What are the Characteristics of a Centrifugal Pump? Head, performance curve and affinity laws all contribute to the efficiency of centrifugal pumps.
by Sharon James, Rockwell Automation
September 1, 2012

Pumps are generally grouped into two broad categories—positive displacement pumps and dynamic (centrifugal) pumps. Positive displacement pumps use a mechanical means to vary the size of (or move) the fluid chamber to cause the fluid to flow. On the other hand, centrifugal pumps impart momentum to the fluid by rotating impellers that are immersed in the fluid. The momentum produces an increase in pressure or flow at the pump outlet.

Positive displacement pumps have a constant torque characteristic, whereas centrifugal pumps demonstrate variable torque characteristics. This article will discuss only centrifugal pumps.

A centrifugal pump converts driver energy to kinetic energy in a liquid by accelerating the fluid to the outer rim of an impeller. The amount of energy given to the liquid corresponds to the velocity at the edge or vane tip of the impeller. The faster the impeller revolves or the bigger the impeller, then the higher the velocity of the liquid at the vane tip and the greater the energy imparted to the liquid.

 Figure 1. Centrifugal Pump

Figure 1. Centrifugal Pump



Creating a resistance to the flow controls the kinetic energy of a liquid coming out of an impeller. The first resistance is created by the pump volute (casing), which catches the liquid and slows it down. When the liquid slows down in the pump casing, some of the kinetic energy is converted to pressure energy. It is the resistance to the pump’s flow that is read on a pressure gauge attached to the discharge line. A pump does not create pressure, it only creates flow. Pressure is a measurement of the resistance to flow.

static discharge head in a centrifugal pump

static discharge head

Figure 2. Representation of static discharge head, static suction lift and total static head


Head—Resistance to Flow

In Newtonian (true) fluids (non-viscous liquids, such as water or gasoline), the term head is the measurement of the kinetic energy that a centrifugal pump creates. Imagine a pipe shooting a jet of water straight into the air. The height that the water reaches is the head. Head measures the height of a liquid column, which the pump could create resulting from the kinetic energy the centrifugal pump gives to the liquid. The main reason for using head instead of pressure to measure a centrifugal pump’s energy is that the pressure from a pump will change if the specific gravity (weight) of the liquid changes, but the head will not change. End users can always describe a pump’s performance on any Newtonian fluid, whether it is heavy (sulfuric acid) or light (gasoline), by using head. Head is related to the velocity that the liquid gains when going through the pump.

All the forms of energy involved in a liquid flow system can be expressed in terms of feet of liquid. The total of these heads determines the total system head or the work that a pump must perform in the system. The different types of head—friction, velocity and pressure—are defined in this section.

Friction Head (hf)

Friction head is the head required to overcome the resistance to flow in the pipe and fittings. It depends on the size, condition and type of pipe; the number and type of pipe fittings; flow rate; and nature of the liquid.

Velocity Head (hv)

Velocity head is the energy of a liquid as a result of its motion at some velocity (V). It is the equivalent head in feet through which the water would have to fall to acquire the same velocity or, in other words, the head necessary to accelerate the water. Velocity head can be calculated using the following formula:

Velocity Head Formula for a Centrifugal Pump

g = 32.2 ft./sec.2
V = liquid velocity in ft./sec.

The velocity head is usually insignificant and can be ignored in most high-head systems. However, it can be a large factor and must be considered in low-head systems.

Pressure Head
Pressure head must be considered when a pumping system either begins from or empties into a tank that is under some pressure other than atmospheric. The pressure in such a tank must first be converted to feet of liquid. A vacuum in the suction tank or a positive pressure in the discharge tank must be added to the system head, whereas a positive pressure in the suction tank or vacuum in the discharge tank would be subtracted. The following is a formula for converting inches of mercury vacuum into feet of liquid:

Pressure Head

The different types of head are combined to make up the total system head at any particular flow rate. The descriptions in this section are of these combined or dynamic heads, as they apply to the centrifugal pump.