Waterjet Technology – High Pressure Line losses

By Dr. David A. Summers, Curators’ Professor at Missouri University of Science & Technology

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

High-pressure water jet pumps are, as a general rule, quite efficient at bringing water up to the pressure required for a given task. And yet, time after time, the jet that reaches the target is no longer capable of achieving the work that was promised when the system was designed. More often than not this drop in performance can be traced to the way that the water travels through the delivery system, and out of the nozzle that forms the jet.

The water flows that are used in a broad range of operations are quite low. Ten gallons a minute (gpm) and flows below that volume are mainly used in cutting operations and higher-pressure cleaning. Further, there are few occasions where hand-held operations will use flows much above 20 gpm, because of the thrust levels involved. And low flow rates mean that there is little pressure loss between the pump and the nozzle, right? UM! Well not exactly.

The pressure losses due to overcoming friction in the feed lines (whether hose or tubing) from the pump to the nozzle can make a significant difference in the operation of the system, as I mentioned in one of the early posts of this series. In that post I pointed out that a well-known research team (not us) spent two weeks running a system with 45,000 psi water pressure going into a feed line, but with only around 10,000 psi being usefully available when the flow reached the far end. (And I will freely confess later in this piece to having made a similar mistake myself). So the question naturally arises as to how these losses can be avoided.

In a word – diameter! The smaller the diameter of the feed line through which the water must flow, then the higher the pressure that is required to drive the water through that line, regardless of the nozzle size at the delivery end. The diameter of concern is, further, the inner diameter of the hose or tubing, not the outer diameter (though the combination is important in ensuring that the line can contain the pressure that the water is carrying through the line).

There are concerns over the condition of the line, the fittings that join the different parts together and other factors that I will cover in the posts following this one, but this will deal just with the simple pressure drop that occurs along a tube at different flow volumes. There are formulae that can be used, but a reasonable estimate of the loss can be obtained either with the design tables that most manufacturers supply with their product or through a simple nomogram that I will place at the end of this piece.

To begin with, consider the basic equations that govern the pressure drop:

The equation relating pressure drop to flow volume and pipe diameter

Figure 1. The equation relating pressure drop to flow volume and pipe diameter

Note that in the above equation, the pressure drop is related to the fifth power of the diameter of the tube – such is the power that even a small change in flow channel diameter will have on the pressure drop in the line.

When flow begins through a channel, it is initially going to occur with the flow being laminar, in other words the water moves in layers. (There is an interesting video of this here and a video of one of the designs used, for example, to give the “solid” jet slugs that you might see jumping around the hedges at one of the Amusement Parks.)

The difference between laminar and turbulent flow

Figure 2. The difference between laminar and turbulent flow

As water speed increases, however, the flow will transition from laminar flow into turbulent flow, where the roughness of the flow channel wall becomes more important. The roughness, resulting friction factor and the flow volume all then combine to allow the calculation of the pressure required to overcome the friction in the pipe. This holds true whether the flow is at the one or two gpm used in cutting at high pressure, or the relatively low pressure, high volume flows used in fighting fires.

But (outside of us academics) few actually calculate the numbers. There really is no need, since most of the manufacturers provide the information in their catalogs. There are two ways of presenting the information. The older convention was just to provide a graph, from which one could read off the pressure drop, as a function of the pipe internal diameter, and for a given pipe length.

Pressure drop along a tube, as a function of flow rate and tube internal diameter

Figure 3. Pressure drop along a tube, as a function of flow rate and tube internal diameter. Note that the scales are logarithmic.

Charts such as this are a little difficult to read, and being on a log plot small mistakes in reading the value can give significantly wrong estimates so that a more spread-out method is often more helpful. The one that I prefer to use is a nomogram, where it is possible to do comparisons between different options on a single figure with a slightly expanded scale.

Consider, for example, this nomogram from the Parker Catalog which shows the relationship between the volume flowing down through a line, the inner diameter through which it is flowing, and the resulting velocity of the flow.

A nomogram to determine the best pipe diameter, based on the allowable velocity of the flow

Figure 4. A nomogram to determine the best pipe diameter, based on the allowable velocity of the flow. (Parker)

While this is not generally a concern in feed lines to nozzles (because of the high levels of filtration of the water) in lines that carry away spent water and debris the velocity can be of concern, and also in abrasive slurry systems, where flow rates above 40 ft/sec can lead to erosion of the line.

The more useful nomogram, however, is one that I have adapted from the U.S. Bureau of Mines (a Government agencies that is now, sadly, defunct).

Nomogram to calculate pressure loss along a 10-ft length of tubing

Figure 5. Nomogram to calculate pressure loss along a 10-ft length of tubing

Knowing the flow rate through the line, and setting a straight-edge (usually a ruler) to mark the level, the ruler is then positioned so that it also crosses the inner diameter of the tubing. In the example above that would align the ruler along the line shown, that runs from 20 gpm to 0.1875 inch pipe diameter (3/16ths of an inch). The point at which the line crosses the pressure drop gives the friction loss in the line. In this case that reads at 3,600 psi per 10 ft of pipe.

The example was taken from a field trial where we were drilling holes into the side of a rock pillar. We had no problem drilling the first ten feet, but when we added a second length of 10-ft tubing to allow us to drill holes 20-ft deep the drill did not work. It was not until late in the afternoon that we realized that by adding that second length of pipe we had dropped the cutting pressure coming out of the nozzle so that while the gage pressure was 10,000 psi, the initial jet pressure had been only 6,400 psi and when the second pipe length was added, the pressure fell to 2,800 psi. This was below the pressure at which it was possible to effectively cut the rock. And so we learned!

Waterjet High Pressure Pumps – Pump pulsations

By Dr. David A. Summers, Curators’ Professor at Missouri University of Science & Technology

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog


High-pressure pumps generally draw water into a cylindrical cavity and then expel it with a reciprocating piston. There are a number of different ways in which the piston can be driven. It can be connected eccentrically to a rotating shaft, so that, as the shaft rotates, the piston is pushed in and out. The pistons can be moved by the rotation of an inclined plate, so that, as the plate rotates, so the pistons are displaced.

Basic Components of a Swash Plate Pump

Figure 1. Basic Components of a Swash Plate Pump (after Sugino et al, 9th International Waterjet Symposium, Sendai, Japan, 1988)

And, more commonly at higher pressures, the piston can be of a dual size, so that, as a lower pressure fluid on one side of the piston pushes forward, so a higher pressure fluid on the smaller end of the piston is driven into the outlet manifold, and out of the pump. This latter pump design has become commonly known as an Intensifier Pump. The simplified basis for its operation might be shown using the line drawing that was used earlier.

Simplified Sketch showing the operation of an intensifier

Figure 2. Simplified Sketch showing the operation of an intensifier

When the intensifier is built, the simplified beauty of its construction is more evident.

Partially sectioned 90,000 psi intensifier showing the components and the small end of the reciprocating piston

Figure 3. Partially sectioned 90,000 psi intensifier showing the components and the small end of the reciprocating piston (Courtesy of KMT Waterjet Systems)

However, what I would like to discuss today is what happens when the pistons in these cylinders reaches the ends of their stroke, and it is a little easier to use an Intensifier as a starting point for this discussion, although (as I will show) it also relates to the other designs of high-pressure pumps that also use pistons.

Consider if there was only one side to the piston, rather than it producing high pressure in both directions. This design is known as a single acting Intensifier, and it might, schematically, look like this:

Simplified schematic of a single-acting Intensifier

Figure 4. Simplified schematic of a single-acting Intensifier

As the piston starts to move from the right-hand side of the cylinder toward the left, driven by the pressure on the large side of the piston, it displaces water from the smaller diameter cylinder on the left. Assume that the area ratio is 20:1 and that the low-pressure fluid is entering at 5,000 psi, then, simplistically, the fluid in the high pressure pump chamber will be discharged at 100,000 psi. But not immediately!

The outlet valve has been set, so that it will not open until the fluid has reached the required discharge pressure, and this will require a small initial movement of the piston (perhaps around 12%) to compress the water and raise it to that pressure before the valve opens. And, with a single intensifier piston, when the piston has moved all the way to the left and the high pressure end is emptied of water, then there will be no more flow from that cylinder, until the piston has been pushed back to the far end of the cylinder, and the process is ready to start again.

Some of that problem of continuous flow is overcome when the single-acting intensifier is made dual-acting, because at the end of the stroke to the left, fluid has entered the chamber on the right, and when the piston starts its return journey the cylinder on the right will discharge high pressure fluid. But again not immediately!

One way of overcoming this is to use two single-acting pistons, but with a drive that is timed (phased) so that the second piston starts to move just before the first piston reaches the end of its stroke. This takes out the dead time during the directional change. The two can be compared:

Difference in the pulsation between a phased set of single acting intensifiers, and a double-acting unit

Figure 5. Difference in the pulsation between a phased set of single acting intensifiers, and a double-acting unit. (Singh et al 11th International Waterjet Conference, 1992)

In cutting operations, reducing the pulsation from the jet is often important in minimizing variations in cut quality and thus, to dampen the pulsations with a dual-acting system, a different approach is taken and a small accumulator is put into the delivery line, so that the fluid in that volume can help maintain the pressure during the time of transition.

Effect of Accumulator volume on pressure variations

Figure 6. Effect of Accumulator volume on pressure variations (Chalmers 7th American Waterjet Conference, Seattle 1993)

A simplified schematic can again be used to show where an accumulator might be placed.

Location of the Accumulator in the waterjet intensifier line

Figure 7. Location of the Accumulator in the waterjet intensifier line

On the other hand, in cleaning applications particularly with water and no abrasive, there are occasions (which I will get to later) where a pulsation might improve the operation of the system. A three piston pump, without an accumulator will see a variation in the pressure output that may see an instantaneous drop to 12% below average and then a rise to 6% above average during a cycle. One way of reducing this is to increase the number of pistons that are being driven in the pump.

When one changes, for example, from the three pistons (triplex) to five pistons (quintupled), then the variation in outlet pressure is significantly less.

The effect of changing number of pump pistons on the variation in delivery pressure

Figure 8. The effect of changing number of pump pistons on the variation in delivery pressure. (De Santis 3rd American Waterjet Conference, Pittsburgh, 1985)

Part of the reason that longer steadier pulses of water, which come from the slower stroke of the intensifier, can be of advantage is that the water is a jet and comes out of the nozzle at a speed that is controlled by the driving pressure. A strong change in pressure means that there is a change in the velocity of the water stream along the jet. This means that slower sections of the jet are, at greater standoff distances, caught up with by the following faster slugs of the jet. This makes the jet more unstable. That can, however, be an advantage in some cases, and this will be discussed at some later time, when a better foundation has been established to explain what the effects are.

Waterjetting Technology – Water Quality

By Dr. David A. Summers, Curators’ Professor at Missouri University of Science & Technology

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

One of the problems with taking a research team into the field is that you have to be able to provide answers and a path forward when things go wrong. So it was on a project we once had in Indiana, and it took about a year for me to live down the tale. We had set up a 350-hp high-pressure triplex for a project that involved washing explosives out of shells. Everything had been set up and was ready to go, and so we switched on the water to the pump, started the diesel engine and almost immediately noticed that we weren’t getting enough water downstream of the pump. What was the problem? We checked all the valves, couplings and hoses, and they all seemed to be OK. It was, however, a bitterly cold day with a howling wind around where we had the pump unit. And so I came up with the idea that it was the wind, chilling the pistons, which operated with their length exposed during part of the stroke. If the wind chill was cooling the pistons, then perhaps they weren’t displacing enough volume because they had shrunk. It became known as “The Wind Chill Factor” explanation and, as those of you who have done this sort of thing realize, it was bunkum! After a while, one of the team wandered back to the filter unit, pulled out the partially plugged filters, changed them to new ones and we were in business.

There are a couple of reasons that I tell this bit of history and they relate both to the quality, and the quantity of water that is being supplied at a site. I remember talking to Wally Walstad, who ran McCartney Manufacturing before it became KMT Waterjet Systems, about their second commercial installation and how the different water chemistry just a few hundred miles away had caused maintenance issues on the pumps that they had not expected.

Parts for a multi-piston high pressure pump

Figure 1. Parts for a multi-piston high pressure pump

It may seem obvious that a pump should be supplied with enough water so that it can work effectively. But the requirement, as one moves to higher-pressure pumps, becomes a little more rigorous than that. Consider that the water supplied must enter the piston and fill it completely during the time that the piston is pulling back within the cylinder. Because the piston is pulling back if the water flow into the cylinder is not moving in enough, then the piston will pull on the water. Water does not have any tensile strength, and so small bubbles of vacuum will form. When the piston then starts back to push the water out of the cylinder these bubbles, which are known as Cavitation, will collapse. In a later post I will tell you how to use cavitation to improve material removal rates. But the last place that you want it is in the high-pressure cylinder, since the bubble collapse causes very tiny high (around 1 million psi) micro-jets to form that will very rapidly eat out the cylinder walls, or chew up the end of the piston. (Happened to us once).

There is a Youtube video which shows the cavitation clouds forming in a pump (the white blotches) as the flow to the pump falls below that needed.

To avoid that happening there is a term called Net Positive Suction Head, NPSH. I am not going to go into the details of the calculations, though they are given in the citation. In most cases it is not necessary to make them (unless you are designing the pump). Where the unit being operated is a pressure washer, then the pressure that drives the water out of the tap and into the hose is usually sufficient to overcome any problems with the inlet pressure.

When flow rates run above 5 gpm, however, or when there is a relatively narrow fluid passage into the pump cylinders, or where the water reservoir is below the pump, then the normal system pressure may not be enough. There are two values for the NPSH which are critical – the NPSH-Required (NPSHR) and the NPSH-Available (NPSHA). Let me give a simple example of where one could get into trouble.

For example consider the change which occurs when a pump, normally rated at 400 rpm is driven at 500 rpm, for a 25% increase in output. At 400 rpm the NPSHR for a triplex pump supplied through a 1.25-inch diameter pipe from an open tank will be 8 psi. At 500 rpm, as the flow increases from 26.4 gpm to 33 gpm, the NPSHR rises to 9 psi, which is only a 12.5% change.

However, under the same conditions the NPSHA, which begins at 11.5 psi with a 26.4 gpm demand, falls to 7.8 psi at 33 gpm. When the required suction head is set against that available there was an initial surplus of 45% over that needed. But this changes to a shortfall of 12% when the pump is run at the higher speed. The pump will cavitate, inadequate flow will reach the nozzle to provide full pump performance and the equipment lifetime will be markedly reduced.

This supply pressure required should thus be checked with the manufacturer of the pump. In most cases where we have run pumps at 10,000 psi and higher, we have fed the water into the pump at the designated flow rate, but using a supply pump that ensures that the pressure on the inlet side of the pump valves is at least 60 psi.

One of the problems, as mentioned at the top of the piece, is that when going to a new site the immediate quality of the water is not known. There are two things that need to be done. The first of these, of particular importance at higher pressures, is to check the water chemistry. It is important to do this before going to the site since it usually takes some time to get the results, and if there are some chemicals in the water that may react with pump or system parts, it is good to know this ahead of time so that the threatened parts can be changed to something that won’t be damaged.

There is a specific problem that comes with cutting systems in this regard, since at 50,000 psi or higher, water quality becomes more important, even just in the nozzle passages. And I will deal with this in a few weeks when I talk about different nozzle designs.

And equally important is the cleanliness of the water. Particularly when tapping into a water line that hasn’t been used for a while (as we did), there is a certain amount of debris that can be carried down the line when it is first used. The smart thing to do is to run water through the line for a while to make sure that any of the debris is flushed out, before the system is connected up. The second is to ensure that there is more than one filter in the line between that supply and the pump.

Many years ago, when prices were much lower than they are today, Paddy Swan looked at the costs of increasingly dirty water on part costs. The costs are in dollars per hour for standard parts in a 10,000 psi system and the graph is from the 2nd Waterjet Conference held in Rolla in 1983.

costs for parts when increasingly dirty water is run through a pump

Figure 2. 1982 costs for parts when increasingly dirty water is run through a pump (S.P.D. Swan “Economic considerations in Water Jet Cleaning,” 2nd US Water Jet Conference, Rolla, MO 1983, pp 433 – 439.)

Oh, and the moral of the opening story became one of our sayings in the Center, not that we were original, William of Ockham first came up with it about seven hundred years ago. It’s known as Ockham’s Razor, and simply put it means that the simplest answer is most likely the right one, or don’t make things more complicated than they need be!