Choked Flow

Also known as critical flow. This condition exists when at a fixed upstream pressure the flow cannot be further increased by lowering the downstream pressure. This condition can occur in gas, steam or liquid services. Fluids flow through valve because of a difference in pressure between the inlet (P1) and outlet (P2) of the valve.

This pressure difference (Delta-P) or pressure drop is essential to moving the fluid. Flow is proportional to the square root of the pressure drop. Which means that the higher the pressure drop is the more fluid can be moved through the valve. If the inlet pressure to a valve remains constant, then the differential pressure can only be increased by lowering the outlet pressure.

For gases and steam, which are compressible fluids, the maximum velocity of the fluid through the valve is limited by the velocity of the propagation of a pressure wave which travels at the speed of sound in the fluid. If the pressure drop is sufficiently high, the velocity in the flow stream at the vena contracta will reach the velocity of sound.

Further decrease in the outlet pressure will not be felt upstream because the pressure wave can only travel at sonic velocity and the signal will never translate upstream. Choked flow can also occur in the liquids but only if the fluid is a flashing or cavitation condition. The vapour bubbles block or choke the flow and prevent the valve from passing more flow by lowering the outlet pressure to increase the pressure drop.

A good Rule of Thumb on Gasses and Steam service is that if the pressure drop across the valve equals or exceeds one half the absolute inlet pressure, then there is a good chance for a choked flow condition.