Common Pumping Mistakes
by Jim Elsey

End users frequently ask me, “How long will the pump operate?” Of course, my answer is, “It depends.”

As an engineer for a large pump manufacturer in the late 1970s, I was troubleshooting a pump issue at a Midwest power plant, where a broken cast steel piece required replacement. The user was upset because the part was not covered under warranty.

With the exception of a few overhauls for wear rings and bearings every 10 years, the pump had been operating 24/7 for more than 45 years. The pump was designed to operate for a long time, and the user operated and maintained the pump in a manner that resulted in a half-century of trouble-free operation.

In the overall equation for reliable pump life expectancy, almost every factor is dependent on the end user—specifically, how the pump is operated and maintained. As an example, a standard L-frame American National Standards Institute (ANSI) pump can be expected to operate for 15 to 20 years—and in many cases longer than 25 years—if it is properly maintained and operated near the best/design operating point. A high-horsepower multistage diffusor pump in boiler feed service can be expected to deliver 40 years of service or more.

For a given pump design, what are some of the factors that end users can control to prolong a pump’s life?

While this is not an exhaustive list, the following 13 notable factors are important considerations for extending pump life.

1. Radial Force

Industry statistics indicate that the biggest reason Centrifugal pumps are pulled from service is the failure of bearings and/or mechanical seals. The bearings and seals are the “canaries in the coal mine”—they are the early indicators of pump health and the harbingers of what is happening inside the pumping system.

Anybody who has been around the industry very long probably knows that the No. 1 best practice is to operate the pump at or near its best efficiency point (BEP). At the BEP, the pump by design will experience the lowest amount of radial force. The resultant force vectors of all the radial forces initiated from operating away from the BEP manifest at 90-degree angles to the rotor and will attempt to deflect and bend the shaft.

High radial force and the consequential shaft deflection are a killer of mechanical seals and a contributing factor to bearing life reduction. If high enough, the radial force can cause the shaft to deflect, or bend. If you stop the pump and measure the runout on the shaft, nothing would appear to be wrong because it is a dynamic condition, not a static one.

A bent shaft (deflecting) operating at 3,600 revolutions per minute (rpm) will deflect twice per one revolution, so it is actually bending 7,200 times per minute. This high-cycle deflection makes it difficult for the seal surfaces to stay in contact and maintain the fluid layer required for proper seal operation.

2. Oil Contamination

For ball bearings, more than 85 percent of bearing failures result from the ingress of contamination, either as dirt and foreign material or as water. Just 250 parts per million (ppm) of water will reduce bearing life by a factor of four.

Oil service life is critical. Operating a pump can be similar to operating a car continuously at 60 miles per hour. At 24 hours per day, seven days a week, it does not take long to put some miles on the odometer—1,440 miles per day, 10,080 miles per week, 524,160 miles per year.

For more information on lubrication issues, refer to my columns on lubrication in the April (read it here) and June (read it here) 2015 issues of Pumps & Systems.

3. Suction Pressure

Other key factors for bearing life are suction pressure, driver alignment and, to some degree, pipe strain.

For a single-stage horizontal overhung process pump such as an ANSI B 73.1 model, the resultant axial force on the rotor is toward the suction, so a counteracting suction pressure—to some degree and with limits—will actually reduce the axial force, which decreases the thrust bearing loads, contributing to longer life. For example, a standard S-frame ANSI pump with a suction pressure of 10 pounds per square inch gauge (psig) can typically expect a bearing life of six to seven years, but at a suction of 200 psig, the expected bearing life will improve to more than 50 years.

4. Driver Alignment

Misalignment of the pump and the driver overloads the radial bearings. Radial bearing life is an exponential factor when calculated with the amount of misalignment. For example, with a small misalignment of just 0.060 inches, end users can expect some sort of bearing or coupling issues at three to five months of operation; at 0.001 inches of misalignment, however, the same pump will likely operate for more than 90 months.

5. Pipe Strain

Pipe strain is caused by misalignment of the suction and/or discharge pipe to the pump flanges. Even in robust pump designs, the resultant pipe strain can easily transmit these potentially high forces to the bearings and their respective housing fits. The force (strain) causes the bearing fit to be out of round and/or incongruent with the other bearings so that the centerlines are in different planes.

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