What is an Air Compressor?

Internals of an air compressor

What is an air compressor?  This may seem like a simple question, but it is the heartbeat for most industries.  So, let’s dive into the requirements, myths, and types of air compressors that are commonly used.  Like the name states, air compressors are designed to compress air.  Unlike liquid, air is compressible which means that it can be “squished” into a smaller volume by pressure.  With this stored energy, it can do work for your pneumatic system.

There are two types of air compressors, positive displacement and dynamic.  The core component for most air compressors is an electric motor that spins a shaft.  Positive displacement uses the energy from the motor and the shaft to change volume in an area, like a piston in a reciprocating air compressor or like rotors in a rotary air compressor.  The dynamic types use the energy from the motor and the shaft to create a velocity energy with an impeller.  (You can read more about types of air compressors HERE).

Compressed air is a clean utility that is used in many different ways, and it is much safer than electrical or hydraulic systems.  But most people think that compressed air is free, and it is most certainly not.  Because of the expense, compressed air is considered to be a fourth utility in manufacturing plants.  For an electrical motor to reduce a volume of air by compressing it.  It takes roughly 1 horsepower (746 watts) of power to compress 4 cubic feet (113L) of air every minute to 125 PSI (8.5 bar).  With almost every manufacturing plant in the world utilizing air compressors much larger than 1 horsepower, the amount of energy needed to compress air is extraordinary.

Let’s determine the energy cost to operate an air compressor to make compressed air by Equation 1:

Equation 1:

Cost = hp * 0.746 * hours * rate / (motor efficiency)


Cost – US$

hp – horsepower of motor

0.746 – conversion KW/hp

hours – running time

rate – cost for electricity, US$/KWh

motor efficiency – average for an electric motor is 95%.

As an example, a manufacturing plant operates a 100 HP air compressor in their facility.  The cycle time for the air compressor is roughly 60%.  To calculate the hours of running time per year, I used 250 days/year at 16 hours/day for shifts.  So operating hours equal 250 * 16 * 0.60 = 2,400 hours per year.  The electrical rate at this facility is $0.10/KWh. With these factors, the annual cost to operate the air compressor can be calculated by Equation 1:

Cost = 100hp * 0.746 KW/hp * 2,400hr * $0.10/KWh / 0.95 = $18,846 per year in just electrical costs.

So, what is an air compressor?  The answer is an expensive system to compress air to operate pneumatic systems.  So, efficiency in using compressed air is very important.  EXAIR has been manufacturing Intelligent Compressed Air Products since 1983.  If you need alternative ways to save money when you are using your air compressor, an Application Engineer at EXAIR will be happy to help you.

John Ball
Application Engineer
Email: johnball@exair.com
Twitter: @EXAIR_jb


Compressor internals image courtesy of h080, Creative Commons License.

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