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 - Hydro-pneumatic 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.