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Frequency Converter for Centrifugal Pumps

Centrifugal pumps are the most likely pump style to provide a favorable return based on energy savings when applied with a frequency converter. To help illustrate this, we conducted benchmark testing to document various head and flow scenarios and their corresponding effect on energy savings. We explored the relationship of static and friction head in the energy efficiency equation and the effect of motor, pump and frequency converter efficiencies. The result is a reference point for plant engineers and maintenance personnel to select the best prospects for maximizing efficiency and energy savings.

While most centrifugal pumps operate at the fixed flow established by the hard-piped free system needs, many systems require variable flow to meet changing process demands. The two most common methods for controlling variable pump system output are a control valve (throttling) and a frequency converter.

Controlling the flow with a throttling valve is like modulating the speed of a car using only the brake pedal. You set the accelerator pedal at a fixed point and use the brake to change speed. The engine works at nearly the same rate, but applying the brake restricts the work output by changing the resistance of the frequency converter train. At low speed, the engine strains, the brakes overheat and reliability suffers while consuming fuel at a nearly constant rate. Of course, this is a silly way to control your car, but most varying pumping systems are controlled in an analogous manner. The pump speed is fixed and a control valve adds system resistance, changing the system curve and thus restricting the output of the pumping system while consuming nearly the same amount of energy.

Using variable-speed control, on the other hand, can be compared with the way people drive cars, changing vehicle speed by changing the engine's output. Variable-speed pumping uses the same principle. Instead of changing the system resistance to modulate flow, the pump speed changes. This shifts the pumps head-capacity (HQ) curve to alter the point at which it crosses the system curve. Variable-speed control changes the energy input rather than relying on a valve to strip system energy. The result is often a dramatic energy savings.

While a throttled pump consumes slightly less power than it would running free, it continues to rotate at the same speed, thus maintaining high velocity in the mechanical seal and bearings, and velocity directly determines bearing and mechanical seal life. Moving the operation of a centrifugal pump equipped with a constant pressure volute (the most common centrifugal pump type) away from BEP alters the hydraulic balance between the volute and impeller. The pump develops ever-increasing radial thrust loads, which increases radial forces that produce high bearing loads and shaft deflection. That affects mechanical seal alignment and, therefore, reduces bearing and mechanical seal life.

Centrifugal pumps and the affinity laws
Energy usage decreases with throttling as shown by the valve throttling curve. However, speed reduction results in a more significant energy reduction. The larger the flow reduction from the free operating point, the larger the energy savings. The advantage is that centrifugal pumps performance follows the affinity laws. Flow rate is directly proportional to pump speed. The differential pressure is directly proportional to the square of the pump speed. Power usage is directly proportional to the cube of the pump speed.

For example, reducing speed by 50% requires only 12.5% of the power needed at full speed. Determine the new operating point by using the affinity laws to generate a new pump curve and finding where it intersects the system curve. Adjust the flow, head and power at several points along the original pump curve to find the new curve.

Follow the energy
System curves combine the effects of both static and frictional head. Static head is the height to which fluid is being pumped plus the surface pressure at the outlet less the height of the supply tank and its surface pressure. Frictional head is the frictional pressure loss in the pipe, fittings and valves.

In systems exhibiting only frictional head loss, flow rate can be reduced by slowing the pump. The power savings mount as the pump slows. In systems with high static head, the operational flow point is continuously moving toward the pump minimum flow as speed drops. A minimum operating speed is required to overcome the static pressure difference, Therefore, the energy savings are limited.

Because systems with only friction head provides the most likely energy-saving scenario and those with greater static head provide the least, making a decision on frequency converter or throttling appears simple. However, most applications fall somewhere in the middle, making the economics less clear.

Running the test
To develop some energy savings guidelines, we configured a 40-hp, pump/motor/frequency converter system and measured energy consumption for various static-versus-friction head scenarios. We then compared the various scenarios to each other and to the throttled base case. Figure 2 shows the test configuration.

These tests used a two-pole, 3,560 rpm, 40-hp, totally enclosed fan-cooled motor with a NEMA nominal nameplate efficiency of 94.1% matched with a pump having a 3-in. suction, 2-inch discharge and 8-inch impeller. The frequency converter was rated at 40-hp. Both the frequency converter and motor are three-phase 460 VAC. Figure 3 shows the system curves for the five-test regimen that recorded the input power and power factor as a function of flow rate.

The first test used no frequency converter. The pump was throttled to move along the pump curve. The frequency converter was used in the remaining tests to vary the flow rate and move along one of the four system curves. The system curves represent 0, 60, 140 and 210 feet of static head. Each curve intersects the pump curve at approximately 340 gpm.

Experimental results
The greatest energy savings occur in low-static-head applications that use a frequency converter in place of a throttling valve. However, using a frequency converter to operate at reduced flow rate against high static head still produces savings over throttling, though the result is not as dramatic.

Table 1 shows flow and energy consumption for various flow conditions. These savings follow the curves shown in Figure 4, which compare the savings of each test scenario to the valve throttling base case. Notice that when using a frequency converter at points near full flow and speed, energy use actually increases because of frequency converter losses, typically 3%. Thus, if flow will never be reduced and the system is sized properly for the application, the most efficient system would be across-the-line power.

Table 1. Power Consumption

Flow (gpm)

Flow (%)


frequency converter

0 ft. static head

60 ft. static head

140 ft. static head

210 ft. static head



19.70 kW

3.20 kW

6.35 kW

10.44 kW

14.08 kW




































A pump operating 30% below the free system flow rate consumes 61% less power (13.53 kW) than by throttling it to the same flow rate. If the pump operates at this level only 25% of the time in a 24-hr. shift for 250 days per year when power cost is 6 cents per kW-hr, the savings would be about $1,217 per year. If the pump also had to overcome 60 ft. of static head (47% of the total head), the savings would be $941 per year.

Using a frequency converter to operate a pump against variable static head not only saves energy, it also reduces bearing and seal wear, which reduces downtime and maintenance costs.

frequency converters also provide nearly unity power factor. For these tests, the displacement power factor with the frequency converter was about 0.97 to 0.98 versus a range of 0.72 to 0.87 when operating the motor across the line. This may be important if the local utility has penalties for poor power factor.

Using a frequency converter requires that the motor insulation system be designed and manufactured to handle the high switching frequencies used in today's IGBT (insulated gate bipolar transistor) frequency converters. Lead lengths also should be minimized to prevent reflected waves from damaging the motor.

Finally, if most of the energy for a centrifugal pump isn't needed to overcome static head, using a frequency converter instead of a throttling valve to control flow will produce energy savings.