Intelligent Compressed Air®: The Double-Acting Reciprocating Air Compressor

Evaluating all of the different types of compressors and which is right for you can seem like a daunting task. Today, I’d like to take some time to talk about the Double-Acting Reciprocating type of air compressor.

double acting compressor
Cut-out of a double-acting reciprocating compressor

Double-Acting Reciprocating compressors are a subset of the larger family of positive displacement compressor types. In positive displacement compressors, air is drawn into a chamber where the volume is then mechanically reduced. The energy used to displace the air volume is converted to an increase in air pressure. Dynamic compressors operate a little differently. They utilize an increase in air velocity to create the change in pressure. Air is accelerated to a high velocity through an impeller. The kinetic energy of the air is converted to an increase in potential (pressure) energy.

The Double-Acting Reciprocating compressor is a close relative to the Single-Acting Reciprocating compressor. In these types of compressors, an “automotive-type” piston driven by a crankshaft provides the compression. In a Double-Acting Reciprocating compressor, air is compressed as the piston moves in each direction. Hence the name, “double-acting”. In a Single-Acting Reciprocating compressor, air is only compressed on each full revolution of the piston. This makes the Double-Acting Reciprocating compressor much more efficient than its brethren.

Double Acting Recip
Double Acting Reciprocating Air Compressor

Double-Acting Reciprocating compressors are also available in much larger sizes. While Single-Acting compressors can be found up to 150HP, generally they’re much less common any larger than 25HP. Whereas a Double-Acting compressor is available from 10HP-1,000HP, making it a better choice for larger plants that require a significantly greater volume of compressed air. While they’re a bit more expensive due to the added mechanisms to produce the double-action compression, this cost is quickly offset by the increase in efficiency. At a performance of 15-16 kW/100 cfm, they’re 32% more efficient than a single-acting reciprocating compressor.

If you’re in the market for a new compressor and are struggling to determine the most suitable compressor, talk with your local compressor sales representative. Once you’re up an running, EXAIR has a wide-range of products that’ll make sure you’re using your compressed air safely and efficiently!

Tyler Daniel, CCASS

Application Engineer
Twitter: @EXAIR_TD

Images courtesy of Best Practices for Compressed Air Systems – second edition

Estimating the Total Cost of Compressed Air

It is important to know the cost of compressed air at your facility.  Most people think that compressed air is free, but it is most certainly not.  Because of the expense, compressed air is considered to be a fourth utility in manufacturing plants.  In this blog, I will show you how to calculate the cost to make compressed air.  Then you can use this information to determine the need for Intelligent Compressed Air® products.

There are two types of air compressors, positive displacement and dynamic.  The core construction for both is an electric motor that spins a shaft.  Positive displacement types use the energy from the motor and the shaft to change the volume in an area, like a piston in a reciprocating compressor or like rotors in a rotary compressor.  The dynamic types use the energy from the motor and the shaft to create a velocity energy with an impeller.  (You can read more about air compressors HERE).  For electric motors, the power is described either in kilowatts (KW) or horsepower (hp).  As a unit of conversion, there are 0.746 KW in 1 hp.  The electric companies charge at a rate of kilowatt-hour (KWh).  So, we can determine the energy cost to spin the electric motors.  If your air compressor has a unit of horsepower, or hp, you can use Equation 1:

Equation 1:

hp * 0.746 * hours * rate / (motor efficiency)


hp – horsepower of motor

0.746 – conversion to KW

hours – running time

rate – cost for electricity, KWh

motor efficiency – average for an electric motor is 95%.

If the air compressor motor is rated in kilowatts, or KW, then the above equation can become a little simpler, as seen in Equation 2:

Equation 2:

KW * hours * rate / (motor efficiency)


KW – Kilowatts of motor

hours – running time

rate – cost for electricity, KWh

motor efficiency – average for an electric motor is 95%.

As an example, a manufacturing plant operates 250 day a year with 8-hour shifts.  The cycle time for the air compressor is roughly 50% on and off.  To calculate the hours of running time, we have 250 days at 8 hours/day with a 50% duty cycle, or 250 * 8 * 0.50 = 1,000 hours of running per year.  The air compressor that they have is a 100 hp rotary screw.  The electrical rate for this facility is at $0.08/KWh. With these factors, the annual cost can be calculated by Equation 1:

100hp * 0.746 KW/hp * 1,000hr * $0.08/KWh / 0.95 = $6,282 per year.

In both equations, you can substitute your information to see what you actually pay to make compressed air each year at your facility.

The type of air compressor can help in the amount of compressed air that can be produced by the electric motor.  Generally, the production rate can be expressed in different ways, but I like to use cubic feet per minute per horsepower, or CFM/hp.

The positive displacement types have different values depending on how efficient the design.  For a single-acting piston type air compressor, the amount of air is between 3.1 to 3.3 CFM/hp.  So, if you have a 10 hp single-acting piston, you can produce between 31 to 33 CFM of compressed air.  For a 10 hp double-acting piston type, it can produce roughly 4.7 to 5.0 CFM/hp.  As you can see, the double-acting air compressor can produce more compressed air at the same horsepower.

The rotary screws are roughly 3.4 to 4.1 CFM/hp.  While the dynamic type of air compressor is roughly 3.7 – 4.7 CFM/hr.  If you know the type of air compressor that you have, you can calculate the amount of compressed air that you can produce per horsepower.  As an average, EXAIR uses 4 CFM/hp of air compressor when speaking with customers who would like to know the general output of their compressor.

With this information, we can estimate the total cost to make compressed air as shown in Equation 3:

Equation 3:

C = 1000 * Rate * 0.746 / (PR * 60)


C – Cost of compressed air ($ per 1000 cubic feet)

1000 – Scalar

Rate – cost of electricity (KWh)

0.746 – conversion hp to KW

PR – Production Rate (CFM/hp)

60 – conversion from minutes to hour

So, if we look at the average of 4 CFM/hp and an average electrical rate of $0.08/KWh, we can use Equation 3 to determine the average cost to make 1000 cubic feet of air.

C = 1000 * $0.08/KWh * 0.746 / (4 CFM/hp * 60) = $0.25/1000ft3.

Once you have established a cost for compressed air, then you can determine which areas to start saving money.  One of the worst culprits for inefficient air use is open pipe blow-offs.  This would include cheap air guns, drilled holes in pipes, and tubes.  These are very inefficient for compressed air and can cost you a lot of money.  I will share a comparison to a 1/8” NPT pipe to an EXAIR Mini Super Air Nozzle.  (Reference below).  As you can see, by just adding the EXAIR nozzle to the end of the pipe, the company was able to save $1,872 per year.  That is some real savings.

Compressed Air Savings

Making compressed air is expensive, so why would you not use it as efficiently as you can. With the equations above, you can calculate how much you are paying.  You can use this information to make informed decisions and to find the “low hanging fruit” for cost savings.  As in the example above, targeting the blow-off systems in a facility is a fast and easy way to save money.  If you need any help to try and find a way to be more efficient with your compressed air system, please contact an Application Engineer at EXAIR.  We will be happy to assist you.

John Ball
Application Engineer
Twitter: @EXAIR_jb


About Double Acting Reciprocating Air Compressors

My colleague, Lee Evans, wrote a blog “About Single Acting Reciprocating Compressors”, and I wanted to extend that conversation to a more efficient relative, the double acting reciprocating compressor.   As you see in the chart below, this type of compressor falls within the same family under the category of positive displacement compressors.

Compressor Types

Positive displacement compressors increase air pressure by reducing air volume within a confined space.  The reciprocating type of air compressor uses a motor that turns a crank which pushes a piston inside a cylinder; like the engine in your car.  In a basic cycle, an intake valve opens to allow the ambient air into the cylinder, the gas gets trapped, and once it is compressed by the piston, the exhaust valve opens to discharge the compressed volume into a tank.  This method of compression happens for both the single and double acting reciprocating compressors.  With a single acting compressor, the air is compressed only on the up-stroke of the piston inside the cylinder.  The double acting compressor compresses the air on both the up-stroke and the down-stroke of the piston, doubling the capacity of a given cylinder size.  This “double” compression cycle is what makes this type of air compressor very efficient.  A single acting compressor will have an operating efficiency between 22 – 24 kW/100 cfm of air while the double acting compressor has an operating efficiency between 15 – 16 kW/100 cfm.  Therefore, electricity cost is less with a double-acting reciprocating air compressor to make the same amount of compressed air.

To explore the internals a bit closer, the mechanical linkage used to move the piston is slightly different as well as the additional intake and exhaust valves.   Instead of the connecting rod being attached directly to the piston as seen inside a single acting compressor, a crosshead is added between the compression piston and the connecting rod (view picture below).  The rod that connects the crosshead to the compression piston can be sealed to keep the cylinder completely encapsulated.  For every rotation of the electric motor, the air is being compressed twice.  With the added heat of compression, the double acting compressors are generally water-cooled.  Also, with the added mechanism between the crank and the piston, the rotational speeds are typically less.  Because of the larger size, water jackets, and added parts, the initial cost is more expensive than the single acting compressor, but the efficiency is much higher.

Double Acting Reciprocating Air Compressor

Double acting compressors are generally designed for rugged 100% continuous operations.  Dubbed the work horse of the compressor family, they are also known for their long service life.  They are commonly used in high pressure services in multistage styles and can come in lubricated and non-lubricated configurations.   With the dual compression, slow speed and inter-cooling, it makes this type of air compressor very proficient in making compressed air.

John Ball
Application Engineer
Twitter: @EXAIR_jb


Photos:  used from Compressed Air Challenge Handbook