Compressed Air Regulators: The Design and Function


Compressed air regulators are a pressure reducing valve that are used to maintain a proper downstream pressure for pneumatic systems.  There are a variety of styles but the concept is very similar; “maintain a downstream pressure regardless of the variations in flow”.  Regulators are very important in protecting downstream pneumatic systems as well as a useful tool in saving compressed air in blow-off applications.

The basic design of a regulator includes a diaphragm, a stem, a poppet valve, an orifice, compression springs and an adjusting screw.  I will break down the function of each item as follows:

  1. Diaphragm – it separates the internal air pressure from the ambient pressure. They are typically made of a rubber material so that it can stretch and deflect.  They come in two different styles, relieving and non-relieving.  Relieving style has a small hole in the diaphragm to allow the downstream pressure to escape to atmosphere when you need to decrease the output pressure.  The non-relieving style does not allow this, and they are mainly used for gases that are expensive or dangerous.
  2. Stem – It connects the poppet valve to the diaphragm. This is the “linkage” to move the poppet valve to allow compressed air to pass.  As the diaphragm flexes up and down, the stem will close and open the poppet valve.
  3. Poppet valve – it is used to block the orifice inside the regulator. It has a sealing surface to stop the flowing of compressed air during zero-flow conditions.  The poppet valve is assisted by a spring to help “squeeze” the seal against the orifice face.
  4. Orifice – it is an opening that determines the maximum amount of air flow that can be supplied by the regulator. The bigger the orifice, the more air that can pass and be supplied to downstream equipment.
  5. Compression springs – they create the forces to balance between zero pressure to maximum downstream pressure. One spring is below the poppet valve to keep it closed and sealed. The other spring sits on top of the diaphragm and is called the adjusting spring.  This spring is much larger than the poppet valve spring, and it is the main component to determine the downstream pressure ranges.  The higher the spring force, the higher the downstream pressure.
  6. Adjusting screw – it is the mechanism that “squeezes” the adjusting spring. To increase downstream pressure, the adjusting screw decreases the overall length of the adjusting spring.  The compression force increases, allowing for the poppet valve to stay open for a higher pressure.  It works in the opposite direction to decrease the downstream pressure.

With the above items working together, the regulator is designed to keep the downstream pressure at a constant rate.  This constant rate is maintained during zero flow to max flow demands.  But, it does have some inefficiencies.  One of those issues is called “droop”.  Droop is the amount of loss in downstream pressure when air starts flowing through a regulator.  At steady state (the downstream system is not requiring any air flow), the regulator will produce the adjusted pressure (If you have a gage on the regulator, it will show you the downstream pressure).  Once the regulator starts flowing, the downstream pressure will fall.  The amount that it falls is dependent on the size of the orifice inside the regulator and the stem diameter.  Charts are created to show the amount of droop at different set pressures and flow ranges (reference chart below).  This is very important in sizing the correct regulator.  If the regulator is too small, it will affect the performance of the pneumatic system.

The basic ideology on how a regulator works can be explained by the forces created by the springs and the downstream air pressures.  The downstream air pressure is acting against the surface area of the diaphragm creating a force.  (Force is pressure times area).  The adjusting spring force is working against the diaphragm and the spring force under the poppet valve.  A simple balanced force equation can be written as:

Fa  ≡ Fp + (P2 * SA)

Fa – Adjusting Spring Force

Fp – Poppet Valve Spring Force

P2 – Downstream pressure

SA – Surface Area of diaphragm

If we look at the forces as a vector, the left side of the Equation 1 will indicate a positive force vector.  This indicates that the poppet valve is open and compressed air is allowed to pass through the regulator.  The right side of Equation 1 will show a negative vector.  With a negative force vector, the poppet valve is closed, and the compressed air is unable to pass through the regulator (zero flow).

Let’s start at an initial condition where the force of the adjusting spring is at zero (the adjusting screw is not compressing the spring), the downstream pressure will be zero.  Then the equation above will show a value of only Fp.  This is a negative force vector and the poppet valve is closed. To increase the downstream pressure, the adjusting screw is turned to compress the adjusting spring.  The additional spring force pushes down on the diaphragm.  The diaphragm will deflect to push the stem and open the poppet valve.  This will allow the compressed air to flow through the regulator.  The equation will show a positive force vector: Fa > Fp + (P2 * SA).  As the pressure downstream builds, the force under the diaphragm will build, counteracting the force of the adjusting spring.  The diaphragm will start to close the poppet valve.  When a pneumatic system calls for compressed air, the downstream pressure will begin to drop.  The adjusting spring force will become dominant, and it will push the diaphragm again into a positive force vector.  The poppet valve will open, allowing the air to flow to the pneumatic device.  If we want to decrease the downstream air pressure, the adjusting screw is turned to reduce the adjusting spring force.  This now becomes a negative force vector; Fa < Fp + (P2 * SA).  The diaphragm will deflect in the opposite direction.  This is important for relieving style diaphragms.  This deflection will open a small hole in the diaphragm to allow the downstream air pressure to escape until it reaches an equal force vector, Fa = Fp + (P2 * SA).  As the pneumatic system operates, the components of the regulator work together to open and close the poppet valve to supply pressurized air downstream.

Compressed air is expensive to make; and for a system that is unregulated, the inefficiencies are much greater, wasting money in your company.  For blow-off applications, you can over-use the amount of compressed air required to “do the job”.  EXAIR offers a line of regulators to control the amount of compressed air to our products.  EXAIR is a leader in manufacturing very efficient products for compressed air use, but in conjunction with a regulator, you will be able to save even more money.  Also, to make it easy for you to purchase, EXAIR offer kits with our products which will include a regulator.  The regulators are already properly sized to provide the correct amount of compressed air with very little droop.   If you need help in finding the correct kit for your blow-off application, an Application Engineer at EXAIR will be able to help you.

John Ball
Application Engineer
Twitter: @EXAIR_jb

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