Which Hydraulic Pump is Right for Your Needs?

There are several different categories of hydraulic pumps, each with its own capabilities and limitations. Trying to decide what type of pump you need for a hydraulic system application can be challenging, but a basic knowledge of the most common types of hydraulic pumps is a good start.

Basics of Hydraulic Pumps

The goal of a hydraulic pump is to move hydraulic fluid through a hydraulic system, acting much like the beating heart of the system. There are two things that all hydraulic pumps have in common: (1) they provide hydraulic flow to other components (e.g., rams, hydraulic motors, cylinder) within a hydraulic system, and (2) they produce flow which in turn generates pressure when there is a resistance to flow. In addition, most hydraulic pumps are motor driven and include a pressure relief valve as a type of overpressure protection. The three most common types of hydraulic pumps currently in use are gear, piston, and vane pumps.

Gear Pumps

Truck mounted hydraulic pumps

In a gear pump, hydraulic fluid is trapped between the body of the pump and the areas between the teeth of the pump’s two meshing gears. The driveshaft is used to power one gear while the other remains idle until it meshes with the driving gear. These pumps are what is known as fixed displacement or positive displacement because each rotation of the shaft displaces the same amount of hydraulic fluid at the same pressure. There are two basic types of gear pumps, external and internal, which will be discussed in a moment.

Gear pumps are compact, making them ideal for applications that involve limited space. They are also simple in design, making them easier to repair and maintain. Note that gear pumps usually exhibit the highest efficiency when running at their maximum speed. In general, external gear pumps can produce higher levels of pressure (up to 3,000 psi) and greater throughput than vane pumps.

External Gear Pumps

External gear pumps are often found in close-coupled designs where the gear pump and the hydraulic motor share the same mounting and the same shaft. In an external gear pump, fluid flow occurs around the outside of a pair of meshed external spur gears. The hydraulic fluid moves between the housing of the pump and the gears to create the alternating suction and discharge needed for fluid flow.

External gear pumps can provide very high pressures (up to 3,000 psi), operate at high speeds (3,000 rpm), and run more quietly than internal gear pumps. When gear pumps are designed to handle even higher pressures and speeds, however, they will be very noisy and there may be special precautions that must be made.

External gear pumps are often used in powerlifting applications, as well as areas where electrical equipment would be either too bulky, inconvenient, or costly. External gear pumps can also be found on some agricultural and construction equipment to power their hydraulic systems.

Internal Gear Pumps

In an internal gear pump, the meshing action of an external gear and an internal gear work with a crescent-shaped sector element to generate fluid flow. The outer gear has teeth pointing inwards and the inner gear has teeth pointing outward. As these gears rotate and come in and out of mesh, they create suction and discharge zones with the sector acting as a barrier between these zones. A gerotor is a special type of internal gear pump that eliminates the need for a sector element by using trochoidal gears to create suction and discharge zones.

Unlike external gear pumps, internal gear pumps are not meant for high-pressure applications; however, they do generate flow with very little pulsation present. They are not as widely used in hydraulics as external gear pumps; however, they are used with lube oils and fuel oils and work well for metering applications.

Piston Pumps

hydraulic pump strainer maintenance

In a piston pump, reciprocating pistons are used to alternately generate suction and discharge. There are two different ways to categorize piston pumps: whether their piston is axially or radially mounted and whether their displacement is fixed or variable.

Piston pumps can handle higher pressures than gear or vane pumps even with comparable displacements, but they tend to be more expensive in terms of the initial cost. They are also more sensitive to contamination, but following strict hydraulic cleanliness guidelines and filtering any hydraulic fluid added to the system can address most contamination issues.

Axial Piston Pump

In an axial piston pump, sometimes called an inline axial pump, the pistons are aligned with the axis of the pump and arranged within a circular cylinder block. On one side of the cylinder block are the inlet and outlet ports, while an angled swashplate lies on the other side. As the cylinder block rotates, the pistons move in and out of the cylinder block, thus creating alternating suction and discharge of hydraulic fluid.

Axial piston pumps are ideal for high-pressure, high-volume applications and can often be found powering mission-critical hydraulic systems such as those of jet aircraft.

Bent-Axis Pumps

In a bent-axis piston pump (which many consider a subtype of the axial piston pump), the pump is made up of two sides that meet at an angle. On one side, the drive shaft turns the cylinder block that contains the pistons which match up to bores on the other side of the pump. As the cylinder block rotates, the distances between the pistons and the valving surface vary, thus achieving the necessary suction and discharge.

These pumps are designed for heavy-duty work cycles, such as hydrostatic transmissions and power machinery.

Radial Piston Pump

In a radial piston pump, the pistons lie perpendicular to the axis of the pump and are arranged radially like spokes on a wheel around an eccentrically placed cam. When the drive shaft rotates, the cam moves and pushes the spring-loaded pistons inward as it passes them. Each of these pistons has its own inlet and outlet ports that lead to a chamber. Within this chamber are valves that control the release and intake of hydraulic fluid.

Radial piston pumps are often used in machine tools and as a power supply for hydraulic systems such as cylinders.

Fixed Displacement vs Variable Displacement

In a fixed displacement pump, the amount of fluid discharged in each reciprocation is the same volume. However, in a variable displacement pump, a change to the angle of the adjustable swashplate can increase or reduce the volume of fluid discharged. This design allows you to vary system speed without having to change engine speed.

Vane Pumps

hydraulic pump preventive maintenance

When the input shaft of a vane pump rotates, rigid vanes mounted on an eccentric rotor pick up hydraulic fluid and transport it to the outlet of the pump. The area between the vanes increases on the inlet side as hydraulic fluid is drawn inside the pump and decreases on the outlet side to expel the hydraulic fluid through the output port. Vane pumps can be either fixed or variable displacement, as discussed for piston pumps.

Vane pumps are used in utility vehicles (such as those with aerial ladders or buckets) but are not as common today, having been replaced by gear pumps. This does not mean, however, that they are not still in use. They are not designed to handle high pressures but they can generate a good vacuum and even run dry for short periods of time.

Selecting a Pump

There are other key aspects to choosing the right hydraulic pump that go beyond deciding what type is best adapted to your application. These pump characteristics include the following:

  • The type of hydraulic fluid that will be used
  • Operating speed in rpm
  • Maximum operating pressure
  • Fixed or variable displacement
  • The flow rate (which is related to pump speed in rpm, pump efficiency, and displacement)
  • Torque ratings and power curves

However, your starting point will always be the type of motor that you need.

Conclusion

Selecting a pump can be very challenging, but a good place to start is looking at the type of pump that you need. Vane pumps have been largely replaced by compact, durable gear pumps, with external gear pumps working best for high pressure and operating speeds while internal gear pumps are able to generate flow with very little pulsation. However, vane pumps are still good for creating an effective vacuum and can run even when dry for short periods of time. Piston pumps in general are more powerful but, at the same time, more susceptible to contamination.

MAC Hydraulics

Whether the pump is needed for the rugged world of mining, the sterile world of food and beverage processing, or the mission-critical aerospace industry, MAC Hydraulics can assist you with selecting, installing, maintaining, and repairing the right pump to meet the needs of your hydraulic system. In the event of a breakdown, our highly skilled technicians can troubleshoot and repair your pump — no matter who the manufacturer happens to be. We also offer on-site services that include common repairs, preventative maintenance, lubrication, cleaning, pressure testing, and setting. Contact MAC Hydraulics today for all your hydraulic pump repair needs!