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at or near shut-off head conditions. Operating in this region is very unstable for a
number of reasons, including potential
temperature rise of fluid, unstable operations or flow recirculation within the impeller.

Variable Speed
Pumping: How low
can you go?
Steve Tredinnick, PE, Infrastructure Project Engineer/Manager, Affiliated Engineers Inc.

Editor’s Note: “Inside Insights” is a column
designed to address ongoing issues of interest
to building owners, managers and operating
engineers who use district energy services.


oday, with the higher cost of electricity, an increasing number of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning
systems are using variable speed-driven
equipment to save energy and optimize
the system performance. For years engineers
and designers have provided a minimum
flow to protect the pumping system. One
may ask, “Protect the system from what?”
and “How low can you go?” To answer
these questions, we have to analyze all the
components – pump, motor and variable
frequency drive (VFD).
Since pumps, motors and VFDs are
not 100 percent efficient, these inefficiencies
are usually radiated as heat to the surroundings. Excessive heat will lead to component
damage and premature failure. So, just like
my beer, keeping it cool is the secret to
success! Hence, VFDs and motors have
integral cooling fans to remove this heat.
In the case of the motors, the fan is attached
directly to the drive shaft that forces air
over the windings to cool them. VFDs also
have internal fans that take room air and
circulate through the cabinet. The fans also
add to the drive inefficiencies. As long as
the room air is clean and tempered (below
104 degrees F), there should be no issue

District Energy

with turning down the VFD to zero. So
what’s the big deal then? As VFD and pump
vendors will tell you, the limitation is not
with the VFD, but rather, the culprits are
the motor and pump.

Motor Limitations
Most standard motors are capable of
providing full torque output from 3 to 60 Hz;
however, at lower speeds, where the integral
motor cooling fans become less effective,
supplemental cooling may be needed to
operate at full torque output continuously.
Therefore, VFD manufacturers recommend
a minimum speed of 30 percent of their
rated speed (18 Hz) for standard motors
controlled by VFDs, to prevent motor overheating due to inadequate air flow. If lower
speeds are required, then the motor manufacturer should be consulted for recommendations. Inverter duty motors can
operate below 20 percent (12 Hz) of rated
speed without problems in a variable load
application, since they usually incorporate
special cooling provisions and use a higherclass insulation.

Pump Limitations
As mechanical devices, it appears that
pumps are the most unforgiving component
in the system. In high-static head applications
(such as large building or district energy
heating and cooling pumps), a pump with
a VFD can slow down such that it operates

Fluid Temperature Rise
At low flow conditions, the inefficiency
of the pump (the difference between the
brake horsepower consumed and the water
horsepower developed) transmits heat to
the fluid creating a potential for overheating
the water. Overheating the water can cause
bearing failure as well as excessive radial
thrust loads and shaft deflection, since the
heat is conducted to all components. Therefore, the Hydraulic Institute recommends
limiting the temperature rise of the fluid
flowing through the pump to 15 F. This is
especially true for pumping higher-temperature water systems. Equation 1 quantifies
this flow rate:
Equation 1: Q = P / (2.95 x Cp x S)
Q = minimum flow rate for a 15° F
temperature rise
P = Input power at minimum flow rate
(HP). [Assume that shut-off HP is
equivalent to minimum flow rate HP]
2.95 = constant [(HP-lb-min-°F)/(Btu-gal)]
Cp = specific heat of fluid [(Btu/(lb -°F)]
[1 for water]
S = specific gravity of fluid [1 for water]
Unstable Operation
If the pump selected does not have a
‘flat’ curve characteristic, then there could
possibly be multiple operating points for
reduced flows at the same pump head. This
not only creates hunting by the control system but also translates to unstable operation resulting in excessive shaft deflection
and vibration due to unbalanced radial
thrust and rotating element instability.
Recirculation Within Pump Casing
Low flow conditions also may create
reduced pressure in the pump vortex. When
the pressure drops below the liquid’s vapor
pressure, cavitation will occur, damaging
the pump impeller and therefore its performance. These scenarios become more
evident as suction pressures increase beyond
the net positive suction head required
(NPSHR) by the pump.

. customers. So instead of playing a game of limbo with your pumping network. March 2003. Figure 1 also indicates the NPSHR curve – a good graphic indicator of the suggested pump operating range. the public library. March 1999. so the designer must confirm this value. Applying Variable 2500 3000 3500 4000 4500 5000 Volume Pumping.It is interesting to note that there are no published industry standards that establish precise limits for minimum flow in pumps. however. But even if you’re already getting the magazine.’ use the knowledge obtained from VFD and pump vendors to stay within 20 percent to 25 percent of your BEP flow – and stay ‘below the bar.htm District Energy magazine available by subscription! All IDEA members receive District Energy magazine. Steve Tredinnick. PE. ft 175 15“ 76% 78% 80% Design Point (to the left of capacity range midpoint) 150 125 Approx. with more than 20 years’ experience related to building HVAC systems.htm or contact Dina Gadon at IDEA (508) 366-9339. Pumps and Systems Magazine. Figure illustrates a typical pump curve with the optimum selection area indicated with best efficiency points. so there are trade-offs. Methods of Providing Minimum Flow There are several proven methods for providing minimum flow for variable flow water systems: (1) Locate a constant flow (continuous bypass) using orifice or balancing valve/ constant flow control valve across the pump.3-1997 Centrifugal and Vertical Pumps – Allowable Operating Region” presents all of the factors involved and provides recommendations for the ‘preferred operating region.2 District Energy. Pump operating conditions selected within the identified BEP area ensures that the impeller is subjected to minimum radial forces promoting smooth operation with low vibration and noise. BEP 100 75 System Curve 9“ Source: Steve Tredinnick. which detrimentally effects system efficiency and Delta T. Figure only the last one is preferred because it is the most efficient since it does not bypass water from the supply to the return until low flow conditions are met.districtenergy. Figure 1 illustrates the BEP as the point on a pump's performance curve that corresponds to the highest efficiency at a given flow rate and pump head. Luther.6. However. but “ANSI/HI 9. The third option also is the most complex and expensive to install. which corresponds to the VFD manufacturers’ suggested minimum as Column also available at www. is a project engineer/manager for Affiliated Engineers in Madison.’ As a rule of thumb. Edwards. He is a member of IDEA and ASHRAE and is currently chair of ASHRAE TC 6. potential customers.’ The author acknowledges the following reference sources: Kenneth R. board members. Of the above three options. guessing ‘how low you can go. Ed H. Third Quarter 2006 51 . Pumps and Systems. Pump Minimum Flow Criteria 50 Operational Envelope 25 NPSH Curve gpm 500 1000 1500 2000 (3) Locate two-way valve across pump that is energized at low flow from signal from the VFD controller. Wis. Download an order form from www. some pump manufacturers recommend 25 percent of BEP flow rate. Ensure Minimum Flow for Centrifugal Pumps. you can order subscriptions for others – employees. ITT Fluid Handling. the Hydraulic Institute and pump manufacturers typically recommend a minimum flow rate of the 20 percent best efficiency point (BEP) flow rate. Tredinnick is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a degree in architectural engineering. The other two methods constantly dilute the return-water temperature with supply water. your city and state contacts and more! Order today to let more people know more about this healthy and growing industry. The past 10 years of his work have been focused on district energy systems. Best Efficiency Point and Optimum Pump Selection. Tredinnick may be reached at stredinnick@ aeieng. HBE Engineering. The designer should not select a pump to operate to the left or right of this curve without consulting the manufacturer. (2) Locate three-way control valve(s) within the piping network.