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Cavitation in reciprocating pumps

Cavitation is a common occurrence, but is one of the least understood of all pumping problems. Here, Trinath Sahoo explains how acceleration head phenomena and net positive suction head available are related to cavitation
The net positive suction head (NPSH) is defined as the difference between suction pressure and vapour pressure measured at the pump suction nozzle when the pump is running. In a reciprocating pump NPSH is required to push the suction valve from its seat and to overcome the friction losses and acceleration head within the liquid end. The flow output from a reciprocating pump is unsteady and the pumped fluid is constantly accelerating and decel-erating. A certain amount of energy, the acceleration head, is required to produce the acceleration. The acceleration head is often so large that the net positive suction head required (NPSHR) cannot be met. The acceleration head can be reduced by increasing the pipe diameter, shortening suction piping, decreasing pump speed or using a suction stabilizer. When net positive suction head available (NPSHA) becomes lower than net positive suction head required, or very close to it, cavitation will occur Unlike centrifugal pumps they can achieve high pressure at low velocities. Another characteristic of a reciprocating pump is that capacity is a function of speed and is relatively independent of discharge pressure. All reciprocating pumps contain one or more pumping elements (piston or plunger) that move into and out of pumping chambers to produce the pumping action. Each chamber contains at least one suction and one discharge valve (Figure 1). decelerates near the end of this stroke, the suction valve gradually returns to its seat. When the element stops, the suction valve closes. The pumping element then reverses and starts on its discharge stroke. The liquid trapped in the pumping chamber is compressed until chamber pressure exceeds the discharge pressure by an amount sufficient to push the discharge valve away from its seat. With a power pump, the velocity of the element (piston or plunger) varies approximately as the sine of the angle of the crank throw. The velocity of the liquid in the piping is proportional to plunger velocity.

As the pumping element is withdrawn from the pumping chamber, liquid within the chamber expands and the pressure decreases. Since most liquids are relatively incompressible, very little movement of the element is required to decrease the pressure. When the pressure decreases sufficiently below suction pressure, the differential pressure (that is, suction pressure chamber pressure), pushes open the suction valve. This occurs when the element is moving slightly, so that the valve opens gradually and smoothly as the velocity of the element increases. Liquid then flows through the valve assembly and follows the element on its suction stroke. As the element

Indicator diagram
The graph between the pressure in the cylinder and volume swept by the piston for one complete revolution is called the indicator diagram. The volume swept by the piston is equal to product of A (cross-sectional area of cylinder) and 2x (distance travelled by the piston). Since A remains constant during piston motion, the volume swept by the piston is proportional to x. This means that we can substitute x for volume swept by the piston. For hydraulic pumps it is convenient to take pressure head (p/w) in place of pressure. So, the indicator diagram (Figure 2) for a reciprocating pump is a graph between pressure head in the cylinder against distance travelled by the piston for one complete revolution of crank. If the pressure in the sump is taken as atmospheric, then the pressure head in the cylinder during the suction stroke will be constant and given by Equation 1.

Displacement machine
A reciprocating pump is a displacement machine. At constant speed, handling a given liquid, reciprocating pumps deliver essentially constant flow regardless of system resistance. Volumetric efficiency falls with increasing differential pressure.
Reservoir level

Delivery pipe

Connecting rod hd h Delivery valve Cylinder

hs Piston rod Crank Sump level

Figure 1. A reciprocating pump is a displacement machine.

Suction valve

Piston Suction pipe


0262 1762/06 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved

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pressure head in cylinder = Pa/W hs (absolute) (Equation 1) This can be represented by line ab in Figure 2. Pressure head in the pump cylinder during the return or delivery stroke must be hd metres of liquid above atmospheric pressure and is represented on the indicator diagram by line cd. At the end of the suction stroke the pressure head must jump from suction head hs to delivery head hd before the beginning of the delivery stroke. This jump is represented by line bc. Similarly, at the end of the delivery stroke, the pressure head must fall from hd to suction head hs, before the start of the suction stroke. This is shown in the figure by line da. In this way, quadrilateral abcd represents the indicator diagram (Figure 2). Velocity of water in the pipe is: = (A/a)r sint = (A/a)r sin (Equation 4) where A is the area of crosssection of the cylinder and a is the area of the cross-section of the pipe. Differentiating once again with respect to time, we obtain the acceleration of the water: = (A/a)r2cost = (A/a)r2cos (Equation 5) The mass of the water to be accelerated is: = wal/g (Equation 6) where l = length of pipe. The force required to accelerate the water in the pipe is: F = (wal/g)(A/a)r2cost (Equation 7) The intensity of pressure caused by the acceleration is given by: P = F/a = (wlA/ga)r2cost (Equation 8) Pressure head (Figure 4) or acceleration head ha = p/w = (l/g)(A/a)r2cost (Equation 9) It is clear from these equations that the acceleration head required by the pump is maximum at the beginning of each stroke when = 0, zero in the middle = 90, and a maximum negative at the end of each stroke, when = 180. The magnitude of maximum acceleration is: = (l/g)(A/a)r2 (Equation 10) that is, when cost = 1, ( = 0).
p w o hs pa w a Length of stroke b o' d c hd


Effect of pipe friction

The pump also provides pressure to overcome loss of fluid head because of friction: hf = (4flv2/2gd) (Equation 11) where f is Darceys coefficient of friction. hfs = [4fls(Arsin)2]/2gds (Equation 12) hfg = [4fld(Arsin)2]/2gdd (Equation 13) From the above equation, it is clear that loss of head because of friction is zero at the beginning and end of each stroke when = 0 or = 180, and a maximum at = 90 of each stroke. hf(max) = [4fls(Ar)2]/2gds (Equation 14)

Figure 2. The indicator diagram.

Effect of acceleration
It is obvious that in the reciprocating motion under consideration, the velocity of the piston is not uniform at all points. It is zero at the end of each stroke, and reaches a maximum at the centre if the motion of the piston is assumed to be simple harmonic in character. Starting from point IDC after time t, the crank and piston are in the position that is shown in the diagram (Figure 3). Let be the regular distance travelled by the crank. Then the distance travelled by the piston is given by Equation 2. x = r rcos = r rcost (Equation 2) By differentiating x with respect to time t we obtain the velocity of the piston (Equation 3). dx/dt = rsint = rsin (Equation 3)

When net positive pressure head at the inlet falls below vapour pressure head (Pv /w) then cavitation occurs. From the diagram shown in Figure 5 we can see that the point of lowest pressure during suction stroke is a, that is, at the

Since the quantity of liquid flowing from the pipe to the cylinder, or from the cylinder to the pipe is the same at any time, the velocity of water in the pipe is equal to the velocity of the piston (r is the radius of crank; and L = 2r, is the length of stroke).

l I.D.C x L.D.C x

r O.D.C

Figure 3. Rotary motion converted into reciprocating motion.

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c' d had (max) d' o pa w hs a a a' Datum b o' b' has (max) hs c hd had (max)

Rotating speed
One of the most important parameters for power pumps is the maximum allowable speed. The velocity variation in the piping for a triplex pump is 25%, regardless of the pump size or speed. For the same capacity, a smaller pump, running faster, will produce the same maximum and minimum flow rates and more pulses per second. Since the acceleration head increases in direct proportion to frequency, doubling the pump speed doubles the acceleration head, thereby reducing NPSHA from the system. Also doubling the speed requires a stiffer valve spring, thereby increasing NPSHR. As previously stated, if NPSHA drops below NPSHR, cavitation will occur. The speed of the pump is limited by the ability of the suction valve to keep up with the plunger. When there is no spring to push the valve back onto its seat, gravity is the only force acting to close the valve against the existing fluid. If the pump is running too fast the valve will still be off its seat when the plunger reverses and starts to re-enter the pumping chamber. The liquid will then momentarily flow backwards through the seat, and the valve will be slammed onto its seat, sending a shock wave to the suction manifold and piping. The pressure in the pumping chamber will quickly exceed discharge pressure, and the discharge valve will be driven from its seat. A shock wave will be transmitted from the pumping chamber, though the discharge manifold to the discharge line.

has (max)

Figure 4. The indicator diagram with acceleration.

beginning of the suction stroke. Hence, cavitation during the suction stroke if it occurs is likely to occur at the beginning of the suction stroke, and will obviously occur at the highest point of suction pipe, that is, where the suction pipe meets the pump cylinder. Net positive pressure head at the point a is: = Pa/w hs has(max) (Equation 15) = Pa/w hs ls/g(A/as)r2 (Equation 16) Cavitation will start to occur when this value falls below vapour pressure head (Pv /w). This means that cavitation puts a limit on the suction height of pump suction pipe length and the speed of the pump, because acceleration head is proportional to 2. The principal component of a reciprocating pumps NPSHR is the pressure differential required to open the suction valve. Therefore, NPSHR, expressed in pressure terms, increases with pump speed and valve closing force. The net positive suction head is defined as the difference be-tween suction pressure and vapour pressure, measured at the pump suction nozzle when the pump is running. In a reciprocating pump, NPSH is required to push the suction valve from its seat and to overcome the friction losses and acceleration head within the liquid end. This is because, a significant portion of the required NPSH is used to open the valve (particularly at low pump speeds), and because this is a pressure rather than a head requirement (NPSHR). For a reciprocating pump this is

normally expressed in pressure units. For example, if a power pump requires 2 psi of NPSH when pumping water, it will also require 2 psi NPSH for propane. As the suction valve is kept vertical, the valve can operate without a spring if the pump speed is kept low. The NPSH requirement for a bigger plunger and higher speed is greater than that of a smaller plunger and the lower speed, when tested with the same fluid. 9The speed of the pump is limited by the ability of the suction valve to keep up with the plunger. If a higher speed is desired, stiffer springs are needed.

NPSH test
Power pump NPSH tests are performed by holding the pump speed and discharge pressure constant and varying the NPSHA in the system. The capacity remains constant for all NPSHA values above a certain point. As NPSHA is reduced below this point, capacity begins to fall. A 3% capacity drop is the criteria for defining NPSHR.

Valve spring factor

At low speeds (100 rpm or less) the characteristics of the suction valve spring are of little consequence, and a low suction pressure can be tolerated. Many low-speed pumps operate without the valve spring. The pump suction pressure requirement depends on the pump speed and the valve spring rate. The volumetric efficiency of the pump improves when the pump is running at low rpm and the valve has a higher spring rate.

There are a number of ways to increase NPSHA. These are: enlarge the diameter of suction line; reduce the length of suction line by moving the pump closer to the suction vessel; install a suction bottle; elevate the suction vessel or level of liquid; and reduce the speed of the power pump, or select a larger pump running at a lower speed.


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The higher spring rate increases efficiency at the cost of higher suction pressure. Lower suction pressure diminishes the volumetric effici-ency. A higher valve spring rate increases the efficiency. When stiffer springs are added to the suction valves, the spring force and the valve weight must be overcome to open the suction valve, so NPSHR increases. These springs return the valves to their seats quickly so that operation is smooth at higher speeds. Light springs should be used for a low pressure and low speed, while heavy springs should be used for a high speed and high pressure. The stuffing box packing is a source of air ingress when the suction pressure is below atmospheric pressure. In that case, air is drawn through the stuffing box packing into the pumping chamber on the suction stroke. Air ingress will cause a drop in capacity and make the pump operate noisily. that air pockets cannot form in the pipe. The suction stabilizer usually contains internal parts such as a bladder, diaphragms, choke tubes or baffles. It is used in front of the pump to reduce the pressure pulsation in the pipe and acceleration head in the system.

Suction stabilizer
Suction stabilizers greatly decrease the pulsation that is passed on through the piping system, or even the pulsation that is reflected back to the pump. Generally, these are pressurized vessels or containers with a gasliquid interface. Some have a direct interface, others use an elastomeric sheet to keep them separated. The energy from the pressure pluses is partially absorbed and the peaks on the pulsation curves are reduced. Using a pulsation dampener reduces acceleration head and friction losses (to minimize NPSHA) when installed as a suction stabilizer in the suction piping. Using a suction stabilizer produces steady flow and reduces high pressure fluctuations in the pipe system.
hfd (max) d d' c' had (max) c hd

Differential pressure
When a pump operates with a low differential pressure the effect of cavitation is difficult to detect. However, when a pump handles liquid with a high discharge pressure, the effect of cavitation is more pronounced.

Plunger size
Generally, in reciprocating pumps the size of the plunger can be changed. The larger clearance that results from using a smaller diameter plunger lowers volumetric efficiency. However, for the same rotational speed and service conditions NPSHR rises if the plunger size is increased.

Liquid properties
When reciprocating pumps are used in viscous service, there is a corresponding decrease in the maximum allowable speed at which they are able to operate satisfactorily. A decrease in the speed reduces the volumetric flow. This decease limits the flow range. Increasing viscosity has two effects. Firstly, the motion of the valves is impeded. At constant speed this leads to greater valve leakage, hence, lower volumetric efficiency. Alternatively, for a given volumetric efficiency, the pump speed must be reduced as viscosity increases. The second effect is increased head loss through the suction valve and post, resulting in higher NPSHR. The extent of this effect increases with pump design pressure. Pumps with a high fluid temperature must be run at a reduced speed in order for them to operate properly.

Entrained gas
Reciprocating pumps will compress gas, but the pressure developed is limited by the usually large clearance volume. Unless the pump can discharge some gas during each stroke, it will not clear itself. A second and potentially more serious problem arises if the pump is able to raise the pressure sufficiently to force the gas into the liquid solution. Should this happen, the sudden change in volume can produce a destructive pressure pulsation. When the liquid contains air or is exposed to gas other than its own vapour, the vapour pressure of the solution increases. The Hydraulic Institute, based in the USA, recommends an NPSH margin of 3 psi for power pumps in systems where the pumpage has been exposed to a gas other than the liquids own vapour. To minimize the problem of dissolved air, the NPSH tests are performed with water near its boiling point, in the suction vessel.

hs a has (max) a' e hfs (max)

b' b

The NPSHA must be greater than the NPSHR, for the pump to deliver its rated flow. When the NPSHA is below the NPSHR, the pumps capacity is reduced. In severe cases, the shocks associated with the vapour collapse (a sudden reduction in pumped fluid volume) can cause major parts of a pump to fracture. s CONTACT:
Trinath Sahoo Deputy maintenance manager (FOB) Indian Oil Corp Ltd , Haldia Refrinery Dist-Midnapore, West Bengal India, 721606 Email:

Suction line
The suction line is sized to limit the fluid velocity 1-3 ft/s. This low velocity reduces the acceleration head of the system, maximizing NPSHA of the pump. The long radius elbow minimizes pressure drop and maximizes the NPSHA. The eccentric reducer decreases the line size from the larger suction pipe diameter, drawn to the inlet size of the pump. This reducer is orientated in such a way

Figure 5. The indicator diagram with acceleration and friction.

WORLD PUMPS January 2006