Cut Pump Speed to Cut Problems

Lower rpm can translate into higher reliability.

By Andrew Sloley, Contributing Editor

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Capital costs drive many — and too often penny-wise but pound-foolish — decisions. For instance, what costs most with centrifugal pumps: installation (capital), energy or maintenance? It’s commonly accepted that for most continuous services the largest financial impact comes from production losses due to pump failures. Such breakdowns have direct costs in maintenance. Pump failures, or the threat of them, force us to install standby pumps in critical services — increasing installation costs. Even with spared pumps, these breakdowns can reduce capacity. Pump failures, even for non-critical and hence non-spared services, always cost more than what was expected before-the-fact.

Dropping from 3,600 rpm to 1,800 rpm has solved nearly every NSS-related problem.

Pump failures generally come from three sources: mechanical problems within the pump, driver problems and hydraulic limits in the system. We need to work on all three areas to improve pump reliability. Suction recirculation is one factor that ties together mechanical limits and hydraulic requirements. Operation with suction recirculation damages the pump, increases failure rates and dramatically raises pumping system costs.

To check for suction-recirculation-based problems, first look at suction specific speed, NSS:

NSS = N Q0.5/NPSH0.75

where N is pump rpm, Q is flow rate in gpm and NPSH is net positive suction head in feet. At any given operating speed, evaluate NSS at the best efficiency point (BEP) capacity with the pump having its maximum diameter impeller.

A rule of thumb is that reliable operation requires using pumps with NSS under 8,500. As NSS increases, the reliable operating range of the pump usually decreases. "Usually" is the key word. Some low NSS pumps continue to have problems. Some high NSS pumps appear to operate with widely varying flow rates without problems.

Experience has shown two moves can improve reliability: running with lower rpm pumps and raising the NPSH available, NPSHA, at the pump suction. Reducing rpm increases the diameter of the pump needed or mandates more stages in a multiple-stage pump.

Boosting NPSHA at the pump suction usually requires elevating vessels higher above the pump. Both steps can be expensive. No clear guidelines detail the tradeoffs. One solution is to always operate close to the BEP by using pump recirculation (

Once a unit is built, often the only option to improve pump reliability is to replace the pump with a lower speed one. I've found that dropping from 3,600 rpm to 1,800 rpm has solved nearly every NSS-related problem I've encountered — only once have I've had to go down to 900 rpm. However, how do you evaluate what speed to use and what it'll be worth?

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