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Larry E. Blodgett
Southwest Research Institute


Simulation of compressors and piping systems covers a broad range of disciplines

Any discussion of simulation would be incomplete without an understanding of the
nature of the process simulated and the simulation objective. The simulation of
pulsations requires plane wave acoustics and occasionally three dimensional acous-
tics. The simulation of mechanical vibrations (excited by acoustic shaking forces)
requires mechanical dynamics and finite element understanding. The simulation of
stress requires mechanics of materials and fatigue theory. Reciprocating compressor
pressure volume simulation requires fluid dynamics and thermodynamics. Recip-
rocating compressor valve simulation requires acoustics, mechanical dynamics and
fluid dynamics. The central concept that relates these disciplines is the dynamic
concept. Of course an understanding of statics is also required, although it is usually
not at the heart of most efficient designs. A basic understanding of both statics and
dynamics is required to recognize what is necessary in developing and using a
particular simulation or model.
The term simulation or model will be used interchangeably to mean a tool which
exhibits similar properties of an actual machine. The simulation is usually based
on mathematically analogous processes. Therefore most simulations are mathe-
matical ideas that respond in a similar enough fashion to predict the desired prop-
erties of the system to be designed or analyzed.
Another central issue in compressor and piping simulation is the realization that
a system is an assemblage of compressor and piping that forms a unified system.
Proper simulation must address itself to the system as a whole and not isolate
processes which are interactive in the system. Statics and dynamics both influence
a machine’s performance, therefore they must both be included in an optimized
machine design. Specialization that minimizes the overall character of the system,
usually detracts from the success of a design effort.


6.1.1 Defining The Overall Task

The task of designing or analyzing a compressor and piping system includes:

• Piping acoustics (from compressor valve to acoustic termination)
• Piping mechanical dynamics (compressor manifold and external)
• Pressure drop analysis (efficiency considerations)
• Compressor valve dynamics (both performance and reliability)
• Compressor performance (cost efficiency)
• Piping mechanical statics (thermal expansion, etc.)
The major point to be made by addressing the overall design task is that the sub-
projects are all influenced by each other. Mechanical piping changes can influence
the acoustics and acoustics can influence both mechanics and performance. The
cost-effective and technically sound acoustical design cannot be performed in a
vacuum. The use of concurrent analysis1 is without doubt the best approach.


Normally, model processes are separated into areas which efficiently exhibit the
desired properties. Many models are limited intentionally so that the designer will
not make an effort to misuse the model. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see
several seemingly isolated simulations being performed which are then applied
simultaneously. The use of a simultaneous design philosophy is very beneficial. To
this end, we will be illustrating simulations in a focused effort to indicate the nature
and use of simulations realizing that they will all be combined in a unified effort
to optimize machine reliability and efficiency.

6.2.1 Static Systems

Static analysis in piping systems is usually divided into two areas:

• Static fluid loss associated with pressure drop and fluid dynamic efficiency (fluid
• Temperature, weight and pressure forces which determine static integrity (me-
chanical related)
Pressure drop simulations vary considerably in use and complexity. They are
based initially on the fundamental loss mechanism. For pipeline efficiency, this loss
factor might be empirical such as Spitzglass, Babcock, Weymouth or Panhandle.
The rational method of Darcy is more common in simulations in the last 20 years.
The Darcy method is rationally developed from the physical properties of fluids
and Bernoulli’s general energy theorem. Bernoulli’s theorem can be stated as fol-

P1 ␯ 21 P2 ␯ 22
Z1 ⫹ ⫹ ⫽ Z2 ⫹ ⫹
␳1 2g ␳2 2g
Z1 and Z2 ⫽ potential head at condition 1 and 2
P1 and P2 ⫽ static pressure at condition 1 and 2
␳1 and ␳2 ⫽ density at condition 1 and 2
V1 and V2 ⫽ velocity at condition 1 and 2
g ⫽ acceleration due to gravity
All practical formulas for fluid flow are derived from this theorem, with modifi-
cations to account for frictional losses.
Mechanically related models dealing with temperature, weight and static pres-
sure forces are usually included in a thermal flexibility analysis. The major static
issues are pipe stress, displacement, machinery forces and moments, and cooler
nozzle forces and moments. These will be discussed in detail in the section reserved
specifically for them.

6.2.2 Dynamic Fluid Transient Systems

The modeling of dynamic flow which is not acoustically related is generally

achieved through solutions of the basic equations of energy, motion or continuity,
plus equations of state and other physical property relationships. The most popular
solution is the characteristics method (method of characteristics). This method
converts the two partial differential equations of motion and continuity into four
total differential equations. These equations are then converted to finite difference
expressions using a method of specific time intervals. The resultant computational
process is performed in the time domain and can yield very rigorous results. When
large intermittent fluid flow problems are solved, this type of approach is necessary.
It can also be applied to acoustic problems but is computationally intensive. Emer-
gency shutdown and sudden machinery loading must be analyzed in the time do-
main using such techniques.


Pulsation, vibration and dynamic stress can best be understood in terms of a dy-
namic energy source and systems which can be resonant. Initially, the energy is
generated by the machinery (reciprocating compressor). If the piping natural fre-
quencies are frequency coincident, the energy is magnified through acoustic reso-
nance. The unbalanced pressure forces in piping systems couples into the mechan-
ical piping system causing vibration. If the mechanical natural frequency of the
piping is frequency coincident with the pulsation energy, secondary magnification
results. When large vibrational displacements occur in stiff systems, excessive
stress results at the points of stress concentration. If the cyclic stresses exceed the
endurance limit of the piping material, fatigue failure results.

6.3.1 Pulsations and Piping Acoustics

Dynamic energy is generated by the compressor in normal operation. The recip-

rocating process produces intermittent flow and pressure. These flow and pressure
variations are conveyed into the gas in the piping. The dynamic energy (both pul-
sative flow and pressure) first transfers into the gas or piping acoustics. Figure 6.1
illustrates the mass flow versus time waves that commonly occur at compressor
valves. Figure 6.2 illustrates the frequency content of the head end discharge flow
pulse. It is readily apparent that the frequency content of the pulsative flow is
limited to compressor rpm and multiples of compressor RPM. A single compressor
end produces decreasing amplitudes moving from the first compressor order (rpm
⫻ 1) to the higher multiples. When the front (head end) and back (crank end) ends
of the piston are used simultaneously, cancellation and reinforcement of compressor
order occurs. Most notably, the odd orders (1⫻, 3⫻, 5⫻ ...) tend to be reduced due
to cancellation of the two ends. Reinforcement occurs on the even order (2⫻, 4⫻,
6⫻ ...). Therefore, double acting compressors cylinders produce strong pulsative
flow at even orders. This reinforcement and cancellation occur with significant
acoustic involvement (on a single cylinders) due to the relatively close proximity
of the head end and crank end valve in the cylinder passage. A much more complex
case occurs when multiple cylinders (operating in parallel or series) are connected
by piping elements. In such cases, the reinforcement or cancellation of energy

FIGURE 6.1 Typical compressor flow patterns.


FIGURE 6.2 Spectrum of head end discharge flow pulse showing compressor orders.

occurs due to the crank shaft phase and the piping acoustics between the cylinders.
The models to analyze simple systems are almost trivial compared to the level of
sophistication required to analyze multiple cylinders with complex piping systems.
It is always good to keep in mind the transfer of energy through a system is:
cylinder excitation; acoustic transfer and amplification; mechanical transfer and
amplification; acoustical to mechanical coupling; resultant shaking force; mechan-
ical vibration; and eventual pipe material strain and stress.
The piping system can be viewed as a complex organ pipe network. The normal
piping system will have several acoustic natural frequencies which, if excited, de-
velop standing wave patterns (acoustic mode shapes). As the flow and pressure
wave travel out from the compressor, they are transmitted and reflected in the piping
system. Whether a wave is reflected or transmitted is determined by the change in
impedance from element to element. The simple acoustic impedance (Z) is deter-
mined by the gas velocity of sound (c ⫽ ft/sec), the gas density (␳ lb/cu ft) and
cross sectional flow area (A ⫽ sq ft) of the acoustic element.
This type of simplistic thinking is actually the basis for more complex models that
are used in everyday acoustic analysis.

The design of piping systems related to compressors from an acoustic viewpoint

was first developed in 1952. Forty-four years of advances in analytical dynamics,
instrumentation, and computer systems have continuously improved the engineer’s
ability to develop low maintenance, cost-effective and efficient designs. For many
years, the only available techniques were based on electro acoustical (analog) or
simple mathematical models. With the advent of the desktop computer came digital
acoustic techniques. The use of the computer to solve basic acoustic piping cal-
culations was not new. It actually existed on mainframe computers for many years,
but the man-to-machine interface was inefficient and cumbersome.
There are many different types of acoustic piping models in use today. The
majority of digital models use the transfer matrix method. A fairly complete list
of methods would include the following:
• Electro acoustical model (the analog)
• Transfer matrix
• Method of characteristics
• Simultaneous differential equations
• Acoustic finite wave
• Finite difference methods
• Spectral method
• Boundary-integral method
• Impedance methods (linear analysis)
An accurately modeled compressor and piping system requires both time domain
and frequency domain calculations. The use of frequency-to-time domain trans-
forms has led to a semi-rigorous approach in the frequency domain appearing to
have true time domain interaction when in reality it does not exist. True time
domain models include electro acoustic (analog), method of characteristics, or si-
multaneous differential equation solutions.

6.3.2 Time Domain Models In Reciprocating Compressors

The process of developing a reciprocating compressor and piping design involves

the representation of the compressor cylinder, pressure operated valves and a valid
acoustic piping model. The piston motion and the valve action produce a periodic
intermittent mass flow from the suction piping and into the discharge piping. It is
important to note the discontinuous nature of the flow pattern. If a single flow pulse
is converted to the frequency domain, the flow can be viewed in terms of frequency
multiples of the compressor speed (rpm/60). The nature of these discontinuous
pressure functions results in pressure pulses being produced at the machine speed
and multiples of one times machine speed.
The acoustic natural frequencies of the piping system can be excited by the
piston pulse causing pressure and velocity magnification. The volumetric properties

of the piping tend to introduce a smoothing process to the more severe interruptions
characteristic of the opening and closing compressor valves.
The performance of reciprocating compressors can be generally inferred from
the internal cylinder pressure and the manner in which it interacts with the pressures
outside the suction and discharge compressor valves. The cylinder external pres-
sures can be helpful or harmful to the overall cylinder compression and flow pro-
cess. It is important to note that the piston motion, mechanical valve model, and
outside pressures should be represented in the time domain to allow for proper
When acoustic standing waves are present in the piping system, they can couple
through elbows and capped ends, resulting in significant shaking forces. The major
contributor of acoustic shaking force is due to the standing wave which is a by-
product of acoustic resonance. Therefore, acoustic resonance has two disadvan-
tages: the amplitude of the pulsative is magnified; and the energy is concentrated
in a form that efficiently couples to shaking forces. By limiting or controlling the
pulsation amplitude, the coupled shaking force can also be limited. The control of
shaking forces reduces vibration that can cause maintenance problems or fatigue
Through design analysis, non resonant acoustical and mechanical systems can
be designed which limit vibration, ensure efficiency and increase reliability of the
machine and its piping system.
In simple systems, the design analysis approach can be closed form equations
in combination with past successful experience. However, in most cases, the com-
plexity associated with multiple cylinders and extensive piping configurations re-
quires the use of Analog or digital techniques.

6.3.3 Frequency Domain Acoustic Models

The most popular model used in piping acoustics is based on the transfer matrix
approach. The development of the equations used in constructing the model follows
the following path:

• Plane waves in an inviscid stationary medium

• Plane waves in a viscous stationary medium
• Plane waves in an inviscid moving medium
• Plane waves in a viscous moving medium

Implicit in the development of the impedance in acoustical systems is the rec-

ognition of a direct analogy to frequency domain analysis of electrical transmission
networks. This is the fact that inspired the first acoustic piping design tool which
dominated piping design for many years, and continues to hold considerable ad-
vantage compared to existing digital computer applications. The use of inductors
(coils), capacitors and resistance forms the basic analogous components which re-
late directly to fluid mass property, fluid resiliency and fluid resistance. The mass

flow and fluid pressure are directly analogous to electrical current and electrical
voltage. Even today the pro and cons of ‘‘analog’’ versus digital continues to be a
matter of much debate.2 The real test of any model is its ability to produce faithful
results that allow a knowledgeable piping designer to produce safe efficient com-
pression systems.

6.3.4 Piping Mechanical Models

The single most important factor in dynamic mechanical models is determination

of accurate natural frequency calculations. Accurate natural frequency calculations
allow for the proper separation of pulsative energy (both incident and resonant)
and mechanical natural frequencies. Should coincidence occur, mechanical reso-
nance results and almost certain problems will ensue. High vibration due to reso-
nance can result in one or more of the following problems.
• Loosing nuts and bolts associated with valves, piping restraints or other bolted
elements. This results in general high maintenance cost.
• Vibration induced fatigue of smaller lines such as instrument lines
• Vibration induced fatigue of major piping elements
Where piping is the primary moving element, the vibrational mode shapes are
dependent on the model possessing the distributed stiffness and mass properties of
the pipe. When valves or concentrated masses are present, it is also important that
these elements have specified rotational inertia properties. It is very important that
restraints are modeled with proper stiffness values. As a general statement, the
mass and stiffness distribution and magnitude must be properly modeled to ensure
accurate natural frequency calculations. A knowledge of vibrational mode shape
can help in determining when a piping geometrical configuration is susceptible to
pulsation energy. The transfer of pulsation energy to the mechanical system gen-
erally occurs due to area coupling at pipe closed ends and piping elbows. In piping
systems with pulsation energy, the more elbows the greater probability of a vibra-
tion problem.

6.3.5 Compressor Immediate Mechanical Analysis

Reciprocating manifold systems are composed of crosshead guides, distance pieces

cylinders, cylinder supports, suction nozzles, discharge nozzles, suction manifold
bottles, discharge manifold bottles, discharge bottle restraints and attached piping
on suction and discharge. The vibration patterns associated with such elements are
most accurately viewed as lumped masses connected with generally massless
springs. Therefore, the approach required to model a compressor manifold is quite
different than that required to model the distributed properties of pure piping sys-
tems. Calculating proper natural frequencies and mode shapes for compressor man-
ifolds requires a very specialized understanding of such elements as:

• Crosshead guide flexibility

• Distance piece flexibility
• Cylinder rotary inertia
• Nozzle branch connection flexibility
• Manifold bottle rotary inertia
• Discharge bottle restraint added stiffness
• Attached piping dynamic effects

6.3.6 Dynamic Stress Models

Dynamic stresses can be calculated in both piping systems and manifold systems
with proper attention to the element properties and the forces and moments at each
end of the element. In most cases, a finite element type of approach can be used
to calculate the dynamic stresses. Experience has shown that a distortion energy
theory algorithm correlates well with practical field failure experience. The im-
provements of the distortion energy theory over the total strain energy theory ac-
count for the experimental observation that hydrostatic states of stress must be
properly assessed. The later contributions of Von Mises and Hencky have led to
the best overall techniques. The effort associated with a complete FEA analysis is
not necessary and would be prohibitive (if performed correctly) from a time and
cost viewpoint. Practically, the most conservative and reliable dynamic stress cri-
teria is to simply ensure the maximum dynamic peak-to-peak stress is less than
6,000 psi. This accounts for worse case mean stress, stress concentration, surface
effect and size effects.3



Compressor system models are composed of both the compressor and the piping
system. Therefore, when a compressor simulation analysis is performed, a PV
(pressure vs. volume) and PA (pressure vs. crank angle) display of the cylinder
internal pressure is available. Figure 6.3 illustrates the PA display along with actual
pressure levels at the suction and discharge valves. Figure 6.4 illustrates a typical
PV card. The advantage of this PV card is the inclusion of the pulsation effects.
Ideal PV calculations yield four basic components.

• Suction volumetric efficiency

• Discharge volumetric efficiency
• Compression line
• Re-expansion line

FIGURE 6.3 Cylinder pressure and valve pressure vs. crank angle.

During the period of time the suction or discharge valve is open, the internal
cylinder pressure is influenced by the pressure beyond the valve in the piping. The
changes in acoustic impedance cause pulsative energy to reflect back upon the
compressor valve and to actually enter the valve port. This influence is very sig-
nificant. The nature of the pressure profile on the PV card during these time periods
is very similar to the pressure immediately outside the valves. A primary influence
is on the area of the card which is proportional to the work performed for each
rotation of the shaft. The work combined with the rpm yields the horsepower of
the compressor. High frequency pulsative energy tends to produce numerous waves
during the inlet or outlet flow time. Low frequency pulsative energy tends to cause
the PV card to balloon or swell. A ballooning card usually suggests the horsepower
is increased with a corresponding increase in flow. Therefore, the efficiency of the
compressor is deteriorated. The compression and re-expansion lines can also be
displaced, causing very significant increases in required horsepower with a small
increase in flow. Displaced compression and re-expansion lines in many cases are
symptoms of increased valve impact velocities and limited valve life.


The suction and discharge valve motion is determined by the dynamic properties
(mass, stiffness and damping) of the valve elements and the differential pressure

FIGURE 6.4 PV card display.

across the valve. The differential pressure and the effective pressure area determines
the force that operates the valve. The differential pressure is composed of both
static and dynamic components. The valve motion cannot be properly predicted
without including the pulsative energy present in the system. Figure 6.5 illustrates
the pulsative pressure at the exit of the discharge valve and also in the common
nozzle. This data shows the complex nature of pulsative energy and why this would
surely influence the valve motion. The energy content is quite different as you
move from the valve exit to the common nozzle. Figure 6.6 illustrates the spectral
content of the energy in the nozzle. This spectral energy content shows the domi-
nance of the basic double acting cylinder (dominate rpm ⫻ 2 energy) and acoustic
response associated with the cylinder internal passage at approximately 64 to 69
Hertz. This is typical and illustrates the requirement of the modeling process.
An adequate compressor model will include a mechanical valve model coupled
into the driving pulsative energy and the open and closed limits of valve element
travel. It is important that this model be evaluated in the time domain. The results
of the model should yield valve spring and weight parametric analysis capabilities.
The valve displacement, velocity and acceleration are directly available, allowing
for direct evaluation of impact velocities and forces. At present, several valve man-
ufacturers have impact velocity criteria which are used to screen valve reliability.
These criteria have not proven totally reliable up until now, and are used as a
simple criteria which should not be over emphasized.