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A diagram of a pumpjack.

A pumpjack (also known as 'nodding donkey, oil derrick, pumping unit, horsehead pump, beam pump, sucker rod pump (SRP), grasshopper pump, thirsty bird and jack pump) is the overground drive for a reciprocating piston pump installed in an oil well.

It is used to mechanically lift liquid out of the well if there is not enough bottom hole pressure for the liquid to flow all the way to the surface. The arrangement is commonly used for onshore wells producing relatively little oil. Pumpjacks are common in many oil-rich areas, dotting the countryside and occasionally serving as local landmarks.

Depending on the size of the pump, it generally produces 5 to 40 litres of liquid at each stroke. Often this is an emulsion of crude oil and water. The size of the pump is also determined by the depth and weight of the oil to be removed, with deeper extraction requiring more power to move the heavier lengths of sucker rods (see diagram at right).

A pumpjack converts the rotary mechanism of the motor to a vertical reciprocating motion to drive the pump shaft, and is exhibited in the characteristic nodding motion. The engineering term for this type of mechanism is a walking beam. It was often employed in stationary and marine steam engine designs in the 1700s and 1800s.


Above ground

This pumpjack located south of Midland, TX is a common sight in West Texas.

Pumpjacks are powered by a "prime mover". This is commonly an electric motor, but combustion engines are used in isolated locations without economic access to electricity. The most common "off-grid" pumpjack engines run on casing gas produced from the well, but pumpjacks have been run on many types of fuel, such as propane (LPG) and diesel. In harsh climates such motors and engines may be housed inside a shack to protect them from the elements.

The prime mover of the pumpjack runs a set of pulleys to the transmission which in turn drives a pair of cranks, generally with counterweights on them to assist the motor in lifting the heavy string of rods. The cranks in turn raise and lower one end of an I-beam which is free to move on an A-frame. On the other end of the beam, there is a curved metal box called a Horse Head or Donkeys Head, named so due to its appearance. A cable made of steel (or, occasionally, fiberglass) called a bridle, connects the horse head to the polished rod, a piston that passes through the stuffing box. The polished rod has a very close fit to the stuffing box, letting it move in and out of the tubing without fluid escaping. (The tubing is a pipe that runs to the bottom of the well through which the liquid is produced.) The bridle follows the curve of the horse head as it lowers and raises to create an almost completely vertical stroke. The polished rod is connected to a long string of rods called sucker rods, which run through the tubing all the way to the down-hole pump, usually positioned near the bottom of the well.


A pump jack in California, USA

At the bottom of the tubing is the "down-hole pump". This pump consists of two ball check valves: a stationary valve at bottom called the "standing valve", and a valve on the piston connected to the bottom of the sucker rods that travels up and down as the rods reciprocate, known as the "traveling valve". Reservoir fluid enters from the formation into the bottom of the borehole through perforations that have been made through the casing and cement (casing is a larger metal pipe that runs the length of the well, which has cement placed between it and the earth). The tubing, pump and sucker rods are all inside the casing). When the rods at the pump end are traveling up, the traveling valve is closed and the standing valve is open (due to the drop in pressure in the pump barrel). Consequently, the pump barrel fills with the fluid from the formation as the traveling piston lifts the previous contents of the barrel upwards. When the rods begin pushing down, the traveling valve opens and the standing valve closes (due to an increase in pressure in the pump barrel). The traveling valve drops through the fluid in the barrel (which had been sucked in during the upstroke). The piston then reaches the end of its stroke and begins its path upwards again, repeating the process.

Often, gas is produced through the same perforations as the oil. This can be problematic if gas enters the pump, because it can result in "gas locking", where insufficient pressure builds up in the pump barrel to open the valves (due to compression of the gas) and little or nothing is pumped. To preclude this, the inlet for the pump can be placed below the perforations. As the gas-laden fluid enters the well bore through the perforations, the gas bubbles up the annulus (the space between the casing and the tubing) while the liquid moves down to the standing valve inlet. Once at the surface, the gas is collected through piping connected to the annulus.

Water well pump jacks

Pumpjacks can also be used to drive what would now be considered "old fashioned" hand-pumped water wells. The scale of the technology is much smaller than for an oil well, and can typically fit on top of an existing hand-pumped well head. The technology is very simple, typically using a parallel-bar double-cam lift driven from a very low horsepower electric motor.

Although the flow rate for a water well pumpjack is very low compared to a modern jet pump and the lifted water is not pressurized, the water well pumpjack does at least have the option of falling back to hand pumping in an emergency, by simply hand-rotating the pumpjack cam to its lowest position, and attaching a manual handle to the top of the wellhead rod.


See also


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