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It is used to mechanically lift liquid out of the well if not enough bottom hole pressure exists for the liquid to flow all the way to the surface. The arrangement is commonly used for onshore wells producing little oil. Pumpjacks are common in oil-rich areas.

Depending on the size of the pump, it generally produces 5 to 40 litres of liquid at each stroke. Often this is anemulsion of crude oil and water. Pump size is also determined by the depth and weight of the oil to remove, with deeper extraction requiring more power to move the increased weight of the discharge column (discharge head).

A pumpjack converts the rotary motion of the motor to a vertical reciprocating motion to drive the pump shaft, and is exhibited in the characteristic nodding motion. The engineering term for this type of mechanism is a walking beam. It was often employed in stationary and marine steam engine designs in the 18th and 19th centuries.