Hydraulic pumps and pressure regulation

A hydraulic pump (Figure 2.1) takes oil from a tank and delivers it to the rest of the hydraulic circuit. In doing so it raises oil pressure to the required level. The operation of such a pump is illustrated in Figure 2.1a. On hydraulic circuit diagrams a pump is represented by the symbol of Figure 2.1b, with the arrowhead showing the direction of flow.

Hydraulic pumps are generally driven at constant speed by a three phase AC induction motor rotating at 1500 rpm in the UK (with a 50 Hz supply) and at 1200 or 1800 rpm in the USA (with a 60 Hz supply). Often pump and motor are supplied as one combined unit. As an AC motor requires some form of starter, the complete arrangement illustrated in Figure 2. 1 c is needed.

There are two types of pump (for fluids) or compressor (for gases) illustrated in Figure 2.2. Typical of the first type is the centrifugal pump of Figure 2.2a. Fluid is drawn into the axis of the pump, and flung out to the periphery by centrifugal force. Flow of fluid into the load maintains pressure at the pump exit. Should the pump stop, however, there is a direct route from outlet back to inlet and the pressure rapidly decays away. Fluid leakage will also occur past the vanes, so pump delivery will vary according to outlet pressure. Devices such as that shown in Figure 2.2a are known as hydrodynamic pumps, and are primarily used to shift fluid from one location to another at relatively low pressures. Water pumps are a typical application.


Figure 2.2b shows a simple piston pump called a positive displacement or hydrostatic pump. As the piston is driven down, the inlet valve opens and a volume of fluid (determined by the cross section area of the piston and the length of stroke) is drawn into the cylinder. Next, the piston is driven up with the inlet valve closed and the outlet valve open, driving the same volume of fluid to the pump outlet.


Should the pump stop, one of the two valves will always be closed, so there is no route for fluid to leak back. Exit pressure is therefore maintained (assuming there are no downstream return routes).

More important, though, is the fact that the pump delivers a fixed volume of fluid from inlet to outlet each cycle regardless of pressure at the outlet port. Unlike the hydrodynamic pump described earlier, a piston pump has no inherent maximum pressure determined by pump leakage: if it drives into a dead end load with no return route (as can easily occur in an inactive hydraulic system with all valves closed) the pressure rises continuously with each pump stroke until either piping or the pump itself fails.

Hydraulic pumps are invariably hydrostatic and, consequently, require some method of controlling system pressure to avoid catastrophic pipe or pump failure. This topic is discussed further in a later section.

A hydraulic pump is specified by the flow rate it delivers (usually given in litres min -1 or gallons min -1) and the maximum pressure the pump can withstand. These are normally called the pump capacity (or delivery rate) and the pressure rating.

Pump data sheets specify required drive speed (usually 1200, 1500 or 1800 rpm corresponding to the speed of a three phase induction motor). Pump capacity is directly related to drive speed; at a lower than specified speed, pump capacity is reduced and pump efficiency falls as fluid leakage (called slippage) increases. Pump capacity cannot, on the other hand, be expected to increase by increasing drive speed, as effects such as centrifugal forces, frictional forces and fluid cavitation will drastically reduce service life.

Like any mechanical device, pumps are not 100% efficient. The efficiency of a pump may be specified in two ways. First, volumetric efficiency relates actual volume delivered to the theoretical maximum volume. The simple piston pump of Figure 2.2b, for example, has a theoretical volume of A x s delivered per stroke, but in practice the small overlap when both inlet and outlet valves are closed will reduce the volume slightly.

Second, efficiency may be specified in terms of output hydraulic power and input mechanical (at the drive shaft) or electrical (at the motor terminals) power.

Typical efficiencies for pumps range from around 90% (for cheap gear pumps) to about 98% for high quality piston pumps. An allowance for pump efficiency needs to be made when specifying pump capacity or choosing a suitable drive motor.

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