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Causes of Water Hammer

Joe Evans, Ph.D.

In part one of this two-part column, we will define water hammer and explore the
events that cause it. We will also try to gain perspective on the additional pressure it
Water hammer (also water hammer) is a pressure surge that can arise in any pumping
system that undergoes an abrupt change in its rate of flow and usually results from
pump starts and stops, the opening and closing of valves, or water column separation
and closure. These abrupt changes can cause all or part of the flowing water column to
undergo a momentum change. This change can produce a shock wave that travels
back and forth between the barrier that created it and a secondary barrier. If the
intensity of the shock wave is high, physical damage to the system can occur. Oddly
enough, it can be more of a concern in low pressure applications.

Water hammer is yet another example of conservation of energy and results from the
conversion of velocity energy into pressure energy.

Since liquids have a low compressibility, the resulting pressure energy tends to be

Perhaps the best way to visualize this action is to start with a hypothetical example.
Figure 1 below shows a pump pumping water into a pipe that was empty when the
pump started. The two valves, located at the pump discharge and the far end of the
pipe, are fully open and have the ability to close instantaneously. The pipe, valves and
other fittings are entirely inelastic and no volume change can occur, regardless of the
pressure. The column of water flowing through the pipe also has a perfectly flat
leading edge that matches that of the cross sectional ID of the pipe. When the leading
edge of the water column reaches the downstream valve, it closes at nearly the speed
of light and entraps no air ahead of the water column.
Figure 1

Even though the leading edge has struck the closed valve, flow into the pipe continues
for the next few milliseconds. Just as flow ceases, the upstream valve closes (this time
at the true speed of light), and the water column is completely isolated between the
two valves. What events occur as the column strikes the closed, downstream valve
and why does water continue to enter the pipe even though the valve is closed?

If this moving column was a column of metal instead of water (hypothetically, of

course), a couple of things could occur. Depending on its coefficient of restitution (its
ability to avoid permanent damage), the kinetic energy due to flow (motion) could be
transformed into mechanical energy as the leading edge of the metal column is
crushed against the closed valve. If this occurred, the column would come to rest and
remain motionless at the valve. If its restitution is high enough to prevent crushing,
that same kinetic energy could be used to reverse its direction in the form of a bounce.
Regardless of the outcome, the "entire" metal column would either come to rest or
bounce in the opposite direction. Neither of these events occurs when water is

Water is a nearly non-compressible liquid, which seems to suggest it is slightly

compressible. At ambient temperature, 1-psi will decrease its volume by about
0.0000034 percent. That seems pretty small, but the larger the volume, the easier it is
to see the effect. For example, if water did not compress, sea level would be roughly
100-ft higher than its current level! At very high pressures, say 40,000-psi, its
compressibility is increased to about 10 percent. But, most water is not just water-it
also contains air, which is primarily nitrogen (78 percent) and oxygen (21 percent).
Otherwise, fish could not survive! Dissolved air composes about 2 percent of a given
volume of unprocessed water, and adds substantially to its compressibility.
It is water's (and dissolved air's) compressibility that causes water to act differently
than the metal column. Were it not compressible, its leading edge would be
permanently crushed or the entire column would bounce backward. When the leading
edge of a water column strikes the closed valve it abruptly stops. Since the water
behind the leading edge is still in motion, it begins to compress. This compression
along the entire length of the column allows a small amount of water to continue to
flow into the pipe even though the leading edge has halted. When flow ceases, all of
its kinetic energy of motion and that due to compression is converted into pressure

Compression begins at the leading edge of the water column and since the additional
energy it produces cannot continue past the closed valve, a pressure or shock wave is
generated and travels along the path of least resistance which, in this example, is back
upstream. Its inception is similar to the echo produced when a sound wave, traveling
through air, strikes a similar barrier. When the wave hits the upstream valve, it is
reflected back downstream but with a diminished intensity. This back and forth
motion continues until friction and reflection losses cause the wave to disappear. The
speed at which a wave travels and the energy it loses during travel depends on the
density and compressibility of the medium in which it travels. The density and
compressibility of water make it a good medium for shock wave generation and

The pressure waves created by hydraulic shock have characteristics similar to those of
sound waves and travel at a similar velocity. The time required for a water hammer
pressure wave to negotiate a length of pipe is simply the pipe length divided by the
speed of sound in water (approximately 4,860-ft/sec). In water hammer analysis, a
time constant that is often used describes the progression of the wave from its
inception to the secondary barrier and then back again. It takes the form of Tc = 2L/a
(where L is the pipe length and a is the velocity of the wave, which is the speed of
sound). In a 1,000-ft pipe, the wave can make a complete round trip in less than one
half second.

The pressure created by this shock wave is directly proportional to both the wave
velocity and the velocity of the water flowing in the pipe. Although the equation
below does not take into account the effect of pipe length, diameter and elasticity, it
will provide some insight as to the additional pressure created by a water hammer
pressure wave.

P(additional) = aV / 2.31g

P is the additional pressure the shock wave creates, a is wave velocity, V is the
velocity of the flowing water in the pipe in feet per second, g is the universal
gravitational constant @ 32-ft/sec2 and 2.31 is the pressure conversion constant. At a
pipeline velocity of 5-ft/sec, the additional pressure created by the shock wave is
approximately 328-psi. Increasing that velocity to 10-ft/sec increases the additional
pressure to about 657-psi. Obviously, systems that are not designed to accommodate
such an increased pressure are often damaged or even destroyed

Valve Closure and Opening

One of the primary causes of water hammer is the abrupt closure of a valve. Figure 1
shows a main pipeline with a branch circuit that is fed by a "Tee." At the end of the
branch is a valve. The black arrows show the flow direction in the primary and branch
lines, and the blue arrow is the length of the branch line. As in last month's example,
the valve acts as the primary barrier, but this time the secondary barrier is the "Tee."

If water is flowing in the branch line and the valve is closed quickly, a shock wave
will develop. Its inception follows the same sequence of events in our hypothetical
example. One small difference is that some of the intensity of the waves will be lost in
the "Tee" as it is open to the main pipeline on either side. Still, a significant portion
will be reflected back toward the valve.
A major difference in this example is that we have some control over the valve
closure time (in our hypothetical example the valves closed at nearly the speed of
light). As you will see, closure time has a significant effect on the inception and
intensity of water hammer. Two other variables, flow velocity and pipeline length, are
also major factors. The equation P = 0.07 (VL / t)shows the relationship of these three
variables and their effect. P is the additional pressure generated by the shock
wave, V is the flow velocity in ft/sec, L is the pipe length between the barriers in feet
and t is the valve closing time in seconds. 0.07 is a derived constant.
The additional pressure created by the shock wave is directly proportional to flow
velocity and pipeline length and inversely proportional to closure time. In other
words, higher values of V and/or L will increase pressure while higher values of t will
result in a decreased pressure. Table 1 shows the results from this equation when
using differing velocities, pipe lengths and closure times. The V values are 5- and 10-
ft/sec, L values are 100- and 1000-ft, and t values are 1 and 2 seconds. Two of the
variables are constant in each example.

Both columns of the table illustrate the proportional influence of velocity and
lengthpressure increases as they increase. The lower values in the right hand
column illustrate the inverse relationship of time; these pressures are half those in the
left hand column because the closure time has doubled. The value of L is often fixed
and depends upon the application, but we can exercise substantial control over the
other two variables. By doing so, we can eliminate or greatly reduce water hammer's

I mentioned earlier that pipe diameter and the elasticity of its material also influence
the pressure generated. Larger diameters and more elastic materials absorb some of
the intensity of the shock waves and therefore reduce the pressure generated. Several
pipe manufacturers publish curves or tables that show the potential water hammer
pressure increase for various pipe diameters and materials.
Suppose that the branch line valve is closed. If it is opened quickly the effect is
similar to that of quick closing. When the valve is opened quickly, the branch line
sees an immediate drop in pressure, and incoming water from the main line
accelerates the previously static column. As friction and other factors restrict its flow,
the forward portion of the column can act as the initial barrier and give rise to water
hammer. Usually its effect is much smaller than that of valve closure and is often
referred to as a "surge." Still, under certain conditions, this surge can be damaging.

Last month, I mentioned that water hammers effects can be more significant in low
pressure systems. The additional pressure generated by a shock wave is proportional
to the length of the pipe and velocity of the water flowing in it and is completely
independent of its operating pressure. Therefore, the shock wave created in a 1,000-ft
pipe flowing at 5-fps will be the same whether the operating pressure is 50-psi or 200-
psi. The difference is the ratio of shock pressure to design pressure can be
significantly higher in the low pressure system, therefore the potential for damage will
also be greater.

Pump Starts and Stops

In many large pumping systems, it is normal procedure to start a pump against a

closed discharge valve. Once the pump is running at full speed, the valve is opened
slowly. Flow is initiated and then increases to its maximum as the valve continues to
open. This procedure is reversed when a pump is stopped. Starting and stopping
against a valve that is opened or closed slowly will inhibit the initiation of water

Depending upon the installation, the discharge valve may be operated manually or by
some automatic mechanism. One of the shortcomings of manually operated valves
occurs during a power outage. When a pump motor loses power, the reduction in
pump speed and flow from its discharge occur rapidly. The resulting change of kinetic
energy to that of pressure can produce water hammer waves in the discharge line. As
the water column reverses direction, the impeller will also begin to accelerate
backward. When it reaches its maximum reverse speed, backward flow is reduced and
an additional pressure surge is created.
In most pressure boost applications, a spring loaded check valve is installed at or
near the pump discharge and remains closed when the pump is idle. When the pump is
started, flow does not begin until the pressure it generates exceeds the pressure on the
downstream side of the closed valve. If the downstream pressure is not allowed to
decrease below a certain minimum, flow increases slowly and water hammer
inception is avoided or reduced significantly.

When the pump stops, an unexpected event occursa quick closing valve actually
inhibits, rather than initiates, water hammer! In this particular instance, the spring
provides quick closure of the valve, which prevents the water column from changing
direction due to the higher downstream pressure. Even though flow changes abruptly,
pressure remains relatively constant throughout the downstream column. If a standard
check valve was installed, the water column would accelerate backward, slam the
check closed and initiate a shock wave.

Today, VFD control is used in many applications to eliminate the inception of water
hammer during pump starts and stops. This technique, known as soft start and stop, is
accomplished by ramping the motor speed up or down over a period of seconds. This
allows the flow velocity to increase or decrease much more slowly than it would
during across the line starts and stops.

Water Column Separation and Closure

So far, our discussion of water hammer has dealt with single phase systems. In these
systems, water remains in a single state (liquid in our examples) regardless of the
changes in the hydraulic conditions. The shock waves generated by single phase
systems are due to an abrupt change in flow and the resulting transformation of kinetic

The water hammer generated by water column separation and closure is a two phase
process. In a two phase system, water changes state and can exist both as a liquid and
a vapor within the same confined volume. This phase change can take place whenever
the pressure in a pipeline is reduced to that of the vapor pressure of the water. When a
pressure drop occurs, the water column can become separated, in one or more
locations, by a pocket of water vapor. When the pressure rises above the vapor
pressure, the column rejoins or closes and can create a high pressure wave. Water
column separation, by itself, can cause problems in very large diameter or thin wall
pipes (which can collapse), but water hammer during closure is the more common

Water column separation can occur when a pump is stopped and the water column
reverses direction or in condensate lines where high temperatures can mitigate the
need for a large pressure drop. Although both forms can be extremely damaging,
condensate lines tend to be far more dangerous. The shock waves generated by
column closure can travel in opposite directions, and if they hit secondary barriers
they can be redirected back toward one another. It would not be unusual for these
reflected waves to increase in intensity when they collide. This is certainly the case
with water and voltage waves and may account for the often greater damage resulting
from closure-initiated water hammer.