Net Positive Suction Head & Cavitation

The Hydraulic Institute defines NPSH as the total suction head in feet absolute, determined at the suction nozzle and corrected to datum, less the vapor pressure of the liquid in feet absolute. Simply stated, it is an analysis of energy conditions on the suction side of a pump to determine if the liquid will vaporize at the lowest pressure point in the pump.

The pressure which a liquid exerts on its surroundings is dependent upon its temperature. This pressure, called vapor pressure, is a unique characteristic of every fluid and increased with increasing temperature. When the vapor pressure within the fluid reaches the pressure of the surrounding medium, the fluid begins to vaporize or boil. The temperature at which this vaporization occurs will decrease as the pressure of the surrounding medium decreases.

A liquid increases greatly in volume when it vaporizes. One cubic foot of water at room temperature becomes 1700 cu. ft. of vapor at the same temperature.

It is obvious from the above that if we are to pump a fluid effectively, we must keep it in liquid form. NPSH is simply a measure of the amount of suction head present to prevent this vaporization at the lowest pressure point in the pump.

NPSH Required is a function of the pump design. As the liquid passes from the pump suction to the eye of the impeller, the velocity increases and the pressure decreases. There are also pressure losses due to shock and turbulence as the liquid strikes the impeller. The centrifugal force of the impeller vanes further increases the velocity and decreases the pressure of the liquid. The NPSH Required is the positive head in feet absolute required at the pump suction to overcome these pressure drops in the pump and maintain the majority of the liquid above its vapor pressure. The NPSH Required varies with speed and capacity within any particular pump. Pump manufacturer's curves normally provide this information.

Net Positive Suction Head (NPSH) NPSH Available is a function of the systetm in which the pump operates. It is the excess pressure of the liquid in feet absolute over its vapor pressure as it arrives at the pump suction. Fig. 4 shows four typical suction systems with the NPSH Available formulas applicable to each. It is important to correct for the specific gravity of the liquid and to convert all terms to units of "feet absolute" in using the formulas.

sect a5 fig01

PB = Barometric pressure in feet absolute.
VP = Vapor pressure of the liquid at maximum pumping temperature, in feet absolute.
P = Pressure on surface of liquid in closed suction tank, in feet absolute.
Ls = Maximum static suction lift in feet.
LH = Minimum static suction head in feet.
hf= Friction loss in feet in suction pipe at required capacity
Fig. 4 Calculation of system Net Positive Suction Head Available for typical suction conditions.

In an existing system, the NPSH Available can be determined by a gauge on the pump suction. The following formula applies:

sect a5 equat01
Gr = Gauge reading at the pump suction expressed in feet (plus if above atmospheric, minus if below atmospheric) corrected to the pump centerline.
hv = Velocity head in the suction pipe at the gauge connection, expressed in feet.

Cavitation is a term used to describe the phenomenon, which occurs in a pump when there is insufficient NPSH Available. When the pressure of the liquid is reduced to a value equal to or below its vapor pressure the liquid begins to boil and small vapor bubbles or pockets begin to form. As these vapor bubbles move along the impeller vanes to a higher pressure area above the vapor pressure, they rapidly collapse.

The collapse, or "implosion" is so rapid that it may be heard as a rumbling noise, as if you were pumping gravel. In high suction energy pumps, the collapses are generally high enough to cause minute pockets of fatigue failure on the impeller vane surfaces. This action may be progressive, and under severe (very high suction energy) conditions can cause serious pitting damage to the impeller.

The accompanying noise is the easiest way to recognize cavitation. Besides possible impeller damage, excessive cavitation results in reduced capacity due to the vapor present in the pump. Also, the head may be reduced and/or be unstable and the power consumption may be erratic. Vibration and mechanical damage such as bearing failure can also occur as a result of operating in excessive cavitation, with high and very high suction energy pumps.

The way to prevent the undesirable effects of cavitation in standard low suction energy pumps is to insure that the NPSH Available in the system is greater than the NPSH Required by the pump. High suction energy pumps require an additional NPSH margin, above the NPSH Required. Hydraulic Institute Standard (ANSI/HI 9.6.1) suggests NPSH margin ratios of from 1.2 to 2.5 times the NPSH Required, for high and very high suction energy pumps, when operating in the allowable operating range.