by Terry Henshaw, P.E.

Note from Terry Henshaw:

This is the first in a year‑long series of articles called Understanding NPSH. I have been intrigued by NPSH since my first significant exposure to pumps in the mid‑1950s. During the years, I have performed NPSH tests on centrifugal and reciprocating pumps, confronted numerous NPSH problems in the field and had numerous discussions on this intriguing and often confounding subject with engineers, technicians, operators and maintenance personnel. I have read numerous letters, articles and technical papers on NPSH. Some have been enlightening, some have been shallow and some have contained significant misinformation.

NPSH characteristics have been a major consideration in all the pumps that I have designed and a cornerstone of all the pump courses that I have taught.

The purpose of these articles is to draw together that available knowledge that is reasonable, logical and hopefully useful to those who select, apply, operate and/or troubleshoot pumps and dispel some of the numerous misconceptions about NPSH.


NPSH (or net positive suction head) is a subject of extreme importance in all pumping systems. It has been estimated that 80 percent of all pump problems are due to inadequate suction conditions, and most suction problems are related to NPSH. (Either the system does not provide as much as anticipated, or the pump requires more than anticipated.) It is therefore probable that most pump problems are NPSH problems.

The Extent of Our Knowledge Today

Early in the 20th century, all we knew about the limitation of pump inlet conditions was that there was a maximum lift that could exist on the suction side of a pump. We learned that the maximum lift varied with pump size, speed and capacity.

Through the last century, our understanding expanded to include the concepts of NPSH, suction specific speed, suction recirculation and minimum ­continuous capacity. We have also learned to recognize all the damage that can be done to a pump by inadequate inlet conditions.

Although our attention has been primarily focused on centrifugal pumps, our knowledge of the NPSH characteristics of rotary and reciprocating pumps has also increased.

Although our knowledge of NPSH (and related suction‑side phenomena) has increased significantly, there is still much we do not know about the subject. We still have a lot to learn.

What Happens When a Pump Cavitates?

If at any time, at any point, the static pressure on a liquid drops below vapor pressure, a portion of the liquid will boil-it will flash to a gas. This formation of gas bubbles is called cavitation. (Cavities form in the liquid.) Such gas formation, in a suction pipe or inside a pump, may cause a reduction in pump capacity and/or head. It may also cause damage to the pump. As liquid flows into any pump, there is a reduction in pressure. In a centrifugal pump, the liquid accelerates into the eye of the impeller, causing a reduction in pressure. The impeller vanes then slice into the liquid, creating zones of lower pressure. If a sufficient pressure margin, over vapor pressure, is not provided at the pump inlet, some of the liquid will flash at the leading edge of each vane.

With displacement pumps, the situation is similar. Because the pressure drops as the pumpage moves into the pumping chamber, suction pressure must exceed vapor pressure by some margin to prevent cavitation.

Even though the liquid is cavitating, we usually say that the pump is cavitating.

Figure 1 shows a horizontal, centerline‑mounted, API 610‑type centrifugal pump. The liquid end of the pump is to the left. The suction nozzle is also to the left. The impeller faces left. The "eye" of the impeller is that circular entrance to the impeller. Just to the right of the eye are the impeller vanes. It is at the leading edges of these vanes that cavitation will first appear.

Figure 2 is a vertical turbine, can‑type centrifugal pump. All impellers face downward. The first‑stage impeller is at the bottom. It is the first ­stage impeller that will cavitate if suction pressure is insufficient.