The flow area at the eye of the pump impeller is usually smaller than either the flow area of the
pump suction piping or the flow area through the impeller vanes. When the liquid being pumped
enters the eye of a centrifugal pump, the decrease in flow area results in an increase in flow
velocity accompanied by a decrease in pressure. The greater the pump flow rate, the greater the
pressure drop between the pump suction and the eye of the impeller. If the pressure drop is
large enough, or if the temperature is high enough, the pressure drop may be sufficient to cause
the liquid to flash to vapor when the local pressure falls below the saturation pressure for the
fluid being pumped. Any vapor bubbles formed by the pressure drop at the eye of the impeller
are swept along the impeller vanes by the flow of the fluid. When the bubbles enter a region
where local pressure is greater than saturation pressure farther out the impeller vane, the vapor
bubbles abruptly collapse. This process of the formation and subsequent collapse of vapor
bubbles in a pump is called cavitation.
Cavitation in a centrifugal pump has a significant effect on pump performance. Cavitation
degrades the performance of a pump, resulting in a fluctuating flow rate and discharge pressure.
Cavitation can also be destructive to pumps internal components. When a pump cavitates, vapor
bubbles form in the low pressure region directly behind the rotating impeller vanes. These vapor
bubbles then move toward the oncoming impeller vane, where they collapse and cause a physical
shock to the leading edge of the impeller vane. This physical shock creates small pits on the
leading edge of the impeller vane. Each individual pit is microscopic in size, but the cumulative
effect of millions of these pits formed over a period of hours or days can literally destroy a pump
impeller. Cavitation can also cause excessive pump vibration, which could damage pump
bearings, wearing rings, and seals.
A small number of centrifugal pumps are designed to operate under conditions where cavitation
is unavoidable. These pumps must be specially designed and maintained to withstand the small
amount of cavitation that occurs during their operation. Most centrifugal pumps are not designed
to withstand sustained cavitation.
Noise is one of the indications that a centrifugal pump is cavitating. A cavitating pump can
sound like a can of marbles being shaken. Other indications that can be observed from a remote
operating station are fluctuating discharge pressure, flow rate, and pump motor current.