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, CFM, or liters per hour, LPH. The trick begins when volumetric flow rates are used with compressible gases. 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 the history of air compressors, they could calculate the volume of air being drawn into the air compressor by the size of the 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 volumetric value of CFM changes. To better clarify these conditions, compressor manufacturers have decided to add terms with a 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 volumetric air flow is being measured. This is important for comparing pneumatic components or for properly sizing pneumatic systems. Volume is measured within three areas; temperature, pressure, and relative humidity. We can see this in the Ideal Gas Law, reference Equation 1.

Equation 1:

P * V = n * R * T

Where:

P – Absolute Pressure

V – Volume

n – Number of molecules of gas

R – Universal Gas Constant

T – Absolute Temperature

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

SCFM is the most commonly used term, and it can be the most confusing. The idea behind 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 ^{o} F, and 0% RH. Since we have a reference point, we still need to know the actual conditions for comparison. It is like having the location of a restaurant as a reference, but if you do not know your current location, you cannot move toward it. Similarly, we are “moving” the air from its actual condition to a reference or “Standard” condition. If we do not know the actual state where the air began, then we cannot “move” toward 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 pneumatic system. We can correlate between SCFM and ACFM with Equation 2.

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 (^{o}R)

Tstd – Standard temperature (^{o}R)

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 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 ACFM to ICFM is Equation 3.

Equation 3:

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

Where:

ICFM – Inlet Cubic Feet Per Minute

ACFM – Actual Cubic Feet per Minute

Pact – absolute pressure at the actual level (PSIA)

Pf – Pressure after filter or inlet equipment (PSIA)

Tact – Actual ambient air temperature (^{o}R)

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

To expand on my explanation above about SCFM and ACFM, a technical question is asked often about the pressure when using SCFM. The reference point of 14.5 PSIA is in the definition of the term for SCFM. Remember, this is only a reference point. The starting location is also needed as it gives us the ACFM value where the air values are true and actual. Then we can make a comparison of actual air usage.

As an example, let’s look at two air nozzles that are rated at the same air flow; 60 SCFM. The EXAIR Super Air Nozzle, model 1106, is cataloged at 60 SCFM at 80 PSIG, and a competitor is cataloged at 60 SCFM at 72 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 ^{o}F and 0% RH respectively. This equation can be reduced to form Equation 4.

Equation 4:

ACFM = SCFM * 14.5 / (P + 14.5)

@72 PSIG Competitor:

ACFM = 60 SCFM * 14.5 PSIA/ (72 PSIG + 14.5 PSIA)

= **10.1 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 10% more air with the competitive nozzle that was reported at 60 PSIG. So, when it comes to rating pneumatic products, improving efficiency, and saving money; always determine the pressure that you are at. The more you know about volumetric flow rates, the better decision that you can make. If you need more information, you can always contact our Application Engineers at EXAIR. We will be happy to assist.

John Ball

Application Engineer

Email: johnball@exair.com

Twitter: @EXAIR_jb

Photo: Compressor equipment by terimakasih0. Pixabay license