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The Job of Oilfield Gauger or Pumper

 

Many of the photos on this site are of pumpjacks and oil wells and tanks. Some people might think that these just sit there and pump or flow oil that somehow gets to a refinery and is made into gasoline. The truth is all of the machinery and production equipment that is required to produce oil from a hole in the ground and get it to market is quite complex and there are many daily tasks that have to be performed to keep it running.  The people who do these jobs are called "Pumpers" or Gaugers.

Pumpjacks and Wells

His or Her duties involve driving from well to well, checking and maintaining  pumpjacks, motors, gas compressors,  meters, dehydration units,  (systems that remove water from natural gas), and keeping lines free from ice blockages and leaks.  Some oilfields may be free flowing, with underground pressure forcing gas and oil to the surface and in others, (typically older fields), the gauger may have many pumpjacks to take care of.  His duties will involve keeping the gas or electric motors and belts working, keeping the seals in the stuffing box, (where the polished pump rod enters the wellhead,) from leaking, etc.  In some fields for example, pump jacks are operated by gas engines, running off propane or gas from the well itself and the pumper maintains them as you would any engine, changing oil, checking cooling fluids and changing spark plugs. Other fields may have power lines available and these pumpjacks are easier for the pumper to maintain, requiring mostly changing of belts.  If the well is free flowing, he may be required to frequently change the "chokes" or devices that have a specific size of orifice that regulates the amount of gas or oil that flows out. Keeping these wells regulated is an important function of his job. If a well is flowed, or "pulled" too hard, salt water from zones beneath the oil layer will rush in and  possibly ruin an  entire oilfield. Company engineers will review production figures that the pumper turns in, including gas charts, and determine if the flow needs to be cut back or increased. There are more than a few wells that have been ruined by small oil companies that got greedy and flowed them too hard.

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In some older gas wells that are still free flowing, but have lost a lot of their bottom hole pressure, water will build up in the tubing and casing of the well. A pumper can help prevent this by dropping chemical "soap" sticks down the well through a flange at the top, by opening and closing different valves like a submarine's airlock. Then, the soap stick is dropped to the bottom of the well where it dissolves and helps decrease the surface tension of the salt water and bubbles it to the top with the gas. Some old gas wells might require this every day.

A street in Luling, Texas in oil country, named for those who are responsible for taking care of oil and gas leases.

Charts

 In the old days a pumper or gauger would have to change round paper charts  and keep the devices that turn them wound up. There are still a few companies out there using the old paper chart devices.  Charts record the gas sold from each well and on of the pumpers tasks in interpreting the graph of squiggly lines and computing the amount of natural gas that has gone through the line. Oil companies sell their  natural gas to pipelines owned often by another company and are paid by what these charts record, thus this job is very important. Now most gas charts are automated and are connected by radio to a central gathering station however the pumper still has to record the amount of gas produced to determine if changes to the well's chokes (device regulating how much is produced) are necessary.

a natural gas natural gas chart on a recorder.

Tanks

Storage tanks, where the oil is collected also require maintenance before the oil can be sold. A gauger will carry a special tape that has a plumb bob attached. to measure the amount of oil and salt water produced.  Every day around the same time he will reel this tape and plumb bob down until it hits the bottom of the tank and  then reel it in, then read the level in feet and inches that it shows.  A table, specific to that particular tank, will show how many barrels is equal to the reading on his tape measure. Keeping up with information like this is his main job since the company is paid according to how much petroleum that is sold from the tank.   

Some  wells may produce very heavy oil, which requires treating the entire tank with special chemicals that lighten it up and cause the water (all oil wells produce some water) to fall to the bottom of the tank.  The pumper uses a device called a "thief" to take a sample of the oil on the bottom of the tank and see how much water is in it using a centrifuge.

The pumper may add chemicals to the tank and inject gas to "roll" the tank and allow the chemical mixture to help separate the oil and water. He will then drain this salt water off to a tank or pit for disposal by a water hauling truck. He then calls for an oil truck from a company such as Permian Petroleum to come and purchase the crude oil.    If the water content is too high  when the oil truck driver comes to pick it up the driver will refuse it and the pumper may be stuck with a tank full of oil that can't be sold and a well that is still pumping more, with no place to put it.  Gunbarrel tanks are used on some leases to separate oil, gas and water. These work on the simple principle that oil floats on water and gas rises upward. Pipes are placed at certain levels in the tanks and the fluid flows into produced water or oil tanks, while gas is sent on to a vent, flare, or compressor to be sold.

Gas Compressors

In some fields the gas coming from wells will have to be compressed in order to have enough pressure to enter a pipeline. The pumper may be responsible for keeping up these compressors, starting them when they go down, or calling the company that rents them for repairs.

Heater Treaters and Dehydrators

Part of the production setup on an oil well site are separators and heater - treater units that separate the oil, water and gas coming from the well. These are tall vessels that have pipes coming off of them at different heights where the gas, oil, or water is diverted into the right tank or pipe. A heater - treater, will then take the oil that comes from the separator and further heat and separate the water from it.

These may require frequent maintenance from the pumper to keep the small lines that operate the control valves working. In wintertime lines can become frozen and he may have to add methanol to the lines and pipelines by means of small pumps that inject it. Dehydrators may require frequent checking of glycol levels and adding it when needed and changing filters that keep the glycol clean.

Paperwork and More Paperwork

The job requires constant record keeping, including using "strapping tables" that convert the measurement from the pumpers gauging tape into barrels. The pumper must keep exhaustive production records, do daily reports which he e-mails or faxes to the oil company's office, and monthly reports. If he is an independent contractor the pumper may employ his or her spouse as bookkeeper to to the mountain of paperwork.

Never Ending Routine

This is their routine, day after day, with different issues coming up on different days. It is a complex job that requires a number of skills including troubleshooting and mechanical ability as well as good math and bookkeeping skills.
Wintertime can make work especially difficult as gas pipelines freeze up, crude oil becomes harder to clean up to sell and pump jack motors refuse to start. As well, roads to some oil and gas leases can become impassable and many a gauger has had to walk out to the main road to catch a ride when his truck is bogged down in a mud hole along a lease road.  The conditions a pumper works in can vary from one extreme to the other as oilfields around the world can be vastly different from one another.   If the field is large, has been around for several years and is very productive, the roads may even be paved and cattle guards or "texas gates" installed.

Other wells may be located down rough, unpaved roads that can become muddy and impassable.  Half of his job in some areas may be opening the dozens of locked ranch gates that he must enter. Some pumpers along the Gulf Coast carry an ATV in the back of their truck to access wells when other vehicles might get stuck. In Louisiana some pumpers get to wells in the swamp or coastal areas by small boat and pumpers working in areas where with harsh winters may use a snowmobile to get into some leases.  

Other wells may be in a bay or offshore and must be accessed by a work boat. Offshore production platforms where oil and gas are collected from surrounding wells may be staffed with full time employees. These are usually referred to as production hands and not as a pumper of gauger.

A pumper typically spends a lot of time on his cell phone or company radio, ordering oil trucks to come and pick oil he has treated, checked and readied for sale, calling mechanics to keep large gas compressors running, etc. It is a 24-7 job and he is always on call. Some wells, tanks and compressors may have alarms that will go off and notify the oil company or the pumper at home and he will have to get up in the middle of the night and fix the problem to prevent a spill from occurring or valuable oil  or gas production to stop. In fields where there is poison gas, or H2S there will also be alarms to notify him of dangerous gas releases.

Persons wanting to become contract gaugers  or pumpers should ideally have some oilfield experience and good math and mechanical skills, and first apprentice with a full time pumper and train to work as his weekend relief employee. This is a 24-7, 365 job and contractors have to find and pay for their own relief, so there are  opportunities out there for reliable individuals. Full time contract gaugers with several oil or gas wells can expect to gross $100,000 or more, less expenses. Keeping a vehicle maintained and running is a large part of the bottom line so automotive repair skills are a plus to self employed gaugers. Expenses are the main reason  that many independent operators  go to work  as paid employees of large oil companies such as Exxon Mobil or Chevron Texaco who provide trucks and pay health insurance, etc.

This article was intended to be a basic description of the job of oilfield pumper. It is by no means inclusive of all the duties that one does, nor does it fully explain all of the jobs that he or she may do. My background for this article is that I was self employed for several years as a contract gauger in South Texas.        This article is property of Nolan Hart,  All rights reserved. 2008

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