About Air Compressors: Single-Acting Reciprocating Type

My colleague, Tyler Daniel, wrote a blog “Intelligent Compressed Air: Double-Acting Reciprocating Compressor”, and I wanted to extend that conversation to a close cousin, the single-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.

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.  A single-acting compressor will have an operating efficiency between 22 – 24 kW/100 cfm of air.  This type of air compressor is the most common and least expensive within the reciprocating family. 

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

To explore the internals a bit closer, a mechanical linkage, or connecting rod, is attached to a piston and a crankshaft.  For every rotation of a motor, the piston will move up and down.  Air is being drawn into the cylinder and then compressed.  The volume of the cylinders, the number of cylinders, and the rotations per minute will determine the amount of compressed air that can be produced.  The advantages with reciprocating compressors are that they can produce high pressure, compress different types of gases, and have a cheap and rugged design.  The disadvantages would be high vibration and noise levels as well as being oversized as compared to capacity. 

There are different types of single-acting reciprocating compressors; single stage, dual stage, and multistage. The single stage uses one compression cycle to generate a pressure; generally for lower air pressures near 125 PSIG (8.6 bar). The dual stage will allow the pressure from the first cylinder to go into a smaller second cylinder. This dual compression will give a higher pressure up to 175 PSIG (12 bar). Multistage uses the same principle for multiple cylinders for much higher pressures up to 6,000 PSIG (414 bar); for applications like compressed air tanks used in SCUBA diving. They have options like air-cooled, intercooled, flooded type and oil-less. Single-acting reciprocating compressors have a wide range of uses and applications.

No matter the type of air compressor that you use, they are very expensive to use.  Air compressors are considered to be the fourth utility within a manufacturing plant.  To help use it efficiently and safely, EXAIR offers a range of products to clean, cool, blow, clean, conserve, and convey.  This would include our Super Air Knives, Super Air Nozzles, Safety Air Guns, Cabinet Coolers, and much more.  If you want to save energy, increase safety, and cut overhead costs, you can contact an Application Engineer at EXAIR.  We will be happy to help. 

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

Types of Compressor image courtesy of the Compressed Air Challenge

Compressor internals image courtesy of h080Creative Commons License.

Maintenance for your Air Compressor

In one of my previous jobs, I was responsible for the operation of the facility, and one of my biggest jobs was the operation of our air compressor.  Like with many industries, the compressor system is the life blood of the company.  If the compressor fails, the whole facility will stop.  In this blog, I will share some maintenance items and schedules for air compressors. 

Because the cost to make compressed air is expensive, the compressed air system is considered to be a fourth utility.  With such an important investment, you would like to keep it operating as long and efficiently as possible.  To do this, it is recommended to get your air compressor a “checkup” every so often.  I will cover some important items to check.  Depending on the size and type of air compressor, some items may or may not apply.  It is always best to check with the manufacturer. 

Intake filter:  The intake filter is used to clean the air that is being drawn into the air compressor.  The better the filtration, the less debris that will get into your system.  Particles can damage the air pump mechanisms over time as well as plug filters and heat exchangers downstream.  If they are not properly monitored and cleaned, the air flow can be restricted.  This will cause the motor to operate harder and hotter. 

Compressor Oil:  This would be for flooded screws and reciprocating compressor that use oil to lubricate the bearings and sleeves in the air pump.  Most systems have an oil sight gage to verify levels.  The oil can also be checked for acidity which will tell the degree at which the oil is breaking down.  Just like the motor oil in your car, you will have to replace it out after so many hours of operation. 

Belts & couplings:  These items transmit the power from the motor to the air pump.  Check their alignment, condition, and tension (belts only) as specified by the manufacturer.  You should have spares on hand in case of any failures.

Electric Motors:  A mechanical device that turns electric energy into rotational energy.  It is the main component that uses much energy to make compressed air.  So, some checks are required to foresee any potential issues and major shutdowns.  For the windings inside, the resistance should be measured with a multimeter, and it should fall within the motor’s specifications.  Another check should be on the start capacitor.  The start capacitor stores energy to give the motor a powerful boost to get it turning.  One other item is the centrifugal switch.  Just like the name states, it will disconnect the start capacitor when the motor starts spinning.  One other item for large electric motors is the phase convertor.  These are typically capacitors, and they are designed to keep the direction of a three-phase motors going in the correct rotation.  Both types of capacitors can be checked with a multimeter. 

Air/Oil Separators:  This filter removes as much oil from the compressed air before it travels downstream.  It returns the oil back to the sump of the air compressor.  If the Air/Oil Separator builds too much pressure drop, excess oil can travel downstream.  Not only will the air pump loose the required oil level, but it will affect the performance of downstream parts like your air dryer and after cooler.  Also, the pressure drop is a waste and can rob your air system of workable energy.  

Internal filters:  Many air compressors will come with an attached refrigerated air dryer.   With this type of air compressor, they will place coalescing filters to remove any residual oil.  These filters should be checked for pressure drop.  If the pressure drop gets too high, then it will rob your compressed air system of pressure, and you will not get the required performance.  Some filters come with a pressure drop indicator which can help you to determine the time to change the element.    

Unloader valve:  When the air compressor unloads, this valve helps to remove any of the compressed air that is trapped in the cavity.  When the air compressor restarts, it does not have to “work” against this air pressure.  If they do not fully unload, the air compressor will have to work harder to start, wasting energy.

Preventative maintenance is very important.  As for a schedule, I created a rough sequence to check, change, or clean certain items that are important to your air compressor.  You should also check with your local compressor representative for a more detailed maintenance schedule. 


  • After stopping, remove any condensate from the receiver tank.
  • Check oil level. 


  • Inspect cooling fins on air pump.  Clean if necessary
  • Inspect oil cooler. Clean if necessary


  • Inspect the inlet air filter.  Clean or replace if necessary. 
  • Check the belt for tension and cracks.  Tighten or replace.
  • Check differential pressure indicators on outlet compressed air filters.
  • Ohm check on the electric motor


  • Replace Air Inlet Filter
  • Replace the air-oil separator
  • Test safety valves and unloader valve
  • Replace compressed air filters
  • Change oil
  • Grease bearings if required

Keeping your air compressor running optimal is very important for pneumatic operations and energy savings.  To help your air compressor, you should also check your pneumatic system for optimization.  EXAIR manufactures engineered products that can blow, coat, clean, and cool at reduced air consumption rates; saving you money.  As an example, the model 1102 Mini Super Air Nozzle can save your company $1,872.00 per year for one blow-off device by replacing a 1/8” NPT open pipe.  You can contact an Application Engineer to determine how much EXAIR products can save your company and your air compressor.   

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

Image courtesy of Compressor1Creative commons license

Intelligent Compressed Air: Double-Acting Reciprocating Compressor

Evaluating all of the different types of compressors and which is right for you can seem like a daunting task. Today, I’d like to take some time to talk about the Double-Acting Reciprocating type of air compressor.

double acting compressor
Cut-out of a double-acting reciprocating compressor

Double-Acting Reciprocating compressors are a subset of the larger family of positive displacement compressor types. In positive displacement compressors, air is drawn into a chamber where the volume is then mechanically reduced. The energy used to displace the air volume is converted to an increase in air pressure. Dynamic compressors operate a little differently. They utilize an increase in air velocity to create the change in pressure. Air is accelerated to a high velocity through an impeller. The kinetic energy of the air is converted to an increase in potential (pressure) energy.

The Double-Acting Reciprocating compressor is a close relative to the Single-Acting Reciprocating compressor. In these types of compressors, an “automotive-type” piston driven by a crankshaft provides the compression. In a Double-Acting Reciprocating compressor, air is compressed as the piston moves in each direction. Hence the name, “double-acting”. In a Single-Acting Reciprocating compressor, air is only compressed on each full revolution of the piston. This makes the Double-Acting Reciprocating compressor much more efficient than its brethren.

Double Acting Recip
Double Acting Reciprocating Air Compressor

Double-Acting Reciprocating compressors are also available in much larger sizes. While Single-Acting compressors can be found up to 150HP, generally they’re much less common any larger than 25HP. Whereas a Double-Acting compressor is available from 10HP-1,000HP, making it a better choice for larger plants that require a significantly greater volume of compressed air. While they’re a bit more expensive due to the added mechanisms to produce the double-action compression, this cost is quickly offset by the increase in efficiency. At a performance of 15-16 kW/100 cfm, they’re 32% more efficient than a single-acting reciprocating compressor.

If you’re in the market for a new compressor and are struggling to determine the most suitable compressor, talk with your local compressor sales representative. Once you’re up an running, EXAIR has a wide-range of products that’ll make sure you’re using your compressed air safely and efficiently!

Tyler Daniel
Application Engineer
E-mail: TylerDaniel@exair.com
Twitter: @EXAIR_TD
Image courtesy of Best Practices for Compressed Air Systems – second edition