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Accumulators usually are installed in hydraulic systems to store energy and to smooth out pulsations. Typically, a hydraulic system with an accumulator can use a smaller pump because the accumulator stores energy from the pump during periods of low demand. This energy is available for instantaneous use, released upon demand at a rate many times greater than what could be supplied by the pump alone.
Accumulators also can act as surge or pulsation absorbers, much as an air dome is used on pulsating piston or rotary pumps. Accumulators will cushion hydraulic hammer, reducing shocks caused by rapid operation or sudden starting and stopping of power cylinders in a hydraulic circuit.
There are four principal types of accumulators: the weight-loaded piston type, diaphragm (or bladder) type, spring type, and the hydro-pneumatic piston type. The weight-loaded type was the first used, but is much larger and heavier for its capacity than the modern piston and bladder types. Both weighted and spring types are infrequently found today. Hydro-pneumatic accumulators, Figure 1, are the type most commonly used in industry.
Energy storage — Hydropneumatic accumulators incorporate a gas in conjunction with a hydraulic fluid. The fluid has little dynamic power-storage qualities; typical hydraulic fluids can be reduced in volume by only about 1.7% under a pressure of 5,000 psi. (However, this relative incompressibility makes them ideal for power transmission, providing quick response to power demand.) Therefore, when only 2% of the total contained volume is released, the pressure of the remaining oil in the system drops to zero.
On the other hand, gas, the partner to the hydraulic fluid in the accumulator, can be compressed into small volumes at high pressures. Potential energy is stored in the compressed gas to be released upon demand. Such energy can be compared to that of a raised pile driver ready to transfer its tremendous energy upon the pile. In the piston type accumulator, the energy in the compressed gas exerts pressure against the piston separating the gas and hydraulic fluid. The piston in turn, forces the fluid from the cylinder into the system and to the location where useful work will be accomplished.
Pulsation absorption - Pumps, of course, generate the required power to be used or stored in a hydraulic system. Many pumps deliver this power in a pulsating flow. The piston pump, commonly used for its high pressure capability, can produce pulsations detrimental to a high-pressure system. An accumulator properly located in the system will substantially cushion these pressure variations.
Shock cushioning - In many fluid power applications, the driven member of the hydraulic system stops suddenly, creating a pressure wave that travels back through the system. This shock wave can develop peak pressures several times greater than normal working pressures. It can cause objectionable noise or even system failure. An accumulator's gas cushion, properly located in the system, will minimize this shock.
An example of this application is the absorption of shock caused by suddenly stopping the loading bucket on a hydraulic front end loader. Without an accumulator, the bucket, weighing over 2 tons, can completely lift the rear wheels of a loader off the ground. The severe shock to the tractor frame and axle, as well as operator wear and tear, is overcome by adding an adequate accumulator to the hydraulic system.
Supplementing pump flow - An accumulator, capable of storing power can supplement the hydraulic pump in delivering power to the system. The pump stores potential energy in the accumulator during idle periods of the work cycle. The accumulator transfers this reserve power back to the system when the cycle requires emergency or peak power. This enables a system to utilize a much smaller pump, resulting in savings in cost and power.
Maintaining pressure - Pressure changes occur in a hydraulic system when the liquid is subjected to rising or falling temperatures. Also, there may be pressure drop due to leakage of hydraulic fluid. An accumulator compensates for such pressure changes by delivering or receiving a small amount of hydraulic fluid. If the main power source should fail or be stopped, the accumulator would act as an auxiliary power source, maintaining pressure in the system.
Fluid dispensing - An accumulator may be used to dispense small volumes of fluids, such as lubricating greases and oils, on command.
When sized and precharged properly, accumulators normally cycle between stages (d) and (f), Figure 2. The piston will not contact either cap in a piston accumulator, and the bladder will not contact the poppet or be compressed so that it becomes destructively folded into the top of its body.
Manufacturers specify recommended precharge pressure for their accumulators. In energy-storage applications, a bladder accumulator typically is precharged to 80% of minimum hydraulic system pressure and a piston accumulator to 100 psi below minimum system pressure. Precharge pressure determines how much fluid will remain in the accumulator at minimum system pressure.
Correct precharge involves accurately filling an accumulator's gas side with a dry inert gas, such as nitrogen, while no hydraulic fluid is in the fluid side. Accumulator charging then begins when hydraulic fluid is admitted into the fluid side, and occurs only at a pressure greater than the precharge pressure. During charging, the gas is compressed to store energy.
A correct precharge pressure is the most important factor in prolonging accumulator life. The care with which precharging must be accomplished and maintained is an important consideration when choosing the type of accumulator for an application, all else being equal. If the user tends to be careless about gas pressure and relief valve settings, or adjusts system pressures without making corresponding adjustments to precharge pressure, service life may be shortened, even if the correct type of accumulator was selected. If the wrong accumulator was selected, premature failure is almost certain.