Vapor control tanks
Oil-free reciprocating gas compressors help facilitate compliance and reduce emissions.

Oil and natural gas producers have always been diligent about recovering as much of their oil field product as possible. The product alone has considerable value, so any product losses impact the bottom line. However, that’s not the only reason these producers have made product recovery a priority, especially in recent years.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a final rule designed to sharply reduce methane and similar emissions from oil and natural gas operations, including from existing sources across the United States. The final rule includes new standards to reduce methane and volatile organic compounds from new, modified and reconstructed sources. It also includes emissions guidelines that set procedures for states to follow to limit methane from existing sources.

Environmental regulations have continuously become more stringent over the years, and this recent action from the EPA follows that same pattern. Oil and natural gas producers, as has been the case over the last 10 to 20 years, must be cognizant not only of the value of their product, but also of mitigating its environmental impact. One of the ways to do this comes through an operation’s vapor-recovery capabilities.

The Challenge

Keeping gas vapors contained presents its share of challenges. Crude oil storage tanks, for example, have always been prone to losing gas vapors. Even with various door hatches, gaskets and low-pressure pop-off vent valves (all designed to control vapor loss), vapors might still seep through.

In the past, such tanks were not subject to environmental regulations, resulting in many of these tanks being poorly maintained. Failure to properly maintain crude oil storage tanks could result in vapor releases. Vapor releases might also occur when a tank’s pressure relief valves open to release excess vapor pressure.

According to the EPA, new rules require that vapor releases now be contained, flared or reclaimed. Several types of compressors tend to be popular for the reclaiming process. Rotary vane and rotary screw compressors, as well as reciprocating piston compressors, are the standouts. An operator will typically select one of these three options depending on the overall operating conditions (i.e., required flow rate and discharge pressure).

While many compressor technologies excel in these functions, the traditional lubricated piston compressors and some of the rotary designs might experience leaking. Additionally, small amounts of condensate (condensed liquids) might form in those compressors, which can cause internal problems. For example, condensate collects in the crankcases on some reciprocating compressors and contaminates the lubricating oils, forcing frequent oil changes. The condensate can also, in many cases, cause significant power-frame damage to bearings and shafts. The damage can compound to the point where the entire compressor must be replaced.

The Solution

Operators, however, have technology to counter the problems created by condensate while also minimizing leaks. The design of an oil-free reciprocating gas compressor allows the technology’s distance piece to collect and control the condensate, keeping it out of the critical power-frame area where the damage typically occurs. The oil-free design also has two sets of rod seals that contain the gas at the distance piece, reducing the gas vapor that can escape to the environment through the crankcase, which is typical in most styles of reciprocating machines.

The distance-piece design feature of these compressors is critical, because harmful condensate can form inside the compressor due to the wide mix of hydrocarbons that can often be found in the gas stream. When the gas is compressed, heavier hydrocarbons and small amounts of water vapor can form. In compressors without a distance piece, the condensate leaks directly into the crankcase, potentially damaging the quality of the lubricating oil and leading to significant bearing damage or a complete failure of the power frame.

Oil-free reciprocating gas compressors help control condensate that may form inside the compressor. Their design provides a means to control small amounts of condensate by collecting the condensate in an area of the compressor. Easy operator access to this compartment allows the user to empty the distance-piece compartment regularly. The distance piece can also be vented to a safe disposal area when available. This design gives the distance piece the ability to provide an effective means of controlling condensate.

Oil-free reciprocating gas compressors were designed to handle hazardous, toxic or flammable gases. Their oil-free design provides truly unique features that were at one time considered unneeded and unimportant in the natural gas market. These products are environmentally sensitive and offer superior vapor-recovery mechanics and sealing technology.

Specifically, oil-free reciprocating gas compressors:

  • Do not add emissions to the gas being handled or recovered
  • Maximize control of gas leakage from the compressor due to the compressor’s full distance-piece compartment and piston-rod seals. The two sets of rod seals create a compartment between the process gas and the lubricated crankcase, providing leakage control and minimizing any leakage to the crankcase or the atmosphere.
  • Feature ductile-iron construction of all pressure parts, resulting in greater resistance to harmful thermal and mechanical shock
  • Have high-efficiency polyether ether ketone (PEEK) valves specially designed from a self-lubricating material that provides superior sealing characteristics, high efficiency and durability
  • Contain a heavy-duty, precision-ground crankshaft featuring roller bearings and integral counterweights to help ensure smooth, quiet operation
  • Have an epoxy coated crankcase to protect against corrosive environments
  • Possess the ability to cover a wide range of inlet and discharge pressure conditions that generally exceed other technologies’ capabilities.

All of these design advances mean oil-free gas compressors are a safe and effective method to move and recover gas vapors. In today’s highly regulated tank vapor-recovery applications, these important features help deliver peace of mind to the oil field operator and producer. Process system designers and environmental compliance managers at oil and gas companies (and other businesses around the country) are always looking for ways to continue incorporating improved vapor-control technology that helps minimize vapors and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are released to the atmosphere at tank battery locations.

Oil-free reciprocating gas compressor designs provide a future-focused and effective method to mitigate vapor emissions. Oil-free reciprocating gas compressors are a sustainable option that provides operators with the ability to efficiently recover gas from a variety of storage tanks, leading to a higher amount of sellable end-product, while simultaneously helping protect the atmosphere.