What’s So Great About Compressed Air?

Compressed air is commonly known as “the fourth utility” – along with electricity, water, and gas – due to its ubiquitous use in modern industry. But…why? If you compare the power required to make it, versus the work you can get out of it, it’s abysmally inefficient. And, while it won’t electrocute you, drown you, or blow you up (like the “first three” utilities, respectively), purposely depressurizing a compressed air line comes with its own particular set of risk factors.

Of course, benefits outweigh inefficiencies and risks in many things most of us do every day. Over half of the energy released in your car’s engine goes to heat & friction, instead of turning the wheels. Insurance companies say the typical American driver has a 77% chance of getting into an automobile accident EVERY YEAR, and that most of us will be in up to THREE traffic accidents in our lifetimes. Looking at the number of fellow commuters I saw on my way to work this morning, it’s clear, though, that most of us are ready to accept that inefficiency and risk. And that’s not so surprising, considering they’re mitigated greatly by ever improving technology in fuel efficiency, and safety.

It’s, of course, the same with compressed air use, and the “first three” utilities as well: regulation, training, and engineering lower the aforementioned risks to broadly accepted levels. These disciplines also provide for the most efficient use, in spite of the inherent inefficiencies (no engine is 100% efficient) – getting the most out of what you have is “the name of the game”. So, how does all of this apply to industrial use of compressed air?


  • Regulation: In the United States, the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) limits the nozzle pressure or or opening of a gun, pipe, cleaning lance, etc., when used for cleaning to 30psi, to protect against dead-ending such a device against your skin, which can cause a deadly condition known as an air embolism. This same directive mandates “effective chip guarding” to keep the blown off debris from hitting the operator. EXAIR Corporation has been in the business of making engineered compressed air products that comply with this directive for almost forty years now.
  • Training: There are companies whose sole purpose is to train & certify personnel in both the management, and operation, of industrial equipment in a safe manner. At EXAIR Corporation, our Safety Manager maintains certification from such an agency, which qualifies him to conduct regular training to ensure safe operation of tools, equipment, and chemicals used in the manufacture of our engineered compressed air products.
  • Engineering: In the “Hierarchy of Controls” established by the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), “Engineering Controls” is considered to be less effective than “Elimination” or “Substitution” of the hazard, but more effective than “Administrative Controls” or “Personal Protective Equipment”. THAT’S why EXAIR Corporation has been doing what we do – and why we’re so successful at it – for all this time.
For more on this, I can’t recommend my colleague Jordan Shouse’s recent blog on the subject highly enough. Go read it now…this blog will wait.


  • Regulation: Since the energy crisis of the 1970’s, the United States Department of Energy has implemented numerous initiatives directed at improving energy efficiency. If you’ve ever shopped for a home appliance, you’re likely familiar with EnergyStar ratings. They have a similar program for commercial and industrial air compressors. While they’re not a government body with powers to mandate regulations, the Compressed Air Challenge membership consists of manufacturers & distributors, users, research & development agencies, energy efficiency organizations, and utilities, with key focus on providing direction for the most efficient operation of compressed air systems…from generation to point of use.
  • Training: Speaking of the Compressed Air Challenge, they, and other organizations like the Compressed Air & Gas Institute (CAGI) conduct formal training sessions, in addition to the documented direction I mentioned above. CAGI also has a personnel certification program for those interested in developing credibility and confidence by demonstrating knowledge, understanding, and expertise in the design & operation of compressed air equipment. You can even get a cool logo to put on your business cards and in your signature line.
  • Engineering: While there are multiple avenues to engineer SAFE compressed air products, not all of them are necessarily efficient as well. At EXAIR Corporation, we set ourselves above the fray by maintaining focus on safety AND efficiency. In their discussion of controls that I mentioned above, NIOSH has this to add on the subject of Engineering Controls: “The initial cost of engineering controls can be higher than the cost of administrative controls or PPE, but over the longer term, operating costs are frequently lower, and in some instances, can provide a cost savings in other areas of the process.” (emphasis mine)

To answer the question I posed in this blog’s title, there are many considerations that make compressed air great to use…among them are:

  • Pneumatic tools are lighter, cheaper, more mobile, and lower maintenance than their electrical counterparts. The risk of electrocution is also avoided.
  • Compressed air distribution systems are easier and less costly to install than electrical grids or natural gas lines.
  • Compressed air doesn’t lose energy over distance like steam.
  • Compressed air leaks, while potentially costly, don’t present an inherent safety risk to plant personnel like gas leaks or electrical “leaks” (aka electrocution hazards).

Add in safety and efficiency, and THAT’S what’s so great about compressed air. If you’d like to find out how EXAIR Corporation can help YOU get the most out of our compressed air use, give me a call.

Russ Bowman, CCASS

Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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EXAIR Products Qualify for Energy Rebates

The use of compressed air can be found in almost any industry and is often referred to as a “fourth utility” next to water, gas and electric. The generation of compressed air accounts for approximately 1/3 of all energy costs in an industrial facility, in many cases, it’s the largest energy user in an industrial plant. With an average cost of $ 0.25 per every 1,000 SCF used, compressed air can be expensive to produce so it is very important to use this utility as efficiently as possible.

Many utility companies recognize the benefit of using engineered products to reduce compressed air usage, like the ones manufactured by EXAIR, and offers rebate incentives for making a switch. Duke Energy, who supplies power to sections of North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Florida offers several “Smart $aver Rebates” that focus around the generation and use of compressed air. (State and Location Dependent)

Duke Energy’s Smart Saver Program

However the best place to look at your states available programs is the DSIRE database. DSIRE is the most comprehensive source of information on incentives and policies that support renewable energy and energy efficiency in the United States. Established in 1995, DSIRE is operated by the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center at N.C. State University. Follow the link above to read about the history of DSIRE, the partners on the project, and the research staff that maintains the policy and incentive data in DSIRE.

The Process is pretty easy! Visit https://www.dsireusa.org/ and type in your Zip Code!

After you get your results, search some key words, Like “Industrial” “Energy” “Commercial” “Energy Efficiency” “Compressed air”

Here you can see the two Programs that came up for 46077, you can then click the program name and it will take you a information page with the programs website and information!

Here at EXAIR, much of our focus is to improve the overall efficiency of industrial compressed air operating processes and point of use compressed air operated products. If you’d like to contact one of our application engineers, we can help recommend the proper engineered solution to not only save on your compressed air usage but also assist with possible energy rebates available in your area.

Jordan Shouse
Application Engineer

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Money Seed Creative Commons Images from Pictures of Money, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Compressed Air – The Fourth Utility

Industrial use of compressed air dates to the middle of the 19th century.  European engineers developed & used compressed air operated drills in the construction of the Mont Cenis Tunnel in 1861.  This type of machinery had typically been steam-powered, but you needed a fire to boil the water.  Since steam loses energy when piped over long distances, that means you’d need a fire in the tunnel shaft, and that’s not good for the miners.  Electric powered products were not a viable option…they weren’t developed to the scale needed for this, and generation & distribution were not up to the task back then.

Compressed air made the most sense, because it COULD be generated locally, outside the shaft, and plumbed in to the tools without energy loss (much of the energy from steam is lost when it condenses…and compressed air doesn’t condense.)  The Mont Cenis Tunnel project was a big deal in the advancement of industrial compressed air applications.  It was originally estimated to take 25 years, but, largely due to the success of the air operated drills, it was completed in only 14 years.  This got the attention of mining industry folks in America, where coal mining was growing exponentially in the late 1800’s.

The need for bigger & better machinery and tools kept pace with the growth in industry overall throughout this time, and even to the present day.  As the distribution grid spread to just about everywhere, electricity became the principal method of providing power.  Natural gas remains popular for especially large machinery, heating, and, in fact, for electric power generation.

Water has always been key to just about any human endeavor, from agriculture, to chemical production, to cleaning…which is universal to any industry.  Like electricity and natural gas, its distribution grid was also vital to industrial growth & production.

As the “fourth utility,” as it’s become known, compressed air is unique in that it’s customarily generated on site.  This gives control to the consumer, which is great, because they can decide how much they want to make, based on how much they want to use.  And, because many applications that can use compressed air can also be addressed through other means (more on that in a minute,) the powers-that-be can decide which one makes the most sense, big-picture-wise.

Here are some common industrial applications that can be handled pneumatically, or otherwise:

  • EXAIR is the industry leader in point-of-use compressed air product applications. Try us, you’ll see.

    Moving product from one place to another: air operated conveyors (like EXAIR Line Vacs) or electric powered belt/auger/bucket conveyors.

  • Force and motion: pneumatic, or hydraulic cylinders.
  • Cleaning: Compressed air blow off devices (like EXAIR Intelligent Compressed Air Products) or electric powered blowers…or brooms, brushes, and dustpans.
  • Rotary or impact tools: pneumatic or electric.
  • Cooling: Compressed air operated Vortex Tubes, or refrigerant based chillers, or chilled water.

The fact that there are four major utilities proves that there’s usually more than one solution to an application.  The challenge is, which one makes the most sense?  If you need help with data or recommendations from a compressed air industry expert, give me a call.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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What is an Air Compressor?

Internals of an air compressor

What is an air compressor?  This may seem like a simple question, but it is the heartbeat for most industries.  So, let’s dive into the requirements, myths, and types of air compressors that are commonly used.  Like the name states, air compressors are designed to compress air.  Unlike liquid, air is compressible which means that it can be “squished” into a smaller volume by pressure.  With this stored energy, it can do work for your pneumatic system.

There are two types of air compressors, positive displacement and dynamic.  The core component for most air compressors is an electric motor that spins a shaft.  Positive displacement uses the energy from the motor and the shaft to change volume in an area, like a piston in a reciprocating air compressor or like rotors in a rotary air 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 types of air compressors HERE).

Compressed air is a clean utility that is used in many different ways, and it is much safer than electrical or hydraulic systems.  But most people think that compressed air is free, and it is most certainly not.  Because of the expense, compressed air is considered to be a fourth utility in manufacturing plants.  For an electrical motor to reduce a volume of air by compressing it.  It takes roughly 1 horsepower (746 watts) of power to compress 4 cubic feet (113L) of air every minute to 125 PSI (8.5 bar).  With almost every manufacturing plant in the world utilizing air compressors much larger than 1 horsepower, the amount of energy needed to compress air is extraordinary.

Let’s determine the energy cost to operate an air compressor to make compressed air by Equation 1:

Equation 1:

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


Cost – US$

hp – horsepower of motor

0.746 – conversion KW/hp

hours – running time

rate – cost for electricity, US$/KWh

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

As an example, a manufacturing plant operates a 100 HP air compressor in their facility.  The cycle time for the air compressor is roughly 60%.  To calculate the hours of running time per year, I used 250 days/year at 16 hours/day for shifts.  So operating hours equal 250 * 16 * 0.60 = 2,400 hours per year.  The electrical rate at this facility is $0.10/KWh. With these factors, the annual cost to operate the air compressor can be calculated by Equation 1:

Cost = 100hp * 0.746 KW/hp * 2,400hr * $0.10/KWh / 0.95 = $18,846 per year in just electrical costs.

So, what is an air compressor?  The answer is an expensive system to compress air to operate pneumatic systems.  So, efficiency in using compressed air is very important.  EXAIR has been manufacturing Intelligent Compressed Air Products since 1983.  If you need alternative ways to save money when you are using your air compressor, an Application Engineer at EXAIR will be happy to help you.

John Ball
Application Engineer
Email: johnball@exair.com
Twitter: @EXAIR_jb


Compressor internals image courtesy of h080, Creative Commons License.