Intelligent Compressed Air: Distribution Piping

air compressor

An important component of your compressed air system is the distribution piping. The piping will be the “veins” that connect your entire facility to the compressor. Before installing pipe, it is important to consider how the compressed air will be consumed at the point of use. Some end use devices must have adequate ventilation. For example, a paint booth will need to be installed near an outside wall to exhaust fumes. Depending on the layout of your facility, this may require long piping runs.  You’ll need to consider the types of fittings you’ll use, the size of the distribution piping, and whether you plan to add additional equipment in the next few years. If so, it is important that the system is designed to accommodate any potential expansion. This also helps to compensate for potential scale build-up (depending on the material of construction) that will restrict airflow through the pipe.

The first thing you’ll need to do is determine your air compressor’s maximum CFM and the necessary operating pressure for your point of use products. Keep in mind, operating at a lower pressure can dramatically reduce overall operating costs. Depending on a variety of factors (elevation, temperature, relative humidity) this can be different than what is listed on directly on the compressor. (For a discussion of how this impacts the capacity of your compressor, check out one of my previous blogs – Intelligent Compressed Air: SCFM, ACFM, ICFM, CFM – What do these terms mean?) Once you’ve determined your compressor’s maximum CFM, draw a schematic of the necessary piping and list out the length of each straight pipe run. Determine the total length of pipe needed for the system. Using a graph or chart, such as this one from Engineering Toolbox. Locate your compressor’s capacity on the y-axis and the required operating pressure along the x-axis. The point at which these values meet will be the recommended MINIMUM pipe size. If you plan on future expansion, now is a good time to move up to the next pipe size to avoid any potential headache.

Once you’ve determined the appropriate pipe size, you’ll need to consider how everything will begin to fit together. According to the “Best Practices for Compressed Air Systems” from the Compressed Air Challenge, the air should enter the compressed air header at a 45° angle, in the direction of flow and always through wide-radius elbows. A sharp angle anywhere in the piping system will result in an unnecessary pressure drop. When the air must make a sharp turn, it is forced to slow down. This causes turbulence within the pipe as the air slams into the insides of the pipe and wastes energy. A 90° bend can cause as much as 3-5 psi of pressure loss. Replacing 90° bends with 45° bends instead eliminates unnecessary pressure loss across the system.

Pressure drop through the pipe is caused by the friction of the air mass making contact with the inside walls of the pipe. This is a function of the volume of flow through the pipe. Larger diameter pipes will result in a lower pressure drop, and vice versa for smaller diameter pipes. The chart below from the “Compressed Air and Gas Institute Handbook” provides the pressure drop that can be expected at varying CFM for 2”, 3”, and 4” ID pipe.

pressure drop in pipe

You’ll then need to consider the different materials that are available. Some different materials that you’ll find are: steel piping (Schedule 40) both with or without galvanizing, stainless steel, copper, aluminum, and even some plastic piping systems are available.

While some companies do make plastic piping systems, plastic piping is not recommended to be used for compressed air. Some lubricants that are present in the air can act as a solvent and degrade the pipe over time. PVC should NEVER be used as a compressed air distribution pipe. While PVC piping is inexpensive and versatile, serious risk can occur when using with compressed air. PVC can become brittle with age and will eventually rupture due to the stress. Take a look at this inspection report –  an automotive supply store received fines totaling $13,200 as a result of an injury caused by shrapnel from a PVC pipe bursting.

Steel pipe is a traditional material used in many compressed air distribution systems.  It has a relatively low price compared to other materials and due to its familiarity is easy to install. It’s strong and durable on the outside. Its strength comes at a price, steel pipe is very heavy and requires anchors to properly suspend it. Steel pipe (not galvanized) is also susceptible to corrosion. This corrosion ends up in your supply air and can wreak havoc on your point-of-use products and can even contaminate your product. While galvanized steel pipe does reduce the potential for corrosion, this galvanizing coating can flake off over time and result in the exact same potential issues. Stainless Steel pipe eliminates the corrosion and rusting concerns while still maintaining the strength and durability of steel pipe. They can be more difficult to install as stainless steel pipe threads can be difficult to work with.

Copper piping is another potential option. Copper pipe is corrosion-free, easy to cut, and lightweight making it easy to suspend. These factors come at a significant increase in costs, however, which can prevent it from being a suitable solution for longer runs or larger ID pipe installations. Soldering of the connecting joints can be time consuming and does require a skilled laborer to do so, making copper piping a mid-level solution for your compressed air system.

Another lightweight material that is becoming increasingly more common in industry is aluminum piping. Like copper, aluminum is lightweight and anti-corrosion. They’re easy to connect with push-to-lock connectors and are ideal for clean air applications. Aluminum pipe remains leak-free over time and can dramatically reduce compressed air costs. While the initial cost can be high, eliminating potential leaks can help to recoup some of the initial investment. Aluminum pipe is also coated on the inside to prevent corrosion. While an aluminum piping system may be the most expensive, its easy installation and adaptability make it an excellent choice.

It can be easy to become overwhelmed with the variety of options at your disposal. Your facility layout, overall budget, and compressed air requirements will allow you to make the best choice. Once you’ve selected and installed your distribution piping, look to the EXAIR website for all of your point-of-use compressed air needs!

Tyler Daniel
Application Engineer
Twitter: @EXAIR_TD

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