Compressed Air System Equipment – What You Need To Know

The use of compressed air in industry is so widespread that it’s long been called “the fourth utility” (along with electricity, water, and natural gas). As a function of energy consumption (running an air compressor) to energy generated (operation of pneumatic equipment), only 10-15% of the energy consumed is converted to usable energy stored as compressed air. Its “bang for the buck”, however, comes when you consider the total cost of ownership – yes, it costs a lot to generate, but:

  • It’s relatively safe, when compared to the risks of electrocution, combustion, and explosion associated with electricity & natural gas.
  • Air operated tools, equipment, and products are generally much cheaper than their electric, gas, or hydraulic powered counterparts.
  • Air operated products, like anything, require periodic maintenance, but oftentimes, that maintenance simply comes down to keeping the air supply clean and moisture free, unlike the extensive (and expensive) maintenance requirements of other industrial machinery.

Even with these advantages, though, it’s still critical to get all you can out of that 10-15% of the energy you’re consuming to make that compressed air, and that starts with having the right stuff in the right place. Now, all of the following “stuff” might not apply to every compressed air system. I once worked in a repair shop, for example, with a small compressor that was used for a couple of blow off guns, impact drivers, and a sidearm grinder. I’ve also done field service in facilities with hundreds of pneumatic cylinders & air motors that operated their machinery. Those places had even more “stuff” than I’m devoting space to in this blog, but here’s a list of the “usual suspects” that you’ll encounter in a properly designed compressed air system:

  • Air compressor. I mean, of course you need a compressor, but the size and type will be determined by how you’re going to use your air. The small repair shop I worked in had a 5HP reciprocating positive displacement compressor with a 50 gallon tank, and that was fine. The larger facilities I visited often had several 100 + HP dynamic centrifugal or axial compressors, which get more efficient with size.
  • Air preparation. This includes a number of components that can be used to cool, clean, and dry the air your compressor is generating:
    • Pressurizing a gas raises its temperature as well. Hot compressed air could cause unsafe surface temperatures and can damage gaskets, seals, and other components in the system. Smaller compressors might not have this problem, as the heat of compression is often dissipated through the wall of the receiver tank and the piping at a rate sufficient to keep the relatively low (and often intermittent) flow at a reasonable temperature. Larger compressors usually come with an aftercooler.
    • The air you compress likely has a certain amount of moisture in it…after nitrogen and oxygen, water vapor usually makes up more of the content of atmospheric air than all other trace gases combined. There are a number of air dryer types; selection will be dictated by the specifics of your facility.
    • Your air is going to have other contaminants in it too. We did welding & grinding in the repair shop where our compressor sat in the corner. We kept a few spare intake filters handy, and replaced them regularly. In conjunction with the aftercooler & dryer, larger industrial compressors will also have particulate filters for these solids. For extra protection, coalescing filters for oil vapor, and adsorption filters for other gases & liquid vapors, are specified.
  • Distribution. In the repair shop, we had a 3/4″ black iron pipe that ran across the ceiling, with a few tees & piping that brought the air down to the individual stations where we used it. The larger facilities I visited had larger variations of this “trunk and branch” type network, and some were even big enough to make use of a loop layout…these were especially popular when multiple air compressors were located throughout the facility. In addition to black iron, copper & aluminum pipe (but NEVER PVC) are commonly used too.
  • Condensate removal. The small repair shop compressor had a valve on the bottom of the tank with a small hose that we’d blow down into a plastic jug periodically. Larger systems will have more complex, and oftentimes automated condensate management systems.

So, that’s the system-wide “stuff” you’ll usually encounter in a properly designed compressed air system. After that, we’ll find a number of point-of-use components:

  • Air preparation, part 2. The compressor intake & discharge filtration mentioned above make sure that you’re putting clean air in the distribution piping. That’s fine if your distribution piping is corrosion resistant, like aluminum or copper, but black iron WILL corrode, and that’s why you need point-of-use filters. EXAIR Automatic Drain Filter Separators have 5 micron particulate elements, and centrifugal elements that ‘spin’ any moisture out. If oil is an issue, our Oil Removal Filters have coalescing elements for oil/oil vapor removal, and they provide additional particulate protection to 0.03 microns.
  • Pressure control. Your compressor’s discharge pressure needs to be high enough to operate your pneumatic device(s) with the highest pressure demand. Odds are, though, that not everything in your plant needs to be operated at that pressure. EXAIR Pressure Regulators are a quick & easy way to ‘dial in’ the precise supply pressure needed for specific products so they can get the job done, without wasting compressed air.
  • Storage. This could also be considered system “stuff”, but I’m including it under point-of-use because that’s oftentimes the reason for intermediate storage. Having a ready supply of compressed air near an intermittent and/or large consumption device can ensure proper operation of that device, as well as others in the system that might be “robbed” when that device is actuated. They’re good for the system, too, as they can eliminate the need for higher header pressures, which cause higher operating costs, and increased potential for leaks. EXAIR Model 9500-60 60 Gallon Receiver Tanks are an ideal solution for these situations.

For more information on proper installation and use of compressed air system “stuff” like this, the Compressed Air & Gas Institute’s Compressed Air and Gas Handbook has a good deal of detailed information. The Air Data section of EXAIR’s own Knowledge Base is a great resource as well.

Of course, all the attention you can pay to efficiency on the supply side doesn’t matter near as much if you’re not paying attention to HOW you’re using your compressed air. EXAIR Intelligent Compressed Air Products are designed with efficiency, safety, and noise reduction in mind. Among the other ways my fellow Application Engineers and I can help you get the most out of your compressed air system, we’re also here to make sure you get the right products for your job. To find out more, give me a call.

Russ Bowman, CCASS

Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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Intelligent Compressed Air: Piping and Pressure Drop

Pressure drop is an unavoidable occurrence in compressed air systems. It’s caused by restrictions or obstructions to flow in your system, and that includes…well, everything:

  • No matter how big your header, drops, supply lines, etc. are, pressurized fluid encounters friction with the inside diameter of the conduit through which it flows.
  • Odds are, your header has at least a few elbows, wyes, tees, reducers, etc. Individually, the restrictions from these are usually quite small, but when you look at a system full of them, they can add up.
  • The type of piping your header is made of matters as well. Iron pipe WILL rust, which roughs up the inside wall of the pipe, which adds friction. Copper and aluminum aren’t near as bad, but there’s no such thing as a zero coefficient of friction.
  • Filters force the air flow through very small passages, torturous paths, or directional changes to remove particulates, moisture, and oil/oil vapor.
  • While not a restriction or obstruction, leaks in your system DO let out perfectly good compressed air before it can be used, so they can be included in our discussion.

Before you go off and redesign your air distribution header or remove your filters (DON’T do that!), it’s important to point that, historically, the highest pressure drops occur at or near the points of use:

  • Undersized hoses. The friction mentioned in the first ‘bullet’ above is compounded by increasing length, and decreasing diameter, of your air operated products’ supply lines. If your product’s performance is suffering, look up its rated air consumption and compare that to the flow rating of the length & diameter of the supply line.
  • Quick connect fittings. The push-to-connect types are particularly notorious for this…the air has to flow around the plug that stops flow when it’s disconnected. You can either replace them with threaded fittings, or if you still want the convenience of the quick connect, consider bushing up a size or two. A 3/8 NPT push to connect fitting will flow twice as much as a 1/4 NPT, and a 1/2 NPT will flow over three times as much as a 1/4 NPT fitting. In the EXAIR R&D room, Efficiency Lab, and shop, we actually use 3/4 NPT quick connects for a wide range of testing, demonstration, performance, etc.
  • Leaks. Even if they’re not big enough to cause a pressure drop, they’re still wasting compressed air. And if they ARE causing pressure drops, please stop reading this and go fix them, right now. Yeah; it’s that important.

Now, there are culprits on the supply side too: aftercoolers, dryers, and system filters can all contribute to pressure drops if they’re improperly sized, or, more often, improperly maintained. For troubleshooting, your first and best shot is to have pressure gauges at strategic locations…you can’t manage what you don’t measure. And not managing it can get costly:

  • Let’s say your compressor discharge header pressure is set to 100psig, but an undersized hose is only letting you get 65psig to an air operated product that really needs 80psig. You can increase your header pressure to 115-120psig to “push” more air through that hose, but keep in mind that all your other unregulated loads will get that pressure increase as well: pneumatic cylinders would operate faster, impact drivers will generate more torque, blow off devices will use more air (and get louder), etc.
  • Even if those things weren’t a problem, it’s going to cost you more. For every 2psi increase in your compressor’s discharge pressure, its power consumption increases by 1 percent. So, for the 20psi increase, it’s going to cost you about 10% more to operate that compressor. A larger diameter air hose, on the other hand, is a one time investment that doesn’t affect the rest of your compressed air system.
  • If you haven’t fixed the leaks I mentioned above yet, increasing your supply pressure will increase the leakage flow rate and, especially if the leak’s in a hose or hose fitting, it can tear that opening wider, compounding the leakage flow rate further.

EXAIR Corporation is keen on making sure you get the most out of our products, and your compressed air system. If you’ve got questions, we’ve got knowledge, and a wealth of resources to help…give me a call.

Russ Bowman, CCASS

Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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Is PVC Pipe Alright to Use with Compressed Air?

A question arises every now and then on whether or not PVC pipe, yes the stuff from your local hardware store that says it is rated for 200 psi, is safe to use as compressed air supply line.   The answer is always the same,  NO! OSHA agrees – see their statement here.

Schedule 40 PVC pipe is not designed nor rated for use with compressed air or other gases.  PVC pipe will explode under pressure, it is impacted significantly by temperature and can be difficult to get airtight.

PVC pipe was originally designed and tested for conveyance of liquids or products that cannot be compressed, rather they can be pressurized.   The largest concern is the failure method of the piping itself.   When being used with a liquid that cannot be compressed, if there is a failure (crack or hole) then the piping will spring a leak and not shatter.   When introducing a compressed gas, such as compressed air, if there is a failure the method ends up being shrapnel.  This YouTube video does a good job of illustrating how the pipe shatters.

While it may seem that it takes a good amount of pressure to cause a failure in the pipe, that is often not the case.  I have chatted with some local shop owners who decided to run PVC as a quick and cheap alternative to get their machines up and running.

They each experienced the same failures at different points in time as well.  The worst one was a section of PVC pipe installed over a workbench failed where an operator would normally be standing. Luckily the failure happened at night when no one was there.  Even though no one got injured this still caused a considerable expense to the company because the compressor ran overnight trying to pressurize a ruptured line.

Temperature will impact the PVC as well. Schedule 40 PVC is generally rated for use between 70°F and 140°F (21°-60°C). Pipes that are installed outside or in non temperature controlled buildings can freeze the pipes and make them brittle.

If you haven’t worked with PVC before or do not let the sealant set, it can be hard to get a good seal, leading to leaks and a weak spot in the system.

The point of this is the cheapest, quick, and easy solutions are more often , the ones that will cost the most in the long run.

If you would like to discuss proper compressed air piping and how to save compressed air on your systems, please contact us.

Brian Farno
Application Engineer


Image courtesy of: Dennis Hill, Creative Commons License