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Pump ED 101

Why Pump Curves Slope Down Balancing Energy

Joe Evans, Ph.D

Have you ever wondered why the typical centrifugal pump performance curve
slopes downward as flow increases? If you have, you are definitely in the minority
because most of us have not. We just accept it as one of that pumps many
characteristics. There is a reason though and, it has to do with that precarious
balancing act that is performed by energy.
The most fundamental and important laws of physics are those that describe how
some quantity, within a system, is conserved. And, one of the most useful is the
conservation of energy. This law states that the total amount of energy,
contained in an isolated system, remains constant. It can change forms or exist as
a combination of forms but, the total energy can neither be increased nor
decreased. And, it is the conservation of energy that best describes that sloping
performance curve. Lets begin by taking a look at an example we have all seen
The work of Daniel Bernoulli explains a lot about hydraulics but, his theorem that
describes fluid flow is a mainstay. It states that during steady flow, the energy
at any point in a conduit is equal to the sum of velocity energy, pressure energy,
and potential energy due to elevation. It also says that the sum will remain
constant if there are no losses. Figure 1 shows this theorem in action.

Here, we see a pipe with water flowing left to right at 100gpm. Midway down the
pipe is a narrow section but, it soon returns to its original diameter. The pressure
gauge on the left is at 12 oclock while the one in the middle is at 10 oclock. And,

the one on the right is just a tad before 12 oclock. So, what is happening here?
If we assume that potential energy is zero, the total energy of the water flowing
through the pipe is the sum of velocity and pressure energy. If flow is to remain
constant, the velocity in the narrow section must increase. And, of course, it does.
But, if energy is to also to remain constant the pressure in that narrow area must
decrease by some proportional amount. And, this explains the lower gauge reading
in the narrow section. So far this looks exactly like the conservation of energy
but, why doesnt pressure return to its original value when the water reenters the
larger diameter on the right? Remember that Bernoulli says that the sum will
remain constant if there are no losses. In this case we did experience a small loss
due to the energy expended (as heat) in overcoming the additional friction,
encountered in the narrow section. So, even though the gauge to the right shows a
slightly lower pressure, total energy (which now includes heat energy) is conserved.
In my September 2006 column (Centrifugal Farce and Affinity) we discussed how
an impeller adds energy, in the form of velocity, to the fluid it is pumping. Well, if
the centrifugal pump adds or increases energy, it doesnt sound like it is a
candidate for a conservation of energy award! Well, it turns out that once we get
past the impeller it will strictly follow this conservation law. And, the whole pump
can also conserve energy if we just expand the system in which it operates. Yes,
that impeller does add additional energy to the pumped liquid but, it did so by
converting the mechanical energy of rotation into velocity energy. And where did
the mechanical energy come from? An electric motor which converted electrical
energy into mechanical energy. And, that electrical energy was provided by a
generator that used some other form of energy. Energy conversion and thus
conservation depends on how we isolate or expand the system.
Figure 2 compares the levels of velocity and pressure energy as water travels
through a centrifugal pump from suction to discharge. Now, the actual energy
levels will differ for every single centrifugal pump design but, the relationships
shown by the chart will give you a good idea of what is happening. The dark blue
area is the energy of pressure and the light blue area is that of velocity. The
upper surface of the light blue area represents the total energy (pressure +
velocity). In this example, the suction is under positive pressure and a valve on the
pumps discharge sets flow at BEP.

In the pumps suction, velocity is relatively low and the energy of flow is due,
primarily, to pressure. But, both remain constant during the waters travel through
this area. As water enters the impellers eye we see a change in the relationship of
pressure and velocity. Compared to the suction, the eye is somewhat constricted
so if flow is to remain constant velocity must increase. There is a proportional
decrease in pressure but, total energy remains the same. Both the suction and eye
areas can be considered an isolated system where total energy is conserved.
Things change drastically as the water enters and traverses the vanes of the
impeller. Pressure remains relatively constant but velocity and total energy
increase continuously as the water encounters an ever increasing radius. Both
velocity and total energy reach their maximum at the vane periphery.
Once water exits the vanes and enters the volute, no additional energy is added.
But, by the time water exits the volute the two energy forms have done a complete
flip flop. This occurs because the increasing volume of the volute reduces velocity
and promotes a corresponding increase in pressure. As water flows into the
discharge pressure and velocity maintain a similar proportion. The volute and
discharge are also an isolated system and energy is conserved in the same way as it
was in our Bernoulli example.
Now, suppose we use the discharge valve to change flow rate. How will Figure 2
change if we increase or decrease flow? Lets focus our attention on the volute
since a pumps performance curve measurements are usually made at its discharge.
If flow is decreased, its velocity will also decrease because the volume of water,
per unit of time, traveling through the volute is smaller. And, if energy is to be
conserved, pressure will increase proportionally. The exact opposite occurs when
we increase flow. Since a greater volume, per unit of time, must exit the volute its
velocity increases. Energy is conserved by a corresponding reduction in pressure.
And, this is exactly what we see when we look at a typical performance curve - -

pressure drops as flow increases. Now, the change in volumetric velocity is not the
only reason the performance curve slopes downward. It also has to due with the
angle water enters and exits the impeller vanes.
Right now you are probably saying to yourself - - enough already, I am convinced
that conservation of energy takes place but it still doesnt explain why pressure
decreases as velocity increases and vice versa. Suppose, for a moment, that we
could view water in a pipe at the molecular level. If there is no flow you would see
the water molecules moving, at high speed, in every imaginable direction. They
bump into both each other and the walls of the pipe, and these collisions cause
them to change direction and become involved in even more collisions. Think
absolute, utter chaos! It is the forces that arise from these collisions that causes
water to exert a measurable pressure in all directions. When the water begins to
flow, collisions between the molecules still occur but they tend to be milder
because they are all traveling in the same direction. As the velocity of flow
increases, even more of the molecules motion is in the direction of flow and the
intensity of collisions is reduced proportionally. And, it is these lower collision
forces that causes pressure to decrease.
Many events in the field of hydraulics could be better understood if we could
experience them at the molecular level.
Joe Evans is the western regional manager for Hydromatic Engineered Waste
Water Systems, a division of Pentair Water, 740 East 9th Street Ashland, OH
44805. He can be reached at, or via his website at If there are topics that you would like to see discussed
in future columns, drop him an email.