Ultra-Small Scale Hydroelectric as a Supplemental Energy
Faculty Mentor: Daniel Maynes, Department of Mechanical Engineering
For centuries water has been used as a source of power; from the middle ages where
waterwheels were used for simple mechanical tasks to the 21st century where large
hydroelectric power plants supply megawatts of electricity to the power grid. In recent
decades developing and remote regions in Tibet, Laos, Uganda and parts of Latin
America, have begun using small scale hydroelectric generators to provide electricity to
their areas. With the rising concerns of greenhouse gas emissions, developed nations have
also begun to look into ‘small scale hydro.’1
Where there is a sufficient water supply these small scale generators possess several
advantages over other forms of alternative energy. First, hydroelectric power generation
is generally highly efficient (between 70% and 90%). The output is very predictable; it is
very simple to calculate the power output from flow rate and available head. They can be
very inexpensive to install and maintain; the necessary equipment is usually locally
available. Because of their simplicity, small scale hydro is environmentally benign and
The impetus behind this project was to apply the concepts of small scale hydro to the
production of hydroelectric energy by placing small turbines inside of a water main and
using the preexisting plumbing to turn the turbine to supplement the energy needs of a
home or business.
There are two main parameters that characterize small scale hydro independent of the
type of turbine used. These are head and flow rate with flow rate being the most
important factor in the production of power. Head, also known as pressure head, is
defined as the height of a column of fluid necessary to develop a specific pressure3,
representing the potential energy in a column of water.
Flow rate is the volume of water moving through an area in a certain time and can be
determined either by multiplying the cross-sectional area of the pipe by the velocity of
the water moving through it, or by using a flow meter. Using these parameters the
theoretical power that can be generated is2 found by multiplying the head, flow rate,
density of the fluid, gravitational acceleration, and efficiency. This is the maximum
amount of power at a certain efficiency that can be produced by a column of water.
There are two types of turbines that were used in this project, impulse and axial. Impulse
turbines are characterized by water impinging on buckets or vanes and are optimized for
operation at low specific speeds (high head/low flow). An axial turbine is essentially a
propeller and is optimized at high specific speeds (low head/high flow).4 These turbines
were mounted on a hydraulic table that provided 23 m of head and connected to a tube
flow meter with a 15 gpm capacity. The turbine shaft was connected to a torque sensor
and an encoder that output data to a LabView VI to measure torque and angular velocity.
These values were multiplied together to determine the power.
It was found that the theoretical maximum amount of power that could be produced by an
ultra-small scale hydro generator was about 70 watts. Though this is not a large amount
of power, it could be used to charge a battery bank and supplement a home’s power usage.
It was also found that this power would come at a pressure loss, which in a residential
situation would be unacceptable. Though there is a large amount of head for this
application, it is more important to have a large amount of flow.
When water was actually run through the turbines an insignificant amount of power was
produced (a maximum of 0.8 watts), possibly due to misalignment of the interface
between the shaft and the torque sensor, misalignment of the shaft in the bearings (for the
axial flow turbine), ‘water braking,’ water not impinging on the correct part of the axial
turbine, and because of the size of the turbines not enough torque could be generated.
It is apparent from this project that ultra-small scale hydroelectric generation is not a
practical means to produce power in a residential context because of the low amount of
flow and its intermittency. To be practical, a turbine should be placed in a stream of
running water that can provide a large amount of flow and an adequate amount of head.
The turbine also needs to be of a size that can generate the torque necessary to turn a
generator. With these requirements met, small scale hydro could produce the power
necessary to power a home.
1. Micro-Hydro Power, Knowledge and Information Services, The Schumacher
Centre for Technology and Development, Bourton Hall, Bourton-on-Dunamore,
Rugby Warwichshire, UK.
2. A Guide to UK Mini-Hydro Developments, (January, 2005), British Hydropower
3. Sybil P. Parker, Editor and Chief, McGraw Hill Dictionary of Science and
Engineering, (1984), McGraw Hill Book Company.
4. Munson, B.R., Young, D.F., Okiishi, T.H. (2006) Fundamentals of Fluid
Mechanics, Fifth Edition. John Wiley and Sons.
For more information, the author is invited to request a copy of the full report from the author.