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Pump Seals
Roy C.E. Ahlgren
Centrifugal pumps have a shaft that
chilled water systems are most often
rotates the impeller to apply work to
designed as recirculating, pressurized
the water. In larger pumps, the shaft
systems. Water losses are required to be
penetrates the pump casing, so a gap
as small as possible. Properly installed
must exist between the rotating and
seals have no visible leakage, so they
stationary parts. Methods for controlare ideal for hydronic applications.
ling or eliminating leakage from this
Seal and pump manufacturers have
gap have become an important fearefined the art so that modern seals
ture in the design and specification of
are low in initial cost, have a long
service life, and require no adjustment
Long ago, pumps used
once they are installed.
compression-packing rings
Because they dont reto control leakage. These
quire flush leak-off, the
rings were in contact with
designer doesnt need to
installed seals
the rotating shaft, so a great
worry about providing
have no visible
deal of frictional heat was
drains and drain pans unleakage, so they
generated. Flush water was
der the pump.
supplied to the rings inside
In a typical hydronic
are ideal for
a stuffing box to control
pump seal, two rings surhydronic
the rise in temperature and
round the shaft but do
increase the service life of
not touch it. The mating
the rings. Some of that
ring (often made of a ceflush water had to leak out
ramic material) usually is
of the pump to ensure that all the rings
stationary, while the seal ring (often
were being cooled. Technicians were
made of carbon) rotates with the
required to adjust this leak-off freshaft. A seal spring, along with water
quently, and of course, the leakage
pressure acting at the seal face, presshad to be sent to a drain. There is
es the seal ring to the mating ring.
nothing inherently wrong with these
Both rings are lapped to a high depacked-type pumps. They still are usegree of flatness that allows a very thin
ful in applications like cooling towers,
film of water to flow across the seal
which might have abrasive system flufaces, reducing friction and carrying
id, and fire pumps, where their use
away frictional heat. This flush-water
may be legally required.
film evaporates as it removes heat,
When pumps like this were used in
with very low loss in the form of inclosed loop, pressurized systems, the
visible water vapor.
loss of flush water posed a problem.
The materials used in these seals
Even though the loss was only 5080
have been selected for conditions typdrops per minute, over time it deically found in hydronic systems.
creased system pressure below an acThese conditions have the biggest imceptable minimum. To make up for
pact on seal life:
flush-water loss and maintain pres Temperature: The temperature of
sure, new water was added to the systhe water determines the type of
tem. But the new water carried in
synthetic elastomers that must be
oxygen and minerals, which introused in the seal. Operation above
duced problems of accelerated corrothe rated temperature may cause
sion and scaling.
these elastomers to fail and leak.
Thats why pumps using mechanical
System pH: The pH of the system
seals are universally recommended for
must be kept high enough to preclosed-loop hydronic systems. Hot or
vent acid attack on system
26 Plumbing Systems & Design Mar/Apr 2003

components. If the pH is too high,

it can cause failure of the ceramic
Concentration of dissolved solids:
Water treatment chemicals will come
out of solution as the seal flush water
evaporates. At high concentrations,
these solids will act as abrasives to
damage the primary seal rings.
Concentration of suspended solids
in the system: Before the system is
started, thorough cleaning and
flushing is required to reduce the
concentrations of rust, sand, and
other small abrasive particles that
can be carried into the seal.
When pump manufacturers design
their standard pump seals, they assume that typical conditions of temperature, pH, and solids concentrations will exist. So its easy to specify
a hydronic system pump with a standard sealas long as your system is
typical. But your system may not be
typical in terms of these conditions. In
that case, it would be wise to consult
the manufacturer to determine
whether the use of special materials
or other modifications to a standard
seal design might be warranted.
Small hydronic pumps are sometimes made so that the pump shaft
does not penetrate the pump body, so
no mechanical seal is required. The
pumps entire rotating assembly is exposed to the system water, so these
pumps are called wet-rotor pumps. Its
still a good idea to clean and flush the
system before commissioning it, because wet-rotor pumps use system water to lubricate the shaft bearings.

Roy Ahlgren is director of

the ITT Bell & Gossett
Little Red Schoolhouse
(8200 N. Austin Avenue,
Morton Grove, IL 60053).
His e-mail address is