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Electromechanical solenoids consist of an electromagnetically inductive coil, wound around a movable steel or iron slug (termed the armature). The coil is shaped such that the armature can be moved in and out of the center, altering the coil's inductance and thereby becoming an electromagnet .

The armature is used to provide a mechanical force to some mechanism (such as controlling a pneumatic valve ). Although typically weak over anything but very short distances, solenoids may be controlled directly by a controller circuit, and thus have very low reaction times.

Hydraulic solenoid valves are in general similar to pneumatic solenoid valves except that they control the flow of hydraulic fluid (oil), often at around 3000 psi (210 bar, 21 MPa, 21 MN/m²).

Hydraulic machinery uses solenoids to control the flow of oil to rams or actuators to (for instance) bend sheets of titanium in aerospace manufacturing. Solenoid-controlled valves are often used in irrigation systems, where a relatively weak solenoid opens and closes a small pilot valve, which in turn activates the main valve by applying fluid pressure to a piston or diaphragm that is mechanically coupled to the main valve.

Solenoids are also in everyday household items such as washing machines to control the flow and amount of water into the drum.

A pneumatic solenoid valve is a switch for routing air to any pneumatic device, usually an actuator , allowing a relatively small signal to control a large device. It is also the interface between electronic controllers and pneumatic systems.

A solenoid valve has two main parts: the solenoid and the valve. The solenoid converts electrical energy into mechanical energy which, in turn, opens or closes the valve mechanically.

A direct acting valve has only a small flow circuit, shown within section E of this diagram (this section is mentioned below as a pilot valve). This diaphragm piloted valve multiplies this small flow by using it to control the flow through a much larger orifice.

Solenoid valves may use metal seals or rubber seals, and may also have electrical interfaces to allow for easy control. A spring may be used to hold the valve opened or closed while the valve is not activated