Intelligent Compressed Air: Single Acting Reciprocating Air Compressors

Of all the types of air compressors on the market, you can’t beat the single acting reciprocating air compressor for simplicity:

Piston goes down: air is pulled in. Piston goes up: air is pushed out.

This simplicity is key to a couple of major advantages:

  • Price: they can cost 20-40% less than a similar rated (but more efficient) rotary screw model, up to about 5HP sizes.  This makes them great choices for home hobbyists and small industrial or commercial settings.
  • High pressure: It’s common to see reciprocating compressors that are capable of generating up to 3,000 psig.  Because the power is transmitted in the same direction as the fluid flow, they can handle the mechanical stresses necessary for this much better than other types of air compressors, which may need special modifications for that kind of performance.
  • Durability: out of necessity, their construction is very robust and rugged.  A good regimen of preventive maintenance will keep them running for a good, long time.  Speaking of which…
  • Maintenance (preventive): if you change your car’s oil and brake pads yourself, you have most of the know-how – and tools – to perform regular upkeep on a reciprocating air compressor.  There’s really not that much to them:

    The internals of a single acting reciprocating compressor.

Those advantages are buffered, though, by certain drawbacks:

  • Efficiency, part 1: The real work (compressing the air) only happens on the upstroke.  They’re less efficient than their dual acting counterparts, which compress on the downstroke too.
  • Efficiency, part 2: As size increases, efficiency decreases.  As stated above, smaller sizes usually cost appreciably less than more efficient (rotary screw, vane, centrifugal, etc.) types, but as you approach 25HP or higher, the cost difference just isn’t there, and the benefits of those other types start to weigh heavier in the decision.
  •  Maintenance (corrective):  Whereas they’re easy to maintain, if/when something does break, the parts (robust and rugged as they are) can get pretty pricey.
  • Noise: No way around it; these things are LOUD.  Most of the time, you’ll find them in a remote area of the facility, and/or in their own (usually sound-insulated) room.
  • High temperature:  When air is compressed, the temperature rises due to all the friction of those molecules getting shoved together…that’s going to happen with any air compressor.  All the metal moving parts in constant contact with each other, in a reciprocating model, add even more heat.
  • Oil in the air: If you’re moving a piston back & forth in a cylinder, you have to keep it lubed properly, which means you have oil adjacent to the air chamber.  Which means, no matter how well it’s built, you’re likely going to have oil IN the air chamber.

All that said, the benefits certainly do sell a good number of these compressors, quite often into situations where it just wouldn’t make sense to use any other type.  If you’re in the market for an air compressor,  you’ll want to find a local reputable air compressor dealer, and discuss your needs with them.  If those needs entail the use of engineered compressed air products, though, please feel free to give me a call to discuss.  We can make sure you’re going to ask your compressor folks the right questions.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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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
Email: johnball@exair.com
Twitter: @EXAIR_jb

 

Photos:  used from Compressed Air Challenge Handbook

About Single Acting Reciprocating Compressors

Whether you’re new to the field of compressed air, an experienced technician, or just in the market for a new compressor, you may find yourself coming into contact with various compressor types.  Within the world of compressed air supply there are two types of compressors: positive displacement and dynamic.  These two compressor types branch off into several different variations, as shown in the chart below.

Compressor types

Positive displacement compressors increase air pressure by reducing air volume within a confined space.  In a positive displacement compressor mechanical linkage is used to reduce the volume of air (the fluid), which results in a change to the air pressure.  To think of it another way, the energy which is used to displace the air volume is converted into an increase in air pressure.

Dynamic compressors, on the other hand, utilize an increase in air velocity to cause a change in air pressure.  For a dynamic compressor, the fluid (air) is accelerated to a high velocity through a rotor or impeller.  The kinetic energy of the air is then converted to an increased potential energy/static pressure by slowing the flow through a diffuser.  The air at the outlet of the diffuser is the compressed air which is used to perform work.

The internals of a single acting reciprocating compressor.

Within this vast field of compressed air generation, one of the most common types of compressors is the single acting reciprocating compressor.  The term “single acting” refers to manner in which the cylinder inside of the compressor motor interacts with the working fluid (the air).  When the fluid (air) acts only on one side of the piston, the motor is referred to as “single acting”.  This type of motor relies on the load of the motor, a flywheel, springs, other cylinders, or some other device/momentum to return the piston back to its original location.

Single acting compressors can be air-cooled or water cooled, lubricated or non-lubricated, and packaged to provide a wide range of pressure and flow capacities.  Because of this adaptability, single acting compressors are quite common and serve a variety of industrial needs.

No matter the type of compressor on the system’s supply side, having engineered products on the demand side improves overall system performance and efficiency.  If you’d like to discuss engineered solutions for your compressed air system, EXAIR Application Engineers are ready and waiting.

Lee Evans
Application Engineer
LeeEvans@EXAIR.com
@EXAIR_LE

 

Compressor internals image courtesy of h080, Creative Commons License.