You are on page 1of 2



at or near shut-off head conditions. Operating in this region is very unstable for a
number of reasons, including potential
temperature rise of fluid, unstable operations or flow recirculation within the impeller.

Variable Speed
Pumping: How low
can you go?
Steve Tredinnick, PE, Infrastructure Project Engineer/Manager, Affiliated Engineers Inc.

Editors Note: Inside Insights is a column

designed to address ongoing issues of interest
to building owners, managers and operating
engineers who use district energy services.

oday, with the higher cost of electricity, an increasing number of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning
systems are using variable speed-driven
equipment to save energy and optimize
the system performance. For years engineers
and designers have provided a minimum
flow to protect the pumping system. One
may ask, Protect the system from what?
and How low can you go? To answer
these questions, we have to analyze all the
components pump, motor and variable
frequency drive (VFD).
Since pumps, motors and VFDs are
not 100 percent efficient, these inefficiencies
are usually radiated as heat to the surroundings. Excessive heat will lead to component
damage and premature failure. So, just like
my beer, keeping it cool is the secret to
success! Hence, VFDs and motors have
integral cooling fans to remove this heat.
In the case of the motors, the fan is attached
directly to the drive shaft that forces air
over the windings to cool them. VFDs also
have internal fans that take room air and
circulate through the cabinet. The fans also
add to the drive inefficiencies. As long as
the room air is clean and tempered (below
104 degrees F), there should be no issue

District Energy

with turning down the VFD to zero. So

whats the big deal then? As VFD and pump
vendors will tell you, the limitation is not
with the VFD, but rather, the culprits are
the motor and pump.

Motor Limitations
Most standard motors are capable of
providing full torque output from 3 to 60 Hz;
however, at lower speeds, where the integral
motor cooling fans become less effective,
supplemental cooling may be needed to
operate at full torque output continuously.
Therefore, VFD manufacturers recommend
a minimum speed of 30 percent of their
rated speed (18 Hz) for standard motors
controlled by VFDs, to prevent motor overheating due to inadequate air flow. If lower
speeds are required, then the motor manufacturer should be consulted for recommendations. Inverter duty motors can
operate below 20 percent (12 Hz) of rated
speed without problems in a variable load
application, since they usually incorporate
special cooling provisions and use a higherclass insulation.

Pump Limitations
As mechanical devices, it appears that
pumps are the most unforgiving component
in the system. In high-static head applications
(such as large building or district energy
heating and cooling pumps), a pump with
a VFD can slow down such that it operates

Fluid Temperature Rise

At low flow conditions, the inefficiency
of the pump (the difference between the
brake horsepower consumed and the water
horsepower developed) transmits heat to
the fluid creating a potential for overheating
the water. Overheating the water can cause
bearing failure as well as excessive radial
thrust loads and shaft deflection, since the
heat is conducted to all components. Therefore, the Hydraulic Institute recommends
limiting the temperature rise of the fluid
flowing through the pump to 15 F. This is
especially true for pumping higher-temperature water systems. Equation 1 quantifies
this flow rate:
Equation 1: Q = P / (2.95 x Cp x S)
Q = minimum flow rate for a 15 F
temperature rise
P = Input power at minimum flow rate
(HP). [Assume that shut-off HP is
equivalent to minimum flow rate HP]
2.95 = constant [(HP-lb-min-F)/(Btu-gal)]
Cp = specific heat of fluid [(Btu/(lb -F)]
[1 for water]
S = specific gravity of fluid [1 for water]
Unstable Operation
If the pump selected does not have a
flat curve characteristic, then there could
possibly be multiple operating points for
reduced flows at the same pump head. This
not only creates hunting by the control system but also translates to unstable operation resulting in excessive shaft deflection
and vibration due to unbalanced radial
thrust and rotating element instability.
Recirculation Within Pump Casing
Low flow conditions also may create
reduced pressure in the pump vortex. When
the pressure drops below the liquids vapor
pressure, cavitation will occur, damaging
the pump impeller and therefore its performance. These scenarios become more
evident as suction pressures increase beyond
the net positive suction head required
(NPSHR) by the pump.

It is interesting to note that there are

no published industry standards that establish precise limits for minimum flow in
pumps, but ANSI/HI 9.6.3-1997 Centrifugal
and Vertical Pumps Allowable Operating
Region presents all of the factors involved
and provides recommendations for the
preferred operating region. As a rule of
thumb, the Hydraulic Institute and pump
manufacturers typically recommend a minimum flow rate of the 20 percent best
efficiency point (BEP) flow rate, which corresponds to the VFD manufacturers suggested minimum as well. However, some
pump manufacturers recommend 25 percent
of BEP flow rate, so the designer must
confirm this value.
Figure 1 illustrates the BEP as the point
on a pump's performance curve that corresponds to the highest efficiency at a given
flow rate and pump head. Pump operating
conditions selected within the identified BEP
area ensures that the impeller is subjected
to minimum radial forces promoting smooth
operation with low vibration and noise.
Figure 1 also indicates the NPSHR curve a
good graphic indicator of the suggested
pump operating range. The designer should
not select a pump to operate to the left or
right of this curve without consulting the

Methods of Providing
Minimum Flow
There are several proven methods for
providing minimum flow for variable flow
water systems:
(1) Locate a constant flow (continuous
bypass) using orifice or balancing valve/
constant flow control valve across the pump.
(2) Locate three-way control valve(s) within
the piping network.

Figure 1. Best Efficiency Point and Optimum Pump Selection. Figure illustrates a typical pump curve
with the optimum selection area indicated with best efficiency points.



76% 78%

Design Point (to the left of

capacity range midpoint)


Approx. BEP


System Curve

Source: Steve Tredinnick.

Pump Minimum Flow Criteria




NPSH Curve






(3) Locate two-way valve across pump that

is energized at low flow from signal from
the VFD controller.
Of the above three options, only the
last one is preferred because it is the most
efficient since it does not bypass water
from the supply to the return until low
flow conditions are met. The third option
also is the most complex and expensive to
install, however, so there are trade-offs.
The other two methods constantly dilute
the return-water temperature with supply
water, which detrimentally effects system
efficiency and Delta T.
So instead of playing a game of limbo
with your pumping network, guessing
how low you can go, use the knowledge
obtained from VFD and pump vendors to
stay within 20 percent to 25 percent of
your BEP flow and stay below the bar.
The author acknowledges the following reference sources: Kenneth R. Luther,
ITT Fluid Handling, Applying Variable







Volume Pumping, Pumps and Systems

Magazine, March 1999; Ed H. Edwards,
HBE Engineering, Ensure Minimum Flow
for Centrifugal Pumps, Pumps and
Systems, March 2003.

Steve Tredinnick, PE, is a

project engineer/manager
for Affiliated Engineers in
Madison, Wis., with more
than 20 years experience
related to building HVAC
systems. The past 10 years of
his work have been focused
on district energy systems. Tredinnick is a
graduate of Pennsylvania State University with
a degree in architectural engineering. He is a
member of IDEA and ASHRAE and is currently
chair of ASHRAE TC 6.2 District Energy.
Tredinnick may be reached at stredinnick@
Column also available at

District Energy magazine available by subscription!

All IDEA members receive District Energy magazine. But even if youre already getting the magazine, you
can order subscriptions for others employees, customers, potential customers, board members, the
public library, your city and state contacts and more!
Order today to let more people know more about this healthy and growing industry.
Download an order form from or contact Dina Gadon at
IDEA (508) 366-9339.

Third Quarter 2006