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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Which Condensate Drain Is Best For Your Compressed Air System?

In a perfect world, your air compressor’s intake would be free of dirt, oil, and water. Proper maintenance (i.e., periodic cleaning and/or changing) of the intake filter will keep most of the dirt out. Oil and water vapor will pass right through…but that’s not the end of the world (however imperfect it may be); they’re easy to take care of later in the process.

Once these vapors have been compressed (along with all that air that was drawn in), it’ll go into the receiver (usually via an aftercooler in industrial compressors) where it cools down, and that vapor condenses. If it’s left alone, a couple of things can happen:

  • Standing water in the bottom of a steel tank will cause corrosion. This can be carried into your compressed air distribution system. Over time, it will also rust through the reservoir. You don’t want either of these things to happen.
  • Eventually, it’ll take up enough space that your reservoir’s capacity will effectively shrink. That can cause your compressor to cycle rapidly. You don’t want that either.

Even the smallest of compressors will have manual drain valves on the bottoms of their reservoirs. Users will simply blow down the gallon or so tank every so often and go about their business. The small amount of electrical power that the compressor will use to recharge those tanks makes this a perfectly acceptable practice.

In the perfect world I mentioned above, the large reservoirs on industrial air compressors could be drained of condensate in the same manner. There are a few challenges to periodic manual draining:

  • You could do it on a schedule, but varying levels of humidity mean different accumulation rates of condensation. Weekly blowdowns might be OK in the winter, but you may need to do it daily in the summer. And a couple days a week in the spring or fall. It can be a real chore to keep track of all of that.
  • A practiced operator may develop the skill to shut the valve immediately upon the last drop of condensate passing. More often than not, though, you’re going to lose some compressed air doing it manually.
  • File this under “don’t try this at home (or anywhere, really)” – an unfortunately all-too-common practice is to just leave a manual drain cracked open. It works, but it wastes compressed air. On purpose. There’s too much accidental waste to give this any further discussion. Just don’t do it.
  • Plain old forgetfulness, someone going on vacation, or even leaving the company could result in someone else noticing the compressor is frequently cycling (because the reservoir is filling with water…see above), and realizing nobody’s drained the tank in a while.

Again, these manual drains are quite common, especially in smaller air compressor systems…and so are the above challenges. I may or may not have personal experience with an incident similar to that last one. Good news is, there are automated products designed to prevent this from happening to you:

  • Timer drains are popular and inexpensive. They operate just as advertised: a programmable timer opens and closes the drain valve just like you tell it to. They don’t do anything at all to address the first two challenges above: they might blow down for longer than needed (and waste compressed air) or not long enough (and allow water to build up in the reservoir.) They come in two primary configurations:
    • Solenoid Valve: the timer energizes the valve’s coil to open the valve, and a spring shuts it when the timer runs out. Strainers will prevent blockage, and will need periodic maintenance.
    • Ball Valve: the timer operates an electric actuator to open & close the valve. The full port opening of the ball valve means a strainer is usually not necessary, so these are less maintenance intensive.
  • Demand (AKA “no waste” or “zero loss”) drains are actuated by the condensate level in the reservoir. They don’t discharge any of the reservoir’s compressed air, because they close before the last bit of water exits. There are a few common options to choose from:
    • Mechanical float drains can be internal or external…the latter is more common for use with air compressor reservoirs; the former is fairly standard with point-of-use filters (more on that later). When the liquid level rises, the float opens the drain; when liquid level drops, the float closes the drain…easy as that. They CAN be susceptible to clogging with debris, but many have screens to prevent or limit that.
    • Electronic types use a magnetic reed switch or capacitance device to sense the condensate level…so they require electric power.
    • These cost more than the timer types, though, and they’ve got a number of moving parts, so they can find themselves in need of repair. Inexpensive and user-friendly rebuild kits are oftentimes available, and many of these come with alarms to let you know when to use that rebuild kit.

Whether you have a manual, timer, or demand drain, keep in mind that some moisture can still be carried over, and rust/scale can still form in pipelines. Good engineering practice calls for point-of-use filtration, like EXAIR’s Automatic Drain Filter Separators and Oil Removal Filters. If you’d like to talk more about getting the most out of your compressed air system, give me a call.

Russ Bowman, CCASS

Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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Why Dryers Are Needed in Compressed Air Systems

Air compressors are extremely proficient at compressing anything in the air they are intaking. With that air that is taken in, moisture is going to be present. The amount of moisture will all depend on where you are located geographically and the ambient conditions in the area. Here in Ohio, we experience all 4 seasons so the moisture content is higher in the air during the summer months, rather than the winter months. When this air is saturated with water vapor and the conditions are right, the air reaches a point it cannot hold any additional water vapor. This point is known as the dew point of the air and water vapor will begin to condense to form droplets.

When ambient air is compressed, heat is generated and the air increases in temperature. In most industrial compressed air systems, the air is then processed to an aftercooler, and that is where condensation begins to form. To remove the condensation, the air then goes into a separator which traps the liquid water. The air leaving the aftercooler is typically saturated at the temperature of the discharge, and any additional cooling that occurs as the air is transferred will cause more liquid to condense out of the air. To address this moisture, compressed air dryers are used.

It is critical to the quality of the system and components downstream that actions are taken to prevent this condensation in the air. Condensation is generally detrimental to any point of use application and or the piping that conveys the air. Rust and/or corrosion can occur anywhere in the piping, leading to scale and contamination of the compressed air and processes. When trying to dry products off using compressed air or using the air to atomize a liquid such as paint, adding in these contaminants and moisture will cost production losses.

There are several options when it comes to the type of dryer that one may consider installing on their compressed air supply side.

• Refrigerant Dryer – the most commonly used type, the air is cooled in an air-to-refrigerant heat exchanger.
• Regenerative-Desiccant Type – use a porous desiccant that adsorbs (adsorb means the moisture adheres to the desiccant, the desiccant does not change, and the moisture can then be driven off during a regeneration process).
• Deliquescent Type – use a hygroscopic desiccant medium that absorbs (as opposed to adsorbs) moisture. The desiccant is dissolved into the liquid that is drawn out. Desiccant is used up and needs to be replaced periodically.
• Heat of Compression Type – are regenerative desiccant dryers that use the heat generated during compression to accomplish the desiccant regeneration.
• Membrane Type– use special membranes that allow the water vapor to pass through faster than the dry air, reducing the amount of water vapor in the air stream.
The air should not be dried any more than is needed for the most stringent application, to reduce the costs associated with the drying process. A pressure dew point of 35°F to 38°F (1.7°C to 3.3°C) often is adequate for many industrial applications. Lower dew points result in higher operating costs.
If you have questions about compressed air systems and dryers or any of the 15 different EXAIR Intelligent Compressed Air® Product lines, feel free to contact EXAIR, and I or any of our Application Engineers can help you determine the best solution.

Brian Farno
Application Engineer

How to Manage Condensate in Your Compressed Air System

If you operate an air compressor, you’re drawing water vapor into your compressed air system.  Factors like climate control (or lack thereof,) and humidity will dictate how much.  If (or more to the point, when) it condenses, it becomes an issue that must be addressed.  There are several types of dryer systems to choose from, usually when you buy your compressor…we’ve covered those in a number of blogs.  Some of these can leave a little more water vapor than others, but remain popular and effective, when considering the cost, and cost of operation, of the different types.

So, how do you handle the condensate that the dryer doesn’t remove?

  • Receivers, or storage tanks (like EXAIR Model 9500-60, shown to the right,) are commonly used for several reasons:
    • By providing an intermediate storage of compressed air close to the point of use, fluctuations across the system won’t adversely affect an application that needs a constant flow and pressure.
    • This also can keep the air compressor from cycling rapidly, which leads to wear & tear, and additional maintenance headaches.
    • When fitted with a condensate drain (more on those in a minute,) they can serve as a wet receiver.  Condensate collects in the bottom and is manually, or automatically emptied.
  • Condensate drains, while popularly installed on receivers, are oftentimes found throughout larger systems where the vapor is prone to condense (intercoolers, aftercoolers, filters and dryers) and where the condensation can be particularly problematic (drip legs or adjacent to points of use.) There are a couple of options to choose from, each with their own pros & cons:
    • Manual drains are self explanatory: they’re ball valves; cycled periodically by operators.  Pros: cheap & simple.  Cons: easy to blow down too often or for too long, which wastes compressed air.  It’s also just as easy to blow down not often enough, or not long enough, which doesn’t solve the condensate problem.
    • Timer drains are self explanatory too: they cycle when the timer tells them to. Pros: still fairly cheap, and no attention is required.  Cons: they’re going to open periodically (per the timer setting) whether there’s condensate or not.
    • Demand, or “zero loss” drains collect condensate until their reservoir is full, then they discharge the water.  Pros: “zero loss” means just that…they only actuate when condensate is present, and they stop before any compressed air gets out.  Cons: higher purchase price, more moving parts equals potential maintenance concerns.
  • The “last line of defense” (literally) is point-of-use condensate removal.  This is done with products like EXAIR Automatic Drain Filter Separators.  They’re installed close to compressed air operated devices & products, oftentimes just upstream of the pressure regulator and/or flow controls…the particulate filter protects against debris in these devices, and the centrifugal element “spins” any last remaining moisture from the compressed air flow before it gets used.

Good engineering practice calls for point of use filtration and moisture removal, such as that provided by EXAIR Filter Separators.

Efficient and safe use of your compressed air includes maintaining the quality of your compressed air.  If you’d like to find out more about how EXAIR Corporation can help you get the most out of your compressed air system, give me a call.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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