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Written by Cla-Val Technical Products Department
Pumps & Systems, October 2008
The Telltale Signs of Cavitation

In water distribution systems where high pressure differentials and high flow rates are
present, valves, piping and equipment really take a beating. When automatic control valves
are exposed to such conditions, they will often exhibit vibration and excessive noise, letting
the operator know that the pressure differentials and high flow rates are taking their toll.
When these "symptoms" appear, they are clear indications that cavitation is occurring and
will be followed by diminished performance and failure.
Cavitation in valves occurs when the velocity of the fluid at the seating area becomes
excessive, creating a sudden, severe reduction in pressure below the vapor pressure level
and causing the formation of thousands of tiny bubbles. As fluid velocity subsequently
decreases, the pressure level rises, causing the vapor bubbles to collapse and release a
substantial amount of energy that literally eats away the metal surfaces of the valve interior.
This can eventually result in multiple performance issues, including loss of flow capacity
and erosion damage. The rule of thumb is: with relatively low downstream pressure
conditions, the higher the pressure drop across the valve, the greater potential for damage.
See the inset for applications where cavitation commonly occurs.
What Does Cavitation Damage Look Like?

It is not pretty. In fact, it is startling what the force of the vapor bubbles impinging on a
valve's metal surfaces can do. The collapse of vapor bubbles can cause local pressure waves
of up to 1,000,000-psi, causing deterioration of any surface with which they come in
contact. The noise and vibration that accompany the valve damage are also a concern,
posing a potential safety hazard for personnel working in close proximity to the cavitating
Determining the Potential for Cavitation

The first step in avoiding this commonly occurring problem is to analyze the system to
measure the potential for valve cavitation. Analysis should take into account parameters
such as pipe and valve size, maximum and minimum flow rates, static/dynamic inlet and
outlet pressure, water temperatures and elevation above sea level. This analysis can be
performed using commercially available software or another approach such as the analytical
method described in Hydraulics of Pipelines: Pumps, Valves, Cavitation, Transients by J.
Paul Tullis of Utah State University (copyright 1989 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.).
Following Tullis' methodology, flow tests are conducted to determine a Sigma curve for the
valve. Sigma is defined as a cavitation index that identifies the level of cavitation that will
occur with various flow and pressure conditions through a restriction device (such as a

Sigma is defined as (P2 - Pv) / (P1 - P2)
P1 = valve inlet pressure (PSI)
P2 = valve outlet pressure (PSI)
Pv = gage vapor pressure (PSI)
To further clarify, the conditions causing cavitation are directly proportional to the kinetic
energy of fluid, which is related to delta P (see Figure 1).

Preventing Cavitation in Valves

Once the potential for cavitation in a system is understood, the next step is determining the
best method to prevent it from occurring. Some of the most common and effective measures

Installing two valves in series where extremely high pressure differentials

Using backpressure-producing devices such as one or more orifice plates
downstream of a valve that is exposed to cavitation-causing conditions
Using valves equipped with anti-cavitation trim in systems where extreme
pressure differentials and high velocity flow rates are present

Pros and Cons of the Most Common Cavitation Prevention Measures

Two Valves in Series

Installing two valves in series will effectively mitigate the incidence of cavitation. An added

benefit is that the second valve acts as a backup in the event the first valve fails, ensuring at
least some level of pressure-reducing functionality in the application. The negative in this
scenario is that space at valve installations is often limited and there simply is not enough
room to install two valves. In addition to these concerns, there is also the cost of the second
valve to consider.
Orifice Plates

An obvious benefit of using orifice plates as backpressure devices to reduce cavitation's

effect is the relatively low cost to purchase and install them in the pipeline. Unfortunately,
when orifice plates are used in this way, they are only effective within a narrow flow range
and will cause a reduction of flow capacity within the system.
Another negative is that orifice plates can actually cause cavitation to occur, creating the
potential for damage to downstream fittings and valves.
Anti-Cavitation Valves and Trim

Several automatic control valve manufacturers offer products that are designed to reduce or
eliminate cavitation. By nature, any anti-cavitation device will result in reduced flow
capacity. Fortunately, the negative effects can be minimized when the valve is properly
sized for the application. This is achieved by performing comprehensive and thorough flow
testing with a sizing program to ensure that the right size valve is chosen to provide
cavitation protection.
Despite this caveat, using an anti-cavitation valve is generally considered the most effective
approach, especially if an existing, installed valve can be retrofitted with anti-cavitation
Whether an existing valve is enhanced with the cavitation-fighting components or a new
valve equipped with such trim is used, the cavitation solution is self-contained and should
be able to provide a wider range of flow rates and smooth operation with low levels of
vibration and noise.
It is important to note that there are occasionally applications where a system's pressure and
flow rates are so extreme that the only effective measure against cavitation is a combination
of a valve outfitted with anti-cavitation trim, installed in conjunction with orifice plates.
Fortunately, this scenario is not the norm.
Designing a Cavitation-Free System

In the best-case scenario, distribution systems would be designed with cavitation prevention
measures as an integral part of the system. It goes back to taking that all-important first step
of performing a complete cavitation study before valves are selected, purchased and
installed in a pipeline. Engineers and consultants can provide a significant value to their

customers by considering cavitation when designing their systems.

They can provide further value by consulting with valve manufacturers and specifying
valves that are properly sized and equipped with anti-cavitation trim or other options. The
long-term benefits are significant: lower maintenance costs; fewer equipment failures; less
downtime associated with valve replacements; and a system that performs with optimum
In the case of an existing pipeline, the most direct approach to minimizing or even
eliminating cavitation is either replacing existing valves with cavitation-fighting valves or
retrofitting them with anti-cavitation trim.
Whichever avenue the water company chooses, operating a water distribution system with
little or no cavitation is possible. It is just a matter of which approach will work best with
the company's operational and financial parameters.
For more information, contact the Cla-Val Technical Products Department.