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Pump Industry Secrets Lost in Time

Maintenance & Reliability

Pump Industry Secrets Lost in Time

My baby son called me the other day from the university. He’s 20 years old now, and he announced that he plans to fly to South America with some friends, trek thru the Andes, and take some exchange courses at the University of Chile in Santiago. He wanted to know how much his “Walking Wallet” would contribute to the pilgrimage.

I did something similar about 32 years ago. I went to Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan ruins on a mountaintop in Peru — I still remember that adventure. I bounced for four days in a bus with chickens and squealing piglets on a dirt highway. Ahh, the aroma! But worth it to see the ruins.

About 1,200 years ago, the Incas connected their empire with a system of roads and paths that stretched from the Equator almost to the South Pole. The Inca civilization had doctors who performed brain and eye surgery. They had natural medicines from the jungles for anesthesia and curing ailments. They had a postal system, public education, running water, laws, and government. The Incas practiced personal hygiene, preserved foods, and understood advanced astronomy and math. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in the 16th century, the Inca civilization was destroyed. Many of today’s Inca peasants have no idea of the civilization that once existed; the knowledge was lost.

It’s the same in the pump industry. The secrets and knowledge of fluid dynamics, dating to the beginning of recorded history, are lost or forgotten. For this reason, I’ve been compiling a library of cheat sheets that provide hints, rules, and generalizations that aid in understanding pumps and recovering the lost secrets of the ages.

Beginning now, and over the next few columns, we’ll review the information in these cheat sheets. I encourage you to use this opportunity to start your own cheat sheet file. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

Head & Pressure

Early in my career I worked in a steel mill. One day, my boss gave me a purchase chit, put me in a company truck, and told me to go into town and buy a pump for cooling water. He said to get a pump that develops 30 PSI.

At the pump shop, the clerk showed me a pump that develops 70-ft of head. I thought, “Who cares about 70-ft? I need 30 PSI.” I didn’t know the relationship between head and pressure. I’m not alone.

Pump industry people use the term “head”; maintenance people use the term “pressure”. What is head? What is pressure?

In simple terms, they are the same. The terms head and pressure are interchanged in conversations regarding pumps. But they are different, with different definitions.

Head is a measure of energy. The units of energy are expressed in feet or meters. The term pressure is a force applied to a unit of area, such as pounds per square inch [lbs/in² (or PSI)], or kilograms per square centimeter (kgs/cm²).

The term “head” goes back to the beginning of civilization. Ancient civil engineers built giant water troughs (aqueducts) to carry drinking water from mountain streams and lakes, down into the cities below. The water would spout forth at a public fountain. Housewives and servants would carry the water home.

The water’s flow was measured in barrels and jugs. The water’s force (pressure) was a function of gravity, the elevation differential from the source (the mountain lake) to the fountain (along with the water’s velocity and resistance losses).

This force was measured in units or lengths of elevation. Ancient engineers understood the hydraulic laws that govern today’s modern pumps. Early pump builders (the Archimedes Screw, the Egyptian Noria, the Persian waterwheel) adopted the term head to express the elevation and force of water. And 3,000 years later, today’s modern pump manufacturers rate their pumps in feet or meters of head.

The term head is the constant for the pump manufacturer. And because head is the measure of energy, a pump that generates 90-ft. of head can elevate any liquid to 90-ft. above the surface level of the liquid’s source. As long as I use the word head, it does not matter what the liquid is.

You see, a pump manufacturer will ship some pumps to a distributor. The distributor will sell the pumps to the end-user. The distributor might sell a specific model of a pump to a dairy, a fuel storage company, a paint manufacturer, a chemical plant, and a pharmaceutical company. The pump manufacturer doesn’t know the ultimate service of his pumps. He only knows that his pumps will develop 90-feet of head. His pumps will elevate chocolate milk, kerosene, red paint, acid, caustic soda, and cough syrup 90 feet. The pressures will be different for each liquid, but the heads will all be 90 feet.

For this reason, the engineer, operator, and mechanic must understand head to converse with the pump manufacturer, and to interpret pump and system curves. This is also the reason that too many pumps are sold without adequate gauges. Not understanding head, pressure, and pump curves is the reason too many pumps suffer mysterious vibrations, with rapid bearing and seal failure. We’ll bring head and pressure together in a future cheat sheet.

You now know what Archimedes and Pi (π) had figured out 3,000 years ago. Rip these pages, copy and share them, or store this edition of Flow Control in a safe place for future reference. This is your CHEAT SHEET of useful pump information.

Larry Bachus, founder of pump services firm Bachus Company Inc., is a regular contributor to Flow Control magazine. He is a pump consultant, lecturer, and inventor based in Nashville, Tenn. Mr. Bachus is a member of ASME and lectures in both English and Spanish. He can be reached at or 615 361-7295.

This article was originally published in the January 2014 issue of Flow Control magazine. For more details on upcoming Pump Guy Seminar trainings, click here.

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One response to “Pump Industry Secrets Lost in Time”

  1. Sirelkhatim Ibrahim Nugud says:

    can u explain further how the head will not be affected by changing the liquid handled, because the head and pressure are both dependent on the specific gravity of the liquid as shown by the equation:
    head= pressure* 2.31/

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