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Reciprocating compressor

Reciprocating compressors are positive displacement machines in which the compressing and
displacing element is a piston having a reciprocating motion within a cylinder. The discussion on
the this page on reciprocating compressors includes a description of process configuration for
multistage units, as well as an explanation of the concepts of:

Speed control

Inlet throttling


Pressure relief


Distance piece venting and draining

Types of reciprocating compressors

There are two types of reciprocating compressors:

High speed (separable)

Low speed (integral)

The high-speed category also is referred to as separable, and the low-speed category also is
known as integral.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) has produced two industry standards, API Standard 11P
and API Standard 618, which are frequently employed to govern the design and manufacture of
reciprocating compressors.

Separable compressors

The term separable is used because this category of reciprocating compressors is separate from
its driver. Either an engine or an electric motor usually drives a separable compressor. Often a
gearbox is required in the compression train. Operating speed is typically between 900 and 1,800

Integral compressors
The term integral is used because the power cylinders that drive the compressor are mounted
integrally with the frame containing the compressor cylinders. Integral units run at speeds of
between 200 and 600 rpm. They are commonly used in gas plants and pipeline service where fuel
efficiency and long life are critical. Integral compressors may be equipped with two to ten
compressor cylinders with power ranging from 140 to 12,000 hp.
Integral compressors offer high efficiency over a wide range of operating conditions and require
less maintenance than the separable units. However, integral units usually must be field-erected
and require heavy foundations and a high degree of vibration and pulsation suppression. They
have the highest initial installation cost.
Fig. 3 is a cross section of a typical integral compressor. Fig. 4 shows an integral compressor

Fig. 3Cross section of an integral compressor (courtesy of Dresser-Rand).

Fig. 4Integral reciprocating compressor package (courtesy of Dresser-Rand).

Major components
Reciprocating compressors are available in a variety of designs and arrangements. Major
components in a typical reciprocating compressor are shown in Fig. 5.

The frame is a heavy, rugged housing containing all the rotating parts and on which the cylinder
and crosshead guide is mounted. Compressor manufacturers rate frames for a maximum
continuous horsepower and frame load (see the section on Rod Load below).
Separable compressors are usually arranged in a balanced-opposed configuration characterized
by an adjacent pair of crank throws that are 180 degrees out of phase and separated by only a
crank web. The cranks are arranged so that the motion of each piston is balanced by the motion
of an opposing piston.
Integral compressors typically have compressor and engine-power cylinders mounted on the
same frame and are driven by the same crankshaft. Cylinders in integral compressors are usually
arranged on only one side of the frame (i.e., not balanced-opposed).

The cylinder is a pressure vessel that contains the gas in the compression cycle. Single-acting
cylinders compress gas in only one direction of piston travel. They can be either head end or
crank end. Double-acting cylinders compress gas in both directions of piston travel (see Fig. 6).
Most reciprocating compressors use double-acting cylinders.
Choice of cylinder material is determined by operating pressure. Cast iron is normally used for
pressures up to 1,000 psi. Nodular iron is used for pressures up to 1,500 psi. Cast steel is usually
used for pressures between 1,500 and 2,500 psi. Forged steel is selected for cylinder operating
pressures greater than 2,500 psi.
A cylinders maximum allowable working pressure (MAWP) should be rated at least 10% greater
than the design discharge pressure (minimum 25 psi). The additional pressure rating allows a
high-pressure safety sensor (PSH) to be set above the design discharge pressure, and for a relief
valve (PSV) to be set at a pressure above the PSH.
Wear compatibility of the rubbing parts (piston rings and cylinder bore, piston rod and seal rings,
etc.) is also a criterion for selecting materials. Cylinders experience wear at the point of contact
with the piston rings. In horizontal arrangements, cylinder wear is greatest at the bottom because
of piston weight. Thermoplastic rings and rider bands are used in most reciprocating compressors
to reduce such wear.

Cylinders are frequently supplied with liners to reduce reconditioning costs. Liners are pressed or
shrunk in place to ensure that they do not slip. Replacement of a cylinder liner is much less
expensive than replacing an entire cylinder. In addition, performance can be adjusted to new
requirements by changing the inside diameter of the liner. However, cylinder liners increase the
clearance between the valve and the piston, diminish the effectiveness of jacket cooling, and
decrease compressor capacity from a given diameter.

Distance piece
The distance piece provides separation between the compressor cylinder and the compressor
frame. Fig. 7 illustrates API Standard 11P and API Standard 618 distance pieces. Distance pieces
can be contained in either a single- or double-compartment arrangement. In the singlecompartment design, the space between the cylinder packing and the diaphragm is lengthened so
that no part of the rod enters both the crankcase and cylinder stuffing box. Oil migrates between
the cylinder and the crankcase. If oil contamination is a concern, an oil slinger can be provided to
prevent packing lube oil from entering the compressor frame. For toxic service, a twocompartment design may be used. No part of the rod enters both the crankcase and the
compartment adjacent to the gas cylinder.
The packing case should be vented to the first stage suction or a vent gas system. Distance pieces
contain a vent to evacuate additional leaking process gas from the packing. The diaphragm and
packing are designed to keep gas from entering the crankcase. Effective venting is required to
ensure that the process gas does not contaminate crankcase oil.
Each compressor should be equipped with a separate vent and drain system for distance pieces
and packing. Distance piece and packing vents should be piped into an open vent system that
terminates outside and above the compressor enclosure at least 25 ft horizontally from the engine
exhaust. The distance piece drain should be piped into a separate sump that can be manually
drained. The sump should be vented outside and above the compressor enclosure. Lube oil from
the sump can be mixed with crude oil or, under certain circumstances, must be transported for
disposal or recycling.

The crankshaft rotates around the frame axis and drives the connecting rod, piston rod, and
piston (see Fig. 8).

Connecting rod connects the crankshaft to the crosshead pin

Crosshead converts the rotating motion of the connecting rod to a linear, oscillating
motion that drives the piston

Piston rod connects the crosshead to the piston.

The piston is located at the end of the piston rod and acts as the movable barrier in the
compressor cylinder. Selection of material is based on strength, weight, and compatibility with
the gas being compressed. The piston is usually made of a lightweight material such as
aluminum or from cast iron or steel with a hollow center for weight reduction. Thermoplastic
wear (or rider) bands often are fitted to pistons to increase ring life and reduce the risk of pistonto-cylinder contact. Cast iron usually provides a satisfactorily low friction characteristic,
eliminating the need for separate wear bands.
Wear bands distribute the weight of the piston along the bottom of the cylinder or liner wall.
Piston rings minimize the leakage of gas between the piston and the cylinder or liner bore. Piston
rings are made of a softer material than the cylinder or liner wall and are replaced at regular
maintenance intervals. As the piston passes the lubricator feed hole in the cylinder wall, the
piston ring gathers oil and distributes it over the length of the stroke.

Bearings located throughout the compressor frame assure proper radial and axial positioning of
compressor components. Main bearings are fitted in the frame to properly position the
crankshaft. Crank pin bearings are located between the crankshaft and each connecting rod.
Wrist pin bearings are located between each connecting rod and crosshead pin. Crosshead
bearings are located at the top and bottom of each crosshead.
Most of the bearings in reciprocating compressors are hydrodynamic lubricated bearings.
Pressurized oil is supplied to each bearing through oil supply grooves on the bearing surface. The
grooves are sized to ensure adequate oil flow to prevent overheating.
Piston rod packing provides the dynamic seal between the cylinder and the piston rod. The
packing consists of a series of non-metallic rings mounted in a case and bolted to the cylinder.
The packing rings work in pairs and are designed for automatic wear compensation. Because
each pair of rings accommodates a limited amount of pressure differential, multiple pairs are
required depending on the pressure required by the application. To safely vent gas leakage
through the packing, the vent port is usually located between the two outer ring assemblies (see
the section on Distance Piece above).
Auxiliary connections to the packing may be required for:

Cooling water

Lubricating oil

Nitrogen purging


Temperature measurement

Lubrication must be finely filtered to avoid damage that would result from small particulate
matter entering the case. The lubricating oil is normally injected into the second ring assembly,
with pressure moving the oil along the shaft.

Compressor valves
The essential function of compressor valves is to permit gas flow in the desired direction and to
block all flow in the opposite (undesired) direction. Each operating end of a compressor cylinder
must have two sets of valves. The set of inlet (suction) valves admits gas into the cylinder. The
set of discharge valves is used to evacuate compressed gas from the cylinder. The compressor
manufacturer normally specifies valve type and size.
Plate valves constructed from rings connected by webs into a single plate are a common valve
type. Depending on the sealing plate material, plate valves are capable of handling pressures as
high as 15,000 psi, differential pressures to 10,000 psi, speeds to 2,000 rpm, and temperatures to
500F. Plate valves do not perform well in the presence of liquids.
Concentric ring valves are capable of handling pressures to 15,000 psi, differential pressures to
10,000 psi, speeds to 2,000 rpm, and temperatures to 500F. Advantages of concentric ring
valves include:

Moderate parts cost

Low repair cost

The ability to handle liquids better than plate valves

Poppet-style valves generally provide performance that is superior to both plate and concentric
ring valves. The poppet style uses separate, round poppets to seat against holes in the valve seat.
This type of valve offers high lift and low pressure drop, resulting in higher fuel efficiency.
Poppet valves are widely used in pipeline, gas conditioning, and processing facilities. Metallic
poppets work well at:

Pressures to 3,000 psi

Differential pressures to 1,400 psi

Speeds to 450 rpm

Temperatures to 500F

Thermoplastic poppets can be applied to applications with:

Pressures to 3,000 psi

Differential pressures to 1,500 psi

Speeds to 720 rpm

Temperatures to 400F

Most compressors have valves mounted in the cylinders. A relatively new design concept places
the valves in the piston. The valve-in-piston design (Fig. 9) operates with low valve velocities
and provides longer life cycles and reduced maintenance time.