Deflated Footballs? What’s the Big Deal, We Talk Air Pressure Everyday

This week we prepare for the professional football championship game, that phrase is trademarked within the Woerner household. For a few years, we have had my friends from college over for guacamole, chicken wings, French fries, and beverages. This year our small family is now three, so we are in for a quiet evening at home. My son will most likely be asleep at kick off, but my wife and I might stay awake for the end of the first quarter. Even with the small amount of people that we will watch the game, I will still make a small spread for our family, because tradition. Tradition says, it’s Super Bowl Week – we buy avocados early in the week so they have time to ripen.

In the build up to the big game, it seems like we always get a very silly story that the media grabs a hold of and just will not let go.  I want to join them. Have you heard about the fact that the footballs that the one of teams used on offense might not have been inflated to the correct pressure. I don’t know that the fotballs were under inflated on purpose, but I also think that LaDainian Tomlinson might have been on to something, when he said “The Patriots live by the saying if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

That was a long introduction into my blog today about pressure. The NFL Rule Book states,

“The ball shall be made up of an inflated (12 1/2 to 13 1/2 pounds) urethane bladder enclosed in a pebble grained, leather case (natural tan color) without corrugations of any kind. It shall have the form of a prolate spheroid and the size and weight shall be: long axis, 11 to 11 1/4 inches; long circumference, 28 to 28 1/2 inches; short circumference, 21 to 21 1/4 inches; weight, 14 to 15 ounces.”

From an engineering perspective this is ambiguous at best. If I read this with no knowledge of football, I would have no idea how to test whether the ball is inflated. The rule states that the ball should be an inflated urethane bladder. Then in the parenthetical phrase it lists 12 1/2 to 13 1/2 pounds. Last time I checked pounds is a measure of weight. If I received this specifications, I would put the ball on a scale to weigh it. Using some common sense a quarterback isn’t going to be able to throw a 12 pounds ball, like a bullet, 10 yards. Let alone 60 yards for that deep bomb.

If I was writing the rule book, it would read that “the ball shall be inflated to a pressure of 12 1/2 to 13 1/2 pounds per square inch gauge pressure.” With this wording there is a clear standard to be met for football to be worthy for use.

What Is Gauge Pressure?

Gauge pressure is the pressure determined by a gauge or instrument. The term is used to differentiate pressure registered by a gauge from absolute pressure. Absolute pressure is determined by adding gauge pressure to atmospheric (aka barometric) pressure. Barometric pressure can be calculated based on elevation or measured by a barometer.

What is Atmospheric Pressure?

Andrew Gatt

This bottle was sealed at 10,000 ft above sea level then moved to the beach. At the beach the bottle spontaneously crushed by the increased atmospheric pressure


Atmospheric pressure is the force per area that the air around us compresses our world. Above is a photo with a simple illustration of atmospheric pressure. At roughly 10,000 feet above sea level, the bottle is sealed trapping the atmospheric pressure inside the bottle. As the bottle drops in elevation, the pressure outside the bottle rises compressing bottle and the air inside.

When do I use Gauge Pressure?

Gauge pressure is used in a majority of industrial applications. For instance, EXAIR’s air nozzle performance is based on 80 Pounds per Square Inch Gauge (PSIG). No matter what elevation the air nozzles are used the flow rate and the force of the nozzle will be the same as long as the gauge at the inlet to the nozzle reads 80 PSIG.

When do I use Atmospheric Pressure?

I seldom use atmospheric pressure by itself. I often use atmospheric pressure in conjunction with gauge pressure. Meteorologists reference atmospheric pressure when referring to low pressure or high pressure weather systems.

When do I use Absolute Pressure?

In one word: calculations. Absolute pressure is equal to gauge pressure plus atmospheric pressure. In a majority of formulas or calculations, absolute pressure is used. Specifically, whenever you are using pressure to multiply, divide, or raise to a power, absolute pressure is used. There may be exceptions, but I would need to be very familiar with the formula, before I would only use gauge pressure to multiply. For instance, if you need to calculate the air usage at of an air nozzle at a different pressure (as seen in this earlier blog), you would use the absolute pressure. The flow through a nozzle is governed by Bernoulli’s principle.

Dave Woerner
Application Engineer


Photo Courtesy of Andrew Gatt. Creative Commons License

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