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A jet of water is directed on to the paddles of the water wheel, causing them to turn.
A typical flat board undershot wheel uses about 20 percent of the energy in the flow of water striking the wheel as measured by English civil engineer John Smeaton in the 18th century. Stream wheels gain little or no advantage from head, a difference in water level.An undershot wheel is a vertically mounted water wheel with a horizontal axle that is rotated by the water from a low weir striking the wheel in the bottom quarter.Most of the energy gain is from the movement of the water and comparatively little from the head.Undershot and stream wheel use large flows at little or no head.There is often an associated millpond, a reservoir for storing water and hence energy until it is needed.
Larger heads store more potential energy for the same amount of water so the reservoirs for overshot and backshot wheels tend to be smaller than for breast shot wheels.