Air Compressor Motors And Controls

Electric motors are by far the most popular drivers for industrial air compressors.  Indeed, they are the prime movers for a great many types of industrial rotating equipment.  In their simplest form of operation, rotary motion is induced when current flows through a conductor (the windings) in the presence of a magnetic field (usually by electricity inducing a magnetic field in the rotor.)  In the early days, you’d start one up by flipping a big lever called a knife switch.

Example of a knife switch

These are cumbersome and inherently dangerous…the operators literally have their hand(s) on the conductor.  If the insulation fails, if something mechanical breaks, if they fail to make full contact, electrocution is a very real risk.  Over time, motor starters came in to common use.  Early in their development, they were more popular with higher HP motors, but soon were made for smaller motors as well.

There are several types of modern motor starters:

Full Voltage Starters: The original, and simplest method.  These are similar in theory to the old knife switches, but the operator’s hands aren’t right on the connecting switch.  Full line voltage comes in, and amperage can peak at up to 8 times full load (normal operating) amperage during startup.  This can result in voltage dips…not only in the facility itself, but in the neighborhood.  Remember how the lights always dim in those movies when they throw the switch on the electric chair?  It’s kind of like that.

Reduced Voltage Starters: These are electro-mechanical starters.  Full line voltage is reduced, commonly to 50% initially, and steps up, usually in three increments, back to full.  This keeps the current from jumping so drastically during startup, and reduces the stress on mechanical components…like the motor shaft, bearings, and coupling to the compressor.

Solid State (or “Soft”) Starters: Like the Reduced Voltage types, these reduce the full line voltage coming in as well, but instead of increasing incrementally, they gradually and evenly increase the power to bring the motor to full speed over a set period of time.  They also are beneficial because of the reduced stress on mechanical components.

The Application Engineering team at EXAIR Corporation prides ourselves on our expertise of not only point-of-use compressed air application & products, but a good deal of overall system knowledge as well.  If you have questions about your compressed air system, give me a call.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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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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