Hydraulic Power Essentials: Cylinders, Pumps, Motors

on June 6, 2023
collage hydraulic equipment 1

From the smooth functioning of towering cranes to the swift operation of industrial machinery, the wonders of hydraulics surround us every day, whether we realize it or not. Hydraulic systems, a marvel of engineering, have significantly contributed to the development and growth of various industries, including construction, manufacturing, aviation, and more. But what is the driving force behind these powerful systems?

The answer lies in three key components: the hydraulic cylinders, pumps, and motors, all working seamlessly together to convert hydraulic energy into mechanical power. Each of these components plays a pivotal role in the functioning of a hydraulic system. Understanding how they work, individually and together, is key to leveraging their full potential and ensuring the smooth operation of your hydraulic machinery.

This guide aims to delve deep into the world of hydraulics, shedding light on the science behind hydraulic cylinders, pumps, and motors. We’ll discuss each component’s structure and function, the interplay between them in a system, and the fundamental principles that make hydraulic power such an effective and efficient means of power transmission.

Whether you’re an industry professional looking to expand your knowledge or a curious newcomer fascinated by the world of hydraulics, this guide offers comprehensive insight into these essential hydraulic components. We invite you to explore the science of hydraulics and understand how it is intricately woven into our everyday lives.

No need to hold back your curiosity! If you find yourself intrigued by the sheer versatility and power of hydraulic systems and want to learn more about their components, click here to discover our wide range of high-quality hydraulic parts.

collage hydraulic equipment old

Throughout this guide, we’ve aimed to make the content as engaging and accessible as possible, breaking down complex hydraulic concepts into easy-to-understand terms and examples. Feel free to revisit any sections or jump ahead as you need. It’s time to unravel the fascinating science behind hydraulic cylinders, pumps, and motors!

The Fundamentals of Hydraulics

At the heart of countless machines and systems that shape our world are the principles of hydraulics. It’s the driving force behind everything from heavy-duty construction equipment to the braking systems in our vehicles, and even the chairs in our dentist’s office. The foundational science of hydraulics brings together physics, engineering, and fluid dynamics to enable incredible feats of force and motion. But what really constitutes hydraulics? How does it work, and why is it so prevalent in various aspects of our daily life? In this section, we delve into the fundamentals of hydraulics, demystifying its principles, its applications, and its profound impact on technology and industry. Whether you’re a seasoned engineer or a curious newcomer, join us in exploring the power and promise of hydraulics.

Understanding Hydraulic Power

Hydraulic power, or hydraulic energy, lies at the heart of numerous applications across various industries. From construction machinery and airplane controls to automobile brakes and even amusement park rides, hydraulic systems provide the force and control necessary for these complex systems to function. But what exactly is hydraulic power, and how does it work? Let’s dive into its principles and discover how it drives our world.

Hydraulic power is generated through the transmission of a force, applied on a fluid, from one point to another within an enclosed system. This energy transmission happens under the influence of pressure and is based on Pascal’s law, which states that when a change in pressure is applied to an enclosed fluid, it’s transmitted undiminished to all portions of the fluid and to the walls of its container.

In practical terms, this principle allows us to exert a relatively small force on a small piston in a hydraulic system and have it magnified on a larger piston, thereby doing more work. The key here is the area difference between the small and large pistons. While the force applied is the same on both ends, it’s the area of the piston that translates into pressure and consequently, power.

For example, in a hydraulic press, when you apply a force to the small piston (input), it increases the pressure in the fluid. This increased pressure is then transmitted to the larger piston (output), where it results in a larger force being exerted, providing the necessary power to carry out tasks like crushing a car or bending steel.

This fundamental principle underpins all hydraulic power systems and enables a vast range of machinery and equipment to function.

Diagram showing the principle of hydraulic power with a small and large piston

Basic Hydraulic Principles

To understand the science behind hydraulic cylinders, pumps, and motors, we must first delve into the fundamental principles that govern hydraulic systems. These basic hydraulic principles give rise to the effectiveness and versatility of hydraulic power in various applications. Here, we’ll discuss the three essential principles: Pascal’s Law, the principle of hydraulic multiplication, and the concept of flow and pressure.

Pascal’s Law

Named after the French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Law forms the foundation of hydraulic systems. It states that pressure exerted anywhere in a confined incompressible fluid is transmitted equally in all directions throughout the fluid such that the pressure changes act against equal areas on equal and opposite faces. This law is the reason hydraulic systems can transmit power effectively and efficiently, even over long distances.


Hydraulic Multiplication

Hydraulic multiplication is an application of Pascal’s law that allows for a small input force to be multiplied into a much larger output force. This is achieved by manipulating the relative areas of two pistons. By applying a small force to a small-diameter piston (the input), we create a pressure that is transmitted undiminished to a larger diameter piston (the output), resulting in a much larger force. This is how hydraulic systems amplify power, enabling heavy-duty applications like excavators or industrial presses to operate.

Flow and Pressure

In a hydraulic system, the movement of fluid from one component to another is governed by flow and pressure. The fluid’s flow rate, often measured in gallons per minute (GPM), determines the speed at which a hydraulic actuator like a cylinder or motor can move. On the other hand, pressure, usually measured in pounds per square inch (PSI), correlates with the amount of force that the hydraulic actuator can apply. Balancing flow and pressure is crucial to achieving the desired speed and force in a hydraulic system.

Want to know more about how hydraulics drive our world? Explore our extensive library of articles on all things hydraulics!

Key Components in a Hydraulic System

Hydraulic systems, while appearing complex, are actually built from a set of simple yet crucial components. These components work together to convert the energy of an input power source into the mechanical energy that drives a wide array of industrial and commercial applications. The key components in a hydraulic system include the hydraulic pump, hydraulic cylinder, hydraulic motor, control valves, and reservoir. Let’s discuss these in more detail:

Hydraulic Pump

The hydraulic pump is effectively the heart of the hydraulic system. It creates a vacuum at the pump inlet which draws fluid from the reservoir into the pump. The pump then delivers this fluid to the rest of the system under high pressure. Pumps are typically driven by an electric motor or internal combustion engine. There are different types of pumps, including gear pumps, vane pumps, and piston pumps, each suited to specific hydraulic applications.

Hydraulic Cylinder

Hydraulic cylinders are the workhorses of the hydraulic system, transforming fluid pressure into mechanical force that can move, lift, or hold loads. A hydraulic cylinder consists of a cylindrical barrel, in which a piston connected to a piston rod moves back and forth.

Hydraulic Motor

Hydraulic motors are rotary actuators that convert hydraulic energy into mechanical energy. They work on the same principle as hydraulic cylinders, but instead of linear motion, they provide rotary motion, allowing them to drive a variety of mechanical systems like conveyors, mixers, and winches.

Control Valves

Control valves are critical for regulating the direction, pressure, and flow of hydraulic fluid within the system. They include directional control valves, pressure control valves, and flow control valves, each of which play a role in optimizing system performance.


The reservoir holds the hydraulic fluid. It not only stores the fluid but also allows impurities and air bubbles to be separated from the fluid, and aids in cooling the system.

Ready to dive deeper? Check out our detailed guides on each of these components to gain a more comprehensive understanding of hydraulic systems

The Role of Fluid in Hydraulics

In a hydraulic system, the fluid serves as the core medium for transmitting power. But the role of hydraulic fluid goes far beyond mere power transmission. It also helps in heat transfer, sealing, and lubrication. Let’s take a closer look at each role:

Power Transmission

The main function of hydraulic fluid is to transmit power from one end of the hydraulic system to another. The fluid is virtually incompressible, which allows it to efficiently carry the force applied at one point to another point within the system, enabling the mechanical work.

Heat Transfer

Hydraulic systems can generate a considerable amount of heat due to the mechanical work being done and the friction generated. The hydraulic fluid helps in dissipating this heat. As the fluid circulates through the system, it absorbs heat from the components and carries it away, often to a heat exchanger where the heat is released, thereby preventing overheating and possible damage to the system.


Hydraulic fluid aids in sealing the internal components of the system. As the fluid is forced under pressure into various components, it fills the small gaps between the mating surfaces, creating an effective seal and preventing leakage.


In addition to transmitting power, hydraulic fluid also lubricates the moving parts of the hydraulic system, reducing friction, minimizing wear and tear, and extending the lifespan of the system’s components.

hydraulic cylinder lubricated

Understanding Hydraulic Cylinders

As critical components of any hydraulic system, hydraulic cylinders play a key role in converting the energy produced by hydraulic fluid under pressure into mechanical force. This conversion propels numerous applications across industries, driving the motion of machines and systems. From excavators and cranes to industrial machinery and even retractable stadium roofs, hydraulic cylinders are behind the scenes, powering our world. But how do they function? What types exist, and where are they best applied? What factors should be considered when choosing the right cylinder for your needs? This section will unravel the answers to these questions, taking you on a deep dive into the fascinating realm of hydraulic cylinders. Join us as we explore the intricate dynamics of these indispensable components.

The Construction of a Hydraulic Cylinder

A hydraulic cylinder, also known as a linear hydraulic motor, is a mechanical actuator that is used to give a unidirectional force through a unidirectional stroke. Understanding its construction is the first step to comprehend how these powerful devices work.

At its most basic level, a hydraulic cylinder consists of a cylinder barrel, a cylinder base and cap, a cylinder head, piston, piston rod, rod gland, seals, and fluid.

Cylinder Barrel: The cylinder barrel is the area where the pressure is contained. It’s typically a seamless thick tube that provides the requisite strength to withstand high pressure.

Cylinder Base and Cap: The base (bottom) and the cap (top) of the cylinder are usually screwed, bolted, or welded to the barrel. The base doesn’t have any machining for seals since it’s welded to the barrel, while the cap is machined for seals and bearing to support the piston rod that extends outside of the cylinder.

Cylinder Head: The cylinder head separates the rod and the barrel, helping to guide the piston rod as it moves in and out of the cylinder and also to prevent the pressurized fluid from leaking out of the system.

Piston and Piston Rod: The piston is a disc that fits tightly within the barrel. The piston rod is typically a hard chrome-plated piece of cold-rolled steel that attaches to the piston and extends from the cylinder through the rod-end head. The piston divides the inside of the cylinder into two chambers: the bottom chamber (cap end) and the piston rod side chamber (rod end/annulus).

Rod Gland: This component encloses the piston rod that extends through it outside the cylinder. It generally contains a series of seals to prevent the pressurized fluid from leaking out of the system.

Seals: They are the unsung heroes of any hydraulic system, ensuring the tight closure that keeps the fluid where it needs to be. There are seals on the piston and piston rod that prevent the fluid from bypassing the piston, which would decrease the effectiveness of the movement.

Fluid: The hydraulic fluid is what transmits the power within the system, and it’s typically oil due to its lubricating properties and ability to resist compression.

Working Principle of Hydraulic Cylinders

The hydraulic cylinder works on the principle of Pascal’s law which states that when pressure is applied to any fluid in a confined space, the pressure is transmitted equally in all directions. This principle allows for large forces to be generated with relatively little effort.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to how hydraulic cylinders work:

Step 1: The hydraulic pump draws oil from the reservoir and sends it through the system under pressure. This oil enters the cylinder barrel via a port at one end.

Step 2: As the oil enters the barrel, it pushes against the piston, which starts moving due to the force exerted by the oil. The piston’s movement will cause the piston rod, which is connected to the piston, to move as well.

Step 3: The movement of the piston rod can then be used to perform useful work, like lifting a heavy object or moving a piece of machinery. When the oil is pumped into the other side of the piston, it returns to its original position.

Step 4: The oil that was in the cylinder barrel has to go somewhere as the piston moves. It flows back along a return path to the reservoir, ready to be drawn into the system again when needed.

By simply moving hydraulic fluid into or out of different parts of the cylinder, it’s possible to create linear movement that can do work.

Types of Hydraulic Cylinders

There are several different types of hydraulic cylinders, each designed for specific applications and to handle different levels of force and pressure. The two main types are single acting and double acting cylinders, but there are also telescopic and plunger (ram) cylinders.

Single Acting Cylinders (SAC): In a single acting cylinder, the hydraulic fluid only acts on one side of the piston. This means the piston can only be moved in one direction by the hydraulic fluid. To return the piston to its original position, it relies on either gravity or an internal spring mechanism. These types of cylinders are used in applications where work is only done in one direction. Learn more about the mechanics behind single acting cylinders here.

Double Acting Cylinders (DAC): Double acting cylinders have hydraulic fluid acting on both sides of the piston, allowing for controlled motion in both the extension and retraction of the piston rod. These are the most common type of hydraulic cylinder due to their versatility and control. We have an extensive selection of double acting cylinders for different applications.

Telescopic Cylinders: Telescopic cylinders are a special type of hydraulic cylinder that is designed to provide an exceptionally long output travel from a very compact retracted length. They are often used in applications that require a long reach, such as dump trucks or heavy machinery.

Plunger (Ram) Cylinders: Plunger or ram cylinders are a type of single acting cylinder where the piston is the ram and is extended using hydraulic force. A spring or load usually returns the ram. They are used when a pushing force is required. Check out our collection of high-quality plunger cylinders.

Common Applications of Hydraulic Cylinders

Hydraulic cylinders are used in a wide array of industries due to their ability to create large forces and precise movements. Some of the most common applications include:

Construction Equipment: Hydraulic cylinders are integral to many types of construction equipment, including excavators, bulldozers, and backhoes. They provide the force needed to move heavy loads and dig through tough materials. Discover more about hydraulic solutions for the construction industry.

Manufacturing Machinery: In manufacturing, hydraulic cylinders are used to create the linear force necessary for operating presses, conveyors, and robotic arms. They are an essential component of automated manufacturing processes. Learn more about hydraulic systems in manufacturing.

Automotive Industry: From car jacks to brake systems and convertible tops, hydraulic cylinders play an important role in the automotive industry. They offer the power and control needed for many vehicle operations. Discover how hydraulic cylinders shape the automotive industry.

Aerospace Industry: Hydraulic cylinders are used in the aerospace industry for tasks such as adjusting wing flaps and landing gears. They are also used to control the steering of aircraft on the ground. Explore our hydraulic solutions for the aerospace industry.

Agriculture: Farm equipment such as tractors, harvesters, and loaders all make use of hydraulic cylinders for various functions, such as lifting, pushing, or pulling. See our range of hydraulic cylinders for agriculture.

Material Handling: In warehouses and distribution centers, hydraulic cylinders are used in forklifts, pallet jacks, and automated storage and retrieval systems to handle and move goods efficiently. Check out our hydraulic solutions for material handling.

The broad applications of hydraulic cylinders are a testament to their power, reliability, and versatility in providing controlled linear motion.

End of Part 1: Setting the Foundation

In this first part, we have explored the fundamentals of hydraulics, including hydraulic power, basic principles, key components, and the role of fluid. We have also dived into hydraulic cylinders, understanding their construction, working principles, different types, applications, and maintenance.

In Part 2, we will delve into hydraulic pumps, discussing their role in hydraulic systems, various types, and how to choose the right pump. We will also explore hydraulic motors, their function, designs, and selecting the suitable motor. Join us in Part 2 to deepen your knowledge of hydraulic pumps and motors.

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