Designing a Compressed Air Distribution System

Compressed air is used to operate pneumatic systems in a facility, and it can be segregated into three sections; the supply side, the demand side, and the distribution system.  The supply side is the air compressor, after-cooler, dryer, and receiver tank that produce and treat the compressed air.  They are generally located in a compressor room somewhere in the corner of the plant.  The demand side are the collection of end-use devices that will use the compressed air to do “work”.  These pneumatic components are generally scattered throughout the facility.  To connect the supply side to the demand side, a compressed air distribution system is required.  Distribution systems are pipes which carry the compressed air from the compressor to the pneumatic devices.  For a sound compressed air system, the three sections have to work together to make an effective and efficient system.

An analogy, I like to compare to the compressed air system, is an electrical system.  The air compressor will be considered the voltage source, and the pneumatic devices will be marked as light bulbs.  To connect the light bulbs to the voltage source, electrical wires are needed.  The distribution system will represent the electrical wires.  If the wire gauge is too small to supply the light bulbs, the wire will heat up and the voltage will drop.  This heat is given off as wasted energy, and the light bulbs will dim.

The same thing happens within a compressed air system.  If the piping size is too small, a pressure drop will occur.  This is also wasted energy.   In both types of systems, wasted energy is wasted money.  One of the largest systematic problems with compressed air systems is pressure drop.  If too large of a pressure loss occurs, the pneumatic equipment will not have enough power to operate effectively.  As shown in the illustration below, you can see how the pressure decreases from the supply side to the demand side.  With a properly designed distribution system, energy can be saved, and in reference to my analogy, it will keep the lights on.

Source: Compressed Air Challenge Organization

To optimize the compressed air system, we need to reduce the amount of wasted energy; pressure drop.   Pressure drop is based on restrictions, obstructions, and piping surface.  If we evaluate each one, a properly designed distribution system can limit the unnecessary problems that can rob the “power” from your pneumatic equipment.

  1. Restriction: This is the most common type of pressure drop. The air flow is forced into small areas, causing high velocities.  The high velocity creates turbulent flow which increases the losses in air pressure.  Flow within the pipe is directly related to the velocity times the square of the diameter.  So, if you cut the I.D. of the pipe by one-half, the flow rating will be reduced to 25% of the original rating; or the velocity will increase by four times.  Restriction can come in different forms like small diameter pipes or tubing; restrictive fittings like quick disconnects and needle valves, and undersized filters and regulators.
  2. Obstruction: This is generally caused by the type of fittings that are used.  To help reduce additional pressure drops use sweeping elbows and 45-degree fittings instead of 90 deg. elbows.  Another option is to use full flow ball valves and butterfly valves instead of seated valves and needle valves.  If a blocking valve or cap is used for future expansion, try and extend the pipe an additional 10 times the diameter of the pipe to help remove any turbulence caused from air flow disruptions.  Removing sharp turns and abrupt stops will keep the velocity in a more laminar state.
  3. Roughness: With long runs of pipe, the piping surface can affect the compressed air stream. As an example, carbon steel piping has a relative rough texture.  But, over time, the surface will start to rust creating even a rougher surface.  This roughness will restrain the flow, creating the pressure to drop.  Aluminum and stainless steel tubing have much smoother surfaces and are not as susceptible to pressure drops caused by roughness or corrosion.

As a rule, air velocities will determine the correct pipe size.  It is beneficial to oversize the pipe to accommodate for any expansions in the future.  For header pipes, the velocities should not be more than 20 feet/min (6 meter/min).  For the distribution lines, the velocities should not exceed 30 feet/min (9 meter/min).  In following these simple rules, the distribution system can effectively supply the necessary compressed air from the supply side to the demand side.

To have a properly designed distribution system, the pressure drop should be less than 10% from the reservoir tank to the point-of-use.  By following the tips above, you can reach that goal and have the supply side, demand side, and distribution system working at peak efficiency.  If you would like to reduce waste even more, EXAIR offers a variety of efficient, safe, and effective compressed air products to fit within the demand side.  This would be the pneumatic equivalent of changing those light bulbs at the point-of-use into LEDs.

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

 

Photo: Light Bulb by qimonoCreative Commons CC0

 

Intelligent Compressed Air: Distribution Piping

air compressor

An important component of your compressed air system is the distribution piping. 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. Some end use devices must have adequate ventilation. For example, a paint booth will need to be installed near an outside wall to exhaust fumes. Depending on the layout of your facility, this may require long piping runs.  You’ll need to consider the types of fittings you’ll use, the size of the distribution piping, and whether you plan to add additional equipment in the next few years. If so, it is important that the system is designed to accommodate any potential expansion. This also helps to compensate for potential scale build-up (depending on the material of construction) that will restrict airflow through the pipe.

The first thing you’ll need to do is determine your air compressor’s maximum CFM and the necessary operating pressure for your point of use products. Keep in mind, operating at a lower pressure can dramatically reduce overall operating costs. Depending on a variety of factors (elevation, temperature, relative humidity) this can be different than what is listed on directly on the compressor. (For a discussion of how this impacts the capacity of your compressor, check out one of my previous blogs – Intelligent Compressed Air: SCFM, ACFM, ICFM, CFM – What do these terms mean?) Once you’ve determined your compressor’s maximum CFM, draw a schematic of the necessary piping and list out the length of each straight pipe run. Determine the total length of pipe needed for the system. Using a graph or chart, such as this one from Engineering Toolbox. Locate your compressor’s capacity on the y-axis and the required operating pressure along the x-axis. The point at which these values meet will be the recommended MINIMUM pipe size. If you plan on future expansion, now is a good time to move up to the next pipe size to avoid any potential headache.

Once you’ve determined the appropriate pipe size, you’ll need to consider how everything will begin to fit together. According to the “Best Practices for Compressed Air Systems” from the Compressed Air Challenge, the air should enter the compressed air header at a 45° angle, in the direction of flow and always through wide-radius elbows. A sharp angle anywhere in the piping system will result in an unnecessary pressure drop. When the air must make a sharp turn, it is forced to slow down. This causes turbulence within the pipe as the air slams into the insides of the pipe and wastes energy. A 90° bend can cause as much as 3-5 psi of pressure loss. Replacing 90° bends with 45° bends instead eliminates unnecessary pressure loss across the system.

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.

pressure drop in pipe

You’ll then need to consider the different materials that are available. Some different materials that you’ll find are: steel piping (Schedule 40) both with or without galvanizing, stainless steel, copper, aluminum, and even some plastic piping systems are available.

While some companies do make plastic piping systems, plastic piping is not 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. While PVC piping is inexpensive and versatile, serious risk can occur when using with compressed air. PVC can become brittle with age and will eventually rupture due to the stress. 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.

Steel pipe is a traditional material used in many compressed air distribution systems.  It has a relatively low price compared to other materials and due to its familiarity is easy to install. It’s strong and durable on the outside. 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, making copper piping a mid-level solution for your compressed air system.

Another lightweight material that is becoming 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. Aluminum pipe is also coated on the inside to prevent corrosion. While an aluminum piping system may be the most expensive, its easy installation and adaptability make it an excellent choice.

It can be easy to become overwhelmed with the variety of options at your disposal. Your facility layout, overall budget, and compressed air requirements will allow you to make the best choice. Once you’ve selected and installed your distribution piping, look to the EXAIR website for all of your point-of-use compressed air needs!

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