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A turbine converts energy in the form of falling water into rotating shaft power. The selection of the best turbine for any particular hydro site depends on the site characteristics, the dominant ones being the head and flow available. Selection also depends on the desired running speed of the generator or other device loading the turbine.  Other considerations such as whether the turbine is expected to produce power under part-flow conditions, also play an important role in the selection.  All turbines have a power-speed characteristic.  They will tend to run most efficiently at a particular speed, head and flow combination.

A turbine design speed is largely determined by the head under which it operates. Turbines can be classified as high head, medium head or low head machines. Turbines are also divided by their principle way of operating and can be either impulse or reaction turbines.


high head

medium head

low head

impulse turbines




multi-jet Pelton



reaction turbines





 Groups of impulse and reaction turbines

 The rotating element (called `runner') of a reaction turbine is fully immersed in water and is enclosed in a pressure casing.  The runner blades are profiled so that pressure differences across them impose lift forces, like those on aircraft wings, which cause the runner to rotate.

In contrast, an impulse turbine runner operates in air, driven by a jet (or jets) of water.  Here the water remains at atmospheric pressure before and after making contact with the runner blades.  In this case a nozzle converts the pressurised low velocity water into a high speed jet.  The runner blades deflect the jet so as to maximise the change of momentum of the water and thus maximising the force on the blades.

Impulse turbines are usually cheaper then reaction turbines because there is no need for a specialist pressure casing, nor for carefully engineered clearances.  However,  they are  only suitable for relatively high heads.

Impulse turbines

Impulse turbines are generally more suitable for micro-hydro applications compared with reaction turbines because they have the following advantages:

bulletgreater tolerance of sand and other particles in the water,
bulletbetter access to working parts,
bulletno pressure seals around the shaft,
bulleteasier to fabricate and maintain,
bulletbetter part-flow efficiency.

The major disadvantage of impulse turbines is that they are mostly unsuitable for low-head sites because of their low specific speeds.  The crossflow, Turgo and multi-jet Pelton are suitable at medium heads. 

A Pelton turbine consists of a set of specially shaped buckets mounted on a periphery of a circular disc.  It is turned by jets of water which are discharged from one or more nozzles and strike the buckets.  The buckets are split into two halves so that the central area does not act as a dead spot incapable of deflecting water away from the oncoming jet.  The cutaway on the lower lip allows the following bucket to move further before cutting off the jet propelling the bucket ahead of it and also permits a smoother entrance of the bucket into the jet. (see diagrams below)

The Pelton bucket is designed to deflect the jet through 165 degrees (not 180 degrees) which is the maximum angle possible without the return jet interfering with the following bucket for the oncoming jet.




Runner of a Pelton turbine

source: http://www.hydrowest.com/runners1.htm










bucket shape
source: http://europa.eu.int/en/comm/dg17/hydro/layman2.pdf

In large scale hydro installation Pelton turbines are normally only considered for heads above 150 m, but for micro-hydro applications Pelton turbines can be used effectively at heads down to about 20 m. Pelton turbines are not used at lower heads because their rotational speeds become very slow and the runner required is very large and unwieldy.  If runner size and low speed do not pose a problem for a particular installation, then a Pelton turbine can be used efficiently with fairly low heads.  If a higher running speed and smaller runner are required then there are two further options:

- increasing the number of jets.

Having two or more jets enables a smaller runner to be used for a given flow and increases the rotational speed.  The required power can still be attained and the part-flow efficiency is especially good because the wheel can be run on a reduced number of jets with each jet in use still receiving the optimum flow.

- twin runners.

Two runners can be placed on the same shaft either side by side or on opposite sides of the generator.  This configuration is unusual and would only be used if the number of jets per runner had already been maximised, but it allow the use of smaller diameter and hence faster rotating runners.


Reaction turbines

The reaction turbines considered here are the Francis turbine and the propeller turbine. A special case of the propeller turbine is the Kaplan.  In all these cases, specific speed is high, i.e. reaction turbines rotate faster than impulse turbines given the same head and flow conditions.  This has the very important consequences in that a reaction turbine can often be coupled directly to an alternator without requiring a speed-increasing drive system.  Some manufacturers make combined turbine-generator sets of this sort. Significant cost savings are made in eliminating the drive and the maintenance of the hydro unit is very much simpler. The Francis turbine is suitable for medium heads, while the propeller is more suitable for low heads.

On the whole, reaction turbines require more sophisticated fabrication than impulse turbines because they involve the use of larger and more intricately profiled blades together with carefully profiled casings.  

Francis turbines can either be volute-cased or open-flume machines. The spiral casing is tapered to distribute water uniformly around the entire perimeter of the runner and the guide vanes feed the water into the runner at the correct angle. The runner blades are profiled in a complex manner and direct the water so that it exits axially from the centre of the runner.  In doing so, the water imparts most of its pressure energy to the runner before leaving the turbine via a draft tube.

The Francis turbine is generally fitted with adjustable guide vanes. These regulate the water flow as it enters the runner and are usually linked to a governing system which matches flow to turbine loading in the same way as a spear valve or deflector plate in a Pelton turbine.  When the flow is reduced the efficiency of the turbine falls away.

Francis turbine
(source: adapted from http://lingolex.com/bilc/engine.html & http://starfire.ne.uiuc.edu/~ne201/1996/schoenau/wheel~1.html)

Propeller turbine

The basic propeller turbine consists of a propeller, similar to a ship's propeller, fitted inside a continuation of the penstock tube.  The turbine shaft passes out of the tube at the point where the tube changes direction.  The propeller usually has three to six blades, three in the case of very low head units and the water flow is regulated by static blades or swivel gates ("wicket gates") just upstream of the propeller.  This kind of propeller turbine is known as a fixed blade axial flow turbine because the pitch angle of the rotor blades cannot be changed.  The part-flow efficiency of fixed-blade propeller turbines tend to be very poor.


Large scale hydro sites make use of more sophisticated versions of the propeller turbines. Varying the pitch of the propeller blades together with wicket gate adjustment, enables reasonable efficiency to be maintained under part flow conditions. Such turbines are known as variable pitch or Kaplan turbines.

Centrifugal pumps can be used as turbines by passing water through them in reverse. Research is currently being done to enable the performance of pumps as turbines to be predicated more accurately.

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Last Edited :  10 March 2015 10:42:11