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December 2009


Cavitation control in centrifugals

Cavitation is a well-known problem in centrifugal pumps, with the potential to cause serious damage and loss of function if it is not diagnosed. In this article, Chikezie Nwaoha explains the various causes of cavitation, describing the patterns of damage each inflicts and the different methods to prevent and cure them.

n a centrifugal pump, the ow area at the eye of the pump impeller is smaller than either the ow area of the pump suction piping or the ow area through the impeller vanes. When the liquid being pumped enters the eye of the centrifugal pump, there is therefore a signicant decrease in the ow area. This results in an increase in ow velocity, which is accompanied by a decrease in pressure. The greater the pump ow rate, the greater the pressure drop between the pumps suction and the eye of the impeller. If the decrease in pressure is

high enough, or the temperature is high enough, the liquid will ash vapour when the local pressure falls below the saturation pressure of the liquid being pumped. Any vapour bubbles formed as a result of the pressure drop at the eye of the impeller are swept towards the oncoming impeller vanes by the ow of the liquid. When bubbles enter a region where local pressure is greater than the saturation pressure farther out on the impeller vane, the vapour bubbles will abruptly collapse, causing a physical shock to the leading edge of the impeller

vane. This formation and subsequent collapse of vapour bubbles in a pump is the well-known process of cavitation. Cavitation degrades the performance of a centrifugal pump, resulting in a uctuating ow rate and discharge pressure. The physical shock caused by the vapour bubbles creates small pits on the leading edge of the impeller vane. Each individual pit is microscopic in size, but the cumulative eect of millions of these pits formed over a period of hours or days can destroy a pump impeller. In addition, cavitation may cause excessive pump vibration, which could also damage pump bearings, wearing rings and seals.

Common causes of cavitation

Cavitation occurs when bubbles in the ow stream collapse after passing into regions of higher pressure, causing noise and vibration and potentially damaging pump components, thus reducing the pumps eciency and limiting its ability to generate head. There are several causes of bubble formation in the ow stream, including vaporization, recirculation, vane passing syndrome, ow turbulence and air ingestion.

Figure 1. A pump damaged as a result of ow turbulence. 0262 1762/09 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved

Hydraulic uids may contain up to 12% dissolved air by volume. Certain operating



December 2009


Agitation in the supply reservoir, clogged inlet lters and corrosion can all alter the velocity of the liquid and whenever the velocity of a uid changes, its pressure changes. In multiple-pump arrangements, ow turbulence may occur whenever uid streams of dierent velocities merge, giving rise to shear due to friction between the uid streamlines (Figure 1). This scenario can be avoided by following piping layout best practices, such as: Ensuring that the distance between the pump suction and the rst elbow is at least ten pipe diameters Locating the suction bells in separate bays so that one pump suction does not interfere with another.

Vane passing syndrome

This type of cavitation damage occurs when the outer diameter of the impeller passes too close to the pump cutwater. This causes the velocity of the liquid to increase as it ows through the small passage, thus lowering the uid pressure and causing local vaporization and pulsation. The bubbles that form then collapse at the higher pressure just beyond the cutwater. This damage (Figure 3) is limited to the discharge edge of the impeller shroud, the centre of the impeller vane, and possibly to the pump casing downstream and directly behind the cutwater. If the pump has a closed impeller, then the damage will not extend into the shrouds. Vane passing syndrome can be prevented if the minimum clearance between the impeller tip and the cutwater is 4% of the impeller diameter in the smaller impeller sizes (14 inches or below); a 6% clearance is recommended in the larger impeller sizes (greater than 14 inches).

Recirculation occurs as a result of low ow rates through the pump (Figure 2). This condition is discernible on the leading edge of the vane. There are two types of recirculation, which can occur together or separately at the suction and discharge sides.
Figure 2. A dismantled pump damaged as a result of recirculation cavitation.

Air ingestion
A centrifugal pump can handle 0.5% air by volume. If there is an increase in this percentage of air, the outcome can become disastrous. In air ingestion, vapour bubbles are not formed in the eye of the impeller, but occur as a result of external air seeping in. Air entrainment commonly occurs in the pump as a result of: valves located above the uid line; faulty pump shaft seals; incorrectly adjusted load control valves; leaking anges; porous intake lines; a low reservoir uid level; a bypass line installed too close to the suction line; or ingress through the packing stung box. Air ingestion seldom causes damage to the impeller or casing. Its main eect is loss of capacity.

conditions can make this dissolved air vaporize. A uid vaporizes when its pressure becomes too low, or its temperature is too high. All centrifugal pumps have a required head (pressure) at the suction side of the pump to prevent this vaporization. This head requirement is supplied by the pump manufacturer, with the assumption that the liquid being pumped is fresh water at 20C (68F). Because there are pressure losses in the piping from the source to the suction of the pump, the required head must be determined after the losses are calculated. Alternatively, vaporization can occur when the pump is not cooled properly by the appropriate amount of water ow. This will cause the liquid within the pump to vaporize as a result of heat build-up, and therefore result in the formation of bubbles. The vaporization of dissolved air can also occur at the pump inlet as a result of excessive lift, a clogged or undersized reservoir breather, a poorly designed pump inlet, inadequate cooling of the pump or clogged suction lters. In order to cure vaporization problems, the suction head must be increased, the uid temperature lowered, the net positive suction head required (NPSHr) decreased, or heat build-up in the pump avoided.

Both types are caused by the same phenomenon of reverse uid ow entering the pump suction nozzle. This results in high-velocity vortexes near to or in the impeller eye, in the pipe close to the suction nozzle, or in the suction nozzle itself. High velocities result in low localized pressures, which may drop below the vapour pressure of the uid, giving rise to cavitation. Cavitation damage observed on the pressure side of the inlet vanes near the eye of the impeller is a sign of suction recirculation. In discharge recirculation, uid exiting the pump discharge nozzle or the impeller discharge side at low ow rates may be reversed, resulting in high-velocity vortexes in between the two directions of ow. This results in low localized pressures; if these pressures drop below the vapour pressure of the liquid, cavitation will occur. This type of recirculation may result in cavitation damage at the discharge side of the impeller periphery, inside the discharge nozzle, at the cutwater(s) or in the pipe close to the discharge nozzle. The occurrence of recirculation cavitation within a pump at low ow rates is an inherent function of pump type and design. This has always been a problem with low NPSH pumps. For the suction recirculation problem to be mitigated, the suction speed of the pump must be monitored close to the pumps best eciency point (BEP). This serves as a preventive measure to control suction recirculation. However, pumps with lower suction-specic speed and lower pump-specic speed are more resistant to recirculation cavitation.

Flow turbulence
It is always preferable for uids to ow through the piping at a steady velocity.

Figure 3. Pump damaged due to vane passing syndrome (the impeller is visible within the opening).



December 2009

Table 1. Guide to pump troubleshooting

Pump problem 1 There is no discharge Is the drive commissioned? Are the discharge and suction valves lined up? Is the drain valve closed? Is the pressure gauge functioning? Is the pump coupled properly to the drive? 2 There is no discharge pressure indication Is pressure gauge commissioned? Is the gauge needle vibrating? Is the pressure indication too low? 3 The noise level is too high Is the pump vibrating? Is the noise from the drive? Is the lube oil level adequate? 4 The drive fails to start up Is power available? Is the insulation resistance adequate? Is the pump earth cable fixed? 5 The pump temperature rises Is the lubricant level adequate? Is the cooling water system commissioned? 6 The pump consumes too much power Is the bearing damaged? Is the viscosity of the pump liquid too high? Are mechanical parts misaligned? Are instruments faulty? 7 The pump leaks Is the leak through the seal? Is the casing side leaking? Refer for sealant replacement. Refer for repairs. Check for correct lubrication. If not, refer for bearing replacement. Check for correct liquid/liquid, or liquid/sediment, separation. If so, stop pump and refer for proper installation. Refer faulty instruments for maintenance. Refill oil as necessary. Confirm and establish cooling system. Maintain seal in flush condition. Check electrical power and steam availability where applicable. Request inspection. Fix earth cable. If so refer pump for inspection. Inspect coupling and check for misalignment. Refill lubricant as necessary. Confirm that the indicator is lined up and functional. Replace faulty gauge. Check pump for cavitation. Stop pump, and restart. Valve too wide open. Close partially and bleed to displace any trapped gas. Check if motor or turbine is functioning, and check if start button is faulty. Restart pump. Check valve status. Crack open if closed. Close any drain valve. Replace faulty gauge. Check coupling. Remedies

Prevention and control

If a centrifugal pump is cavitating, several changes in the system design or operation may be necessary to increase the net positive suction head available (NPSHa) above the NPSHr in order to stop cavitation. Increasing NPSHa: This is achieved by increasing the pressure at the suction of the pump. For example, if a pump is taking suction from an enclosed tank, either increasing the pressure in the space above the liquid or raising the level of the liquid in the tank will increase the suction pressure. It can also be achieved by decreasing the temperature of the pumped liquid, thereby decreasing suction pressure. This is accomplished by properly cooling the liquid being pumped. Reducing NPSHr: The NPSHr is not constant for a given pump under all

conditions. Initially, the NPSHr of a pump increases as the uid ow rate through the pump increases. Therefore, a reduction in ow rate through a pump by throttling a discharge valve decreases its NPSHr. Another factor is pump speed. The faster the impeller of a pump rotates, the greater the NPSHr. Therefore, if the impeller speed is reduced, the NPSHr of the pump also decreases. To achieve this reduction in speed, only limited adjustments are required without commissioning additional parallel pumps, if they are available.

uctuating discharge pressure, and so on. In good process operations, these indications should be detected as early as possible and addressed immediately. Proper equipment maintenance will prevent the occurrence of most air contamination problems. As in all troubleshooting situations, when air contamination, air ingestion, vane passing syndrome or recirculation occur, an understanding of the problem and a logical process of elimination are required to reach an appropriate resolution, as shown in the above guide.

Contact Troubleshooting
Faulty sounds produced by pumps are referred to as noise, and this is an indication that a centrifugal pump is cavitating. Other indications of cavitation are a pump with higher-than-expected power consumption,
Chikezie Nwaoha Tel: +234 703-135-3749 Email: chikezienwaoha@yahoo.com

This article was originally published in the February 2009 issue of Flow Control magazine (www.FlowControlNetwork.com).