Wherever you find oil, you’ll also find pumpjacks. Over 96% of oil wells require the lifting power of a pumpjack from the beginning. And 100% of oil wells need artificial lift to get every last drop of crude out at some point over their lifespan. Pumpjacks are one of the most recognizable symbols of American petroleum, but few know their history and how they work.
When first introduced, the counter-balance pumpjack’s ungainly appearance was mocked and ridiculed. But since the late 1800s, they’ve reliably delivered the oil that drives the nation.
The pumpjack is known as: nodding donkey, horse-head, thirsty bird, rocking horse, beam pump, grasshopper and other colorful names.
“It was such a funny looking, odd thing that it was subject to ridicule and criticism.”
—Walter C. Trout, pumpjack inventor
How do they work?
An electric or gas-driven engine rotates a counterweight, attached to an arm that moves a pivoting beam up and down. A cable at the opposite end pulls a rod assembly up, and drops it down again. A hollow chamber with a simple valve opens and fills each time the rod descends, then closes and lifts it up to the surface. Once at the surface, any water and natural gas obtained are separated from the crude oil, then pumped into holding tanks until it can be moved to the refinery.
How much crude can a pumpjack pump?
Pumpjacks average 20 strokes per minute with volumes ranging from 1 – 10 gallons per stroke. The largest units can extract more than 5 barrels per minute.
Why so many sizes?
Oil reserves occur at a wide range of depths and thicknesses. The deeper the crude and the denser its viscosity determines how much force is required to lift it to the surface. Pumpjacks range in size, from small enough to fit in the back of a pickup truck, to 40 feet in height with counter weights up to 20,000 pounds.
So now you know. The humble pumpjack is one of the most durable and reliable machines ever conceived. And without it, wells would just be holes in the ground and there would be no way to obtain the oil our state and our nation runs on.
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