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The Manning Equation

Finding the size of a culvert to carry a specified discharge
There are various techniques for estimating discharge
for small watersheds. If you know the maximum
discharge that you need to convey, how do you
determine the size of the culvert that will carry that
discharge, e.g. under a road?

Prepared for SSAC by

Paul Butler
The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA 98505

Quantitative Skills and Concepts

Forward modeling
Inverse problem
Rearranging equations
Iterative solutions
Power functions
Graphs, XY scatter plots

The Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. All rights reserved. 2005

Overview of Module

Culverts are designed to carry a specified discharge and are based on estimates of
runoff. The runoff estimates, in turn, are often based on the magnitude of precipitation
events e.g., the 50-year or 100-year flood; basin characteristics, e.g., drainage area,
topography; and land use. With the estimates of runoff, engineers can determine an
appropriate culvert size. Their goal is to select a diameter that will be just large enough
to carry the required discharge. If the culvert is too small, flooding is possible. If it is too
large, money is wasted.

Slides 3-5 introduce the Manning equation and allow you to

calculate discharge based on culvert diameter, type of material
used, and slope. This is forward modeling.
Slides 6-8 allow you to calculate culvert diameter, given a
specific discharge value, and to explore the relationships
between variables. This is a backwards calculation, the opposite
of forward modeling. It is the inverse problem.
Slides 9 -10 give the assignment to hand in.

The Manning Equation

The3 Manning equation was derived empirically. It has a long history using
English units. As the relevant data and culvert sizes are commonly collected in
those units, we will use them here. For metric applications, 1.49 is replaced by 1.

2 / 3 1/ 2

R s
v 1.49

v = velocity
R = hydraulic radius
s = slope
n = Manning roughness coefficient

Hydraulic Radius: The hydraulic radius for flow in a pipe or open channel is defined as
the cross-sectional area divided by the wetted perimeter. It is not directly measurable,
but it is used frequently in calculations. For pipes or culverts, the cross-sectional area is
equal to the area of a circle (r2), while the wetted perimeter is equal to the
circumference (2r). Therefore, for full pipes, hydraulic radius R = r/2.
Large pipes or culverts are sized by their inside dimension. The pipes are commonly
available with diameters that increase by -foot increments.

The Manning Equation

Discharge (Q) versus Velocity (v): Discharge is volume per unit of time (cubic feet per
4 in English units). Volume has dimensions of L3, and so discharge has dimensions
of L3/ T. Velocity is distance per unit of time (e.g., feet per second), so velocity has
dimensions of L / T. The velocity (v) times the cross-sectional area (A) equals the discharge
(Q), i.e., Q = v A.
Slope (s): The slope or gradient for a pipe or culvert is commonly set at the same angle as
the natural stream channel. As the gradient is defined as the amount of elevation loss over
some distance, it is dimensionless, i.e., L / L = 1, as long as both numerator and
denominator are in the same units.
Manning Roughness Coefficient (n): The roughness variable was initially derived
empirically. In the original experiments, velocity, hydraulic radius, and slope were
measured, and then roughness (n) was calculated. An increase in n indicates an increase
in resistance to flow. In order to make the equation dimensionally correct, the dimensions of
n are T L-1/3, but are seldom used. As a side exercise, you might figure out what 1.49 sec-

ft-1/3 is in sec-m-1/3.
Combining the formulas for Q and v :

R 2 / 3 s1/ 2 2
Q vA 1.49

The Problem
If you5are given the culvert diameter, the culvert material, and the slope (gradient) of the
culvert, you can use the Manning equation to determine velocity and then discharge.

Recreate the spreadsheet below to answer the following question:

What is the discharge for a culvert that is 2.5 feet in diameter, made of cast
iron (n = 0.015), and set at a slope of 0.01?

Given values. Cell

with a number in it.
Change one of these
numbers and other
numbers will change.

Answers. Cell
with equation in it.

Selecting the appropriate culvert diameter

Now you are ready to determine how to select the appropriate culvert diameter given the
that it needs to carry. This means turning the calculation around, or solving the
inverse problem. There are several possible approaches to this task. For a simple
geometry such as a full, circular pipe one can invert the equation algebraically: substitute
r2/ 2 r for R, and then solve for r. How would that look? To start we eliminate the R and
find Q as a function of r, s, and n.


R 2 / 3 s1 / 2 2
Q vA 1.49
r 1.49

1/ 2


r 2 1.49




s1 / 2

r 2

Algebra Note: To solve this equation for r, you need to simplify it by combining
the rs. You will get an expression with r8/3. That exponent shows up in the
equation for the relationship between discharge and culvert diameter on Slide 8.
Although this strategy works when the culvert is full, it does not work (the equation
is not correct) when the culvert is not full. Why not? In general, the Manning
equation cannot be inverted when it is applied to open-channel flow. Why not? For
this exercise, we will use trial and error for a full pipe to illustrate the technique and
to explore the relationships between the variables.

Selecting the appropriate culvert diameter

How large should a culvert be to handle a discharge of 12 ft 3/s?

Trial and error: We can answer the question by setting up

a spreadsheet, trying a variety of culvert sizes that are
commonly available, and checking the discharge against
the desired amount..

Recreate this

Design discharge

Closest value that will handle the design flow. Remember, culverts come in
set sizes. Select first size that is greater than given Q.

What is the relationship between discharge and culvert diameter?

the graph below by plotting discharge versus culvert diameter (from slide
7) using the XY (scatter plot) option. Be sure to add the trendline and trendline
equation into the graph.
Change in Discharge with Change in Culvert
Note the coefficient look familiar?

Discharge (cfs)



y = 1.4927x






Culvert Diameter (ft)

Because the exponent (2.6667) is larger than 1, you know that the discharge
increases at a faster rate than the culvert diameter.

End of Module Assignment

1. What is the relationship between velocity and culvert diameter? Using the data
that you reproduced in your spreadsheet to determine the culvert diameter
needed to handle 12 cubic feet per second (Slide 7), plot the relationship between
velocity and pipe diameter. Does velocity have the same relationship with culvert
diameter as discharge? Explain your answer.
2. Look at the combined equation on the bottom of slide 4. What happens to
discharge when the slope of the culvert is increased? What happens to
discharge when the roughness coefficient (n) is increased? Begin by answering
qualitatively. Now explore these relationships using your spreadsheet. Which
has a bigger effect on Q: doubling the slope from 0.005 to 0.01, or doubling the
roughness coefficient from 0.011 to 0.022? Express your answer in absolute
terms, and as a proportion. When doubling slope, keep n = 0.011. When doubling
roughness, keep s = 0.005. Use a culvert diameter of 2.0 feet. Compare these
results to your qualitative answers.

End of Module Assignment

3. Youve been asked by your boss to install a culvert to handle 25 cfs. She
tells you that the stream gradient is 0.002, and the pipe available is ordinary
concrete (n = 0.013). How big should the culvert be to handle this flow? Use
trial and error, with 0.5-foot increments of change in pipe diameter.

4. Just as you and your crew are loading up to head for the job site, your cell
phone rings, and the supply office tells you that all the concrete culvert was
used on another job. All they have left is corrugated metal culvert with a
diameter of 2.5 feet (n = 0.022). At what slope should you install the 2.5-foot
corrugated metal culvert so that it will handle the discharge of 25 cfs? Again,
you can use trial and error.