Intelligent Compressed Air: Single Acting Reciprocating Air Compressors

Of all the types of air compressors on the market, you can’t beat the single acting reciprocating air compressor for simplicity:

Piston goes down: air is pulled in. Piston goes up: air is pushed out.

This simplicity is key to a couple of major advantages:

  • Price: they can cost 20-40% less than a similar rated (but more efficient) rotary screw model, up to about 5HP sizes.  This makes them great choices for home hobbyists and small industrial or commercial settings.
  • High pressure: It’s common to see reciprocating compressors that are capable of generating up to 3,000 psig.  Because the power is transmitted in the same direction as the fluid flow, they can handle the mechanical stresses necessary for this much better than other types of air compressors, which may need special modifications for that kind of performance.
  • Durability: out of necessity, their construction is very robust and rugged.  A good regimen of preventive maintenance will keep them running for a good, long time.  Speaking of which…
  • Maintenance (preventive): if you change your car’s oil and brake pads yourself, you have most of the know-how – and tools – to perform regular upkeep on a reciprocating air compressor.  There’s really not that much to them:

    The internals of a single acting reciprocating compressor.

Those advantages are buffered, though, by certain drawbacks:

  • Efficiency, part 1: The real work (compressing the air) only happens on the upstroke.  They’re less efficient than their dual acting counterparts, which compress on the downstroke too.
  • Efficiency, part 2: As size increases, efficiency decreases.  As stated above, smaller sizes usually cost appreciably less than more efficient (rotary screw, vane, centrifugal, etc.) types, but as you approach 25HP or higher, the cost difference just isn’t there, and the benefits of those other types start to weigh heavier in the decision.
  •  Maintenance (corrective):  Whereas they’re easy to maintain, if/when something does break, the parts (robust and rugged as they are) can get pretty pricey.
  • Noise: No way around it; these things are LOUD.  Most of the time, you’ll find them in a remote area of the facility, and/or in their own (usually sound-insulated) room.
  • High temperature:  When air is compressed, the temperature rises due to all the friction of those molecules getting shoved together…that’s going to happen with any air compressor.  All the metal moving parts in constant contact with each other, in a reciprocating model, add even more heat.
  • Oil in the air: If you’re moving a piston back & forth in a cylinder, you have to keep it lubed properly, which means you have oil adjacent to the air chamber.  Which means, no matter how well it’s built, you’re likely going to have oil IN the air chamber.

All that said, the benefits certainly do sell a good number of these compressors, quite often into situations where it just wouldn’t make sense to use any other type.  If you’re in the market for an air compressor,  you’ll want to find a local reputable air compressor dealer, and discuss your needs with them.  If those needs entail the use of engineered compressed air products, though, please feel free to give me a call to discuss.  We can make sure you’re going to ask your compressor folks the right questions.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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About Sliding Vane Air Compressors

Over the last few months, my EXAIR colleagues have blogged about several different types of air compressor types including single and double acting reciprocating and rotary screw. (You can select the links above to check those out.) Today I will review the basics of the sliding vane type, specifically the oil/lubricant injected sliding vane compressor.

The lubricant injected sliding vane compressor falls under the positive displacement-type, the same as the other types previously discussed.  A positive displacement type operates under the premise that a given quantity of air is taken in, trapped in a compression chamber and the physical space of the chamber is mechanically reduced.  When a given amount of air occupies a smaller volume, the pressure of the air increases.

Each of the previous positive displacement type compressors use a different mechanism for the reduction in size of the compression chamber.  The single and double acting reciprocating use a piston that cycles up and down to reduce the compression chamber size. The rotary screw uses two inter-meshing rotors, where the compression chamber volume reduces as the air approaches the discharge end.  For the lubricant sliding vane type, the basic design is shown below.

Sliding Vane2
Air enters from the right, and as the compression chamber volume reduces due to counterclockwise rotation, the pressure increases until the air discharges to the left

The compressor consist of an external housing or stator, and the internal circular rotor, which is eccentrically offset.  The rotor has radially positioned (and occasionally offset) slots in which vanes reside.  As the rotor rotates, the centrifugal forces on the vanes cause them to move outwards and contact the inner surface of the stator bore.  This creates the compression areas, formed by the vanes, rotor surface and the stator bore.  Because the rotor is eccentrically offset, the volume of the compression area reduces as the distance between the rotor surface and the stator reduces.  As the rotor turns counterclockwise, the vanes are pushed back into the rotor slots, all the while in contact with the stator surface.  The shrinking of the compression area leads to the increase in air pressure.

Oil is injected into compression chamber to act as a lubricant, to assist is sealing, and to help to remove some of the heat of compression.

The advantages of the lubricant sliding vane compressor type is very similar to the lubricant injected rotary screw.  A few key advantages include:

  • Compact size
  • Relatively low initial cost
  • Vibration free operation- no special foundation needed
  • Routine maintenance includes basic lubricant and filter changes

A few of the disadvantages include:

  • Lubricant gets into the compressed air stream, requires an air/lubricant separation system
  • Requires periodic lubricant change and disposal
  • Less efficient than rotary screw type
  • Not as flexible as rotary screw in terms of capacity control in meeting changing demands

EXAIR recommends consulting with a reputable air compressor dealer in your area, to fully review all of the parameters associated with the selection and installation of a compressed air system.

If you would like to talk about compressed air or any of the EXAIR Intelligent Compressed Air® Products, feel free to contact EXAIR and myself or one of our Application Engineers can help you determine the best solution.

Brian Bergmann
Application Engineer

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Diagram:  used from Compressed Air Challenge Handbook

About Rotary Screw Air Compressors

Recently, EXAIR Application Engineers have written blogs about reciprocating type air compressors: Single Acting (by Lee Evans) and Dual Acting (by John Ball.) Today, I would like to introduce you, dear EXAIR blog reader, to another type: the Rotary Screw Air Compressor.

Like a reciprocating compressor, a rotary screw design uses a motor to turn a drive shaft. Where the reciprocating models use cams to move pistons back & forth to draw in air, compress it, and push it out under pressure, a rotary screw compressor’s drive shaft turns a screw (that looks an awful lot like a great big drill bit) whose threads are intermeshed with another counter-rotating screw. It draws air in at one end of the screw, and as it is forced through the decreasing spaces formed by the meshing threads, it’s compressed until it exits into the compressed air system.

Rotary Screw Air Compressor…how it works.

So…what are the pros & cons of rotary screw compressors?

Pros:

*Efficiency.  With no “down-stroke,” all the energy of the shaft rotation is used to compress air.

*Quiet operation.  Obviously, a simple shaft rotating makes a lot less noise than pistons going up & down inside cylinders.

*Higher volume, lower energy cost.  Again, with no “down-stroke,” the moving parts are always compressing air instead of spending half their time returning to the position where they’re ready to compress more air

*Suitable for continuous operation.  The process of compression is one smooth, continuous motion.

*Availability of most efficient control of output via a variable frequency drive motor.

*They operate on the exact same principle as a supercharger on a high performance sports car (not a “pro” strictly speaking from an operation sense, but pretty cool nonetheless.)

Cons:

*Purchase cost.  They tend to run a little more expensive than a similarly rated reciprocating compressor.  Or more than a little, depending on options that can lower operating costs.  Actually, this is only a “con” if you ignore the fact that, if you shop right, you do indeed get what you pay for.

*Not ideal for intermittent loads.  Stopping & starting a rotary screw compressor might be about the worst thing you can do to it.  Except for slacking on maintenance.  And speaking of which:

*Degree of maintenance.  Most maintenance on a reciprocating compressor is fairly straightforward (think “put the new part in the same way the old one came out.”)  Working on a rotary screw compressor often involves reassembly & alignment of internal parts to precision tolerances…something better suited to the professionals, and they don’t work cheap.

Like anything else, there are important factors to take under consideration when deciding which type of air compressor is most suitable for your needs.  At EXAIR, we always recommend consulting a reputable air compressor dealer in your area, helping them fully understand your needs, and selecting the one that fits your operation and budget.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
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