Intelligent Compressed Air: Distribution System Design

No matter what kind of compressor you have, or what you use compressed air for, a critical part of your system is the distribution system. My neighbor has a 5HP reciprocating compressor that sits on top of a 50 gallon tank in his garage. Unlike me, he LIKES working on cars, and has a variety of pneumatic tools, and a really nice air operated paint sprayer that he can make a car look brand new with. Anyway, his “distribution system” is a 1/2″ rubber air hose with a quick connect on the end. And that works just fine for him.

On the other end of the compressed-air-system-complexity spectrum, a large manufacturing facility may have a few (or more) compressors, and they may not even be in the same room. Today, we’re going to look at the factors that affect distribution design, and some of the “pros and cons” of those designs.

The two main types of supply systems…centralized (where there’s one single compressor room), and de-centralized (where individual compressors are located throughout the facility). There are advantages, and disadvantages to both as far as maintenance, number of operators required, controls, utilities, and noise reduction go. The main impact of these on the distribution and storage layout falls largely on distribution design. Supply headers have to be adequately sized, and plumbed, to get sufficient air flow to the farthest usage points from a centralized compressor room. Inadequate initial design, or adding load without considering flow capacity to service added load, can lead to increasing compressor discharge pressure to keep point of use pressure at the required level. De-centralized systems aren’t usually as affected…because they’re closer to their points of use by design, there’s less pressure loss through the distribution lines.

Whether the supply side is centralized or de-centralized, the advantages & disadvantages of different distribution piping layouts are similar in nature. Let’s look at a Loop design:

In this design, the compressors feed a complete loop of piping, with drops at points of use.

Since compressed air loses pressure due to friction as it flows through the distribution piping, it’s always important to design for the distance from the compressor, to the point of use, to be as short as possible. A Loop design facilitates this by allowing the air to reach any point of use from two directions…by definition, the farthest that the air has to travel is half the total length of the piping.

The other basic style of distribution layout is called “Trunk & Branch”:

In this design, the “trunk” (the horizontal line) feeds a series of “branches” (the vertical lines) to various points of use.

If the distance from the compressor(s) to the farthest point of use isn’t excessively long, a Trunk & Branch system is a lower cost alternative, because it uses less pipe. Keep in mind that line loss will necessarily create a pressure drop that steadily increases, the farther it gets from the compressor. If that means you have to use larger pipe, your installation & materials costs start to creep right back up. The larger the facility, the more sense it makes to consider a Loop design. Alternately, a de-centralized compressor layout can minimize line loss in a Trunk & Branch design too. Locating a compressor on the right-hand side of the sketch above, for example, will effectively give you the major benefit of a Loop design: allowing air to reach any point of use from both directions.

At EXAIR, our mission is to help you get the most out of our products, and your compressed air system. If you have questions, we’ve got answers – give me a call.

Russ Bowman, CCASS

Application Engineer
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Designing a Compressed Air Distribution System

Compressed air is used to operate pneumatic systems in a facility, and it can be segregated into three sections; the supply side, the demand side, and the distribution system.  The supply side is the air compressor, after-cooler, dryer, and receiver tank that produce and treat the compressed air.  They are generally located in a compressor room somewhere in the corner of the plant.  The demand side are the collection of end-use devices that will use the compressed air to do “work”.  These pneumatic components are generally scattered throughout the facility.  To connect the supply side to the demand side, a compressed air distribution system is required.  Distribution systems are pipes which carry the compressed air from the compressor to the pneumatic devices.  For a sound compressed air system, the three sections have to work together to make an effective and efficient system.

An analogy, I like to compare to the compressed air system, is an electrical system.  The air compressor will be considered the voltage source, and the pneumatic devices will be marked as light bulbs.  To connect the light bulbs to the voltage source, electrical wires are needed.  The distribution system will represent the electrical wires.  If the wire gauge is too small to supply the light bulbs, the wire will heat up and the voltage will drop.  This heat is given off as wasted energy, and the light bulbs will dim.

The same thing happens within a compressed air system.  If the piping size is too small, a pressure drop will occur.  This is also wasted energy.   In both types of systems, wasted energy is wasted money.  One of the largest systematic problems with compressed air systems is pressure drop.  If too large of a pressure loss occurs, the pneumatic equipment will not have enough power to operate effectively.  As shown in the illustration below, you can see how the pressure decreases from the supply side to the demand side.  With a properly designed distribution system, energy can be saved, and in reference to my analogy, it will keep the lights on.

Source: Compressed Air Challenge Organization

To optimize the compressed air system, we need to reduce the amount of wasted energy; pressure drop.   Pressure drop is based on restrictions, obstructions, and piping surface.  If we evaluate each one, a properly designed distribution system can limit the unnecessary problems that can rob the “power” from your pneumatic equipment.

  1. Restriction: This is the most common type of pressure drop. The air flow is forced into small areas, causing high velocities.  The high velocity creates turbulent flow which increases the losses in air pressure.  Flow within the pipe is directly related to the velocity times the square of the diameter.  So, if you cut the I.D. of the pipe by one-half, the flow rating will be reduced to 25% of the original rating; or the velocity will increase by four times.  Restriction can come in different forms like small diameter pipes or tubing; restrictive fittings like quick disconnects and needle valves, and undersized filters and regulators.
  2. Obstruction: This is generally caused by the type of fittings that are used.  To help reduce additional pressure drops use sweeping elbows and 45-degree fittings instead of 90 deg. elbows.  Another option is to use full flow ball valves and butterfly valves instead of seated valves and needle valves.  If a blocking valve or cap is used for future expansion, try and extend the pipe an additional 10 times the diameter of the pipe to help remove any turbulence caused from air flow disruptions.  Removing sharp turns and abrupt stops will keep the velocity in a more laminar state.
  3. Roughness: With long runs of pipe, the piping surface can affect the compressed air stream. As an example, carbon steel piping has a relative rough texture.  But, over time, the surface will start to rust creating even a rougher surface.  This roughness will restrain the flow, creating the pressure to drop.  Aluminum and stainless steel tubing have much smoother surfaces and are not as susceptible to pressure drops caused by roughness or corrosion.

As a rule, air velocities will determine the correct pipe size.  It is beneficial to oversize the pipe to accommodate for any expansions in the future.  For header pipes, the velocities should not be more than 20 feet/min (6 meter/min).  For the distribution lines, the velocities should not exceed 30 feet/min (9 meter/min).  In following these simple rules, the distribution system can effectively supply the necessary compressed air from the supply side to the demand side.

To have a properly designed distribution system, the pressure drop should be less than 10% from the reservoir tank to the point-of-use.  By following the tips above, you can reach that goal and have the supply side, demand side, and distribution system working at peak efficiency.  If you would like to reduce waste even more, EXAIR offers a variety of efficient, safe, and effective compressed air products to fit within the demand side.  This would be the pneumatic equivalent of changing those light bulbs at the point-of-use into LEDs.

John Ball
Application Engineer
Twitter: @EXAIR_jb


Photo: Light Bulb by qimonoCreative Commons CC0