Pressure – Absolute, Gauge, and Units of Both

Compressed air is a common utility used throughout industrial facilities and it has to be measured like any other utility in order to know just how much a facility is using. When dealing with compressed air a common unit of measurement that readily comes up is psi, pound-force per square inch. This unit of measure is one of the most basic units used to measure pressure in the compressed air industry. There are other means to measure this though, so let’s discover the difference.

Again, the pressure is a force distributed over an area, the Earth’s atmosphere has pressure, if it didn’t we would all balloon up like the Violet from Willy Wonka, just without eating some prototype gum causing internal pressure. PSIA is a unit of measure that is relative to a full vacuum. It is pounds per square inch absolute (PSIA). The absolute pressure is calculated as the sum of the gauge pressure plus the atmospheric pressure. If you were to travel into space, the atmospheric pressure would be absolute zero which is actually a vacuum. There is nothing pushing from the outside in so the inside pushes out, hence the ballooning.

The atmospheric pressure on earth is based on sea level. This is 14.7 pounds per square inch absolute pressure. This pressure will change along with the weather and the altitude at which the measurement is taken.

So how do we get to the pressure that is displayed on a pressure gauge?  When shown open to room air, my pressure gauge reads zero psi. Well, that is zero psi gauge, this already has the atmosphere showing. It is not showing the Absolute pressure, it is showing the pressure relative to atmospheric conditions. This is going back to the fact that gauge pressure is the summation of absolute pressure and atmospheric conditions, for sea level on earth that is 14.7 psia. So how do we increase this and get the gauge to read higher levels?

We compress the air the gauge is measuring, whether it is using a screw compressor, dual-stage piston compressor, single-cylinder, or any other type of compressor, it is compressing the ambient, atmospheric air. Some materials do not like being compressed. Air, however, reacts well to being compressed and turns into a form of stored energy that gets used throughout industrial facilities.  By compressing the air, we effectively take the air from atmospheric conditions and squeeze it down into a storage tank or piping where it is stored until it is used. Because the air is being compressed you can fit larger volumes (cubic feet or cubic meters) into a smaller area. This is the stored energy, that air that is compressed always wants to expand back out to ambient conditions. Perhaps this video below will help, it shows the GREAT Julius Sumner Miller explaining atmospheric pressure, lack of it, and when you add to it.

Lastly, no matter where you are, there is a scientific unit that can express atmospheric pressure, compressed air pressure, or even lack of pressure which are vacuum levels. To convert between these scientific units, some math calculations are needed. While the video below is no Julius Sumner Miller, it does a great job walking through many of the units we deal with daily here at EXAIR.


If you want to discuss pressures, atmospheric pressure, how fast the air expands from your engineered nozzle to atmospheric, why all the moisture in the air compresses with it, and how to keep it out of your process, contact an application engineer and we will be glad to walk through the applications and explanations with you.

Brian Farno
Application Engineer

1 – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory – Violet Blows Up Like a Blueberry Scene (7/10) | Movieclips, Movieclips, retrieved from

2 – Lesson 10 – Atmospheric Pressure – Properties of Gases – Demonstrations in Physics,  Julius Sumner Miller, Retrieved from

3 – Pressure Units and Pressure Unit Conversion Explained, Chem Academy, retrieve from


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