Water hammer

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Water hammer (or, more generally, fluid hammer) is a pressure surge or wave caused by the kinetic energy of a fluid in motion when it is forced to stop or change direction suddenly. It depends on the fluid compressibility where there are sudden changes in pressure. For example, if a valve is closed suddenly at an end of a pipeline system a water hammer wave propagates in the pipe. Moving water in a pipe has kinetic energy proportional to the mass of the water in a given volume times the square of the velocity of the water.


For this reason, pipe-sizing charts for some applications recommend flow velocity at or below 5 ft/s (1.5 m/s). If the pipe is suddenly closed at the outlet (downstream), the mass of water before the closure is still moving forward with some velocity, building up a high pressure and shock waves. In domestic plumbing this is experienced as a loud bang resembling a hammering noise. Water hammer can cause pipelines to break if the pressure is high enough. Air traps or stand pipes (open at the top) are sometimes added as dampers to water systems to provide a cushion to absorb the force of moving water in order to prevent damage to the system. (At some hydroelectric generating stations what appears to be a water tower is actually one of these devices.)

On the other hand, when a valve in a pipe is closed, the water downstream of the valve will attempt to continue flowing, creating a vacuum that may cause the pipe to collapse or implode. This problem can be particularly acute if the pipe is on a downhill slope. To prevent this, air and vacuum relief valves, or air vents, are installed just downstream of the valve to allow air to enter the line and prevent this vacuum from occurring[citation needed].

In the home water hammer often occurs when a dishwasher, washing machine, or toilet shuts off water flow, resulting in a loud bang or banging sound. A hydropneumatic device similar in principle to a shock absorber called a 'Water Hammer Arrestor' can be installed between the water pipe and the machine which will absorb the shock and stop the banging.

Steam heating systems for buildings may also be vulnerable to a situation similar to water hammer, known as steam hammer. In a steam system, water hammer most often occurs when some of the steam condenses into water in a horizontal section of the steam piping. Subsequently, steam picks up the water, forms a "slug" and hurls it at high velocity into a pipe elbow, creating a loud hammering noise and greatly stressing the pipe. This condition is usually caused by a poor condensate drainage strategy.

Where air filled traps are used, these eventually become depleted of their trapped air over a long period of time through absorption into the water. This can be cured by shutting off the supply and draining the system by opening taps at the highest and lowest locations, which restores the air to the traps and then closing the taps and opening the supply.

Hydroelectric power plants must be carefully designed and maintained because the water hammer can cause water pipes to fail catastrophically. One of the first to successfully investigate the water hammer problem was the Italian engineer Lorenzo Allievi.

Possible causes

  • Sudden valve closure
  • Check valve slam (due to sudden deceleration, a check valve may slam shut rapidly, depending on the dynamic characteristic of the check valve and the mass of the water between a check valve and tank).


Most water hammer software packages use the method of characteristics to solve the differential equations involved. This method works well if the wave speed does not vary in time due to either air or gas entrainment in a pipeline. Many commercial and non commercial packages exist today.

Software packages vary in complexity, dependent on the processes modeled. The more sophisticated packages may have any of the following features:

  • Multiphase flow capabilities
  • An algorithm for cavitation growth and collapse
  • Unsteady friction - the pressure waves will dampen as turbulence is generated and due to variations in the flow velocity distribution
  • Varying bulk modulus for higher pressures (water will become less compressible)
  • Fluid structure interaction - the pipeline will react on the varying pressures and will cause pressure waves itself

Mitigating measures

Water hammer has caused accidents and fatalities, but is usually less threatening. In many cases damage is limited to breakage of pipes or appendages. An engineer should always assess (at least qualitatively) risk of a pipeline burst. Pipelines with hazardous goods should always receive special attention and should be thoroughly investigated.

  • Low fluid velocities.
  • Slow closing valves.
  • High pipeline pressure rating (expensive).
  • Good pipeline control (start-up and shut-down procedures).
  • Water towers (used in many drinking water systems) help maintain steady flow rates and trap large pressure fluctuations.
  • Air vessels work in much the same way as water towers, but are pressurized. They typically have an air cushion above the fluid level in the vessel, which may be regulated or separated by a bladder. Sizes of air vessels may be up to hundreds of cubic meters on large pipelines. They come in many shapes, sizes and configurations.
  • Air valves are often used to remediate low pressures at high points in the pipeline. Though effective, sometimes large numbers of air valves need be installed. These valves also allow air into the system, which is often unwanted.
  • UPS (uninterruptible power supply) is sometimes installed to dampen the initial pressure wave by keeping the system running for some time after a power trip.
  • Flywheel on pump.
  • Pumping station bypass.


  • The water hammer principle can be used to create a simple water pump called a hydraulic ram.
  • Leaks can sometimes be detected using water hammer.
  • Enclosed air pockets can be detected in pipelines.
  • The US Navy is conducting field trials for mine clearing using water hammer.

See also

de:Druckstoß it:Colpo d'ariete he:הלם מים nl:Waterslag