Hydraulic analogy

Hydraulic analogy

The electronic–hydraulic analogy (derisively referred to as the drain-pipe theory by Oliver Heaviside) is the most widely used analogy for "electron fluid" in a metal conductor. Since electric current is invisible and the processes at play in electronics are often difficult to demonstrate, the various electronic components are represented by hydraulic equivalents. Electricity (as well as heat) was originally understood to be a kind of fluid, and the names of certain electric quantities (such as current) are derived from hydraulic equivalents. Like all analogies, it demands an intuitive and competent understanding of the baseline paradigms (electronics and hydraulics).


Basic ideas

There are two basic paradigms:

  • Version with pressure induced by gravity. Large tanks of water are held up high, or are filled to differing water levels, and the potential energy of the water head is the pressure source. This is reminiscent of electrical diagrams with an up arrow pointing to +V, grounded pins that otherwise are not shown connecting to anything, and so on.
  • Completely enclosed version with pumps providing pressure only; no gravity. This is reminiscent of a circuit diagram with a voltage source shown and the wires actually completing a circuit.

Applications: Flow and pressure variables can be calculated in fluid flow network with the use of the hydraulic ohm analogy.[1][2] The method can be applied to both steady and transient flow situations.

Component equivalents

A simple pipe.
A relatively wide pipe completely filled with water is equivalent to a piece of wire. When comparing to a piece of wire, the pipe should be thought of as having semi-permanent caps on the ends. Connecting one end of a wire to a circuit is equivalent to forcibly un-capping one end of the pipe and attaching it to another pipe. With few exceptions (such as a high-voltage power source), a wire with only one end attached to a circuit will do nothing; the pipe remains capped on the free end, and thus adds nothing to the circuit.
Electric potential 
Equivalent to pressure.
Also called potential difference. A difference in pressure between two points. Or in open hydraulic troughs and tanks, a difference in water height or "head". Usually measured in volts.
Electric charge 
Equivalent to a quantity of water.
Equivalent to a hydraulic volume flow rate; that is, the volumetric quantity of flowing water over time. Usually measured in amperes.
Ideal voltage source 
A dynamic pump with feedback control. A pressure meter on both sides shows that regardless of the current being produced, this kind of pump produces constant pressure difference.
Ideal current source 
A positive displacement pump. A current meter (little paddle wheel) shows that when this kind of pump is driven at a constant speed, it maintains a constant speed of the little paddle wheel.
A simple pipe with a constricted region.
A constriction in the bore of the pipe which requires more pressure to pass the same amount of water. All pipes have some resistance to flow, just like all wires have some resistance to current.
A simple one-way ball-type check valve, in its "open" state.
Equivalent to a one-way check valve with a slightly leaky valve seat. Like a diode, a small pressure difference is needed before the valve opens. And like a diode, too much reverse bias can damage or destroy the valve assembly.
A tank divided by a rubber diaphragm.
A tank with one connection at each end and a rubber sheet dividing the tank in two lengthwise[3] (a hydraulic accumulator). When water is forced into one pipe, equal water is simultaneously forced out the other pipe, yet no water can penetrate the rubber diaphragm. Energy is stored by the stretching of the rubber. As more current flows "through" the capacitor, the back-pressure (voltage) becomes greater, thus current "leads" voltage in a capacitor. As the back-pressure from the stretched rubber approaches the applied pressure, the current becomes less and less. Thus capacitors "filter out" constant pressure differences and slowly-varying, low-frequency pressure differences, while allowing rapid changes in pressure to pass through.
A heavy paddle wheel placed in the current. The mass of the wheel and the size of the blades restrict the water's ability to rapidly change its rate of flow (current) through the wheel due to the effects of inertia, but, given time, a constant flowing stream will pass mostly unimpeded through the wheel, as it turns at the same speed as the water flow. The mass and surface area of the wheel and its blades are analogous to inductance, and friction between its axle and the axle bearings corresponds to the resistance that accompanies any non-superconducting inductor.
An alternative Inductor model is simply a long pipe, perhaps coiled into a spiral for convenience. This fluid-inertia device is used in real life as an essential component of a hydraulic ram. The inertia of the water flowing through the pipe produces the inductance effect; inductors "filter out" rapid changes in flow, while allowing slow variations in current to be passed through. The drag imposed by the walls of the pipe is somewhat analogous to parasitic resistance.
In either model, the pressure difference (voltage) across the device must be present before the current will start moving, thus in inductors voltage "leads" current. As the current increases, approaching the limits imposed by its own internal friction and of the current that the rest of the circuit can provide, the pressure drop across the device becomes lower and lower.
A pressure-actuated valve combined with a one-way check valve.
A valve in which a diaphragm, controlled by a low-current signal (either constant current for a BJT or constant pressure for a FET), moves a plunger which affects the current through another section of pipe.
A combination of two MOSFET transistors. As the input pressure changes, the pistons allow the output to connect to either zero or positive pressure.
A needle valve operated by a flow meter. As water flows through in the forward direction, the needle valve restricts flow more; as water flows the other direction, the needle valve opens further providing less resistance.

Principle equivalents

EM wave speed (velocity of propagation
Speed of sound in water. When a light switch is flipped, the electric wave travels very quickly through the wires.
Charge flow speed (drift velocity
Particle speed of water. The moving charges themselves move rather slowly.
Constant flow of water in a circuit of pipe
Low frequency AC 
Water oscillating back and forth in a pipe
Higher-frequency AC and transmission lines 
Sound being transmitted through the water pipes
Inductive spark 
Used in induction coils, similar to water hammer, caused by the inertia of water

See also Bond graph.

Equation examples

Some examples of equivalent electrical and hydraulic equations:

type hydraulic electric thermal
quantity volume V [m3] charge q [C] heat Q [J]
potential pressure p [Pa=J/m3] potential ϕ [V=J/C] temperature T [K=J/kB]
flux Volumetric flow rate ΦV [m3/s] current I [A=C/s] heat transfer rate \dot{Q} [J/s]
flux density velocity v [m/s] current density j [C/(m2·s) = A/m²] heat flux \dot{Q}'' [W/m2]
linear model Poiseuille's law  \Phi_{V} = \frac{\pi r^{4}}{8 \eta} \frac{\Delta p^{\star}}{\ell} Ohm's law j=-\sigma \nabla \phi Fourier's law \dot{Q}''=\kappa \nabla T

If the differential equations have the same form , the response will be similar .

Limits to the analogy

If taken too far, the water analogy can create misconceptions. For it to be useful, we must remain aware of the regions where electricity and water behave very differently.

Electrons can push or pull other distant electrons via their fields, while water molecules experience forces only from direct contact with other molecules. For this reason, waves in water travel at the speed of sound, but waves in a sea of charge will travel much faster as the forces from one electron are applied to many distant electrons and not to only the neighbors in direct contact. In a hydraulic transmission line, the energy flows as mechanical waves through the water, but in an electric transmission line the energy flows as fields in the space surrounding the wires, and does not flow inside the metal. Also, an accelerating electron will drag its neighbors along while attracting them, both because of magnetic forces.
Unlike water, movable charge carriers can be positive or negative, and conductors can exhibit an overall positive or negative net charge. The mobile carriers in electric currents are usually electrons, but sometimes they are positive ions or single protons (H+ ions).
Leaking pipes
If a hole is made in an open hydraulic system, the water can pour out. But the movable charges present within electrical conductors are always attracted to unmoving opposite charges in the material. The "electric fluid" can be forcibly removed from metals, but enormous voltages arise if even a tiny amount is removed. For this reason, the surfaces of conductors act as if they always have a high energy-barrier preventing leaks. Also for this reason, continuing electric currents require closed loops rather than hydraulics' open source/sink resembling spigots and buckets.
Fluid velocity and resistance of metals 
As with water hoses, the carrier drift velocity in conductors is directly proportional to current. However, water only experiences drag via the pipes' inner surface, while charges are slowed at all points within a metal. Also, typical velocity of charge carriers within a conductor is less than centimeters per minute, and the "electrical friction" is extremely high. If charges ever flowed as fast as water can flow in pipes, the electric current would be immense, and the conductors would become incandescently hot and perhaps vaporize. To model the resistance and the charge-velocity of metals, perhaps a pipe packed with sponge, or a narrow straw filled with syrup, would be a better analogy than a large-diameter water pipe.
Quantum Mechanics 
Conductors and insulators contain charges at more than one quantized level of atomic orbit energy, while the water in one region of a pipe can only have a single value of pressure. For this reason there is no hydraulic explanation for such things as a battery's charge pumping ability, a diode's voltage drop, solar cell functions, Peltier effect, etc., however equivalent devices can be designed which exhibit similar responses, although some of the mechanisms would only serve to regulate the flow curves rather than to contribute to the component's primary function.


  1. ^ A. Akers, M. Gassman, & R. Smith, Hydraulic Power System Analysis. Taylor & Francis, New York, 2006, Chapter 13, ISBN 0-8247-9956-9.
  2. ^ A. Esposito, "A Simplified Method for Analyzing Circuits by Analogy". Machine Design, October 1969, pp. 173-177.
  3. ^ http://amasci.com/emotor/cap1.html

See also

External links

Good analogy

Acceptable analogy

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