How to Read a Centrifugal Pump Curve?

centrifugal pump design

A centrifugal pump is a very simple device – mechanically. Reading the centrifugal pump curve however is a different story. An impeller attached to a shaft which is rotated by a driver, most often an electric motor. There is essentially one moving part if you don’t count the shaft and bearings. It is the behavior of the liquid under the influence of the impeller which can get complicated and once the pump design is finished and a prototype is built, it goes to the test pit to gather data needed to plot a performance curve.

Each pump is as unique as a fingerprint, with its own unique properties. The designer has a mission for each unit he creates. Years ago at a major pump factory, one such designer was putting finishing touches on his drawings for a very large unit. He sat there for two days staring at his design before finally adding a slight curve to the trailing edge of the impeller vane.

Today, he might have used SimScale, a simulation software that works 100% in the browser, to evaluate his choices.

That curve contains a wealth of information which when properly read, can ensure a successful operation. In addition to confirming that the selected pump is capable of producing the specified duty point, the pump curve discloses a lot of information about its suitability for the application which is reviewed below.

  • Efficiency
  • Horsepower requirement over the full range of the application
  • Suction requirements
  • Safe operating range
  • Effect of speed

The image below displays a typical pump curve out of a pump catalog which has been selected to meet a 350 gallons per minute design requirement.

pump curve

Figure 1: Pump Curve

Pumping Head

We will begin with head calculation, referring to Figure 2 below.

static head

Total pumping head, usually stated in feet of liquid pumped, is a combination of static and dynamic components, with the former being the total elevation through which the liquid must be raised and the latter being back pressure generated by the system. Dynamic losses would be pipe friction plus any fittings through which the discharge passes like spray nozzles.

If the pump is acting as a system booster pump or has a flooded suction, then any positive suction pressure would be subtracted from the static head. Velocity head, V2/2g, which would be factored into axial flow pump head calculations with high flow rates and very low heads, is neglected as insignificant in these kinds of applications.

Centrifugal Pump Curve – System Head Curve

For illustration purposes, we will assume a static head of 100 feet and a 200-foot length of 3-inch diameter pipe and calculate head and horsepower over a range that surrounds our duty point. Values for friction loss comes from tables readily available from any pump vendor.

0 100 0 0 100 100
50 100 1 2 101 102
100 100 5 10 105 110
150 100 10 20 110 120 0.5 8.3
200 100 18 36 118 136 0.6 9.9
250 100 23 46 123 146 0.67 11.6
300 100 38 76 138 176 0.67 15.6
350 100 52 104 152 204 0.67 20.1
400 100 68 136 168 236 0.67 25.3
450 100 86 172 186 272 0.53 39.9
500 100 105 210 205 310
550 100 126 252 226 352
600 100 150 300 250 400

pump curve

Determine Pumping Range

Referring to Figure 3, plotting the old pipe/new pipe intersection points on the centrifugal pump curve shows that we can expect a range of 350 gpm to 425 gpm.  Heads at the two points will be 204’ and 175’ respectively. In order to make a driver selection, HP calculation at 350 gpm @204’ TH @ 67% efficiency = 26.9 HP. For the 425 gpm @ 175’ TH @ 57% efficiency = 33 HP.

Even though the 350 gpm at 204’ TH may have been specified as a conservative measure, examination of the pump curve has disclosed a range of possible operating points so that selection of a 40 HP driver would be consistent with a conservative approach.

Suction Conditions

Referring back to figure 1, the curve at the bottom is an NPSH required curve, referring to Net Positive Suction Head which is a property for this particular pump design. It is stated as absolute pressure in feet of liquid pumped.  The centrifugal pump curve tells us that the NPSH required at 425 gpm = 20’. If the vapor pressure of the liquid is less than 1 atmosphere minus the NPSH required, it will be a suitable application.  Using 30’ = 1 atmosphere to be conservative, this pump will handle any liquid at 425 gpm which has a vapor pressure less than 10’. With regard to water, that would be any temperature less than 193 degrees F.

A centrifugal pump operating in a range with insufficient suction head, perhaps due to high liquid vapor pressure or a unit with a NPSH required greater than the system can support will experience cavitation. Under these conditions, vapor bubbles form at the pump suction and implode when the pressure builds as it moves out through the impeller.

This implosion generates enough force that, left in continuous operation, will erode the impeller to the extent that a hole will be gouged out of the impeller vane.  Cavitation is easy to detect because the pump sounds like it is pumping gravel.

Operation At or Near Shut-Off

Zero flow on the pump curve is called “shut-off”. Under low flow and high head conditions, centrifugal pump selection is limited and some care must be taken when operating in this range. This particular pump has a “drooping” curve which means that as it goes back toward shut-off, the head decreases slightly and the vertical red line drawn on the curve is the recommended minimum flow rate for this unit.

Operating to the left of the red line may cause vibration. As operation moves in the direction of the shut-off point, radial thrust on the shaft increases, shaft deflection increases and can cause damage to mechanical seals. Operation in this range may produce a sound like cavitation which is, in fact, cut water cavitation.  The cut water is an internal point in the volute where liquid pumped either goes out the discharge of is recirculated within the volute.

At low flow conditions, input power to the pump when the liquid has no place to go will result in a heat build -which over a long enough period of time, will cause the liquid to vaporize.

Centrifugal Pump Speed

Catalog pump curves are plotted for synchronous motor speeds (minus slip). If performance at another speed such as 50 cycle vs. 60 cycle or variable speed applications is required, a simple relationship is available for making a special curve plot. Head varies with the square of the speed and capacity varies in direct proportion to the speed. From the curve used in this example illustrates a 50 cycle curve plot derived from 60 cycle performance.

0 249 0 173 %EFF HP
89 255 10 74 177
155 255.5 52 19 129 177 52 11
200 245 60 21 167 170 60 12
250 236 67 22 208 164 67 13
325 216 67 26 271 150 67 15
425 174 59 32 354 121 59 18
512 133 52 33 427 92 52 19
550 74 458 51

Non-Aqueous Applications

Most, if not all, published centrifugal pump curves are based upon the water with a specific gravity of 1.0. Because these curves are plotted in feet of liquid pumped as opposed to psi, the shape of the centrifugal pump curve and the head and capacity values are valid for the liquid of any specific gravity. Obviously, HP values must be adjusted for the specific gravity and vapor pressures examined to be consistent with NPSH requirement of the pump.

Viscous liquids and material like paper stock can significantly modify pump performance for which the pump manufacturer should be consulted.


Predicting the behavior of fluids in motion involves reliance on a number of assumptions. Pipe friction loss, for example, relies on an estimate of piping conditions.  A conservative system designer is going to provide flow rates that are, at least, enough.

With a thorough reading of all the information available from a performance curve, successful operation throughout all the system generated a range of heads and capacities can be safely predicted. Having checked all the boxes, a system designer needing to buy a pump for his project can do so with confidence that his selection will perform just as he has planned.

Also, I invite you to read this case study and learn how CFD technology would have helped optimize the centrifugal pump design in less time and with less effort. As simulation technology has become available to all engineers, this is definitely a step to be integrated into the pump design process.

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