Understanding Why Cavitation and Flashing are Bad for Control Valves and Pumps

Cavitation is caused by bubbles collapsing asymmetrically
at very high speeds, producing extremely high
pressures in very small areas. 
Fluid passing through a control valve experiences changes in velocity as it enters the narrow constriction of the valve trim (increasing velocity) then enters the widening area of the valve body downstream of the trim (decreasing velocity). These changes in velocity result in the fluid molecules’ kinetic energies changing as well. In order that energy be conserved in a moving fluid stream, any increase in kinetic energy due to increased velocity must be accompanied by a complementary decrease in potential energy, usually in the form of fluid pressure. This means the fluid’s pressure will fall at the point of maximum constriction in the valve (the vena contracta, at the point where the trim throttles the flow) and rise again (or recover) downstream of the trim.

If fluid being throttled is a liquid, and the pressure at the vena contracta is less than the vapor pressure of that liquid at the flowing temperature, the liquid will spontaneously boil. This is the phenomenon of flashing. If, however, the pressure recovers to a point greater than the vapor pressure of the liquid, the vapor will re-condense back into liquid again. This is called cavitation.

As destructive as flashing is to a control valve, cavitation is worse. When vapor bubbles re-condense into liquid they often do so asymmetrically, one side of the bubble collapsing before the rest of the bubble. This has the effect of translating the kinetic energy of the bubble’s collapse into a high-speed “jet” of liquid in the direction of the asymmetrical collapse. These liquid “microjets” have been experimentally measured at speeds up to 100 meters per second (over 320 feet per second). What is more, the pressure applied to the surface of control valve components in the path of these microjets is intense. Each microjet strikes the valve component surface over a very small surface area, resulting in a very high pressure (P = F/A ) applied to that small area. Pressure estimates as high as 1500 newtons per square millimeter (1.5 giga-pascals, or about 220000 PSI!) have been calculated for cavitating control valve applications involving water.

Watch the video below to better understand the impact of cavitation on a process flow system.

Basics of Variable Area Flowmeters

Variable Area Flowmeter (Rotameter)
Rotameter (ABB)
Flowmeters are a class of devices or instruments used to measure rate of fluid flow. Flow measurement stands as a vital input to many process operations across almost every industry. Applications can range from precise measurement of very small gas flows to oil or water flows through large diameter piping systems. There are a number of technologies employed for measuring fluid flow, each with attributes of design, performance, or cost that can make them an advantageous choice for a particular application.

Variable-area flowmeters are designed to measure flow using a precisely fabricated obstruction in the flow path that is repositioned in a tapered flow tube by changes in fluid flow.

Variable Area Flowmeter (Rotameter)
Rotameter (ABB
A rotameter is a flow indicator consisting of a tapered tube containing a plummet. The plummet is generally a solid object and sometimes referred to as a float. Rotameters rely on gravity as part of their operating principle, so the instrument must be installed such that the inlet is at the bottom and fluid flows directly upward through the tapered tube. As fluid flows through the tube, a pressure differential develops across the plummet. This creates an upward force on the plummet, moving the plummet in the direction of the flow. The flow area around the plummet increases as it moves from the narrow portion of the flow tube to a wider portion up the measurement scale. As the available flow space around the plummet increases, the upward force on it decreases. Eventually, the equalization between the pressure force and the weight of the plummet occurs and the float stops moving. The flow rate is indicated by the plummet's position relative to a pre-calibrated scale printed along the length of the tube. The same type of system can be used to measure liquid or gas flow, with the rotameter being specifically calibrated for the fluid to be measured. It is common to employ a rotameter with an integral needle valve as a metering device for delivering a precise fixed flow of a fluid into a process.

These devices are generally inexpensive and easy to apply. Key application considerations include a vertical installation orientation, matching the rotameter to the fluid, and providing physical access to read the indicated flow.

Industries use rotameters primarily as indicating devices. Rotameters enjoy a wide range of applications throughout research and manufacturing processes. Share your flow measurement challenges with instrumentation specialists, combining your own process knowledge and experience with their product application expertise to develop effective solutions.