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Basic Principles of Leaks and Leak Testing

What is a Leak?

A leak is an undesirable flow of gas or liquid through the wall of a vessel via an imperfection such as a hole, crack or bad seal. Leaks require a pressure difference to generate the flow; they always flow from higher pressure to lower pressure.

Typically, leaks are thought of as travelling from positive pressure (inside an object) to atmospheric pressure (outside an object). This is not always the case as a leak could be from atmosphere to inside an evacuated object, but it helps to think about it in this way because the units and terminology are based on this model.

Which Units are Used in Leak Testing?

For leaks of air into the atmosphere, units are expressed as mm3 or cm3 (cc) per second or minute. So 16.6 mm3/sec = 1 cm3/min. A bubble under water is about 30-50 mm3, so 1 bubble per second is about 30 mm3/sec or 2 cm3/min. A standard unit of leakage which takes account of air pressure is the mbarl/sec (millibar-litre per second). A leak into atmosphere of 1 mbarl/sec is equivalent to a volume leak of 1000 mm3/sec.

Leak Testing – What Technique Should Be Used?

Key questions at the start of any leak test requirement are:

  • What size is the component and what is it’s internal volume?
  • What is the leak limit?
  • Does it have hidden internal volumes that may affect leak measurements?
  • Are the parts clean and dry?
  • Is there access to inside or is it a sealed unit?
  • Is it rigid or flexible?
  • Are parts at ambient temperature?
  • What is the surface finish of any sealing surfaces?

The below graphic can help determine the test method based on the acceptable leak rate limit (shown in ml/sec):


Tracer Gas


Flow Rate


Water Submersal / Dunk Tank / Bubble Leak Test

High Vacuum Helium


Air Decay

10-9 10-8 10-7 10-6 10-5 10-4 10-3 10-2 10-1 1 5

Leak Testing – Generic Systems

Pressure / Vacuum

The test piece and the reference volume are simultaneously pressurised (or evacuated) to a preset pressure. The air in the system is then allowed to stabilise with the supply valves closed and the Differential Pressure Transducer is automatically zeroed. After the stabilisation, the pressure change in the test piece is compared to the pressure change in the reference volume, using the Transducer. The difference in volume is measured and if a leak is detected the difference will increase. An alarm limit may be set for a pass/fail decision.

The sequence is fully automatic, the accuracy and sensitivity of the system is defined by the method of setting the preset pressure together with the quality and type of control valves and Differential Pressure Transducer.

Helium Systems

A vacuum pump evacuates the test chamber and test piece simultaneously to a preset vacuum. At this preset level, the chamber and the test piece are isolated and the chamber evacuated further to a very low pressure. A positive pressure variation is therefore created between the test piece and the chamber.

Helium gas is then introduced into the test piece, often in a 10% concentration. A Mass Spectrometer analyses a sample from the chamber as the vacuum continues to be drawn. The Mass Spectrometer measures the helium leakage and sets the pass/fail decision. The test piece pressure is often compared to the chamber pressure before dosing with helium, to avoid saturating the Mass Spectrometer in the event of a gross leak.

For more information see our guide on Helium Leak Testing

To find out more about how we can help you with your leak testing requirements:

We build all machines in-house, applying our 25+ years experience in specialised test and automated handling machines experience to the engineering projects we undertake. We offer customer support, backup and service call-out for all projects, whatever the size.