Intelligent Compressed Air®: Compressor Motors And Controls

Use of compressed air has gone hand in hand with manufacturing for centuries. From manually operated bellows devices that stoked fires to generate the high temperatures needed for forging metals in ancient times, to the massive steam or oil driven compressors used in the 1800’s on projects like the Mont Cenis Tunnel drills, to the sophisticated electric-powered compressors used widely across modern industry, compressed air has actually been “the fourth utility” longer than the other three (electricity, gas, and water) have been in existence.

Diesel & gas powered compressors offer advantages like higher power ratings, portability, and freedom from reliance on local electric power grids, but most air compressors in industrial use are powered by electric motors. They’re plentiful, reliable, and easily adaptable to a range of control schemes that offer efficient operation across a wide variety of operations.

Which control method is right for you will depend on a number of factors specific to your operation. Here’s a brief run-down that may help you narrow down the selection:

  • Compressors in smaller facilities that supply intermittent loads like air guns, paint sprayers, tire inflators, etc. (like the one shown on the right) are oftentimes controlled via Start/Stop. This turns the compressor motor on and off, in response to a pressure signal. This is the simplest, least expensive method, and is just fine for smaller reciprocating compressors that aren’t adversely affected by cycling on & off.
  • Some compressors ARE adversely affected by Start/Stop control…like rotary screw models. These take a finite amount of time to start back up, which could allow header pressure to drop below usable levels. If they cycle too often, heat from the starting current can build up & overheat the motor. If that’s not bad enough, the screw elements & bearings of the compressor itself are oil lubricated…every time they start up, there’s a finite amount of time where metal-to-metal contact occurs before the oil flow is providing rated lubrication. With Load/Unload control, the motor turns continuously, while a valve on the intake of the compressor is cycled by the compressor discharge pressure: it opens (loads) to build or maintain pressure, and closes (unloads) when rated pressure is achieved. When unloaded, the motor uses about 1/3 of the energy it uses while loaded.
  • While turning down energy use to 1/3 of full load is a great way to cut operating cost while maintaining operational integrity of your compressed air system, and physical integrity of your compressor, it doesn’t necessarily make sense when demand may be low enough to be serviced by existing system storage over long periods of time. That’s where Dual/Auto Dual control comes in. It allows you to select between Start/Stop and Load /Unload control modes.  Automatic Dual Control incorporates an over-run timer, so that the motor is stopped after a certain period of time without a demand. This method is most often used in facilities where different shifts have substantially different compressed air load requirements.

When any of the above control schemes are used, they will necessarily rely on having an adequate storage capacity…the compressor’s receiver, and intermediate storage (like EXAIR’s Model 9500-60 60 Gallon Receiver Tank, shown on right) must be adequately sized (and strategically located) to ensure adequate point-of-use pressures are maintained while the compressor’s motor or intake valve cycle. Other methods use variable controls to “tighten up” the cycle bands…these don’t rely on as much storage volume, and in some (but not all) cases, result in higher energy efficiency:

  • A variation of Load/Unload control, called Modulation, throttles the intake valve instead of opening & closing it, to maintain a specific system pressure. This method is limited in range from 100% to 40% of rated capacity, though, so it’s fairly inefficient in many cases.
  • Slide, spiral, or turn valves are built in to certain compressor designs to control output by a method called Variable Displacement, which (as advertised) changes the physical displacement volume of the air end. When header pressure rises, it sends a signal which repositions the valve progressively, reducing the working length of the rotors. This allows some bypass at the inlet, limiting the volume of air that’s being compressed with each turn of the rotor. Since the inlet pressure & compression ratio remain constant, the power draw from the partial load is considerably lower…so it costs less to operate. The normal operating range for this method is from 100% to 40% of rated capacity, but when used in conjunction with inlet valve Modulation, it’s effective & efficient down to 20% of rated capacity.
  • Of course, the most significant advance in efficient control of rotating industrial equipment since Nikola Tesla invented 3-phase AC is the Variable Speed Drive. When the frequency of the AC power supplied to an electric motor is changed, the speed at which it rotates changes in direct proportion. By applying this type of control to an air compressor, the motor’s speed is continuously controlled to match the air demand. Energy costs can be greatly reduced, as this method allows efficient turn down to as low as 20% of rated capacity.

As mentioned a couple times above, multiple control schemes can be applied, depending on user specific needs. Adding accessories, of course, adds cost to your capital purchase, but discussions with your air compressor dealer will lay out the pros, cons, and return on investment. While we don’t sell, service, or even recommend specific air compressors, EXAIR Corporation is in the business of helping you get the most out of your compressed air system. If you’d like to talk more about it, give me a call.

Russ Bowman, CCASS

Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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