When summer turns to fall, it’ll be time to check out our Western methanol pumps in your oil and gas production fields.

Inevitably, those little pumps get dried up from lack of use over the summer. That said, September and October is generally the time to get them functioning and get those methanol tanks filled—not when it suddenly goes from 80 degrees to 10 degrees, as it does here in Oklahoma.

Believe me, I have spent my fair share of hours laying on the snow-covered Oklahoma prairie in 40 MPH winds tinkering with either a Western methanol pump or the regulators that feed pressure to them! Those regulators go out when you least expect them to.

I have found in my pumping career that the easiest thing to do is simply to take those pumps out of the weather for the summer. They are easily reconnected to a gas supply in the fall, and you’re keeping the fittings and screens from getting filled with fine dust and keeping the rubber gaskets that help the pump hold pressure from drying out.

But if you tend to be one of those pumpers (like me and about 90 percent of pump users) who just shut off the methanol to the pump and let it sit all summer, you will likely need to check the pumps out before putting the gas to them and expecting them to work.


Western Chemical PumpThe Western is a reliable diaphragm type pump, but it is gas operated. With a ceramic ball and seat these old pumps a pretty much bullet-proof, but if your supply gas is wet, and you are not using a dryer at the source you can have trouble with them. Some operators are getting away from gas driven pumps nowadays because they vent to atmosphere, and it will just be a matter of time before this is a cost prohibitive option with regulations (DEQ, etc.) coming down the pipe (pun intended).

However, until then, here is a checklist to make sure your Western pumps are in order for the winter:

1. If the pump is still hooked into the methanol lines:

  • take the fitting off of the pump
  • ensure that all valves are turned on
  • Make sure that methanol is running through your copper tubing to the pump.

2. Replace the fitting onto the pump inlet and then crack open the gas line valve that feeds pressure to your pump. This line should be running through a small regulator (probably a Meco or Fisher regulator) and then into the pump.

3. Don’t be worried if you turn on the gas and the pump doesn’t take off right away. There is a petcock on the top of the pump that regulates the speed and delivery of the chemical. A simple jiggle back and forth of that petcock can start the pump again.

4. If there is still no pumping sound, loosen the gas fitting and make sure you have gas to the inlet. Sometimes there are tiny inline regulators on the supply gas outlet (from the casing) that also get clogged over summer. The regulators are about a two-inch long, thick fitting that comes directly from the supply gas off the casing, which fits onto the copper line that goes to the Western. 

If that is clear, take the fitting off the inlet to the Meco regulator. The Mecos and Fishers have tiny screens that are often just packed with rust or crud that is easily cleaned. Replace the fitting and off you will probably go.

5. If your gas supply is working and your regulators are not clogged and you still don’t get pumping action, it is likely the stem, which runs right through the middle of the Western Chemical Pump. 

Most of the time, at that point, you just need to tell your company man and they can have someone work the pump over and put a kit in it. Sometimes, you may have to kit one yourself. I hate putting kits in anything, and these pumps are no different. The kits come with instructions, so my advice is just to clear about an hour and a half out of your pumping schedule to do it.

For the most part, Western Chemical Pumps (and another kind called a bean pump) are fairly straightforward. If you take care of them, they will take care of you. Set yourself some kind of reminder to drain them in the spring and put them up for the summer. They will treat you way better, and you won’t have to freeze your fingers off trying to get one to work in a blizzard!

– Rachael Van Horn

I know you groan when you hear that you have an Ajax engine on your pumping route. But the reality is, Ajax engines are still, to this day, among the very best engines for pumping units I have ever worked with.

For some reason though, when my fellow pumpers talk about them, they do so with an “I can’t believe I have an Ajax on my route” kind of flare.

Frankly, to me it’s a bragging right.

I love ‘em. When I get a lease location with one, I can’t wait to get a chance to start it. They are just so impressive.

Yes, Ajax engines can be cold-blooded in the winter. And if you allow them to go down in cold temperatures and they lose their heat, God help you if you are starting them with a pin-starter, or worse, kick starting them.

And pretty much any company still running an older Ajax is possibly going to be the type of company that might be skimping on allowing a methanol pump and a whole tank of methanol.

So, I agree, having an Ajax engine on your route can, at times, have implications that could point to pumper suffering.

But if you are a real pumper – someone who enjoys a nice day spent out changing stuffing box rubbers or changing the oil in your engines, then you too know the sheer excitement you feel when you realize one of your new leases has an Ajax.

Of all the engines I have had, my units with an Ajax have not had any parted rods or stuck pumps, and if you keep them maintained and running, they go down less than my C-96s and C-106s. They are certainly better, by far, than every single Fairbanks 503 I have ever had – now there’s an engine to complain about.

You may or may not know this, but Ajax is the oldest engine still being produced in the United States. They have been used in the oilfield for 130 years.

Even today, its two-cycle design offers the most simplistic management. It eliminates valves, rocker arms (arghghg), push rods, and cams. Typically, if I have an Ajax down, within minutes I can determine what is causing the trouble and fix it (and I am definitely no mechanic).

Ajax Iron Works began in Pennsylvania, a steel and iron producing state from way back. But also key to how Ajax became such a love child of the oil industry is that Pennsylvania was the drilling site of the first ever oil well in the U.S.

Ajax Iron Works started with steam powered engines, and in 1895 the company added gas powered engines to their line. In 1958, the company made the first ever Ajax integral-engine compressor. As the years went along, they made them larger and larger, with more power to compress and move gas in the field as well as continuing to make Ajax pumping unit engines (E-42s), of which I had many.

An E-42 on a pumping unit

I also had an Ajax C-42 that was a lease site compressor, as well as DPC-115 on a lease I took care of. Both engines were amazing and at least 30 to 40 years old. Yet, they ran well if we prepared them well for winter and I never had trouble with one during the summer. I will admit, restarting that DPC-115 was a bitch. We used compressed air and had to have the flywheel positioned exactly where it would engage the altronic ignition or you were SOL. That thing was huge and kinda spooky, but in some masochistic way, I miss that ol’ thing.

This is an old C 42 with a pony motor right there by the flywheel. The pony motor has a starting wheel that I run to start this engine. Love this engine!

When I lay in my bed at night in the Panhandle of Oklahoma, I go to sleep to the rythmic “pop, pop, pop – pop, pop, pop – pop, pop” of an Ajax compressor that is near my home.

There’s just something about that sound that makes me feel safe – like, with all the trouble in the world, there is something in this life that actually lasts.

– Rachael Van Horn

When my father was in Vietnam, he had the nose of his F-105 Thunder Chief fighter jet blown off flying missions well into North Vietnam airspace. He looked down at his feet and saw open air underneath them. His survival and the ability to get that plane flown back to friendly territory, south of the Mekong River, was 100 percent dependent on his training.

Republic F-105D-30-RE (S/N 62-4234) in flight with full bomb load. (U.S. Air Force photo)

And herein lies the message this week: We all have safety training and classes on how to perform maintenance and a host of other dos and don’ts every month. There’s even more if you happen to be a company pumper.

I swear if I’ve heard lockout-tagout once, I’ve heard it 60,000 times. Wearing a hardhat is said so much that the phrase swims in my head. It even pops up when I’m saying the Rosary.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed is your hardhat.” No, wait, that’s not how that goes.

And yet, how many of us climb a tank to gauge it while blabbing into our cell phones?

How many of us decide it’s too hot to wear our hard hats?

How many of us blow down a compressor and don’t allow enough time for the gas to clear before restarting the engine?

I have done this, and just a note here, so did a good friend of mine, and he blew himself up. He lived, but was burned badly.

Here’s one you have probably NEVER done: putting oil in a pumping unit without clutching the unit and putting the brake on? Yep, I’m guilty, too.

What I’m getting at is that there is a reason those things are said, said again, and said one more time by our company men and corporate leaders.

As I have aged, maybe because I’m more aware of my mortality, I take 30 seconds now before I do anything on my units and ask myself, “What could happen if I do this?”

It has saved my life.

Safety is something companies have a vested interest in. They pay when we decide to be unsafe. That’s their reality.

But the bottom line is that if you are texting through your next safety meeting, it could be that you miss one small bit of new information that could kill you. That’s a worse reality, and it could be yours for the low, low price of catching a few Zzzs.

My dad made it. He flew that F-105 with the nose literally a burning fireball in front of him. He pulled out every emergency trick he had been taught while in pilot school and then added his incredible intestinal fortitude, and he crash landed just into friendly territory. It was 1965.

I find myself being glad, when I sit and chat with my now 84-year-old dad over a martini, that when someone was droning on in some insufferably boring class about safety and emergency tactics, that he wasn’t texting or letting his attention wander. He was hearing and absorbing the information because he knew there simply had to be a reason those grizzled old flyers were up there talking about it.

– R. Van Horn

When I began writing for Greasebook, the company’s founder, Greg Archbald, asked me if I’d be willing to write a few short pieces talking about who I am and “why a woman is writing a pumper’s blog”. (He didn’t really say that last bit… but I thought it was funny. 😉

I am a newspaper journalist and pumper.

I have written thousands of columns, and my least favorite subject matter is myself.

But I guess it gives you a chance to get to know who is giving you pumping advice. So, here goes:

I was born in the early 60s in a town called Ipswich, in Suffolk, England, because my father, Boyd L. Van Horn, was an Air Force fighter pilot.

While in the U.S. as a child, we lived in six different states; Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Oklahoma. We moved about every two years because my father was in Tactical Air Command. He was stationed and ultimately retired at Langley, Virginia, home of the CIA.

At any rate, my father’s influence in my life is probably what prompted my decision to go into the Army. I ultimately spent 21 years in the Army and Army Reserve, mostly on reserve duty.

Around the time I was scheduled to retire, I received mobilization orders to Afghanistan in support of Operation Noble Eagle in early 2003. I was an Army fuel truck driver at the time. I always had a mechanical side to my personality.

As my unit and I inched toward deploying to Afghanistan, the Army decided, at the last minute, to extend the currently deployed troops who were already there and whom we were slated to replace. They put our deployment on hold, and during that time, my orders to retire came due, so I retired.

Frankly, I was sad about missing this deployment, but knew that as a single mother, my daughter, who was about to graduate from high school, needed me to be around. I viewed that as a bit of serendipity because there were a lot of combat casualties in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2004.

Nevertheless, after she graduated, and when I had a chance, I still yearned to serve. So I took a civilian position serving for four years as a military liaison in Iraq.  It was my finest service, and I will always be grateful for the lessons I learned while in combat. They continue to serve me today.

You may be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with the oil field?”

Absolutely nothing, except that when I came home after four years in a pretty heavy duty war zone, I needed to work outside. (I was present for just one too many chow hall bombings and IED attacks).

So when I got here, my best friend Evelyn, a 35 year career oilfield pumper, started training me to work full-time as a pumper.

Ironically, I landed my first full-time position not as a conventional pumper but as a Co2 and water flood pumper. This is a very complex type of pumping. There is a lot more pressure on tubing and casing and I dealt with a lot of submersible pumps (OMG—this is its own story). I also had quite a few pumping units, but again, working on everything in a Co2 flood, even changing stuffing box rubbers, is vastly different than in a conventional field.

While here, I also took care of a large central oil battery with five large Co2 compressors that ran 24 hours a day. We sold about 3,000 bbls of oil out of that battery per day and I also managed the production numbers. After nearly two years here, where I learned more than I can even write about in one blog, I wanted to move closer to my home. So I moved to a private company who had me watching 27 pumping units – all with C-106s.

This man’s field was in the Mississipian zone, and he ran those units 11 strokes a minute. I swear to you, it looked like a field full of Singer Sewing Machines. I also ran all four of this fellow’s salt water disposal batteries.

Sadly, this fellow, after a long day that we spent completing a well he had just drilled and brought on, sat down in his easy chair at home one day and died of a heart attack. After this, his family sold the entire field of wells and I moved to a company, that was even closer to my home.

Here I was pumping what in the business we call “strippers.” I had plungers, pumping units, free-flowing wells, and compressors of every breed. I loved it.

But I hated the corporate atmosphere. If I could have been left alone out in the field to pump wells without stressful phone calls from regional managers and engineers, some of whom had never even stood on a well location, I would still be into it full-time. Yes, I take full responsibility for my cranky inability to just ignore all of that.

These days, I write full-time and relief pump for a couple of very busy contract pumpers in my area. It’s the best of both worlds for me.

Me with one of my toughest leases, a unit with a 503 Fairbanks!!! Arghghggghghg.

You should know, I love the work of being a pumper. I love the feel of hand-starting a C-96 – you know, that little jerk when you give it a pull and it hits. And the exhilaration when you realize you got it done without losing your hand!

I love shutting down a pumping unit on a nice fall day to change stuffing box rubbers. I enjoy having time to think about life and watch snowflakes fall, while I wait for a plunger to come up so I can drop a new one.

The Fairbanks problem child. I had to put a new head gasket on it on that day. These are the worst engines!!!

The work we do is the finest and most important in the oilfield today. It is on our backs that money is made or lost. We are there many days, weeks, months and years after drillers and completion folks have long forgotten the location.

I know that there is little recognition in this field for a job well done. Pumpers are usually the first ones blamed when something goes wrong and often overlooked when a location performs especially well.

On a particularly bad day, I called my best friend Evelyn and asked her why, after 35 years, she was still fighting this fight – still performing as one of the single most respected pumpers in the state.

She said, “Rachael, there are days when I feel like a bloody stump with no legs or arms floating in an ocean full of sharks, all taking chunks out of me. And for some reason, I must still like it, because I stay.”

– Rachael Van Horn

In one of the companies where I was a full-time company pumper, we had a system called “partner pumping,” which meant one pumper would pump there other pumper’s wells when they were off-duty.

For reasons only a true pumper can understand, this proved to be a pretty terrible set-up.

My partner was brand new to the oilfield and not well trained. It was around Thanksgiving, the nighttime temps were getting into the 30s, and he called to say he was struggling to get one of his heater-treaters lit.

This could have been caused by numerous issues, so I knew that a phone tutorial was out of the question. It would be faster to drive over and look at it myself.

As I drove into the lease, I saw my partner with a small Bic lighter, hand shoved in to the fire tube up to his armpit, with his face peering right into the fire tube as well.

I honked and waved at him while screaming “Nooooo!” Fortunately, I stopped him before a disaster happened.

When cold weather arrives, it’s always a good time to talk about how to safely light a heater-treater. It’s not because I think you don’t know; we all just need remainders that we are dealing with really dangerous equipment and there is indeed a safer way to do all of this.

Not 11 months ago where I live and work, a fellow pumper blew himself up and landed in the hospital with third degree burns to his face, and this guy had been pumping for years!

So here goes:

1.         It’s ALWAYS safer to light the pilot than the burner. To do this, it is really important for you to understand how the whole thing is made and know which valve handle controls the burner and which one controls the pilot light. This might sound stupid, but you would be surprised how many people are always lighting the burner because they don’t have a clue where the pilot valve is.

2.         For the pilot, there is usually about a two-inch hole under the fire tube with a screw-on steel cap. Get a sturdy piece of wire at least two feet long. (I use barbed wire fence spacers). I create a little loop in one end of the two-foot length of sturdy wire (use heavy-enough gauge that it can’t sag) and pull a small piece of rag through the looped end of it, then dampen the rag with diesel fuel. Don’t use gasoline, and for SURE don’t use methanol. Methanol burns invisibly with no flame, so you have no idea if you have put it out.

heater treater

3.         While I am preparing all of this, I have already opened the face plate (usually with three or wing nuts on the front of the treater) and turned off all the gas to both the pilot and main burner to give it time to air out. If you don’t, when you stick that wire with a burning rag in there, it will explode. Not good.

4.         Wait about five minutes to be sure the gas is gone, use a lighter to light the diesel-soaked rag, then poke it into the hole made for the pilot light. Find out exactly where the gas comes out on that, but it’s usually a one-inch line running under the main burner gas tube. That way you have the lighted rag directly over it when you gingerly turn on the pilot gas. It should light with no problem. If it doesn’t, try cleaning it a little with a brush.

5.         When you have gotten the pilot light going well, ease on the main gas valve so the burner engages. You should be able to hear it engaging.

6.         Yes, there are times when the pilot is not working or staying lit and you have to just light the burner. I have a couple like that too. If you are doing this, it will require you to take the face plate off (it should already be off) and then stick your handy-dandy wire with the burning rag all the way (about 2 feet) into the fire tube where the gas comes out of the long tube that runs toward the middle of the treater (away from you). It is a three-inch tube running away from you (as you are standing in front of the treater) with a bell-shaped end.

7.         Stand well to the side of the fire tube and ease the gas on. You do not want to ever look into the fire tube while starting a treater. If there is any build-up of gas, it shoots out the front and can burn you badly.

I know that a lot of the old-timers in the field are probably laughing right now. I have seen pumpers do some amazing things while starting heater-treaters, and I have seen them injured badly too.

That said, I’d like to keep my face! How about you?

– R. Van Horn