Plugging the $2,500 per leak gap
Compressed air systems serve critical functions in many plant facilities. Compressed air is often referred to as the fourth utility because it is used as a power source for hundreds of manufacturing applications. Adding to its importance is its cost—compressed air can consume up to 40% of the total energy a plant consumes on a yearly basis—making guarding against the loss of compressed air one of the most important things a facility can do to reduce energy costs.
Intelligent use and the sustained health of core parts greatly affect the bottom line when it comes to the lifetime optimization of an air compressor system. This is why ongoing and proactive maintenance of the entire system, including the compressed air piping, is vitally important for the health of the compressed air system and the facility’s bottom line. Even the smallest of compressed air system leaks can be a big drain on resources; when the problem of leaks is addressed, however, the savings can add up dramatically.
Piping systems more than five years old have been shown to exhibit leaks of up to 25%, so upgrading equipment to the latest technology can help a facility save money and remain competitive. Note that a single ¼-in. air leak at 100 psi will cost more than $2,500 a year. Depending on pressure requirements and energy costs, by some accounts this can cost as much as $8,000 a year per leak.
In addition to replacing worn-out equipment, fixing leaks and preventing new ones by scheduling regular maintenance is a proactive way to make certain that a compressed air system is running at maximum efficiency. A clean, dry pipe is an indication of a system that is producing clean, quality airflow with no potential corrosion issues. Improperly filtered air, dust, and corrosion-inducing moisture and sludge in the pipes are a fast track to leaks and can compromise a system’s efficiency and the goods they help produce. If the entire compressor system is not properly maintained, the end-product is at risk for contamination and the compressor system is at risk for breakdowns. Contamination and system breakdowns can lead to costly product recalls and a potentially ruined reputation.
There are several ways to detect leaks in a compressed air system. The most basic procedure consists of a visual inspection of the entire compressor system and is referred to as “walking the line,” because the inspection follows the path of the airflow. This method can be an effective way to identify major leaks. However, it is not uncommon for 80% of air leaks in a compressed air system to be inaudible. In order to effectively discover leaks, an ultrasonic leak detecting device can pick up the sound of tough-to-find leaks, even in the noisiest of plants. Purchasing an ultrasonic leak detecting device also provides a great return on investment due to the ongoing savings of finding and fixing costly leaks.
Other forms of leak detection use more advanced methods, such as a week-long data analysis, to reveal areas of compressed air losses and pressure drops that may indicate a leak. To further delve into specialized leak detection and control, individual air audits that focus exclusively on the detection of leaks offer solutions for effective leak management. By examining the compressed air system on the ground, a third-party auditor can tag any leaks that need to be addressed as well as identify other areas of improvement along the piping and throughout the entire compressed air system.
With today’s 24/7 manufacturing schedules, it is not uncommon for compressed air systems to be active in excess of 120 hours a week. Because the machines are running around the clock all year long and as long as there are no discernible problems, air compressor maintenance, including leak detection, often takes a backseat to other issues in the facility. But as illustrated in this article, deferring maintenance can have costly negative results.
A facility would never allow $2,500 worth of product to go missing from the facility floor; unfortunately, if a compressed air system has leaks, the facility could be losing $2,500 worth of compressed air every year. With today’s energy costs, taking the time to identify and plug leaks, in addition to scheduling ongoing maintenance, can save a facility money, energy, and resources in the short term and can prevent larger problems from developing in the long term.
Paul Humphreys is vice president of communications and branding for Atlas Copco.