The Burnsville Steam Compression Station

Steam compression engine

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P. O. Box 3128 Deer Park, Maryland 21550-1028

High pressure side' of the Nordberg duplex steam compression engine used in compression station at Burnsville, W. Va. Note steam line coming to the high pressure cylinder from separate boiler house. Once steam powered this cylinder, it was exhausted for reuse in the 'low pressure side' and the steam cylinder of a larger bore across from the high pressure side of the engine. The two sides of the Nordberg engines were separated by its single flywheel.

View of the 'low pressure side' of the same engine, with steam cylinder towards the right. The extended piston rod of the steam cylinder which operated the gas compressing cylinder can be seen in this view.

Burnsville, West Virginia, is located in Braxton County, and is near what is regarded as the geographical center of the Mountain State. It is a small town, situated in a limited flat area, surrounded by nearby hills and streams, with only the constant highway traffic on Interstate 79 to disturb its peaceful setting. With no exotic tourist attractions, most travelers simply speed through the town; they are there only because of the Interstate's routing. But, on the northwest edge of the town, the Equitable Gas Company operated the state's very last steam compression station. Some of the company's management personnel also claimed this steam compression station was the last one on our nation's east coast to move natural gas through the pipelines. For the station's employees, and a few others aware of it, Burnsville, West Virginia, was an exotic place. Lady Luck had kindly permitted me to be at this steam compression station in 1982 and 1983, a time in my life I've greatly come to relish.

For the reader lacking the knowledge, a compression station is also known as a compressor station, and called by a few people a pumping station. Natural gas will normally flow out of a gas well via naturally occurring pressure, the higher pressure within the well pushing the gas to a lower pressure area. Natural gas is transported via pipeline(s), but the well pressure is not sufficient enough to flow the gas for extended distances through a pipeline. Like air, natural gas is compressible. To deliver natural gas from well-heads to the users of it, often several hundred miles away, the gas is compressed at intervals along its transport, which in creases its flow rate. This is the purpose of compression or compressor stations to boost the flow of the gas by increasing the occurring pressure of it at various intervals. This process can be thought of like moving water through a pipeline for an extended distance, as well as uphill and downhill, with the use of water pumps, but gas is compressed, not pumped.

Originally, most gas compression stations were operated, or powered, by stationary steam engines of various sizes, types, and manufacturer. In time, steam engines were replaced by natural gas fueled reciprocating engines, similar to gasoline or diesel engines in their appearance but with a portion of the engine's cylinders being solely for gas compression purposes. Still later came gas turbine powered compressors, and even, at some small outdoor installations, electric motor driven compressors.

The switch away from steam compression usage allowed financial savings to the gas companies. The need for steam generation boilers was eliminated, as well as their operational and upkeep expenses. The need for a boiler house building was also eliminated, which saved on the station's taxation costs. The manpower requirements were lessened. Utilization and efficiency were greatly increased, as gas flow could be instantly increased when required, without having to delay until additional boilers were fired up to meet increased steam demands. In some instances, the conversion simply allowed modernization improvements to the transportation network of the gas companies. Often two or three smaller steam stations could be replaced with a single compressor station, yet requirements for gas supply could still be met. Most steam compression stations were replaced after World War II, when gas supply demands greatly increased for the Atlantic Coast's metropolitan areas.

As other steam stations were being replaced, the Burnsville station continued to survive, eventually becoming the very last one. While old in age, and often regarded by some Equitable Gas Company officials as 'ancient' or 'outdated,' the station continued to serve the need. The Burnsville steam station was still a well designed installation with sufficient capacity. It continued to meet the demands imposed upon it, and did so in the most efficient and cost-conscious manner possible by its staff. The station's crew were loyal to its operation, and to the requirements of steam. Some of these crewmen had even requested specific assignment to Burnsville, to be a part of this steam operation. Out of this came a team loyalty and spirit that, more than any other factor, allowed the steam operation to exist as long as it did. Individual job performance, to these men, was a matter of pride in and devotion to a day's work.

View of one of the Nordberg duplex compression engine's 'high pressure' side. Note how the moving parts of the steam engine were shielded to prevent injury to the crewmen, as well as to prevent the 'slinging' of the oil lubricants used in the engine's operation. Flywheel partially revolved in a floor pit, below floor level of the engine house.

Closeup view of the high pressure steam cylinder, and the gas compressing cylinder it operated, just to the right of I beam in the photo. The Burnsville station had four of the Nordberg duplex steam engines.

Looking across the line of steam cylinders from the side of the Nordberg compression engines, showing the governor of the nearest engine.

The Burnsville station had been built in 1916, and when originally constructed, it was entirely self-sufficient. Not only did it compress the gas, but it furnished its own water supply and electricity. Later, the electric power would be purchased from the local power company, but an emergency electric generator was maintained within the station. Often, while storms would darken the rest of town, the compressor station would remain brightly aglow in the darkness.

The 'business end' of the compression station was housed in the engine house. This was where the station's steam engines were housed and the compression process took place. Burnsville held onto the old name usage of 'engine-house.' At other stations, where gas fueled engines were used for compression, their shelter was generally called the 'compressor building,' a reflection of modernization. The Burnsville engine house structure was constructed of a steel framework, covered with steel sheathing. It was a large size building with a high ceiling that allowed a bright and airy interior. In it were located the steam compression engines and the other required equipment for their needs and operations. The building's interior, the steam engines, and all the other equipment was kept well maintained and very clean. Everything was regularly cleaned, wiped or shined. Some station visitors were often very surprised to discover the floor in a much cleaner state than the floors of restaurants that they had just earlier eaten in, at Clarksburg, West Virginia, where the company had its area office building. While it's a common rule to maintain all gas compression stations in a clean state of order, the Burnsville staff strived for that 'extra mile.' They desired that this last bastion of steam operation be a true showcase, and their efforts reflected very positively.

Steam powered washing machine at the Burnsville station. It cleaned the station's many wiping rags that kept the steam machinery so clean.

Across the engine house's front area sat the station's four Nordberg duplex steam compression engines, painted a pleasing green hue. Situated side by side in a single row, they were an impressive sight to behold. Each of these engines was composed of two steam engine cylinders, two gas compressing cylinders, and a single flywheel. These Nordberg engines were two-sided, each side having one steam cylinder and one gas compressing cylinder. The two sides were split by the large diameter flywheel, that partially revolved within a pit below floor level, with the engine's two sides joined with connection to the single flywheel.

Steam was delivered to the Nord-bergs via an overhead piping system from a separate boiler house. The steamline then dropped towards the floor, to enter the first side of the engine and its steam cylinder, the 'high pressure' side. Once steam was used to power this cylinder (or side), the steam was exhausted through a piping arrangement that made connection of the other, or second, side of the Nordberg engine. Here, this steam entered the other steam cylinder, which was of a larger bore (or size), known as the 'low pressure' side.

Once the steam was used to power the second cylinder, it was exhausted into the atmosphere. This use of steam twice, in separate cylinders, is known as 'compounding.'

Both the high and low pressure steam cylinders had an extended piston rod that exited the front of their respective cylinders. This piston rod, in turn, operated by direct action the natural gas compression cylinder. This compression cylinder was located directly in front of the steam cylinder, and was a part of the overall Nordberg engine assembly. These gas compressors were not driven by a belt-drive arrangement from the engine's flywheel. Some readers might envision this occurring from observations where belting was, and is, used to power equipment and machinery, but this was not so with the Burnsville compressors.

As this compression station was a major one, and its machinery a bit rare with some age, the maintenance and repair of it was of great concern to the company. The station's personnel would pre-plan any such required work, scheduling it for the year's summer months when the demand for gas was at its lowest. During the summer, the station usually needed to operate only two of the Nordberg compression engines, and they could be run at a lower RPM speed.

At this time, repair or major maintenance work could be performed on a shut down engine, with the shutdown period rotated among the four engines. Any needed replacement parts could not be obtained off-the-shelf from any equipment or machinery dealer. A major repair could require both foundry and extensive machine shop work to create such needed parts.

During the winter months, when the gas demand was at its peak, any breakdown of the four engines became critical. If such a breakdown did occur, it meant overtime hours for the crew, with the work pushed to its completion. However, regular attentive maintenance, careful inspection, experienced personnel, and the summertime rotation shutdown of the engines, caused unexpected breakdowns to be almost nonexistent.

One observation of mine about the use of steam compression engines should be mentioned, and this is about their noise level. Even with all four of the Nordberg engines running together at their maximum compressing capacity, their noise level was relatively quiet. It was not unpleasant to be about them. While demand for increased capacity required the speed of the engines to be increased, their noise level did not increase all that much. The most noticeable difference with their increased speed was that the faster RPMs of their flywheels created more air movement about them. These steam engines were pleasant to be near.

On the other hand, the gas fueled reciprocating compression engines were noisier. While their exhaust was muffled, its 'chant' could get to a person over time or at least to me. With their multi-cylinders, their exhaust sound was more strident in nature. These gas engines, at certain workload speeds, also seemed to cause vibrations that could get on a person's nerves, too. At times these vibrations could cause small, loose items to move about, such as on tool chests. And to me it also often seemed to pulsate the station's window glass. Most of the 'young bucks' about these gas fuel reciprocation stations would laugh at my observations of this, claiming it as only my imagination, but I don't think it was.

Overall view of the station in November 1982. The front center structure is the engine house, with a Nordberg Duplex engine under each of the four roof peaks. Behind this building was the station's boiler house with its eight smokestacks. The house to the left served as a dweUing for the station's superintendent and his family.

Interior of the boiler house. Six of the twelve natural gas fired steam boilers can be seen in this view. Note cleanliness of this building. Water glasses can be seen to the left of boiler doors, with steam gauges on right.

One of the Ingersoll-Rand single steam cylinder air compressors located in the rear portion of the Burnsville engine house in 1982. The air compressing cylinder was operated by an extended piston rod of the steam engine. The steam cylinder sits under oil can and its speed governor, the air cylinder to the right.

Located elsewhere in the Burnsville engine house were various other pieces of equipment and machinery that supported the steam station's operation. Most of these were located in the rear portion of the building. Among the more interesting were two Ingersoll-Rand single steam engine powered air compressors. Each of these also used an extended steam piston rod to operate the air compressing cylinder. Compressed air was necessary for several reasons, but its main use was to operate air-powered tools used in repair and maintenance work about the station. Because of possible spark hazard, portable power tools were driven by small air motors, rather than the small electric motors normally found on such items.

The most unique piece of 'support equipment' in this building was a home-built steam washing machine of substantial construction. It was used to wash the station's wiping rags, and occasionally employee overalls. Its agitator was propelled by a small steam turbine, with the wash water coming from the boilers. Oddly, the washer's wringer was a hand operated one. Perhaps its creators didn't have access to a suitable small steam engine with which to power the machine's wringer? The washed rags were dried on a clothesline, located out of the way, near the steam pipes. Also in the building were various appliances as found in many other stationary steam engine-houses elsewhere, such as to recover lubrication oil from the exhaust steam, prior to its exhaust into the atmosphere.

Directly behind the engine house, separated by a distance of open space, was the station's boiler house. Here, twelve boilers were available to generate required steam. This building was a large, lofty structure that, with its high roof, made a more pleasant environment to toil in on hot, humid summer days. Its construction was also metal sheathing over a steel framework, and like the other buildings of the station's complex, it was white in exterior color. Eight smokestacks, twice as high as the building, poked skyward through the metal roofing. There were four smaller diameter smokestacks that served a boiler apiece, and four larger diameter stacks that served two boilers each. Like the engine house, the boiler house was kept cleaned and shined. Even the boiler tops were regularly cleaned of dust. The twelve boilers, all in a row, made as impressive a sight as the Nordberg engines in the engine house.

Back when the Burnsville station began its operation, bituminous coal was used to fuel the boilers. It then was less expensive to use than the natural gas the company moved through its pipeline. A spur track from the nearby railroad delivered the coal into the station. Also at that time, two different railroad companies operated through Burnsville, and a good grade of steam coal could be readily obtained from nearby mining districts.

I was told that to fire the boilers with coal was not that difficult a task. What was dreaded though, by the firemen, was the removal of the ashes. It seems an extensive pathway of wood planks once extended from the boiler house to various far reaches of the station's boundaries. Over this would travel the ashes, in wheelbarrows, to wherever the dumping site was designated. If wet, these boards became slick to walk over and cold temperatures made it more taxing. However, if it was to snow enough this pathway also required shoveling. Over time the various ground depressions about the station were filled in, then earth placed atop the ashes, and grass planted. The station's appearance became greatly improved as a result.

At a later date, a more extensive supply of natural gas became available and, with prices increasing for suitable coal, the station boilers were converted over to use natural gas for their fuel. The use of gas also allowed a cleaner operation of the station. Any boiler repair work would be arranged for summer months when boilers could be shutdown for this work, in conjunction with the partial shutdown of the steam compression engines.

The rest of the station's complex was open space, known as the yard area. It was here that the underground gas pipeline entered and exited the compression station. Valves on the pipeline in this area could route the gas flow about and through the station as needed. At some locations the underground pipe would emerge to the earth's surface for short distances. This exposed pipe allowed interior access into the pipe and its periodic inspection. Also in this same area were various appliances to serve the gas flow in the pipeline, such as heaters to warm the natural gas. Also, extra valves and sections of pipe were stored about for possible emergency nature replacement use by the company.

By 1982, Equitable Gas Company had already announced its intent to replace the Burnsville steam compression station with a new one. This replacement station would be built on a site just north of the existing enginehouse. It would be powered by a single gas fueled reciprocating engine of capacity to replace the four Nordberg steam compression engines. Helping to achieve this were improvements made elsewhere in the company's gas distribution system. Once the new station was completed and tested, the steam station would be dismantled and removed.

Since this was the very last steam compression station, it was hoped that it, or a portion of it, might be somehow preserved as an exhibit of its technology and time. Reportedly, the gas company did permit recognized, and suitable, historical interest organizations, including representatives of the Smithsonian Institution, to view and examine the steam station. Unfortunately, none of these groups could, or wanted, to undertake the humongous project of acquiring the station, removing it from its site and then reconstructing it at some other acquired location. As such, it seemed the steam station and its contents would be scrapped for its steel and metal content.

Another interior view of the boiler house at Burnsville, showing the top portion of several boilers and their steam lines that delivered the steam to the station's steam compression engines. Stairway, on the right front, leads to the roof.

Surprisingly, the construction schedule for the new replacement station got delayed, and the Nordberg engines continued to serve the company's needs a while longer. Once the construction work did get under way, it progressed swiftly and was soon completed. Not long afterwards, the Burnsville steam compression station was retired.

I regret I cannot provide the reader with the date of the steam power cessation. I was not back to the Burnsville, West Virginia, area from late 1983, the last time I saw the Nordberg engines in operation, until November 1988, at which time I found the new station completed and in operation, with the former steam station removed. At this time I was able to talk briefly with one of the old steam crewmen who provided me with the date of the steam's last usage. However, I failed to write the date down, and today I'm no longer sure of it in my mind, but I believe it was in 1985. He also informed me that the entire steam station had been acquired by South American interests, for operation there in a developing natural gas field. It was also his understanding that this project had gone sour in some way, prior to all of the steam equipment being shipped from the Burnsville area.

Today, I still do not know how much of this equipment ever got to South America. Nevertheless, there is a strong possibility that a portion of the old Burnsville steam compression station remains in service today. I'd like to think so, but does any reader know for sure?