Limits to bathtubs

Danger lurks in the bathtub – not just slips, falls, and Norman Bates, but also bad model formulations.

A while ago, after working with my kids to collect data on our bathtub, I wrote My bathtub is nonlinear.

We grabbed a sheet of graph paper, fat pens, a yardstick, and a stopwatch and headed for the bathtub. …

When the tub was full, we made a few guesses about how long it might take to empty, then started the clock and opened the drain. Every ten or twenty seconds, we’d stop the timer, take a depth reading, and plot the result on our graph. …

To my astonishment, the resulting plot showed a perfectly linear decline in water depth, all the way to zero (as best we could measure). In hindsight, it’s not all that strange, because the tub tapers at the bottom, so that a constant linear decline in the outflow rate corresponds with the declining volumetric flow rate you’d expect (from decreasing pressure at the outlet as the water gets shallower). Still, I find it rather amazing that the shape of the tub (and perhaps nonlinearity in the drain’s behavior) results in such a perfectly linear trajectory.

It turns out that my attribution of the linear time vs. depth profile was sloppy – the behavior has a little to do with tub shape, and a lot to do with nonlinearity in the draining behavior. In a nice brief from the SD conference, Pål Davidsen, Erling Moxnes, Mauricio Munera Sánchez and David Wheat explain why:

… in the 16th century the Italian scientist Evangelista Torricelli found the relationship between water height and outflow to be nonlinear.

… Torricelli may have reasoned as follows. Let a droplet of water fall frictionless outside the tank from the same height … as the surface of the water. Gravitation will make the droplet accelerate. As the droplet passes the bottom of the tank, its kinetic energy will equal the loss of potential energy … Reorganizing this equation Torricelli found the following nonlinear expression for speed as a function of height

v = SQRT(2*g*h)

Then Torricelli moved inside the tank and reasoned that the same must apply there. …

Assuming that the water tank is a cylinder with straight walls … The outflow is given by the square root of volume; it is not a linear function of volume.

– “A note on the bathtub analogy,” ISDC 2011; final proceedings aren’t online yet but presumably will be here eventually.

In hindsight, this ought to have been obvious to me, because bathtubs clearly don’t exhibit the heavy-right-tail behavior of a first order linear draining process. The difference matters:

The bathtub analogy has been used extensively to illustrate stock and flow relationships. Because this analogy is frequently used, System Dynamicists should be aware that the natural outflow of water from a bathtub is a nonlinear function of water volume. A questionnaire suggests that students with one year or more of System Dynamics training tend to assume a linear relationship when asked to model a water outflow driven by gravity. We present Torricelli’s law for the outflow and investigate the error caused by assuming linearity. We also construct an “inverted funnel” which does behave like a linear system. We conclude by pointing out that the nonlinearity is of no importance for the usefulness of bathtubs or funnels as analogies. On the other hand, simplified analogies could make modellers overconfident in linear formulations and not able to address critical remarks from physicists or other specialists.

I’ve been doing SD for over two decades, and have the physical science background to know better, but found it a little too easy to assume a linear bathtub as a mental model, without inquiring very deeply when confronted with disconfirming data. For me, this is a nice cautionary lesson, that we forget the roots of system dynamics in engineering at our own peril.

My implementation of the model is in my library.

2 thoughts on “Limits to bathtubs”

  1. Thanks for sharing with us!
    It is easy to fall in miss perceptions when common sense takes control when explaining phenomenon around. A good example of that would be the intoxication when overshooting alcohol intake. An activity which behavior is common and “understood” for many, but which structure seems to be a black box for many, as I found on my master thesis. Best of lucks!

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