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What Is a Beam Pump?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 17, 2024
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A beam pump is a type of pump typically found in oil fields and is often called by several different names. A nodding donkey, horsehead pump or sucker rod pump are all commonly-used names for the beam pump. Also called a walking beam pump, the machine takes its name from the unique pumping motion the exposed elements of the pump produce. The pump uses a drive motor called a prime mover to power the pump. The prime mover can be powered by natural gas or diesel, but the most common type of power is electricity.

The beam pump is a counterbalanced pump. It uses the rotating energy of the prime mover, which is converted to vertical pumping action, to pump liquids up and out of the ground. Often called a drinking bird pump, the beam pump looks like a bird dipping its head into water over and over in order to drink.

As the heavy horsehead component of the pump is allowed to drop, it pushes the pumping rod down into the liquid base of the well. The prime mover powers the counterweight up and over an axle, where gravity takes control and pulls the heavy counterweights downward. As the counterweights are pulled downward, they force the pump rod up in the well casing, effectively pumping the liquid out of the well.

Early versions of the beam pump operated with horizontal rods extending from one central motor outward to several pumps. The pumping motion and efficiency became difficult to control with this system since all of the pumps operated with varying pressures. An operator was forced to sacrifice some of the pumping effectiveness of a good producer to balance the poor production of a lesser-producing well with this type of system. It was discovered that using individual prime movers on each well would result in better well production, ultimately proving more lucrative for the well owners.

The technology of the beam pump is not used on oil wells alone. Several types of the beam-style pumps are also used for the pumping water. This type of pump is commonly preferred in remote areas due the lack of power available at the well location. Wind power is often the most prevalent method of powering the water beam pump. This allows a handle to be attached to the pumping mechanism, so in periods of no wind, the pump could be manually operated to produce water.

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