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I have a vessel that has a pressure measuring device. The value it shows as the pressure inside the vessel is 6 inches of water column. Is inches of water column meant to always be used as gauge pressure, or does one have to specify gauge vs atmospheric?

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Inches of water is conventionally used as gauge pressure, not absolute. You could conceivably specify it as inches of water absolute, but that would be an unusual use - sub-atmospheric pressures are more commonly measured in inches or mm of mercury.

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