Troubleshooting Hydraulic Pumps

Al Smiley, GPM Hydraulic Consulting

When a hydraulic issue occurs, the pump is one of the first components changed out, but it should be the last. A pump is one of the most time-consuming and expensive parts to replace, and it should never be changed before several tests are conducted. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the simplest tests and checks to perform first before you consider part replacement.

 

Visual Tests

Before any physical tests are administered, there are several, basic visual tests that you can conduct to ascertain the state of your pump.

Check that the electric motor is running. Although this is a simple concept, before you begin replacing parts, it’s critical that you make sure the electric motor is running. This can often be one of the easiest aspects to overlook, but it is necessary to confirm before moving forward.  

Check that the pump shaft is rotating. Even though coupling guards and C-face mounts can make this difficult to confirm, it is important to establish if your pump shaft is rotating. If it isn’t, this could be an indication of a more severe issue, and this should be investigated immediately.

Check the oil level. This one tends to be the more obvious check, as it is often one of the only factors inspected before the pump is changed. The oil level should be three inches above the pump suction. Otherwise, a vortex can form in the reservoir, allowing air into the pump.

If the oil level is low, determine where the leak is in the system. Although this can be a difficult process, it is necessary to ensure your machines are performing properly. Leaks can be difficult to find.

Sound Checks

What does the pump sound like when it is operating normally? Vane pumps generally are quieter than piston and gear pumps. If the pump has a high-pitched whining sound, it most likely is cavitating. If it has a knocking sound, like marbles rattling around, then aeration is the likely cause.

Cavitation

Cavitation is the formation and collapse of air cavities in the liquid. When the pump cannot get the total volume of oil it needs, cavitation occurs. Hydraulic oil contains approximately nine percent dissolved air. When the pump does not receive adequate oil volume at its suction port, high vacuum pressure occurs.

This dissolved air is pulled out of the oil on the suction side and then collapses or implodes on the pressure side. The implosions produce a very steady, high-pitched sound. As the air bubbles collapse, the inside of the pump is damaged.

While cavitation is a devastating development, with proper preventative maintenance practices and a quality monitoring system, early detection and deterrence remain attainable goals. UE System’s UltraTrak 850S CD pump cavitation sensor is a Smart Analog Sensor designed and optimized to detect cavitation on pumps earlier by measuring the ultrasound produced as cavitation starts to develop early-onset bubbles in the pump. By continuously monitoring the impact caused by cavitation, the system provides a simple, single value to trend and alert when cavitation is occurring.

3 Reasons Why a Pump Cavitates

Reason One

The oil viscosity is too high. Low oil temperature increases the oil viscosity, making it harder for the oil to reach the pump. Most hydraulic systems should not be started with the oil any colder than 40°F and should not be put under load until the oil is at least 70°F.

Many reservoirs do not have heaters, particularly in the South. Even when heaters are available, they are often disconnected. While the damage may not be immediate, if a pump is continually started up when the oil is too cold, the pump will fail prematurely.

Figure 1

Reason Two

The suction filter or strainer is contaminated. A strainer is typically 74 or 149 microns in size and is used to keep “large” particles out of the pump. The strainer may be located inside or outside the reservoir. Strainers located inside the reservoir are out of sight and out of mind. Many times, maintenance personnel are not even aware that there is a strainer in the reservoir.

The suction strainer should be removed from the line or reservoir and cleaned a minimum of once a year. Years ago, a plant sought out help to troubleshoot a system that had already had five pumps changed within a single week. Upon closer inspection, it was discovered that the breather cap was missing, allowing dirty air to flow directly into the reservoir.

A check of the hydraulic schematic showed a strainer in the suction line inside the tank. When the strainer was removed, a shop rag was found wrapped around the screen mesh. Apparently, someone had used the rag to plug the breather cap opening, and it had then fallen into the tank. Contamination can come from a variety of different sources, so it pays to be vigilant and responsible with our practices and reliability measures.

Reason Three

The electric motor is driving the hydraulic pump at a speed that is higher than the pump’s rating. All pumps have a recommended maximum drive speed. If the speed is too high, a higher volume of oil will be needed at the suction port.

Due to the size of the suction port, adequate oil cannot fill the suction cavity in the pump, resulting in cavitation. Although this rarely happens, some pumps are rated at a maximum drive speed of 1,200 revolutions per minute (RPM), while others have a maximum speed of 3,600 RPM. The drive speed should be checked any time a pump is replaced with a different brand or model.

Every one of these devastating causes of cavitation threatens to cause major, irreversible damage to your equipment. Therefore, it’s not only critical to have proper, proactive practices in place, but also a monitoring system that can continuously protect your valuable assets, such as UE System’s UltraTrak 850S CD pump cavitation senor. These sensors regularly monitor the health of your pumps and alert you immediately if cavitation symptoms are present, allowing you to take corrective action before it’s too late.