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Engineering Essentials: Fundamentals of Hydraulic Pumps
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Engineering Essentials: Fundamentals of Hydraulic Pumps
When a hydraulic pump operates, it performs two functions. First, its mechanical action creates a vacuum at the pump inlet which allows atmospheric pressure to force liquid from the reservoir into the inlet line to the pump. Second, its mechanical action delivers this liquid to the pump outlet and forces it into the hydraulic system.

A pump produces liquid movement or flow: it does not generate pressure. It produces the flow necessary for the development of pressure which is a function of resistance to fluid flow in the system. For example, the pressure of the fluid at the pump outlet is zero for a pump not connected to a system (load). Further, for a pump delivering into a system, the pressure will rise only to the level necessary to overcome the resistance of the load.

Classification of pumps
All pumps may be classified as either positive-displacement or non-positive-displacement. Most pumps used in hydraulic systems are positive-displacement.

A non-positive-displacement pump produces a continuous flow. However, because it does not provide a positive internal seal against slippage, its output varies considerably as pressure varies. Centrifugal and propeller pumps are examples of non-positive-displacement pumps.

If the output port of a non-positive-displacement pump were blocked off, the pressure would rise, and output would decrease to zero. Although the pumping element would continue moving, flow would stop because of slippage inside the pump.

In a positive-displacement pump, slippage is negligible compared to the pump's volumetric output flow. If the output port were plugged, pressure would increase instantaneously to the point that the pump's pumping element or its case would fail (probably explode, if the drive shaft did not break first), or the pump's prime mover would stall.

Positive-displacement principle
A positive-displacement pump is one that displaces (delivers) the same amount of liquid for each rotating cycle of the pumping element. Constant delivery during each cycle is possible because of the close-tolerance fit between the pumping element and the pump case. That is, the amount of liquid that slips past the pumping element in a positive-displacement pump is minimal and negligible compared to the theoretical maximum possible delivery. The delivery per cycle remains almost constant, regardless of changes in pressure against which the pump is working. Note that if fluid slippage is substantial, the harvester hydraulic pump is not operating properly and should be repaired or replaced.

Positive-displacement pumps can be of either fixed or variable displacement. The output of a fixed displacement pump remains constant during each pumping cycle and at a given pump speed. The output of a variable displacement pump can be changed by altering the geometry of the displacement chamber.

Other names to describe these pumps are hydrostatic for positive-displacement and hydrodynamic pumps for non-positive-displacement. Hydrostatic means that the pump converts mechanical energy to hydraulic energy with comparatively small quantity and velocity of liquid. In a hydrodynamic pump, liquid velocity and movement are large; output pressure actually depends on the velocity at which the liquid is made to flow.

Reciprocating pumps
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Figure 1. Reciprocating pump.

The positive-displacement principle is well illustrated in the reciprocating-type pump, the most elementary positive-displacement gear pump, Figure 1. As the piston extends, the partial vacuum created in the pump chamber draws liquid from the reservoir through the inlet check valve into the chamber. The partial vacuum helps seat firmly the outlet check valve. The volume of liquid drawn into the chamber is known because of the geometry of the pump case, in this example, a cylinder.

As the piston retracts, the inlet check valve reseats, closing the valve, and the force of the piston unseats the outlet check valve, forcing liquid out of the pump and into the system. The same amount of liquid is forced out of the pump during each reciprocating cycle.


All positive-displacement pumps deliver the same volume of liquid each cycle (regardless of whether they are reciprocating or rotating). It is a physical characteristic of the pump and does not depend on driving speed. However, the faster a pump is driven, the more total volume of liquid it will deliver.

Rotary pumps
In a rotary-type pump, rotary motion carries the liquid from the pump inlet to the pump outlet. Rotary pumps are usually classified according to the type of element that transmits the liquid, so that we speak of a gear-, lobe-, vane-, or piston-type rotary pump.

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Figure 2. Spur gear pump.

External-gear pumps can be divided into external and internal-gear types. A typical external-gear pump is shown in Figure 2. These pumps come with a straight spur, helical, or herringbone gears. Straight spur gears are easiest to cut and are the most widely used. Helical and herringbone gears run more quietly, but cost more.


A gear pump produces flow by carrying fluid in between the teeth of two meshing gears. One gear is driven by the drive shaft and turns the idler gear. The chambers formed between adjacent gear teeth are enclosed by the pump housing and side plates (also called wear or pressure plates).

A partial vacuum is created at the pump inlet as the gear teeth unmesh. Fluid flows in to fill the space and is carried around the outside of the gears. As the teeth mesh again at the outlet end, the fluid is forced out.

Volumetric efficiencies of gear pumps run as high as 93% under optimum conditions. Running clearances between gear faces, gear tooth crests and the housing create an almost constant loss in any pumped volume at a fixed pressure. This means that volumetric efficiency at low speeds and flows is poor, so that gear pumps should be run close to their maximum rated speeds.

Although the loss through the running clearances, or "slip," increases with pressure, this loss is nearly constant as speed and output change. For one pump the loss increases by about 1.5 gpm from zero to 2,000 psi regardless of speed. Change in slip with pressure change has little effect on performance when operated at higher speeds and outputs. External-gear pumps are comparatively immune to contaminants in the oil, which will increase wear rates and lower efficiency, but sudden seizure and failure are not likely to occur.


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Figure 3. Lobe pump.

The lobe pump is a rotary, external-gear pump, Figure 3. It differs from the conventional external-gear pump in the way the "gears" are driven. In a gear pump, one gear drive the other; in a lobe pump, both lobes are driven through suitable drives gears outside of the pump casing chamber.

A screw pump is an axial-flow gear pump, similar in operation to a rotary screw compressor. Three types of screw pumps are the single-screw, two-screw, and three-screw. In the single-screw pump, a spiraled rotor rotates eccentrically in an internal stator. The two-screw pump consists of two parallel intermeshing rotors rotating in a housing machined to close tolerances. The three-screw pump consists of a central-drive rotor with two meshing idler rotors; the rotors turn inside of a housing machined to close tolerances.

Flow through a screw pump is axial and in the direction of the power rotor. The inlet hydraulic fluid that surrounds the rotors is trapped as the rotors rotate. This fluid is pushed uniformly with the rotation of the rotors along the axis and is forced out the other end.

The fluid delivered by a screw pump does not rotate, but moves linearly. The rotors work like endless pistons, which continuously move forward. There are no pulsations even at higher speed. The absence of pulsations and the fact that there is no metal-to-metal contact results in very quiet operation.

Larger pumps are used as low-pressure, large-volume prefill pumps on large presses. Other applications include hydraulic systems on submarines and other uses where noise must be controlled.

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Figure 4. Internal-gear pumps - gerotor and crescent.

Internal-gear pumps, Figure 4, have an internal gear and an external gear. Because these pumps have one or two less teeth in the inner gear than the outer, relative speeds of the inner and outer gears in these designs are low. For example, if the number of teeth in the inner and outer gears were 10 and 11 respectively, the inner gear would turn 11 revolutions, while the outer would turn 10. This low relative speed means a low wear rate. These pumps are small, compact units.

The crescent seal internal-gear pump consists of an inner and outer gear separated by a crescent-shaped seal. The two gears rotate in the same direction, with the inner gear rotating faster than the outer. The hydraulic oil is drawn into the pump at the point where the gear teeth begin to separate and is carried to the outlet in the space between the crescent and the teeth of both tears. The contact point of the gear teeth forms a seal, as does the small tip clearance at the crescent. Although in the past this pump was generally used for low outputs, with pressures below 1,000 psi, a 2-stage, 4,000-psi model has recently become available.

The gerotor internal-gear pump consists of a pair of gears which are always in sliding contact. The internal gear has one more tooth than the gerotor gear. Both gears rotate in the same direction. Oil is drawn into the chamber where the teeth are separating, and is ejected when the teeth start to mesh again. The seal is provided by the sliding contact.

Generally, the internal-gear pump with toothcrest pressure sealing has higher volumetric efficiency at low speeds than the crescent type. Volumetric and overall efficiencies of these pumps are in the same general range as those of external-gear pumps. However, their sensitivity to dirt is somewhat higher.

In vane pumps, a number of vanes slide in slots in a rotor which rotates in a housing or ring. The housing may be eccentric with the center of the rotor, or its shape may be oval, Figure 5. In some designs, centrifugal force holds the vanes in contact with the housing, while the vanes are forced in and out of the slots by the eccentricity of the housing. In one vane pump, light springs hold the vanes against the housing; in another pump design, pressurized pins urge the vanes outward.

During rotation, as the space or chamber enclosed by vanes, rotor, and housing increases, a vacuum is created, and atmospheric pressure forces oil into this space, which is the inlet side of the pump. As the space or volume enclosed reduces, the liquid is forced out through the discharge ports.

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Figure 6. Balanced vane pump.

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Figure 7. Variable-displacement, pressure-compensated vane pump.

Balanced and unbalanced vane pumps — The pump illustrated in Figure 5 is unbalanced, because all of the pumping action occurs in the chambers on one side of the rotor and shaft. This design imposes a side load on the rotor and drive shaft. This type vane pump has a circular inner casing. Unbalanced vane pumps can have fixed or variable displacements. Some vane pumps provide a balanced construction in which an elliptical casing forms two separate pumping areas on opposite sides of the rotor, so that the side loads cancel out, Figure 6. Balanced vane pumps come only in fixed displacement designs.

In a variable-volume unbalanced design, Figure 7, the displacement can be changed through an external control such as a handwheel or a pressure compensator. The control moves the cam ring to change the eccentricity between the ring and rotor, thereby changing the size of the pumping chamber and thus varying the displacement per revolution.

When pressure is high enough to overcome the compensator spring force, the cam ring shifts to decrease the eccentricity. Adjustment of the compensator spring determines the pressure at which the ring shifts.
Because centrifugal force is required to hold the vanes against the housing and maintain a tight seal at those points, these pumps are not suited for low-speed service. Operation at speeds below 600 rpm is not recommended. If springs or other means are used to hold vanes out against the ring, efficient operation at speeds of 100 to 200 rpm is possible.

Vane pumps maintain their high efficiency for a long time, because compensation for wear of the vane ends and the housing is automatic. As these surfaces wear, the vanes move further out in their slots to maintain contact with the housing.

Vane pumps, like other types, come in double units. A double pump consists of two pumping units in the same housing. They may be of the same or different sizes. Although they are mounted and driven like single pumps, hydraulically, they are independent. Another variation is the series unit: two pumps of equal capacity are connected in series, so that the output of one feeds the other. This arrangement gives twice the pressure normally available from this pump. Vane pumps have relatively high efficiencies. Their size is small relative to output. Dirt tolerance is relatively good.

Piston pumps
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Figure 8. Axial-piston pump varies displacement by changing angle of swashplate.

The piston pump is a rotary unit which uses the principle of the reciprocating pump to produce fluid flow. Instead of using a single piston, these pumps have many piston-cylinder combinations. Part of the pump mechanism rotates about a drive shaft to generate the reciprocating motions, which draw fluid into each cylinder and then expels it, producing flow. There are two basic types, axial and radial piston; both area available as fixed and variable displacement pumps. The second variety often is capable of variable reversible (overcenter) displacement.

Most axial and radial piston pumps lend themselves to variable as well as fixed displacement designs. Variable displacement pumps tend to be somewhat larger and heavier, because they have added internal controls, such as handwheel, electric motor, hydraulic cylinder, servo, and mechanical stem.

Axial-piston pumps — The pistons in an axial piston pump reciprocate parallel to the centerline of the drive shaft of the piston block. That is, rotary shaft motion is converted into axial reciprocating motion. Most axial piston pumps are multi-piston and use check valves or port plates to direct liquid flow from inlet to discharge.

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Figure 9. Radial piston pump.

Inline piston pumps — The simplest type of axial piston pump is the swashplate design in which a cylinder block is turned by the drive shaft. Pistons fitted to bores in the cylinder block are connected through piston shoes and a retracting ring, so that the shoes bear against an angled swashplate. As the block turns, Figure 8, the piston shoes follow the swashplate, causing the pistons to reciprocate. The ports are arranged in the valve plate so that the pistons pass the inlet as they are pulled out and the outlet as they are forced back in. In these pumps, displacement is determined by the size and number of pistons as well as their stroke length, which varies with the swashplate angle.

In variable-displacement models of the inline pump, the swashplate swings in a movable yoke. Pivoting the yoke on a pintle changes the swashplate angle to increase or decrease the piston stroke. The yoke can be positioned with a variety of controls, i.e., manual, servo, compensator, handwheel, etc.

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Figure 10. Pressure-flow curve of fixed-displacement oil hydraulic pump.

Bent-axis pumps — This pump consists of a drive shaft which rotates the pistons, a cylinder block, and a stationary valving surface facing the cylinder block bores which ports the inlet and outlet flow. The drive shaft axis is angular in relation to the cylinder block axis. Rotation of the drive shaft causes rotation of the pistons and the cylinder block.

Because the plane of rotation of the pistons is at an angle to the valving surface plane, the distance between any one of the pistons and the valving surface continually changes during rotation. Each individual piston moves away from the valving surface during one-half of the shaft revolution and toward the valving surface during the other half.

The valving surface is so ported that its inlet passage is open to the cylinder bores in that part of the revolution where the pistons move away. Its outlet passage is open to the cylinder bores in the part of the revolution where the pistons move toward the valving surface. Therefore, during pump rotation the pistons draw liquid into their respective cylinder bores through the inlet chamber and force it out through the outlet chamber. Bent axis pumps come in fixed and variable displacement configurations, but cannot be reversed.

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Figure 11. Pressure flow curve of variable-displacement hydraulic oil transfer pump with ideal flow and pressure compensation.

In radial-piston pumps, the pistons are arranged radially in a cylinder block; they move perpendicularly to the shaft centerline. Two basic types are available: one uses cylindrically shaped pistons, the other ball pistons. They may also be classified according to the porting arrangement: check valve or pintle valve. They are available in fixed and variable displacement, and variable reversible (over-center) displacement.

In pintle-ported radial piston pump, Figure 9, the cylinder block rotates on a stationary pintle and inside a circular reacting ring or rotor. As the block rotates, centrifugal force, charging pressure, or some form of mechanical action causes the pistons to follow the inner surface of the ring, which is offset from the centerline of the cylinder block. As the pistons reciprocate in their bores, porting in the pintle permits them to take in fluid as they move outward and discharge it as they move in.

The size and number of pistons and the length of their stroke determine pump displacement. Displacement can be varied by moving the reaction ring to increase or decrease piston travel, varying eccentricity. Several controls are available for this purpose.

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Figure 12. Schematic of typical proportional pump pressure compensator control.

Plunger pumps are somewhat similar to rotary piston types, in that pumping is the result of pistons reciprocating in cylinder bores. However, the cylinders are fixed in these pumps; they do not rotate around the drive shaft. Pistons may be reciprocated by a crankshaft, by eccentrics on a shaft, or by a wobble plate. When eccentrics are used, return stroke is by springs. Because valving cannot be supplied by covering and uncovering ports as rotation occurs, inlet and outlet check valves may be used in these pumps.

Because of their construction, these pumps offer two features other pumps do not have: one has a more positive sealing between inlet and outlet, permitting higher pressures without excessive leakage of slip. The other is that in many pumps, lubrication of moving parts other than the piston and cylindrical bore may be independent of the liquid being pumped. Therefore, liquids with poor lubricating properties can be pumped. Volumetric and overall efficiencies are close to those of axial and radial piston pumps.

Measuring pump performance
Volume of fluid pumped per revolution is calculated from the geometry of the oil-carrying chambers. A pump never quite delivers the calculated, or theoretical, amount of fluid. How close it comes is called volumetric efficiency. Volumetric efficiency is found by comparing the calculated delivery with actual delivery. Volumetric efficiency varies with speed, pressure, and the construction of the pump.

A pump's mechanical efficiency is also less than perfect, because some of the input energy is wasted in friction. Overall efficiency of a hydraulic oil pressure pump is the product of its volumetric and mechanical efficiencies.
Pumps are generally rated by their maximum operating pressure capability and their output, in gpm or lpm, at a given drive speed, in rpm.

Pressure compensation and load sensing are terms often used to describe pump features that improve the efficiency of pump operation. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, a misconception that is cleared up once you understand the differences in how the two enhancements operate.

To investigate these differences, consider a simple circuit using a fixed-displacement pump running at constant speed. This circuit is efficient only when the load demands maximum power because the pump puts out full pressure and flow regardless of load demand. A relief valve prevents excessive pressure buildup by routing high-pressure fluid to tank when the system reaches the relief setting. As Figure 10 shows, power is wasted whenever the load requires less than full flow or full pressure. The unused fluid energy produced by the pump becomes heat that must be dissipated. Overall system efficiency may be 25% or lower.

Variable displacement pumps, equipped with displacement controls, Figure 11, can save most of this wasted hydraulic horsepower when moving a single load. Control variations include hand wheel, lever, cylinder, stem servo, and electrohydraulic servo controls. Examples of displacement control applications are the lever-controlled hydrostatic transmissions used to propel windrowers, skid-steer loaders, and road rollers.

While matching the exact flow and pressure needs of a single load, these controls have no inherent pressure or power-limiting capabilities. And so, other provisions must be made to limit maximum system pressure, and the prime mover still must have corner horsepower capability. Moreover, when a pump supplies a circuit with multiple loads, the flow and pressure-matching characteristics are compromised.

A design approach to the system in which one pump powers multiple loads is to use a pump equipped with a proportional pressure compensator, Figure 12. A yoke spring biases the pump swashplate toward full displacement. When load pressure exceeds the compensator setting, pressure force acts on the compensator spool to overcome the force exerted by the spring.

The spool then shifts toward the compensator-spring chamber, ports pump output fluid to the stroking piston, and decreases pump displacement. The compensator spool returns to neutral when pump pressure matches the compensator spring setting. If a load blocks the actuators, pump flow drops to zero.

Using a variable-displacement, pressure-compensated pump rather than a fixed-displacement pump reduces circuit horsepower requirements dramatically, Figure 13. Output flow of this type of pump varies according to a predetermined discharge pressure as sensed by an orifice in the pump's compensator. Because the compensator itself operates from pressurized fluid, the discharge pressure must be set higher - say, 200 psi higher - than the maximum load-pressure setting. So if the load-pressure setting of a pressure-compensated pump is 1,100 psi, the pump will increase or decrease its displacement (and output flow) based on a 1,300-psi discharge pressure.

A two-stage pressure-compensator control, Figure 14, uses pilot flow at load pressure across an orifice in the main stage compensator spool to create a pressure drop of 300 psi. This pressure drop generates a force on the spool which is opposed by the main spool spring. Pilot fluid flows to tank through a small relief valve. A spring chamber pressure of 4,700 psi provides a compensator control setting of 5,000 psi. An increase in pressure over the compensator setting shifts the main stage spool to the right, porting pump output fluid to the stroking piston, which overcomes bias piston force and reduces pump displacement to match load requirements.

The earlier stated misconception stems from an observation that output pressure from a pressure-compensated pump can fall below the compensator setting while an actuator is moving. This does not happen because the pump is sensing the load, it happens because the pump is undersized for the application. Pressure drops because the pump cannot generate enough flow to keep up with the load. When properly sized, a pressure-compensated pump should always force enough fluid through the compensator orifice to operate the compensator.
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