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Actual NPSH Test - Reciprocating Pump and What is a Safe NPSH Margin for a
Reciprocating Pump?
Written by Terry Henshaw, P.E.
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The Twelfth in a Series

Actual NPSH Test-Reciprocating Pump


Power pump NPSH tests are performed by holding pump speed and discharge pressure constant and
varying the NPSH available in the system. Capacity remains constant for all NPSHA values above a
certain point, but as NPSHA is reduced below this value, capacity begins to fall. Figure 1 plots some
sample data from such an NPSH test.

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Figure 1. NPSH Test Results - Triplex Plunger Pump

Similar to the 3 percent head drop used in centrifugal pump NPSH testing, the reciprocating pump
industry has established a 3 percent capacity drop as a criterion for defining NPSHR. (Head or
pressure cannot be used because the system, not the displacement pump, determines discharge
pressure.) Therefore, NPSHA is reduced until the capacity drop has exceeded 3 percent. The NPSH
that was available at the 3 percent reduction is established, by definition, as the NPSHR.

In Figure 1, the NPSHR equals 0.85 psi.

What is a Safe NPSH Margin for a Reciprocating Pump?


The NPSH required by the triplex pump above was 0.85 psi, and this is the value at which the pump
will be quoted and sold with a 2.25 in plunger running at 201 rpm. But, just as with a centrifugal
pump, if this unit is operated with 0.85 psi of NPSHA, it will experience cavitation. Recognition of
this fact raises two questions:

1. Will operation of the pump under cavitating conditions cause damage to the pump or system?
2. How much additional NPSHA is required to eliminate all cavitation?

Unfortunately, neither question is easy to answer.

If this unit were operated on a light hydrocarbon with a low differential pressure (200 to 300 psi), the
effect of cavitation would be difficult to detect. With 0.85 psi of NPSHA, the ratio of vapor volume
to liquid volume would be less than with water, and the compression ratio (discharge pressure to
suction pressure) would be less than the 100+ that existed during the hot water test. Both would
reduce the distance that the plunger would travel on its discharge stroke before compressing the
pumpage to discharge pressure. The result would be a higher capacity.

The collapse of the vapor during the discharge stroke is much "softer" with the light hydrocarbon,
causing less damage to metal surfaces, and less shock transmitted to power end bearings. The power
end would also be lightly loaded, and the components better able to absorb shock loads. The result
would be a quiet, smooth running pump with a long life.

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On the other hand, if this unit were pumping cool water at 1,000 psi discharge, the effect of
cavitation would be much more pronounced. With 0.85 psi of NPSHA, capacity would be less, and
the more severe collapse of the vapor bubbles would damage metal surfaces more and create larger
shocks. Power end bearings (and other components), more heavily loaded (due to the higher
discharge pressure), would be less able to tolerate the shock without damage.

How much additional NPSHA is required to eliminate all cavitation? Figure 1 might suggest that,
since full capacity is achieved with 1.5 psi of NPSHA, that amount would eliminate all cavitation. It
is true that the pump would be at rated capacity, and that no vapor-collapse shock would occur on
the discharge stroke. However, as Collier noted (1), cavitation can occur in a reciprocating pump
without reducing capacity.

Incipient cavitation occurs during the initial portion of the suction stroke, because the plunger or
piston is accelerating, then disappears during the latter portion because the plunger is decelerating.
The pumping chamber is therefore completely filled with liquid at the end of the suction stroke, and
pump capacity is not affected.

Capacity is reduced only when cavitation is so severe that complete bubble collapse does not occur
until the plunger is on its discharge stroke. Even when the bubbles completely collapse on the suction
stroke, some damage can occur. During collapse, the liquid impinges on the face of the plunger,
chewing metal away, similar to the damage seen in the eye of a centrifugal pump impeller exposed to
similar cavitating conditions.

The resulting shock is transmitted through the open suction valve and into the suction line,
sometimes causing vibration and noise. The shock is also transmitted through the plunger and
crosshead assembly, echoing in the power end. Such a knock is often construed as a power end
problem, such as a loose rod or broken gear tooth.

No known attempt has been made to quantify the extra margin of NPSHA required to preclude all
cavitation in reciprocating pumps. Until that occurs, the author suggests a 50 percent NPSHA margin
for cool-water type applications over the 0 percent capacity-drop NPSHA.

References
1. Collier, S. E., "Know Your Mud Pump - Part 5: Knocking", World Oil, Gulf Publishing Co.,
1958/1959.

Pumps & Systems, January 2010

Terry Henshaw is a retired consulting engineer who designs pumps and related high pressure
equipment and conducts pump seminars. For 30 years, he was employed by Ingersoll Rand and
Union Pump. Henshaw served in various positions in the Hydraulic Institute, ANSI Subcommittee
B73.2, API 674 manufacturers' subcommittee and ASME Performance Test Code Committee PTC
7.2. He authored a book on reciprocating pumps, several magazine articles and the two pump
sections in Marks' Handbook (11th Edition). He has been awarded six patents. Henshaw is a
registered professional engineer in Texas and Michigan, is a life fellow of the ASME and holds
engineering degrees from Rice University and the University of Houston. He can be reached by e-
mail at pumprof@att.net.

Tags: January 2010 Issue , NPSH , Pumps , Reciprocating Pumps

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Comments (1)
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...
written by Hal Korstvedt, January 13, 2010
A common error in the design of reciprocating pump systems is a tendency for the user to think only
in terms of providing adequate suction pressure. In a centrifugal pump, the flow velocity in the
suction line is constant, but as Mr. Henshaw points out, the piston (or plunger) in a crank-driven
reciprocating pump is accelerating during the first half of its stroke, which means that the liquid in
the suction line must also accelerate if cavitation is to be avoided. Suction lines should be as large as
practical, to minimize pipe friction, and as short as possible, to minimize the mass of liquid that must
be accelerated during the suction stroke.


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