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Top ten tips for working with compressed air

When it comes to ensuring a new air compressor installation is as effective as possible, it is essential to seek the advice of a compressed air specialist. Here are our top ten tips to make your compressed air system more efficient, more cost-effective and as safe as possible.

1. Understand electrical consumption

There seems to be a misconception that compressed air is ‘free’ once a business has invested in an air compressor. In reality, the initial purchase actually makes up a very small part of the total lifetime costs of an air compressor; the main cost will always be the energy required to produce the compressed air.

The electricity consumed during operation over a five-year period accounts for around 75 per cent of the total cost of ownership, including the initial capital outlay for the air compressor, therefore it is important to consider the efficiency of the compressor and not just its capital cost.

2. Regularly assess the system

It’s essential to understand how much compressed air you use, how much it costs you and whether the air compressors are appropriate for their production processes.

The best way to assess a compressed air system is through data logging, or a more detailed energy audit. The ISO 11011 standard, Compressed air – Energy efficiency – Assessment encourages end users to assess their compressed air systems and subsequently take actions to reduce their energy use. It also standardises the energy audits offered by compressed air companies.

3. Check whether air demands are fixed or variable

Some companies use variable speed compressors when fixed speed machines would be more appropriate, and vice versa. Variable speed compressors will only save energy if there are true peaks and troughs in the demand for air, and if these variations fall within the efficient working band of the compressor. Again, data logging can reveal which type of air compressor is most appropriate for you.

4. Decide what air quality is needed or appropriate

In recent years we have seen an increase in demand for ‘oil-free’ compressors to produce ‘oil-free’ compressed air. But before investing in costly equipment, we would urge users to thoroughly assess the actual purity of air required and specify it using ISO 8573-1:2010 to see if ‘oil-free’ air is needed and, if it is, if class one rather than class zero would be sufficient.

5. Ensure the compressor is installed and sited correctly

The efficiency of any air compressor is largely dependent on the way it’s installed, and where it’s sited.

One of the main considerations should be air flow into the compressor: it needs to be unrestricted, cool, reasonably clean and free from solid and gaseous impurities. The distance between the compressor and where the compressed air is actually used can have important implications too. Pipes should also be suitably sized for the air delivery capacity of the compressor(s), with bends kept to an absolute minimum.

6. Check noise levels

Noise levels should be considered to ensure employees aren’t adversely affected. All compressor manufacturers have to state the noise levels in accordance to international standards, with the current one being EN ISO 2151:2008. This means it is relatively straightforward to check the suitability of a compressor for a particular environment.

7. Regularly check for leaks

In many companies, in excess of 30 per cent of air generated is wasted through leaks. Leaks are simple to identify and rectify and carrying out a Mattei leak detection survey is cost-effective; the average cost to carry one out is less than 10 per cent of the overall leakage costs. Leak detection surveys should ideally be done on an annual basis, and always before a new compressor is installed.

8. Undertake regular services and maintenance

If a compressed air system isn’t properly maintained on a regular basis, it will not run as efficiently as it should; this will increase its running costs and it could end up posing a danger – in very extreme cases a poorly maintained compressor might even catch fire or explode. It is for this reason that written schemes of examinations are a legal requirement under the Pressure Systems Safety Regulations 2000.

9. Always use compressed air safely

We still hear of dangerous practices going on, such as people using compressed air to dust off machinery, work benches and even their clothes. If compressed air penetrates the skin and gets into the bloodstream, an air bubble could reach the heart or lungs, which could prove fatal. And, as it travels at a phenomenal speed, if it hits an eye or an ear it may lead to blindness or loss of hearing respectively.

10. Recover heat where possible and appropriate

Compressors generate a lot of heat, and in some installations this can be recovered and put to good use in the production process, for water heating, for example, or – although not as efficient – local space heating.

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Top ten tips for working with compressed air