CFM, ICFM, ACFM, SCFM: Volumetric Flow Rates Explained

Flow rate is the quantity of material that moves over a period of time.  Generally, the quantity of material can be expressed as a mass or a volume.  For example, mass flow rates are generally in units of pounds per minute (lbs./min) or kilograms per hour (Kg/hr).  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 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 above is CFM or Cubic Feet per Minute.  This term is commonly used in rating air compressors and pneumatic equipment.  From their history, they would calculate the volume of air being drawn into the air compressor by the size of cylinder.  With the rotations per minute of the motor, RPM, they could calculate the volumetric flow rate.  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 by three areas: temperature, pressure, and relative humidity as seen in the Ideal Gas Law.

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 values, 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 one 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, 68oF, and 0% RH.  Since we have the reference point, we still need to know the actual conditions.  As an example, it is like having a location for 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 one 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 resize an air compressor that is not at “Standard” conditions, and we can use this value to calculate velocities and pressure drop in a system.  We can correlate between SCFM and ACFM:

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) or (oF + 460)
Tstd = Standard temperature (oR) or (oF + 460)

ICFM, or Inlet Cubic Feet per Minute, 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 an intake 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.  Equation 3 shows the relationship to ACFM and ICFM:

Equation 3:

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

Where:

ICFM = Inlet Cubic Feet Per Minute

ACFM = Actual Cubic Feet per Minute

Pf  = Pressure after filter or inlet equipment (PSIA)

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

To expand on my explanation above about SCFM and ACFM, a technical question comes up often 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 needed.  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 do they actually?  To simplify Equation 2 above, we can compare the two nozzles at the same temperature, 68oF, and 0% RH. 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 rating is the same but at two different pressures, the actual flow shows that you are using 21% more compressed air with the competitive nozzle. 

Another example would be for sizing an air compressor.  Since air compressors are rated at sea level (14.5 PSIA), 68oF and 0% RH, what happens if you are in Denver?  A manufacturing company was needing a 500 SCFM air compressor to run their plant.  They were located at 1,000 feet above sea level with a site temperature of 85oF and a relative humidity of 60%.  Since they were not at the standard conditions, we can calculate the ACFM to properly size the air compressor.  The atmospheric pressure at 1,000 feet was 14.2 PSIG.  The saturation pressure at 85oF is 0.595 PSIA.  From Equation 2, we can calculate the ACFM.

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

ACFM = 500 SCFM * [14.5 / (14.2 – 0.595 * 60%)] * [(85oF + 460) / (68oF + 460)]

ACFM = 500 SCFM * 1.0474 * 1.0322

ACFM = 540

For this manufacturing plant, they will need to increase the capacity to 540 SCFM to run their 500 SCFM pneumatic system at their location.   

When it comes to rating compressed air products or air compressors, always ask the conditions of the pressure, temperature and RH.  The more you know about volumetric flow rates, the better decision that you can make in selecting the correct product.  If you need any help in selecting point-of-use blow-off devices, you can contact an Application Engineer at EXAIR.  We will be happy to help you. 

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

Photo: Air sign by Barney MossCreative Commons 2.0

Where Does 25 Cents For 1,000 Standard Cubic Feet Of Air Come From?

Wasting compressed air 2

Being an Application Engineer at EXAIR you tend to do a good amount of return on investment (ROI) calculations.   This is mainly to tell customers just how fast installing an EXAIR product on their system is going to pay its purchase price back and start saving them money.

In order to do these calculations there are several variables we must know.   The list is below.

  • Cost of EXAIR Product (This is an easy one for us to know.)
  • EXAIR Product Consumption (Another easy one!)
  • Current Product Consumption (If this is an unknown, we will test it for free!)
  • Cost of Compressed Air / 1,000 SCF (This is the most common unknown.)

With these four variables we can calculate the amount of air and the amount of money the EXAIR product will save over an existing non-engineered blowoff.   Let me address the two variables which have to come from you, the customer.

Current Product Consumption – If this value is not known please don’t guess at it.  We offer a free service which we refer to as our Efficiency Lab where you send us in your existing blowoff device and we will test it for force flow and noise level.   If you don’t know what pressure you are operating the piece at we will help you find out how to get that and then we will test our products at the same pressures.   This way you get a true apple to apples comparison.   Then, once we are done testing, you will get a recommendation from us in a formal report as to what EXAIR product will best replace your existing product.  Then we will pay for return shipping of your blowoff device back to you. So, if you don’t know how much air you are currently using then give us a call.  We will figure it out for you.

Efficiency Lab
The EXAIR Efficiency Lab is FREE!

Cost of Compressed Air/ 1,000 SCF – This is more often than not, the unknown variable in the equation.  The good news is there is a general standard assumption of twenty-five cents per 1,000 Standard Cubic Feet of compressed air.   This works out to be around 8 cents per kW/hr.  So even if you don’t know what you pay to compress the air, if you know what you are paying per kilowatt hour for your energy then we can calculate within reason what it costs for you to generate your compressed air. For reference, 8 cents per kilowatt-hour falls between the average US cost per kilowatt hour for commercial end-users (10.7/kWh) and industrial end-users (6.9/kWh).*

The best part of all is…EXAIR has a calculator available right on our website which provides air and dollar savings per minute, hour day and year as well as a payback in days for the EXAIR product purchase. On top of that, any step along the way that you aren’t sure of, we will help you out for free, even testing your product!

In case you would like to see the math, the formula used is below.

Basic Equation To Go From Cost Per kiloWatt Hour to Cost Per 1,000 Standard Cubic Feet of Compressed Air
Basic equation to go from Cost Per kiloWatt Hour to Cost Per 1,000 Standard Cubic Feet of Compressed Air

Brian Farno
Application Engineer Manager
BrianFarno@EXAIR.com
@EXAIR_BF

*latest U.S. EIA report here