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.