluoride solution (dissolve 2 g KF in 2 mL conc H2SO4 and dilute to 100 mL with distilled water).


Table 4500-H+:I. Preparation of ph standard solutions3           

Weight of Chemicals Needed/1000 mL
Standard Solution (molality) pH at 25°C Aqueous Solution at 25°C
Primary Standards:
Potassium hydrogen tartrate (saturated at 25°C) 3.557 > 7 g KHC4H4O6*
0.05 potassium dihydrogen citrate 3.776 11.41 g KH2C6H5C7
0.05 potassium hydrogen 4.004 10.12 g KHC8H4O4
0.025 potassium dihydrogen phosphate + 0.025 disodium hydrogen phosphate 6.863 3.387 g KH2PO4 + 3.533 g Na2HPO4
0.008 695 potassium dihydrogen phosphate + 0.030 43 disodium hydrogen phosphate 7.415 1.179 g KH2PO4 + 4.303 g Na2HPO4
0.01 sodium borate decahydrate (borax) 9.183 3.80 g Na2B4O710H2O†
0.025 sodium bicarbonate + 0.025 sodium carbonate 10.014 2.092 g NaHCO3 + 2.64 g Na2CO3
Secondary Standards:
0.05 potassium tetroxalate 1.679 12.61 g KH3C4O82H2O
Calcium hydroxide (saturated at 25°C) 12.454 > 2 g Ca(OH)2*


*Approximate solubility.

†Prepare with freshly boiled and cooled distilled water (carbon-dioxide-free).



Table 4500-H+:II. Standard pH values

Primary Standards
Secondary Standards
Bicarbonate- Calcium
Temperature Tartrate Citrate Phthalate Phosphate Phosphate Borax Carbonate Tetroxalate Hydroxide
°C (Saturated) (0.05M) (0.05M) (1:1) (1:3.5) (0.01M) (0.025M) (0.05M) (Saturated)
0     4.003 6.982 7.534 9.460 10.321   1.666  
5     3.998 6.949 7.501 9.392 10.248   1.668  
10     3.996 6.921 7.472 9.331 10.181   1.670  
15     3.996 6.898 7.449 9.276 10.120   1.672  
20     3.999 6.878 7.430 9.227 10.064   1.675  
25 3.557 3.776 4.004 6.863 7.415 9.183 10.014   1.679 12.454
30 3.552   4.011 6.851 7.403 9.143 9.968   1.683  
35 3.549   4.020 6.842 7.394 9.107 9.928   1.688  
37     4.024 6.839 7.392 9.093        
40 3.547   4.030 6.836 7.388 9.074 9.891   1.694  
45 3.547   4.042 6.832 7.385 9.044 9.859   1.700  
50 3.549   4.055 6.831 7.384 9.017 9.831   1.707  
55 3.554   4.070           1.715  
60 3.560   4.085           1.723  
70 3.580   4.12           1.743  
80 3.609   4.16           1.766  
90 3.650 4.19 1.792
85 3.674   4.21           1.806  



4. Procedure


    a. Instrument calibration: In each case follow manufacturer’s instructions for pH meter and for storage and preparation of electrodes for use. Recommended solutions for short-term storage of electrodes vary with type of electrode and manufacturer, but generally have a conductivity greater than 4000 μmhos/cm. Tap water is a better substitute than distilled water, but pH 4 buffer is best for the single glass electrode and saturated KCl is preferred for a calomel and Ag/AgCl reference electrode. Saturated KCl is the preferred solution for a combination electrode. Keep electrodes wet by returning them to storage solution whenever pH meter is not in use.

    Before use, remove electrodes from storage solution, rinse, blot dry with a soft tissue, place in initial buffer solution, and set the isopotential point (¶ 2a above). Select a second buffer within 2 pH units of sample pH and bring sample and buffer to same temperature, which may be the room temperature, a fixed temperature such as 25°C, or the temperature of a fresh sample. Remove electrodes from first buffer, rinse thoroughly with distilled water, blot dry, and immerse in second buffer. Record temperature of measurement and adjust temperature dial on meter so that meter indicates pH value of buffer at test temperature (this is a slope adjustment).

    Use the pH value listed in the tables for the buffer used at the test temperature. Remove electrodes from second buffer, rinse thoroughly with distilled water and dry electrodes as indicated above. Immerse in a third buffer below pH 10, approximately 3 pH units different from the second; the reading should be within 0.1 unit for the pH of the third buffer. If the meter response shows a difference greater than 0.1 pH unit from expected value, look for trouble with the electrodes or potentiometer (see ¶s 5a and b below).

    The purpose of standardization is to adjust the response of the glass electrode to the instrument. When only occasional pH measurements are made standardize instrument before each measurement. When frequent measurements are made and the instrument is stable, standardize less frequently. If sample pH values vary widely, standardize for each sample with a buffer having a pH within 1 to 2 pH units of the sample.

    b. Sample analysis: Establish equilibrium between electrodes and sample by stirring sample to insure homogeneity; stir gently to minimize carbon dioxide entrainment. For buffered samples or those of high ionic strength, condition electrodes after cleaning by dipping them into sample for 1 min. Blot dry, immerse in a fresh portion of the same sample, and read pH.

    With dilute, poorly buffered solutions, equilibrate electrodes by immersing in three or four successive portions of sample. Take a fresh sample to measure pH.


5. Trouble Shooting


    a. Potentiometer: To locate trouble source disconnect electrodes and, using a short-circuit strap, connect reference electrode terminal to glass electrode terminal. Observe change in pH when instrument calibration knob is adjusted. If potentiometer is operating properly, it will respond rapidly and evenly to changes in calibration over a wide scale range. A faulty potentiometer will fail to respond, will react erratically, or will show a drift upon adjustment. Switch to the millivolt scale on which the meter should read zero. If inexperienced, do not attempt potentiometer repair other than maintenance as described in instrument manual.

    b. Electrodes: If potentiometer is functioning properly, look for the instrument fault in the electrode pair. Substitute one electrode at a time and cross-check with two buffers that are about 4 pH units apart. A deviation greater than 0.1 pH unit indicates a faulty electrode. Glass electrodes fail because of scratches, deterioration, or accumulation of debris on the glass surface. Rejuvenate electrode by alternately immersing it three times each in 0.1N HCl and 0.1N NaOH. If this fails, immerse tip in KF solution for 30 s. After rejuvenation, soak in pH 7.0 buffer overnight. Rinse and store in pH 7.0 buffer. Rinse again with distilled water before use. Protein coatings can be removed by soaking glass electrodes in a 10% pepsin solution adjusted to pH 1 to 2.

    To check reference electrode, oppose the emf of a questionable reference electrode against another one of the same type that is known to be good. Using an adapter, plug good reference electrode into glass electrode jack of potentiometer; then plug questioned electrode into reference electrode jack. Set meter to read millivolts and take readings with both electrodes immersed in the same electrolyte (KCl) solution and then in the same buffer solution. The millivolt readings should be 0 ± 5 mV for both solutions. If different electrodes are used, i.e., silver: silver-chloride against calomel or vice versa, the reading will be 44 ± 5 mV for a good reference electrode.

    Reference electrode troubles generally are traceable to a clogged junction. Interruption of the continuous trickle of electrolyte through the junction causes increase in response time and drift in reading. Clear a clogged junction by applying suction to the tip or by boiling tip in distilled water until the electrolyte flows freely when suction is applied to tip or pressure is applied to the fill hole. Replaceable junctions are available commercially.


6. Precision and Bias


    By careful use of a laboratory pH meter with good electrodes, a precision of ±0.02 pH unit and an accuracy of ±0.05 pH unit can be achieved. However, ±0.1 pH unit represents the limit of accuracy under normal conditions, especially for measurement of water and poorly buffered solutions. For this reason, report pH values to the nearest 0.1 pH unit. A synthetic sample of a Clark and Lubs buffer solution of pH 7.3 was analyzed electrometrically by 30 laboratories with a standard deviation of ±0.13 pH unit.






7. References

  1. BATES, R.G. 1978. Concept and determination of pH. In I.M. Kolthoff & P.J. Elving, eds. Treatise on Analytical Chemistry. Part 1, Vol. 1, p. 821. Wiley-Interscience, New York, N. Y.

  2. LICHT, T.S. & A.J. DE BETHUNE. 1957. Recent developments concerning the signs of electrode potentials. J. Chem. Educ. 34:433.

  3. DURST, R.A. 1975. Standard Reference Materials: Standardization of pH Measurements. NBS Spec. Publ. 260-53, National Bur. Standards, Washington, D.C.

8. Bibliography


CLARK, W.M. 1928. The Determination of Hydrogen Ions, 3rd ed. Williams & Wilkins Co., Baltimore, Md.


DOLE, M. 1941. The Glass Electrode. John Wiley & Sons, New York, N.Y.


BATES, R.G. & S.F. ACREE. 1945. pH of aqueous mixtures of potassium dihydrogen phosphate and disodium hydrogen phosphate at 0 to 60°C. J. Res. Nat. Bur. Standards 34:373.


LANGELIER, W.F. 1946. Effect of temperature on the pH of natural water. J. Amer. Water Works Assoc. 38:179.


FELDMAN, I. 1956. Use and abuse of pH measurements. Anal. Chem. 28: 1859.


BRITTON, H.T.S. 1956. Hydrogen Ions, 4th ed. D. Van Nostrand Co., Princeton, N.J.


KOLTHOFF, I.M. & H.A. LAITINEN. 1958. pH and Electrotitrations. John Wiley & Sons, New York, N.Y.


KOLTHOFF, I.M. & P.J. ELVING. 1959. Treatise on Analytical Chemistry. Part I, Vol. 1, Chapter 10. Wiley-Interscience, New York, N.Y.


BATES, R.G. 1962. Revised standard values for pH measurements from 0 to 95°C. J. Res. Nat. Bur. Standards 66A:179.


AMERICAN WATER WORKS ASSOCIATION. 1964. Simplified Procedures for Water Examination. Manual M12, American Water Works Assoc., New York, N.Y.


WINSTEAD, M. 1967. Reagent Grade Water: How, When and Why? American Soc. Medical Technologists, The Steck Company, Austin, Tex.


STAPLES, B.R. & R.G. BATES. 1969. Two new standards for the pH scale. J. Res. Nat. Bur. Standards 73A:37.


BATES, R.G. 1973. Determination of pH, Theory and Practice, 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons, New York, N.Y.



©Standard Methods for the Examination of Water and Wastewater. 20th Ed. American Public Health Association, American Water Works Association, Water Environment Federation.