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Surface equipment for sucker rod lift

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The primary surface equipment for a sucker-rod lift system is the pumping unit and its prime mover. But a variety of other equipment is also used in the surface operations for this type of artificial lift. This page discusses the polished rod, associated clamps, stuffing boxes, rod rotators, pumping tees, check valves, and surface valves.

Polished rods

A polished rod is the top-most rod in a rod string. These rods come in various lengths and sizes. Polished rods are made of various materials, including carbon steel, stainless steel, and monel. It is usually more economical to use corrosion-resistant polished-rod liners on carbon-steel polished rods than to use corrosion-resistant polished rods. Polished rods must be properly aligned in relation to the pumping tee. Poor alignment will result in decreased life of the stuffing-box packing and possible failure of the polished rod. Furthermore, if the polished rod does not travel straight up and down during the pumping cycle, liners may not be practical. For situations in which the pumping unit is not properly set and/or the wellhead is crooked, a full-length sucker rod should be installed between the polished rod and the top of the string's pony rods. This will decrease crooked wellhead-induced polished-rod failures and increase packing life. The polished rod must have a coupling and a sub on top. This is required in case the rod slips because the polished-rod clamp is not sufficiently tight. The coupling keeps it from falling through the stuffing box. The subrod helps retrieve the polished rod and helps prevent moisture from getting into the coupling.

Section 12 of API Spec. 11B[1] discusses polished rods and polished-rod liners. Table 16 in API Spec. 11B recommends polished-rod size vs. the size of the top rod in the rod string. API polished-rod lengths are 8, 11, 16, and 22 ft. Upset ends can be furnished on 1 1/8-, 1¼-, and 1½-in. polished rods and are recommended for heavy loads. Upset ends have sucker-rod connections that are superior to the pipe-thread connections on nonupset polished rods. This type of connection decreases stress concentration and results in improved fatigue life. The surface finish on polished rods is specified in Section 12 API Spec. 11B. Although the range of surface finish is 10 to 20 micro-inches, roughness average scale (RA), it is recommended that a 16-micro-inch- RA finish be specified because, if the finish is too smooth, it may be difficult for the clamps to work properly and a too-rough finish reduces polished-rod packing life.

Polished-rod clamps

Polished-rod clamps are fitted on the polished rod and come in several designs. Clamps for the light loads may have only one bolt, whereas clamps for heavier loads will have two bolts. The clamp manufacturer specifies the torque required to tighten the clamps, which is also discussed in both API Spec. 11B and API RP 11BR. [2] They also specify the forces that will cause clamps to slip on polished rods in API Spec. 11B. This is based on the assumption that the OD of the polished rod will be approximately equal to the OD the manufacturers assumed when they designed and built the clamp. The clamp must be the right size for the polished rod (no homemade bushings) and be strong enough to support the maximum well load. Open-end, box-end, or socket wrenches should be used on the clamp nuts and bolts. Pipe wrenches cut the nuts and make it hazardous for those who must loosen the clamp in the future. Be careful of foreign material in the clamp or on the polished rod. If the polished rod and clamp are not properly cleaned, the clamp may slip. Clamps that do not have a load-bearing surface perpendicular to the polished rod can also bend the polished rod.

The following are some maintenance tips to keep in mind when working with the clamps:

  • Use the clamp manufacturer's recommended torque for tightening the bolts. Do not overtighten polished-rod clamps—it may be the start of polished-rod failure. API Spec. 11B requires that a properly attached clamp may not cause an indentation of more than 0.010 in.
  • The polished rod's clamp area and the inside area of the clamp should be cleaned before installation.
  • Do not allow the use of pipe wrenches on polished-rod bolt nuts. Replace all pipe-wrench-cut nuts.
  • Do not put clamps on polished-rod liners.
  • Do not clamp on the sprayed-metal part of polished rods.

Stuffing boxes

A stuffing box is a device attached to the pumping tee that seals fluids in the tubing by forming a tight seal with the polished rod and diverting the produced fluids out of the pumping tee into the flowline. Packing for stuffing boxes is made from a variety of different materials. Local experience is the best guide in selecting the appropriate packing material to use.

Stuffing boxes may have one or two sets of packing elements. In a stuffing box with two sets of packing, the lower set is left relaxed and inoperative during normal operations. When it becomes necessary to replace the upper set of packing, the unit is shut down, and the lower set of packing is tightened against the rod, which enables the upper-packing element to be safely replaced with pressure on the tubing. After replacing the upper element, the lower-packing element must be backed off before starting the unit. This method not only retains the tubing pressure and decreases pollution, but also keeps low-pressure gas out of the face of the person doing the work.

There are stuffing boxes made with attached oil containers to keep the polished rod lubricated on wells that pump off, have high water cuts, or are in a semiflowing gas-heading condition. The proper method for handling the pumpoff condition is adjusting the pump capacity with time clocks, stroke lengths, stroke, speed, or pumpoff controllers. Maintaining a surface backpressure on the tubing may be beneficial on wells that are in a semiflowing gas-heading condition. Both conditions should be corrected to decrease polished-rod and stuffing-box wear and to increase overall pumping efficiency.

Rod rotators

Rod rotators must be used with certain types of mechanical paraffin scrapers. Rod rotators may also be used when rod-coupling wear is a problem. The rotation of the rods spreads the wear around the entire surface of the coupling instead of allowing it to be concentrated on one small area. Rotation does not solve the problem, but it does make the coupling or centralizer last longer. Rotators need to be selected properly and are dependent on the well load.

Pumping tees

API Spec. 11B covers design and rating of pumping tees. The major requirement for tees and stuffing boxes are that they be properly installed. In addition, the threads need to be clean and in line with the tubing when it is screwed on.

Check valves

A check valve is a valve that permits flow in only one direction. If the gas or liquid flow starts to reverse, the valve automatically closes and prevents reverse flow. A check valve should be placed between the casing head and flowline to prevent backflow from the flowline into the casing annulus. An oversized check valve will chatter and destroy the seat seal prematurely; an undersized check valve will hold too much backpressure on the casing.

Surface valves

The casing/tubing annulus should be equipped with a wing valve that will allow the casing pressure and the fluid level to be monitored. This valve also can be used to introduce to the well corrosion inhibitors, hot oil, water, etc. It should be bull-plugged closed when not in use. Introducing liquids into the annulus at a higher rate than the annulus self-venting rate drives the producing-liquid level to less than the pump intake, which starves the pump and causes premature pump failure. Self-venting can occur if the equivalent annulus diameter ≥ 0.92 × Q0.4, where Q is the pumping rate in gal/min. Wing valves allow the installation of a pressure gauge so that casing pressure can be measured. This is important to check because, if the casing pressure is greater than ½ the pump-intake pressure, the flowline is probably too small or partially blocked.

Another type of surface valve that could be used is a backpressure valve. This valve is normally installed in the flowline, upstream from the casing-annulus gas-piping tie in and is typically used to keep the tubing from unloading when the well still has high bottomhole pressure (when the well alternates between flowing and pumping, this situation is called "flumping"). The optimum backpressure to prevent flumping would be equal to or just greater than the pump-intake pressure. It should be noted that backpressure on the tubing can cause paraffin deposits in the tubing to come loose, flow up the tubing, and block the backpressure valve, or may cause the stuffing-box packing to blow out; thus, the tubing and rods should be cleaned before applying backpressure.


  1. API Spec. 11B, Specification for Sucker Rods, 26th edition. 1998. Washington, DC: API.
  2. API RP 11BR, Recommended Practice for Care and Handling of Sucker Rods, eighth edition. 1989. Washington, DC: ANSI/API. (October 1989, Supplement 1 July 1991).

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See also

Sucker-rod lift

Prime mover for sucker-rod pumping unit

Sucker-rod pumping units

Subsurface equipment for sucker-rod lift


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