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Reciprocating Compressor Basics

Noria Corporation
Tags: compressor lubrication, industrial lubricants
Reciprocating compressors are often some of the most critical and expensive systems
at a production facility, and deserve special attention. Gas transmission pipelines,
petrochemical plants, refineries and many other industries all depend on this type of
equipment. Due to many factors, including but not limited to the quality of the initial
specification/design, adequacy of maintenance practices and operational factors,
industrial facilities can expect widely varying lifecycle costs and reliability from their
own installations.
Various compressors are found in almost every industrial facility. Types of gases
compressed include the following:
Air for compressed tool and instrument air systems
Hydrogen, oxygen, etc. for chemical processing
Light hydrocarbon fractions in refining
Various gases for storage or transmission
Other applications
There are two primary classifications of
industrial compressors: intermittent flow
(positive displacement), including
reciprocating and rotary types; and
continuous flow, including centrifugal and
axial flow types.
Reciprocating compressors are typically
used where high compression ratios (ratio
of discharge to suction pressures) are
required per stage without high flow
rates, and the process fluid is relatively
dry. Wet gas compressors tend to be
centrifugal types. High flow, low compression ratio applications are best served by
axial flow compressors. Rotary types are primarily specified in compressed air
applications, though other types of compressors are also found in air service.
Basic Design
The primary components of a typical reciprocating compressor system can be seen in
Figures 1 and 2 below. It should be noted that the author has never seen a "typical"
compressor installation, and acknowledges the existence of many exceptions.

Reciprocating Natural Gas
Hydrogen Reciprocating
Compressors - Improving
Compressor Oil Purification
Reduces Operating Costs
Compressor Lubrication Best

The compression cylinders (Figure 1), also known as stages, of which a particular
design may have from one to six or more, provide confinement for the process gas
during compression. A piston is driven in a reciprocating action to compress the gas.
Arrangements may be of single-or dual-acting design. (In the dual-acting design,
compression occurs on both sides of the piston during both the advancing and
retreating stroke.) Some dual-acting cylinders in high-pressure applications will have a
piston rod on both sides of the piston to provide equal surface area and balance loads.
Tandem cylinder arrangements help minimize dynamic loads by locating cylinders in
pairs, connected to a common crankshaft, so that the movements of the pistons
oppose each other. Gas pressure is sealed and wear of expensive components is
minimized through the use of disposable piston rings and rider bands respectively.
These are formed from comparatively soft metals relative to piston and cylinder/liner
metallurgy or materials such as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).

Figure 1. Reciprocating Compressor Cylinder Assembly

Figure 2 A. Two-throw HSE Frame and Running Gear
Figure 2 B. Two-throw HSE Frame and Running Gear
Most equipment designs incorporate block-type, force-feed lubrication systems;
however when there is zero process tolerance for oil carryover, nonlubricated designs
are employed. Cylinders for larger applications (typical cutoff is 300 hp) are equipped
with coolant passages for thermosyphon or circulating liquid coolant-type systems,
whereas some smaller home and shop compressors are typically air-cooled. Large
application cylinders are generally fitted with replaceable liners that are press-fitted
into the bore, and may include an antirotation pin.
Process gas is drawn into the cylinder, squeezed, contained and then released by
mechanical valves that typically operate automatically by differential pressures.
Depending on system design, cylinders may have one or multiple suction and
discharge valves. Unloaders and clearance pockets are special valves that control the
percent of full load carried by the compressor at a given rotational speed of its driver.
Unloaders manipulate the suction valves action to allow the gas to recycle. Clearance
pocket valves alter the cylinder head space (clearance volume). They may be fixed or
variable volume. These devices are beyond the scope of this article.
The distance piece (sometimes called the doghouse) is a structural member connecting
the compressor frame to the cylinder. Intermixing of fluids between the cylinder and
the distance piece must be avoided. Packing rings contain gas pressure within the
cylinder, and they keep oil from entering the cylinder by wiping oil from the piston rod
along its travel. The distance piece is typically vented according to the most hazardous
material in the system, which is often the gas compressed in the cylinder. The packing
rings are designed to contain the gas within the cylinder, but with the high pressure it
is possible that some of the compressed gas will leak past the packing rings.
The running gear, housed within the compressor frame (Figure 2), consists of the
crosshead and connecting rod which connect the piston rod to the crankshaft,
converting its rotary motion into a reciprocating linear motion. The crankshaft is fitted
with counterweights to balance dynamic forces created by the movement of the heavy
pistons. It is supported within the frame of the compressor by plain bearings at several
journals. A flywheel is also provided to store rotational inertia and provide mechanical
advantage for manual rotation of the assembly.
Some compressors will lubricate their frame running gear with an integral, shaft-driven
oil pump, while others are provided with more extensive, skid-mounted lubrication
systems. All properly designed systems will provide not only for oil circulation to the
critical tribo-surfaces of the equipment, but also for lubricant temperature control,
filtration and some measure of instrumentation and redundancy.
Suction gases are generally passed through suction strainers and separators to remove
entrained particulates, moisture and liquid phase process fluid that could cause severe
damage to the compressor valves and other critical components, and even threaten
cylinder integrity with disastrous consequences. Gas may also be preheated to coax
liquid process gas into the vapor phase. Intercoolers provide an opportunity for heat
removal from the process gas between compression stages. (See the following section:
The Thermodynamic Cycle.) These heat exchangers may be part of the compressors
oil and/or cylinder cooling system(s), or they may be connected to the plants cooling
water system. On the discharge side, pressure vessels serve as pulsation dampeners,
providing system capacitance to equalize the flow and pressure pulsations
corresponding to the pistons compression strokes.
Typically, reciprocating compressors are relatively low-speed devices, and are direct-
or belt-driven by an electric motor, either with or without a variable speed drive
controller. Often the motor is manufactured to be integral to the compressor, and the
motor shaft and compressor crankshaft are one-piece, eliminating the need for a
coupling. Gearbox-type speed reducers are used in various installations. Sometimes,
though less commonly, they are driven by steam turbines or other sources of power
such as natural gas or diesel engines. The overall design of the system and the type of
driver selected will influence lubrication of these peripheral systems.
The Thermodynamic Cycle
An explanation of a few basic thermodynamic principles is necessary to understand the
science of reciprocating compressors. Compression occurs within the cylinder as a
four-part cycle that occurs with each advance and retreat of the piston (two strokes
per cycle). The four parts of the cycle are compression, discharge, expansion and
intake. They are shown graphically with pressure vs. volume plotted in what is known
as a P-V diagram (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Intake
At the conclusion of a prior cycle, the piston is fully retreated within the cylinder at V1,
the volume of which is filled with process gas at suction conditions (pressure, P1 and
temperature, T1), and the suction and discharge valves are all closed. This is
represented by point 1 (zero) in the P-V diagram. As the piston advances, the volume
within the cylinder is reduced. This causes the pressure and temperature of the gas to
rise until the pressure within the cylinder reaches the pressure of the discharge
header. At this time, the discharge valves begin to open, noted on the diagram by
point 2.
With the discharge valves opening, pressure remains fixed at P2 for the remainder of
the advancing stroke as volume continues to decrease for the discharge portion of the
cycle. The piston comes to a momentary stop at V2 before reversing direction. Note
that some minimal volume remains, known as the clearance volume. It is the space
remaining within the cylinder when the piston is at the most advanced position in its
travel. Some minimum clearance volume is necessary to prevent piston/head contact,
and the manipulation of this volume is a major compressor performance parameter.
The cycle is now at point 3.
Expansion occurs next as the small volume of gas in the clearance pocket is expanded
to slightly below suction pressure, facilitated by the closing of the discharge valves and
the retreat of the piston. This is point 4.
When P1 is reached, the intake valves open allowing fresh charge to enter the cylinder
for the intake and last stage of the cycle. Once again, pressure is held constant as the
volume is changed. This marks the return to point 1.
Comprehending this cycle is key to diagnosing compressor problems, and to
understanding compressor efficiency, power requirements, valve operation, etc. This
knowledge can be gained by trending process information and monitoring the effect
these items have on the cycle.
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