CFM, ICFM, ACFM, SCFM: Why so many volumetric flow rates?

Air Compressor

Flow rate is the quantity of material that is moved per unit of time.  Generally, the quantity of material can be expressed as a mass or a volume.  For example, mass flow rates are in units of pounds per minute or kilograms per hour.  Volumetric flow rates are stated in cubic feet per minute or liters per hour.  The trick begins when volumetric flow rates are used for a compressible gas.  In this blog, I will go over the various acronyms and the reasons behind them.

What acronyms will be covered?

CFM – Cubic Feet per Minute

SCFM – Standard Cubic Feet per Minute

ACFM – Actual Cubic Feet per Minute

ICFM – Inlet Cubic Feet per Minute

The volumetric component of the flow rate is CFM or Cubic Feet per Minute.  This term is commonly used for rating air compressors.  From history of air compressors, they could calculate the volume of air being drawn into the air compressor by the size of cylinder.  With the volume of the compression chamber and the rotations per minute of the motor, RPM, they could calculate the volumetric air flows.  As conditions change like altitude, temperature, and relative humidity, the value of CFM changes.  To better clarify these conditions, compressor manufacturers decided to add terms with definition.  (For your information, air compressors still use CFM as a unit of air flow, but now this is defined at standard temperature and pressure).

The first letter in front of CFM above now defines the conditions in which the volumetric air flow is being measured.  This is important for comparing pneumatic components or for properly sizing pneumatic systems. Volume is measured with three areas: temperature, pressure, and relative humidity.  We can see this in the Ideal Gas Law: P * V = n * R * T or Equation 1:

V = n * R * T / P

V – Volume

n – Number of molecules of gas

R – Universal Gas Constant

T – Absolute Temperature

P – Absolute Pressure

The volume of air can change in reference to pressure, temperature, and the number of molecules.  Where is the relative humidity?  This would be referenced in the “n” term.  The more water vapor, or higher RH value, the less molecules of air is in a given volume.

SCFM is the most commonly used term, and it can be the most confusing.  The idea of this volumetric air flow is to set a reference point for comparisons.  So, no matter the pressure, temperature, or relative humidity, the volumetric air flows can be compared to each other at that reference point.  There have been many debates about an appropriate standard temperature and pressure, or STP.  But as long as you use the same reference point, then you can still compare the results.  In this blog, I will be using the Compressed Air and Gas Institute, CAGI, reference where the “Standard” condition is at 14.5 PSIA, 68 deg. F, and 0% RH.  Since we have a reference point, we still need to know the actual conditions for comparison.  It is like having a location of a restaurant as a reference, but if you do not know your current location, you cannot reach it.   Similarly, we are “moving” the air from its actual condition to a reference or “Standard” condition.  We will need to know where the air began in order to reach that reference point.  We will talk more about this later in this blog.

ACFM is the volumetric air flow under actual conditions.  This is actually the “true” flow rate.  Even though this term is hardly used, there are reasons why we will need to know this value.  We can size an air compressor that is not at “Standard” conditions, and we can use this value to calculate velocity and pressure drop in a system.  We can correlate between SCFM and ACFM with Equation 2:

ACFM = SCFM * [Pstd / (Pact – Psat Φ)] * (Tact / Tstd)

Where:

ACFM = Actual Cubic Feet per Minute
SCFM = Standard Cubic Feet per Minute
Pstd = standard absolute air pressure (psia)
Pact = absolute pressure at the actual level (psia)
Psat = saturation pressure at the actual temperature (psi)
Φ = Actual relative humidity
Tact = Actual ambient air temperature (oR)
Tstd = Standard temperature (oR)

ICFM is one of the newest terms in the history of air compressors.  This is where devices are added to the inlet of an air compressor, affecting the flow conditions.  If you have a blower on the inlet of an air compressor, the volumetric flow rate changes as the pressure and temperature rises at the “Inlet”.  If a filter is used, then the pressure drop will decrease the incoming pressure at the “Inlet”.  These devices that affect the volumetric flow rate for an air compressor should be considered.  The equation to relate the ACFM to ICFM is with Equation 3:

ICFM = ACFM * (Pact / Pf) * (Tf / Tact)

Where:

ICFM = Inlet Cubic Feet Per Minute

Pf  = Pressure after filter or inlet equipment (PSIA)

Tf = Temperature after filter or inlet equipment (°R)

Examples of these different types of flow rates can be found here in this EXAIR blog by Tyler Daniel.

To expand on my explanation above about SCFM and ACFM, a technical question comes up about the pressure when using SCFM.  The reference point of 14.5 PSIA is in the definition of SCFM.  Remember, this is only a reference point.  The starting location is actually required.  This would be the ACFM value where the air values are true and actual.  As an example, two air nozzles are rated for 60 SCFM.  An EXAIR Super Air Nozzle, model 1106, is cataloged at 80 PSIG, and a competitor is cataloged at 60 PSIG.  By comparison, they look like they use the same amount of compressed air, but actually they do not.  To simplify Equation 2, we can compare the two nozzles at the same temperature and RH at 68 Deg. F and 0% RH respectively.  This equation can be reduced to Equation 4:

ACFM = SCFM * 14.5 / (P + 14.5)

@60 PSIG Competitor:

ACFM = 60 SCFM * 14.5 PSIA/ (60 PSIG + 14.5 PSIA)

= 11.7 ACFM

@80 PSIG EXAIR Super Air Nozzle:

ACFM = 60 SCFM * 14.5 PSIA / (80 PSIG + 14.5PSIA)

= 9.2 ACFM

Even though the SCFM is the same amount, you are actually using 21% more air with the competitive nozzle that was reported at 60 PSIG.  So, when it comes to rating compressed air products or air compressors, always ask the conditions of pressure, temperature and RH.  The more you know about volumetric flow rates, the better decision that you can make.  If you need help, you can always contact our application engineers at EXAIR.

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

 

Six Steps To Optimizing Your Compressed Air System – Step 1: Measure

“To measure is to know – if you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.”
-Lord Kelvin, mathematical physicist, engineer,and pioneer in the field of thermodynamics.

This is true of most anything. If you want to lose weight, you’re going to need a good scale. If you want to improve your time in the 100 yard dash, you’re going to need a good stopwatch. And if you want to decrease compressed air consumption, you’ll need a good flowmeter. In fact, this is the first of six steps that we can use to help you optimize your compressed air system.

Six Steps To Optimizing Your Compressed Air System

There are various methods of measuring fluid flow, but the most popular for compressed air is thermal mass air flow.  This has the distinct advantage of accurate and instantaneous measurement of MASS flow rate…which is important, because measuring VOLUMETRIC flow rate would need to be corrected for pressure in order to determine the true compressed air consumption.  My colleague John Ball explains this in detail in a most excellent blog on Actual (volume) Vs. Standard (mass) Flows.

So, now we know how to measure the mass flow rate.  Now, what do we do with it?  Well, as in the weight loss and sprint time improvements mentioned earlier, you have to know what kind of shape you’re in right now to know how far you are from where you want to be.  Stepping on a scale, timing your run, or measuring your plant’s air flow right now is your “before” data, which represents Step One.  The next Five Steps are how you get to where you want to be (for compressed air optimization, that is – there may be a different amount of steps towards your fitness/athletic goals.)  So, compressed air-wise, EXAIR offers the following solutions for Step One:

Digital Flowmeter with wireless capability.  This is our latest offering, and it doesn’t get any simpler than this.  Imagine having a flowmeter installed in your compressed air system, and having its readings continually supplied to your computer.  You can record, analyze, manipulate, and share the data with ease.

Monitor your compressed air flow wirelessly over a ZigBee mesh network.

Digital Flowmeter with USB Data Logger.  We’ve been offering these, with great success, for almost seven years now.  The Data Logger plugs into the Digital Flowmeter and, depending on how you set it up, records the flow rate from once a second (for about nine hours of data) up to once every 12 hours (for over two years worth.)  Pull it from your Digital Flowmeter whenever you want to download the data to your computer, where you can view & save it in the software we supply, or export it directly into Microsoft Excel.

From the Digital Flowmeter, to your computer, to your screen, the USB Data Logger shows how much air you’re using…and when you’re using it!

Summing Remote Display.  This connects directly to the Digital Flowmeter and can be installed up to 50 feet away.  At the push of a button, you can change the reading from actual current air consumption to usage for the last 24 hours, or total cumulative usage.  It’s powered directly from the Digital Flowmeter, so you don’t even need an electrical outlet nearby.

Monitor compressed air consumption from a convenient location, as well as last 24 hours usage and cumulative usage.

Digital Flowmeter.  As a stand-alone product, it’ll show you actual current air consumption, and the display can also be manipulated to show daily or cumulative usage. It has milliamp & pulse outputs, as well as a Serial Communication option, if you can work with any of those to get your data where you want it.

With any of the above options, or stand-alone, EXAIR’s Digital Flowmeter is your best option for Step One to optimize your compressed air system.

Stay tuned for more information on the other five steps.  If you just can’t wait, though, you can always give me a call.  I can talk about compressed air efficiency all day long, and sometimes, I do!