Pump performance curves

I sometimes use this as an in class demonstration and sometimes as a lab test toward the end of the semester. It is good for illustrating experimental method and measurement uncertainty while demonstrating pump performance characteristics. I first saw a version of this demonstration at an APS DFD meeting about 8 years ago though I am having trouble recalling who presented it.


  1. Bucket
  2. Stopwatch
  3. Tape measure
  4. Measuring cup
  5. Aquarium pump
  6. Extension cord
  7. Tube connected to the outlet of the aquarium pump

Photo Apr 14, 10 44 42 AM


  1. Fill the bucket with enough water to fully cover the pump, attach the tube to the pump outlet and place the pump in the bucket.
  2. Hold the tube vertically above the pump and turn it on (typically there is no on – off switch so plugging it in turns it on). The water should rise up the tube and then stop. Measure the head difference between the top of the water in the tube and the top of the water in the bucket. This is the shut off head.
  3. Lower the tube outlet until water starts to flow. Holding the outlet steady measure the distance from the bucket water surface to the outlet and the time taken to fill the measuring cup. Calculate the flow rate.
  4. Repeat step 3 until you have 6 to 8 different head – flow rate data pairs ranging from the shut off head to negligible elevation difference.
  5. Write up the head flow rate pairs on the board and plot the data by hand with elevation on the vertical axis and flow rate on the horizontal axis.

Analysis The data plotted should show an increase in flow rate with decreasing elevation like a typical pump performance curve. However, the data needs to be corrected to account for head loss in the tubing.

Draw a sketch of the pump – bucket – tube system with a control volume around the whole system.


Write down the work energy equation from the water surface and the tube outlet.

Z1 + u12/2g + p1/g + EP= Z2 + u22/2g + p2/ g +  hl

All the terms on the left hand side are zero except the pump head EP while the pressure at the outlet is p2=0. Using the Darcy–Weisbach equation for the head loss then Eis given by

EP= h+ (u22/2g)(1+ fL/D)

where f is the friction factor, L is the tube length, and D is the tube diameter. The exit velocity can be calculated based on the flow rate u2=Q/A=4Q/πD2. The main problem here is that the friction factor f varies with the Reynolds number and, therefore, the flow rate. Therefore, you need to calculate the friction factor and exit velocity for each data point. This can be given to the class as an in class exercise. Once the actual EP values have been calculated they can be plotted on the same graph. Some aquariums pumps actually come with a pump performance curve that can be compared to the measured data. In that case you can print the manufacturer curve on an overhead transparency. My experience with this is that cheap pumps rarely behave exactly as given in the manufacturer curve.

The demonstration presents a great opportunity to discuss experimental error. The first major source of error is the head measurement because it is hard to hold the tube steady, the water level in the bucket drops while you are filling the measuring cup, and you need to keep the tape measure vertical (though small angles away from the vertical will not make much difference). The second major error is in the measurement of the time taken to fill the measuring cup. Even if you use a 4 cup measure, it still fills in a few seconds for the larger flow rates. Therefore, a small error in timing of say half a second can lead to 10-20% error in the flow rate calculation. Both of these errors can be reduced by making multiple measurements at each height. It is also possible to estimate the individual errors and use them to place error bars on the pump performance curve data.

An index of all the demonstrations posted on this blog can be found here. Don’t forget to follow @nbkaye on twitter for updates to this blog. If you have a demonstration that you use in class that you would like to share on this blog please email me (nbkaye@clemson.edu). I also welcome comments (through the comments section or via email) on improving the demonstrations.


2 thoughts on “Pump performance curves

  1. Pingback: Video of “Pump performance curves” demonstration | Teaching Fluid Mechanics

  2. Pingback: Video Update for “Pump performance curves” | Teaching Fluid Mechanics

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