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Why the 4th pump alignment is important

This month, we review the reasoning for multiple pump alignments
and why there may actually be more required than you think!

At the factory… the motor is positioned on the base plate and checked for proper alignment to the pump. As soon as the unit (base/motor/pump) is loaded on the truck the alignment integrity is lost. Later the unit is moved from the truck or warehouse/staging area to the foundation, consequently any semblance of an acceptable alignment tolerance is placed in jeopardy.

Industry best practices (experienced engineers, millwrights, and rotating equipment experts) will tell you that a pump requires a minimum of at least four (4) alignment checks prior to startup/commissioning. There may be an additional 4 or 5 checks to be conducted in the full commissioning process for a possible total of nine (9).

Align the Pump 9 Times

When I tell people that they need to conduct 9 alignment checks in the process of pump commissioning, I receive a wide range of interesting comments…please first let me explain my statement.

One… the first alignment
As mentioned above; prior to shipment the pump is positioned on the base and centered within its bolt tolerance. The motor is then placed on the base and a “rough alignment” is conducted to ensure that a precision alignment is possible and can be successfully conducted later in the field.

There can be exceptions to this example, and it depends on the type and size of driver. The initial factory alignment may only cover the side-to-side adjustments and not the aspects of the vertical or angular offsets, as those will be addressed in the field. No matter how precise the alignment conducted at the factory and how carefully the equipment is transported … the alignment will change in the process.

Second alignment check
When the pump, motor and base are received at the site and initially set on the foundation the second alignment should be conducted to correct for changes in transit. It is critical that the second alignment be conducted prior to grouting or connecting the piping to the pump. Omitting this step is a common and expensive mistake.

Three… the third alignment
You may have thought you had the alignment completed before, but now that the base is grouted you will find that that the alignment has again moved out of specification.

The process of grouting the base will oftentimes warp or otherwise move the base and offset the alignment. During the grout curing process there is a large amount of heat and some expansion force involved that will potentially change the alignment.

Four… the fourth alignment
Now that the base is properly grouted and the driver is aligned to the pump, it is time to connect the piping to the pump. It is always better to “pipe away” from the pump and not from the system to the pump to avoid unwanted moments and forces. Done correctly, connecting the piping to the pump should not alter the alignment in any way. However, from my experience this is a common reason for the alignment to change out of specification and introduce unwanted stresses into the pump.


Alignment steps 5 thru 9 
Involve further preventative measures, double-checking and troubleshooting. If you are experiencing issues with alignment procedures and achieving acceptable results in the field, it could be from omitting key steps in the process.Still interested in correctly conducting alignments and commissioning procedures? Please review my articles on this subject for more information regarding the remaining steps by clicking the links below.


-Jim Elsey


Under Pressure – Part Two: Suction Pressure

Understanding your suction pressure and knowing how to read a vacuum is critical in identifying performance issues. In the field, instruments measure in units of PSI …whether gauge, absolute or vacuum. When diagnosing issues, PSI must be converted to head in order to calculate Total Dynamic Head (TDH).

Total Dynamic Head

Consider Total Dynamic Head as the amount of energy the pump converts from suction to discharge. This information is critical in identifying where the pump operates on the performance curve.

Suction Pressure

To illustrate reading vacuum or pressure on the suction side of the pump, we will examine both a flooded suction and a suction lift application. Each example will assume the same pump, the same liquid and the same operation speed. The differential pressure of the pump will be the same for each example.

Note: For simplicity, we will not convert pressure readings to head in these examples, but understand the conversion mentioned above must be done in order to calculate TDH. For a more in-depth explanation, see my full article on the topic.

Flooded Suction

In flooded suction, the liquid level is above the pump datum and has energy to provide to the pump. Meaning the pump does not need to convert this energy and will use this “given” energy elsewhere. In this case, a higher discharge pressure.

Suction Lift

In Suction Lift, the pump must generate a low enough pressure at the eye of the impeller to have the fluid pushed into the pump by atmospheric pressure. Energy is used to make this happen and results in less energy available for pressure at the discharge.

Notice the overall pressure readings are lower but the differential pressure (75 PSI) remains about the same in both flooded and suction lift applications (using the assumptions we made earlier).


Pressure gauges neglect velocity energy and read only one type of energy, which is pressure.Understanding your suction pressure and knowing how to read a vacuum is critical in calculating the pump’s TDH (Total Dynamic Head). Knowing the TDH can lead you to resolving several issues including operation cost, safety, pump life, inaccuracy or just nuisance issues.

-Jim Elsey


The Silent Pump Killer: Radial Thrust

Why do most centrifugal pumps fail?

If you ask maintenance and operations, they would say pumps fail due to mechanical seal and bearing issues, and in that order. And throw in the occasional broken shaft to make it more interesting.

The common denominator in most pump failures can be distilled down to shaft deflection caused by excessive radial thrust. Distilled again, the excessive thrust is almost always a direct result of operating the pump outside of the allowable operating region (AOR). Not commonly known or understood is that unbalanced suction loads (nonuniform approach) on the impeller, mismatched profiles (impeller to casing), rotor imbalance and incorrect clearances can also create excessive radial thrust. You may have a different pump failure experience at your facility.

The basic formula for calculating radial thrust in units of pounds per square inch

Regardless of the pump size or type, whenever you operate it, there are always dynamic forces to be managed that are collectively known as the “total dynamic load.” The total dynamic load is the summation of all the forces that manifest throughout the pump as either radial and/or axial loads. There are numerous forces acting at multiple angles and magnitudes relative to the shaft centerline that can be measured through the process of vector analysis. The resultant force that acts at a right angle (normal) to the shaft centerline is the radial force. This right angle force is also frequently called the lateral force.

The pump designer will address these forces by incorporating design features to reduce and/or eliminate the effects. And as with everything in machinery, computer software and real life, there are always compromises to be made. Usually the trade-off is for efficiency and/or reliability.

Radial thrust in a pump is a calculable value. The designer needs to know the value so the forces and subsequent stress levels can be determined. Knowledge of the actual stress levels and forces is required to properly size the shaft and bearings. To calculate the loads, you will need to know the developed head for the specific flow rate you are measuring, along with the liquid’s specific gravity (SG), a multiplier factor (K) and some key impeller dimensions. Note that the magnitude of the thrust will vary with the casing geometry, specific speed (Ns) and the pump’s location (operating point) on the performance curve (see formula). It is important to note that the width of the impeller, also known as the b2 dimension, is always a major factor; the wider the impeller, the higher the thrust. Note that in this case of computing radial thrust, the b2 dimension includes the thickness of the impeller shroud(s), where normally it would not be included.

The magnitude of the radial thrust can also be mitigated by manipulation of the casing/volute geometric design. Resultant shaft deflection caused by the radial thrust can be mitigated by shaft design features and prudent bearing placement.

Shaft Deflection

A perfectly straight pump shaft with no measurable runout that is under stress from radial force can actually bend while in operation, and then later with the pump at rest be again perfectly straight. Since the shaft is rotating and the resultant radial force is pushing on the shaft from only one “resultant direction,” it will cause the shaft to bend (deflect) two times per revolution. The deflections occur at 180 rotating degrees from each other. Consequently, a pump shaft operating at 3,550 rpm will bend (deflect) 7,100 times per minute. To emphasize my point, that would be 426,000 deflections per hour or 3,731,760,000 deflections in a year (yes, 3.7 billion).

Most pump shafts are designed for some degree/level of deflection and cyclic stress, but if your pumps keep breaking shafts, you should resist blaming the manufacturer and stop changing to stronger materials. You can manage reduction of the radial force by operational changes and/or casing and impeller design choices.

Note that if the impeller is out of balance, this will also cause the shaft to deflect. In this case, we refer to this deflection phenomenon specifically as “shaft whip.” Further, if the shaft has a bend in it or if the shaft is sleeved, and there is eccentricity between the two parts, this will also cause “shaft runout” issues.

It is both possible and probable to have all three of these issues occurring at once. That is, simultaneous “shaft whip” due to an unbalanced impeller, “shaft runout” due to a bent shaft, and “shaft deflection” caused by undue radial thrust can all occur at the same time. These are the killers of mechanical seals, bearings and shafts.

Comparison of radial forces for various casings

How Can I Mitigate Shaft Deflection?

The most important step you can take is to operate the pump in the allowable operating range. If you don’t know where that range is, ask the manufacturer. As a general guideline, 10% or less flow deviation either side of best efficiency point (BEP) is ideal, while 30% under and 15% over would be pushing the reliability factor to be less than satisfactory. Shaft deflection is at its lowest point when the pump is operated at or near its BEP. Operating at BEP is not always possible for many reasons, ranging from an incorrect system curve calculation, the initial pump selection being incorrect, or the system curve or operational requirements having changed since inception of the system design.

For overhung end suction pumps, investigate the pump shaft rigidity factor also known as the “L over D” ratio. Technically this is the L3/D4 ratio of the shaft, where D is the diameter of the shaft in the section between the radial bearing and the impeller centerline, and the L is the distance (length) from the radial bearing to the impeller centerline. It is not the intent of this column to expand on deriving or defining this ratio, but a few comments are necessary. The ratio is derived from the classic cantilevered beam deflection formulas used in basic mechanical engineering statics and dynamics courses. Because it is a ratio, there are no units. Think of this ratio like golf scores—that is, the lower the ratio the better. For the same pump size and model, a solid shaft (lower L over D ratio) would be a better choice than a sleeved shaft. This is not an option if you are operating a packed pump or using component-type seals. Most manufacturers of ANSI B73.1 pumps will, as an option, offer more robust shafts in the middle range of power frames.

Volute: A Critical Component

The pump volute earns its name due to the spiral shape casing surrounding the impeller. The volute is the often forgotten, but nevertheless still critical, component in the pump. Not all volute designs are the same. The volute acts as a collection and pressure containment vessel for the liquid exiting the impeller. The casing also conveniently directs the liquid to the discharge flange. The pump’s magic occurs during this process where the liquid’s velocity energy imparted by the impeller is converted to pressure energy in the volute. Note that the volute plays no part in the generation of the head as that is accomplished solely by the impeller.

From thermodynamics and the first law regarding conservation of energy: energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be altered/changed in form. We can discuss if it is Bernoulli’s equation or Euler’s formula, but let’s agree the velocity energy of the liquid is changed to pressure energy in the volute.

An ideal volute in operation would have a profile of constant velocity around its circumference and at flow rates near the pump design point (aka, BEP). The constant velocity also yields a pressure equilibrium around the volute. However, as the flow rate departs from BEP in either direction (more or less flow), the resulting pressure increases in magnitude and the radial force.

Single Volute

Almost all single-stage centrifugal pumps with nominal casing diameters at or below 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) will be of a single volute design. Different manufacturers may make this key decision at larger or smaller sizes.

Given a pump with a single volute design (one passageway and one cutwater or “tongue”), as you operate away from BEP in either direction, the resultant radial forces will increase exponentially. If you move toward shutoff (lower flows), the resultant force will manifest in one direction at a point 240 degrees from the cutwater. If you move farther out on the curve toward runout (more flow), the resultant force reverses its direction and will manifest at 180 degrees from that first point—that is at 60 degrees from the cutwater. You can use this information when inspecting for root causes of pump failure.

Dual Volute (aka, Twin Volute)

Once a pump casing increases in size to more than 12 inches in diameter (nominal), the dynamic radial forces need to be addressed by means other than simply larger shafts and bigger bearings (an oversimplification). This is accomplished by adding a second cutwater (tongue) and, hence, a second and separate passage, which also provides a separate stream of flow to the volute at 180 degrees from the first one. The addition of the second volute reduces the radial force significantly. The dual volute design is not perfect because the length of the channels (passages) from each cutwater edge to the pump discharge flange are, out of necessity, notably different lengths.


Centrifugal pumps with diffusers placed in the casing were fairly common years ago, especially on multiple-stage pumps. If you are not familiar with diffuser-style pumps, it is easy just to think of them as a higher number of volutes and cutwaters. It is not uncommon to have nine or 10 channels in a diffuser.

Diffusers will greatly reduce the level of radial thrust at almost all flow rates across the curve. There is a small trade-off to efficiency as the added number of diverting edges (cutwaters), along with the additional friction in the numerous channels, presents a parasitic load.

In the last 50 years, industrial markets have traded this reduction in radial forces, and consequently the reliability of diffuser pumps, for the lower initial cost of volute pumps. A diffuser pump will be more expensive for the otherwise same pump in a volute design because the diffusers are castings and difficult to manufacture.

In the present day, diffuser pumps are used in high-energy applications such as in power plant boiler feed and in multistage API 610 refinery and distillation services. Diffuser-style vanes are still frequently used in vertical turbine pump designs.

Special Casings

The single and double volutes share a geometry where the center of the volute is offset from the center of the impeller. Consequently, the corresponding flow path is the shape of a divergent nozzle. A volute starts as a small passage (annulus) and consistently increases in cross-sectional area until it reaches a maximum cross-sectional area at the discharge flange. This design makes for a more efficient pump, but it can result in high radial thrust loads when the flow rate departs from either side of BEP.

Sometimes you need a pump that can handle low flows, but maintain the high head for critical process reasons. For example, you may need 700 to 850 feet of head, but only a 50 gallons per minute (gpm) flow rate. This application would kill the same size pump in a standard volute design. Most manufacturers will offer pumps that have concentric volutes that make this high-head, low-flow condition possible without killing the pump, or as you now know it, death by radial thrust. The trade-off is reduced efficiency and higher noise levels. The advantage is reliability.

The concentric volute, also known as a nonexpanding volute, has its centerline congruent to the impeller centerline; consequently, the annulus (fluid passageway) around the impeller is consistent in its cross-sectional area. The impeller design will be different in that it will have radial vanes of high solidarity and a low specific speed.

If you are experiencing frequent pump problems and can’t figure out why, perhaps radial thrust may be the issue. Please first make sure the suction and discharge valves are open before you jump to conclusions.

-Jim Elsey


Under Pressure – Part One: Pressure vs. Vacuum

The concept of vacuum mystifies some people when encountered on pump applications. Today, we hope to simplify the problem.

Pressure vs. Vacuum

Even in a vacuum there remains some pressure… it is simply a pressure at a magnitude below the surrounding atmospheric pressure. Vacuum does not necessarily mean the absence of all pressure; vacuum can be any pressure between 0 PSIA and 14.7 PSIA.

As a refresher…we offer the following points:

  • Vacuum or vacuum pressure measurements are characterized as either absolute or relative (gauge).
  • Absolute pressure is measured from zero, which means a 100% or a perfect vacuum.
  • Relative pressure measurements are in reference to the atmospheric pressure. So if you see the word gauge or vacuum in the description it is being measured relative to atmosphere.
  • Absolute pressure = gauge pressure + atmospheric pressure.
  • Absolute pressure can be zero, but it can never be negative.
  • Absolute pressure at sea level is usually given as 14.7 PSIA.
  • Atmospheric pressure changes with elevation referenced to sea level and changes with barometric pressure (weather). If you are using gauge pressure to measure pressure or vacuum, you need to state the atmospheric pressure at the time of the measurement.

Units, Scales and Terms 

In the pump world we often encounter two descriptive terms, “absolute” and/or “vacuum” assigned to the measurement scale. Further, the measurements may either be in units of inches of Mercury (in-Hg) or pounds per square inch (PSI) in absolute pressure (PSIA) or gauge pressure (PSIG).

perfect vacuum, if measured in absolute terms is zero (0 inches Hg) but is 29.92 in-Hg V (-29.92 in-Hg G) if the measured units are deemed relative (vacuum or gauge).

Due to the differences in these two measurement methods you need to ask the equipment owner if the parameter measurement scale is absolute or relative? The methods are 100% opposite of each other and if not properly understood can lead to some big mistakes.


If we had a container at a theoretical perfect vacuum (that is, we have removed every molecule and its components from within the vessel) then we could state that vacuum condition as 0 (zero) pressure absolute or 0 PSIA.

However, if we were to measure our perfect vacuum in inches of Mercury Vacuum or inches Hg V the reading would be 29.92 inches Hg V not zero PSIA as in the first part of the example.

Need More?

Stay tuned for part two in next month’s 60 seconds with Summit Pump for more information.

-Jim Elsey


Why Is Your Pump Operating Off the Curve?

“Wishin’ and Hopin’”—both Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield had hit versions of this pop song in the early ’60s. The lyrical message is that you will not get want you want if you just sit around wishing and hoping; instead you need to take action to achieve the desired outcome.

The same advice holds true for pump performance. I witness an alarming number of people who unwittingly wish and hope their pump would perform in the proper manner, but they are wishing and hoping with total disregard of the system curve, pump capabilities, the laws of physics and the fluid properties. Time to take action.

I start my pump training courses with the simple personification that “pumps are stupid.” Put a centrifugal pump in any system, and it does not know where to operate. It is the system, not the pump, that dictates where the pump will operate on its performance curve—if the pump is even capable of operating at that point.

Further, and intended only as a comedic anecdote to help my students learn, I refer to the pump as the “husband” in this marriage with the system curve, aka the “wife.” Perhaps, and with ostensible apologies to the “PC Police,” I suggest that the marriage works best if the husband (pump) listens and obeys the wife (system). If there is a mismatch in the two, then divorce (pump and system failure) is imminent.

The pump will operate where its performance curve intersects the system curve, but we don’t always know where that point is—and just to complicate matters, it can change quickly because of many variables. Two roadblocks that make this determination difficult are:

  1. We frequently have no idea of the system curve geometry
  2. The pump is often forced off its published curve by outside factors

We will address the system curve calculation in a future article. For now, the system curve is the absolute summation of the system’s static head, pressure head, velocity head and friction head. The geometry of the system curve is directly related to the flow rate, pipe size, elevation changes and losses due to friction of all the components in the system. Note the system curve is dynamic and will change with tank elevation and system pressure changes. It will also change with valve position, system age, fouling and corrosion. This month’s article will address No. 2: How pumps can operate off their published curves, and we will look at a few common examples.

Causes for Operating Off Curve

Here are some of the common issues:

  • worn clearances
  • different or incorrect size impeller
  • different or incorrect speed
  • viscosity not corrected or accurate
  • net positive suction head (NPSH) margin insufficient
  • air entrainment and/or dual phase liquids beyond 3 percent
  • inadequate submergence (also see air entrainment)
  • partial or restricted blockage of the suction line
  • operating the pump in the wrong direction

First Things First

To determine where your pump is really operating, you will need to calculate the pump performance curve in the field “as is.”

First, obtain a copy of your pump performance curve as published or purchased. Then, using the pump’s discharge valve position, create a series of several different flow rates (recommend at least six points including shutoff head), determine and record the suction and discharge pressures for each flow condition, convert these pressures to differential head and plot them on your curve. Be careful to correct for gauge elevations, temperatures and specific gravities.

Does your curve match the published curve? If it does within 5 to 10 percent, then there is likely no problem.

Let’s look at a few cases where the curve does not agree with the published curve. Each case tells a critical story to help understand what is happening with your pump and the system.

Worn Clearances

As a pump wears, the hydraulic performance deteriorates. Most people understand the pump efficiency will drop due to wear, causing the power to increase, but not all users realize that the head and flow will also deteriorate.

Note the revised pump curve still intersects the system curve, but the meeting point is at a lower flow rate and a lower head. See my Pumps & Systems articles from January 2016 and July 2017 for more details on this subject (Image 1).

Image 1. Effect on pump performance with wear, speed, impeller size (Images courtesy of author)

It is important to understand if you are also plotting power on the curve: if the wear is simply the impeller or casing wear rings, the power will increase noticeably. But if the wear is in other areas such as internal passages, cutwater or the impeller vanes, the power will only increase a small amount.

A special note for ANSI pump designs that use the critical clearances between the impeller and the casing or stuffing box: the effect on power will be as the aforementioned pump with wear rings—that is, the power will increase noticeably.

Different Impeller Size or Speed

Often, one of the reasons for poor pump performance is that the wrong size impeller is in the pump. This could be caused by several different reasons, mostly human error. Another common reason is that the speed is different than perceived. This is common with systems that are controlled with variable frequency drives (VFDs) as part of the system control process. I mention both of these issues (speed and diameter) here because the performance manifests almost exactly the same as worn clearances.

See Image 1 to see the performance of smaller impellers or lower speeds.

Viscosity—the Kryptonite of Centrifugal Pumps

Viscosity has a direct and negative effect on centrifugal pump performance. The pump efficiency is affected the most, but head and flow are not far behind. Of course, all of these negative factors will contribute to increase the power required to pump the fluid at the same flow rate and head as if based on water performance.

Note that viscosity is directly proportional to temperature, so be cognizant of the fluid temperature. Also, smaller pumps are more affected by viscosity due to the smaller passage size.

See Image 2 for how viscosity will affect the pump performance, and also refer to my article on this subject from the November 2017 issue.

Image 2. Performance effect with increased viscosity

Insufficient NPSH Margin

Pumps require a certain amount of NPSH to operate satisfactorily at a given point of head and flow on the curve to prevent cavitation. The points are empirically determined by the manufacturer and are denoted as net positive suction head required (NPSHr).

The suction system itself must in return provide a certain amount of NPSH, and that is referred to as net positive suction head available (NPSHa). There must be more NPSHa than NPSHr for the pump to operate satisfactorily. The difference is referred to as the margin or ratio.

NPSHa ÷ NPSHr = margin ratio
NPSHa – NPSHr = margin
Equation 1

Refer to Hydraulic Institute 9.6.1-2017 for details.

A frequent field issue is that the margin calculations were not done, not done correctly or there were changes in the pump and/or system that have not been accounted for. A common issue in the field is that the pump has sufficient margin at lower flows, but as the flow rate increases the pump will begin to cavitate. See Image 3 to see how insufficient NPSH margins affects pump performance.

Image 3. Insufficient NPSH—pump will cavitate at higher flow rates (compare to Image 5 restricted flow)

Inadequate Submergence & Air Entrainment

The pumped fluid could have air entrainment from different sources for many reasons, but a common cause is insufficient submergence.

No matter the source of the air, standard centrifugal pumps cannot handle it well. At about 3 to 4 percent air entrainment, the pump performance will drop off as if the impeller was trimmed to a smaller diameter or the pump is being operated at a lower speed.

Please refer to my April 2016 and December 2017 articles for details on air entrainment and pump performance.

Also note that at low flow rates the fluid velocity is insufficient to “sweep away” the air that collects in the impeller eye. Consequently, the pump will become blocked (air bound) and will stop pumping or it will surge in a destructive and alternating cycle of air blockage and subsequent flow passage.

See Image 4 to see how air entrainment de-rates the pump performance.

Image 4. Effect on pump performance with increased air entrainment

Restricted Pump Suction

This issue typically manifests on new construction, post repair startups and when there is equipment installed in the suction line like a filter press, foot valve or strainer. As flow increases the head will drop off. This is similar, but different, than an NPSH margin issue.

See Image 5 to see how a suction restriction affects the pump curve.

Image 5. (left to right). Effects of suction line restriction. Actual performance will vary with the magnitude of the restriction.

Wrong Direction

I have written about pumps operating in the wrong direction many times because it is unfortunately an all too common issue. In the case of ANSI pumps (with impellers that thread on the shaft), the pump will, 99 percent of the time, pronounce in a millisecond that the direction is incorrect as the impeller grinds into the casing creating expensive and extensive damage and yet hopefully tripping out the motor.

For pumps that have impellers keyed to the shaft it may or may not be obvious. Pumps running backwards will typically be a little noisier and exhibit higher vibrations than a similar pump operating in the correct direction. But this is not always easy to determine in an operating plant due to background noises and other field interference.

Performance will depend on the pump design and is mostly, but not always, a function of the impellers’ specific speed. As a general rule, the flow rate in a reverse operating pump will be about 50 percent, and the head will be somewhere near 60 percent. The higher the impeller specific speed, the lower the head will be. Concentric casing designs will yield different results.

Please see Image 6 to see how reverse rotation may affect pump performance.

Image 6. Effects of running the pump in the wrong direction. Assumes low- to mid-range specific speed. Do not confuse with pumps running as turbines.


Pumps will operate where the system curve dictates, but the pump curve is not always where you think it is and neither is the system curve. You will not get the performance you need and want by just wishing and hoping—you need to measure the parameters and manage the system.

-Jim Elsey