Intelligent Compressed Air: Distribution Piping and Pressure Drop

An important step you must take after determining your compressed air requirements is the distribution piping for the system. The piping will be the “veins” that connect your entire facility to the compressor. Before installing pipe, it is important to consider how the compressed air will be consumed at the point of use. In order to ensure optimal performance of any compressed air operated device, you must ensure sufficient compressed air flow is delivered. Simply put, inadequate air flow won’t allow you to get the job done.

Pressure drop through the pipe is caused by the friction of the air mass making contact with the inside walls of the pipe. This is a function of the volume of flow through the pipe. Larger diameter pipes will result in a lower pressure drop, and vice versa for smaller diameter pipes. The chart below from the “Compressed Air and Gas Institute Handbook” provides the pressure drop that can be expected at varying CFM for 2”, 3”, and 4” ID pipe.

Once you’ve determined the appropriate piping size for your system, you’ll need to consider the different materials that are available. Some different materials that you’ll find as options are: steel piping (Schedule 40) both with or without galvanizing, stainless steel, copper, and even some plastic piping systems are available.

Plastic piping is not generally recommended to be used for compressed air. Some lubricants that are present in the air can act as a solvent and degrade the pipe over time. PVC should NEVER be used as a compressed air distribution pipe. Take a look at this inspection report an automotive supply store received fines totaling $13,200 as a result of an injury caused by shrapnel from a PVC pipe bursting. However, there are some composite plastics that are suitable for use with compressed air. PVC is most certainly not one of them.  

Steel pipe is a traditional material used in many compressed air distribution systems. It’s strong and durable on the outside and is a familiar material for many to work with. Its strength comes at a price, steel pipe is very heavy and requires anchors to properly suspend it. Steel pipe (not galvanized) is also susceptible to corrosion. This corrosion ends up in your supply air and can wreak havoc on your point-of-use products and can even contaminate your product. While galvanized steel pipe does reduce the potential for corrosion, this galvanizing coating can flake off over time and result in the exact same potential issues. Stainless Steel pipe eliminates the corrosion and rusting concerns while still maintaining the strength and durability of steel pipe. They can be more difficult to install as stainless steel pipe threads can be difficult to work with

Copper piping is another potential option. Copper pipe is corrosion-free, easy to cut, and lightweight making it easy to suspend. These factors come at a significant increase in costs, however, which can prevent it from being a suitable solution for longer runs or larger ID pipe installations. Soldering of the connecting joints can be time consuming and does require a skilled laborer to do so.

Another lightweight material that is increasingly more common in industry is aluminum piping. Like copper, aluminum is lightweight and anti-corrosion. They’re easy to connect with push-to-lock connectors and are ideal for clean air applications. Aluminum pipe remains leak-free over time and can dramatically reduce compressed air costs. While the initial cost can be high, eliminating potential leaks can help to recoup some of the initial investment.

When designing and maintaining your compressed air system, pressure measurements should be taken across varying points to identify (and fix) any issues before they create a greater problem down the road. According to the Compressed Air Challenge, these are the places you should take regular pressure measurements to determine your system operating pressure:

  • Inlet to compressor (to monitor inlet air filter) vs. atmospheric pressure
  • Differential across air/lubricant separator
  • Interstage on multistage compressors
  • Aftercooler
  • At treatment equipment (dryers, filters, etc.)
  • Various points across the distribution system
  • Check pressure differentials against manufacturers’ specifications, if high pressure drops are noticed this indicates a need for service

*More recent compressors will measure pressure at the package discharge, which would include the separator and aftercooler.

Once you’ve taken these measurements, simply add the pressure drops measured and subtract that value from the operating range of your compressor. That figure is your true operating pressure at the point of use.

If your distribution system is properly sized and the pressure drops measured across your various equipment are within specifications, any pressure drop noticed at the point of use is indicative of an inadequate volume of air. This could be due to restrictive fittings or undersized air lines, hose, or tube. Check that the point of use product is properly plumbed to compressed air per the manufacturer’s specifications.

EXAIR Products are designed to minimize this pressure drop by restricting the flow of compressed air. The more energy (pressure) that we’re able to bring to the point of use, the more efficient and effective that energy will be. If you’re looking to improve on how compressed air is used within your manufacturing processes, give us a call.

Tyler Daniel
Application Engineer
E-mail: TylerDaniel@EXAIR.com
Twitter: @EXAIR_TD

Image courtesy of Tampere Hacklab via Flickr Creative Commons License

Don’t Fall Victim To Undersized Piping

Pressure drops, incorrect plumbing, undersized piping, insufficient flow; if you hear these terms from tech support of your point of use compressed air products or from your maintenance staff when explaining why a process isn’t working then you may be a victim of improper compressed air piping selection.
Often time this is due to a continued expansion of an existing system that was designed around a decade old plan. It could also come from a simple misunderstanding of what size of piping is needed and so to save some costs, smaller was used. Nonetheless, if you can understand a small number of variables and what your system is going to be used for, you can ensure the correct piping is used. The variables that you will want to consider when selecting a piping size that will suit your need and give the ability to expand if needed are shown below.

  • Minimum Operating Pressure Allowed (psig) – Lowest pressure permitted by any demand side point of use product.
  • System Pressure (psig) – Safe operating pressure that will account for pressure drops.
  • Flow Rate (SCFM) of demand side (products needing the supplied compressed air)
  • Total Length of Piping System (feet)
  • Piping Cost ($)
  • Installation Cost ($)
  • Operational Hours ( hr.)
  • Electical Costs ($/kwh)
  • Project Life (years) – Is there a planned expansion?

An equation can be used to calculate the diameter of pipe required for a known flow rate and allowable pressure drop. The equation is shown below.

A = (144 x Q x Pa) / (V x 60 x (Pd + Pa)
Where:
A = Cross-Sectional are of the pipe bore. (sq. in.).
Q = Flow rate (cubic ft. / min of free air)
Pa = Prevailing atmospheric absolute pressure (psia)
Pd  = Compressor discharge gauge pressure (psig)
V = Design pipe velocity ( ft/sec)

If all of these variables are not known, there are also reference charts which will eliminate the variables needed to total flow rate required for the system, as well as the total length of the piping. The chart shown below was taken from EXAIR’s Knowledge Base.

Once the piping size is selected to meet the needs of the system the future potential of expansion should be taken into account and anticipated for. If no expansion is planned, simply take your length of pipe and start looking at your cost per foot and installation costs. If expansions are planned and known, consider supplying the equipment now and accounting for it if the additional capital expenditure is acceptable at this point.

The benefits to having properly sized compressed air lines for the entire facility and for the long-term expansion goals makes life easier. When production is increased, or when new machinery is added there is not a need to re-engineer the entire system in order to get enough capacity to that last machine. If the main compressed air system is undersized then optimal performance for the facility will never be achieved. By not taking the above variables into consideration or just using what is cheapest is simply setting the system up for failure and inefficiencies. All of these considerations lead to an optimized compressed air system which leads to a sustainable utility.

Brian Farno
Application Engineer
BrianFarno@EXAIR.com
@EXAIR_BF

Preventative Maintenance for EXAIR Filters

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

I read a white paper from Parker Hannifin about compressed air filters.  The idea behind the paper was to remember your filter replacements.  Compressed air can be dirty with water, oil, pipe scale, etc.  As the filters capture the contamination, it will start to build pressure drop.  Remember, pressure drop is a waste of energy in your compressed air system.

Majority of EXAIR products use compressed air for cleaning, cooling, conveying, static elimination, coating and more.  To help keep them running efficiently, it is important to supply them with clean, dry, pressurized air.  EXAIR offers a line of Filter Separators and Oil Removal Filters to supply quality air to your equipment.  In this blog, I will explain the two types of filters that we carry and the maintenance requirements.  Filters and preventative measures can play an important part in your compressed air system.

Filter Separators are used to remove bulk liquid and contamination from the compressed air stream.  They utilize a 5-micron filter with a mechanical separation to help remove large amounts of dirt and water.  This type of filter would be considered the minimum requirement for filtration.  Most of the Filter Separators come with an auto-drain to automatically dispense the collection of oil and water.  EXAIR offers a variety of port sizes and flow ranges to meet your pneumatic flow requirement.  For maintenance, the filter elements should be changed once a year or when the pressure drop reaches 10 PSID (0.7 bar), whichever comes first.  I created a list in Table 1 below showing the correct replacement element kits for each model number.  And for any reason, if the bowl or internal components get damaged, we also have Rebuild Kits as well.  Just remember, the air quality is very important for longevity and functionality of your pneumatic systems and even for EXAIR products.

The Oil Removal Filters can make your compressed air even cleaner.  They work great at removing very small particles of dirt and oil.  They are made from glass fibers and can remove particles down to 0.03 micron.  They are designed to collect small particles and to coalesce the liquid particles into a large droplet for gravity to remove.  Because of the fine matrix, Oil Removal Filters are not great for bulk separation.  If you have a system with lots of oil and water, I would recommend to use the Filter Separator upstream of the Oil Removal Filter.  As with the Filter Separator, the filter element should be changed once a year or at a pressure drop of 10 PSID (0.7 bar).  EXAIR also offers a variety of port sizes and flow ranges.  Table 1 below shows the replacement Element Kits as well as the Rebuild Kits.  If the application requires very clean compressed air, the Oil Removal Filter should be used.

Table 1

By using EXAIR filters, they will clean your compressed air to prevent contamination on parts, performance issues, and premature failures.  As an ounce of prevention, you should add the replacement elements in stock and enter them in your preventative maintenance program.  With quality air, your pneumatic system and EXAIR products will provide you with effective, long-lasting performance without any maintenance downtime.  If you would like to discuss the correct type of filters to use in your application, you can speak with an Application Engineer.  We will be happy to help you.

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

Do I Have To Install A Compressed Air Filter?

2″ Heavy Duty Line Vac Kit – Model 152200

Recently I took a call from an existing customer that is questioning their Heavy Duty Line Vac Kit setup. They are experiencing around a 38 psig pressure drop from before the filter in the system to the inlet of the Line Vac.  At first glance, they assumed this was due to the filter restricting the flow. They then posed the question, “Do I have to run this filter or can I take it out?  I mean I already have a filter at my compressor.” The answer is yes, install the filter. It will keep dirt, scale and condensate from entering the Line Vac or other components downstream. In the case of a Line Vac, a filter will also prevent this unwanted debris from getting into the material being conveyed.

Example of an Improper Filter Setup

However, this is a great question, especially when assuming the filter is causing the pressure drop – but that was not the case for this application.  So more questions were asked to our customer to determine what the root cause of the pressure drop could be. Seeing a pressure drop across a filter can be caused by several factors.

One would be an inappropriately sized filter. This can restrict the volumetric flow of air through to the point of use causing a pressure drop.  All of the filters supplied with our product kits are auto-drain, have 5 micron filter elements and appropriately sized to operate the product at 80 psig inlet pressure so this was not the problem.

The next issue could be that the filter is clogged, this brought on another question.  If you see more than a 5 psig pressure drop across a filter from EXAIR then we suggest changing out the filter element as it could be clogged and not permitting the full volumetric flow through.  This installation was fairly new and a quick test without a filter element installed proved it was not the filter element that was clogged.

That brought us to the last variable, the length, size, and number/type of fittings between the filter and the Heavy Duty Line Vac. This length of pipe was more than 30′ in length and was only appropriately sized for a 10′ length or shorter run.  The customer was using a 1/2″ Schedule 40 black iron pipe to feed a 2″ Heavy Duty Line Vac at 80 psig inlet pressure. The 2″ Heavy Duty Line Vac Kit will utilize 75 SCFM at 80 psig inlet pressure.  That will need a 1/2″ Sched. 40 pipe that is 10′ long or less in order to not have friction loss within the feed pipe.  Armed with this information the customer is researching whether or not the line needs to stay that long.  If it does, they will have to re-plumb the system with a minimum of a 3/4″ Sched. 40 black iron pipe.

Luckily this was all able to be discussed within a few hours of time and the customer is on their way to an optimal supply system for their in-line conveyor.  One brief phone call took this customer from lackluster performance and thinking a product was not going to work for what they need, to performing beyond their expectations, and being able to keep up with their production needs.

If you have a product or any part of your compressed air system that you question why it may be performing or not performing a certain way, please do not hesitate to reach out to our knowledgeable team of Application Engineers. We are always interested in finding a solution to your needs.

Brian Farno
Application Engineer
BrianFarno@EXAIR.com
@EXAIR_BF