Ten ways to get an air compression system to meet carbon neutral goals

Carbon neutral status has become the mantra in many businesses’ sustainability team. Air compression systems can help.

By Peter Modrow August 22, 2022
Courtesy: Sullair, LLC

 Sustainability Insights

  • Reaching sustainability goals can be made possible by taking various steps to reduce or eliminate carbon dioxide emissions. Compressed air makes up almost one-third of a manufacturing plant’s energy usage and is key to achieving carbon neutrality.
  • Auditing air compressors, utilizing energy saving tools, using automation and improving existing equipment are among the strategies companies can implement to reach carbon neutrality.

Carbon neutral status is achieved when a company’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are offset by carbon savings elsewhere in the manufacture, use or disposal of the product. Achieving carbon neutrality or achieving any higher-level climate action is no longer a secondary business issue, but necessary to ensure the protection of our planet and our existence.

Finding ways for companies to begin – or continue – to cut down or offset their carbon emissions is more than a competitive advantage. Compressed air accounts for 30% or more of a typical manufacturing plant’s energy usage. It is one of the single largest consumers of energy and considered by many to be the fourth utility.

For this reason, a compressed air system is an important area to ensure is operating as optimally and efficiently as possible. The following are 10 areas where compressed air efficiency can be improved and help a company operation edge closer to carbon neutral certification.

1. Audit your air. Start with an air audit to make sure the system is being used efficiently. An air compressor operates at its most efficient when it is running at full load. A seasoned air audit specialist can tell if the company has the right size compressor for the job as well as advise whether the type of compressor is the most efficient. Selecting the proper compressor for the job such as a variable speed drive or spiral valve technology can mean a significant difference in your utility usage (more on that later). Secondly, the air auditor can perform a leak inspection. A quarter-inch leak on a 125 PSI pipe, for example, can cost anywhere from $2,500 up to $8,000 a year in energy costs. Right-size/right-typing the compressor and remedying any leaks in the system can often recover the investment cost for a new or upgraded system in as little as six months.

2. Recycle and re-use. Tools such as an energy efficient solution tool (EES) is added to an air compressor and directs the residual hot air by-product discharged from the compressor for facility heating in the winter months. Adding duct work to heat a manufacturing facility with compressor by-product is a great way to save on utility bills. In the summer months or for operations in warmer climates, the excess heat can be sent outside to help keep the facility cool. Other tools such as an energy recovery system (ERS) takes heat load from the compression cycle and uses it to heat boilers or other process water. This technology has a roughly 85% waste heat recovery rate helping the carbon savings add up quickly.

3. Upgrade your technology. Creating only the air you need and eliminating unneeded air is the efficiency sweet spot in any air compression system. To achieve this balance, the system needs an air compressor with spiral valve or variable speed drive (VSD) technology. Both systems offer superior efficiency with variable system demand air, but an air system expert should be consulted to determine which design is better for the business. With a VSD, there is more turndown capability, which can manage larger system demand swings. A spiral valve is better choice for dirty environments where a VSD would not survive or where the system demand swings are between 45 and 100%. Many states also offer energy rebates with VSD machines, which could be a deciding factor.

4. Use control logic and load sharing. For operations using multiple air compressors (2-16 machines), load sharing is a great way to improve efficiency. With control logic, the system automatically turns the compressors off and on depending on demand. The software finds the most efficient way to provide air and knows which machines to shut down and which to keep on for maximum efficiency.

5. Automate monitoring processes. Automated system monitoring can provide a plethora of useful information on the efficiency and health of an air compressor system. Monitoring discharge temperature for example can indicate an issue. The system will send an alert when separators start to clog up or there are other areas in need of service to expedite repairs that keep the air compressor system running at peak performance.

air compressor

Maintaining a sequence checklist will keep your air compressor running at its highest efficiency. Courtesy: Sullair, LLC

6. Dryers, filters and clogs. If the company doesn’t have an automated air monitoring system, create a sequence checklist to ensure the compressor is performing at its optimal level each day. Check filters and review the differential pressure gauges to determine if there are any clogs hampering the machine’s performance. High performance equals energy savings.

7. Pick the right piping. There are several advantages of aluminum piping versus iron, steel or other ferrous material, not the least of which is better air flow. With debris settling or building up – particularly in cast iron that can rust and interact with the air – there is a risk of increased drag (coefficient of friction) and decreased inner pipe diameter, which means a loss of energy. In addition to the energy loss, having corrosion contamination in the distribution system can result in higher frequency for servicing point of use filters, or worse, getting contamination in the equipment or product. Certain piping or pipe fitting systems also may not be compatible with certain compressor lubricants. The change in air flow in the wrong piping system may be subtle, but over time, that energy loss can add up.

8. Stop “draining” your air. Companies could literally be washing efficiency down the drain if the proper system drains aren’t in place. Zero loss drains don’t allow air loss in cycling and while this is a surprising area of efficiency loss it is an easy and inexpensive fix that can make a real difference in the energy bill.

9. Get more life out of a lubricant. While it’s tempting to think all air compressor lubricants are the same, that’s not quite true. Cost does matter. Buying the right, higher quality lubricant – one designed to perform for the given air compressor, can make a substantial difference. The proper lubricant can increase service interval time while reducing the carbon footprint by not having to recycle oil as frequently.

10. Buy quality equipment. One of the best ways to be environment-forward is to buy machinery that will last a long time. While companies may save a few bucks on the front end of an air compressor purchase by buying a lower quality item, that will be offset by additional costs from repairs, lower efficiency and a short lifespan.

It also is vital to select original equipment manufacturer (OEM) components when repairing a machine. Modern air compressors are meticulously engineered with efficiency in mind, but only if the parts designed to work in that machine are used. Don’t be fooled by fake, lower cost options – they won’t last and won’t achieve the desired efficiency level.

Achieving carbon neutral status is a long, but important, road and finding savings in every nook, cranny and corner of an operation is necessary. Fortunately, there are some steps companies can take now to make sure an air compression system is running as efficiently as possible and keeping that fourth utility in check.


Author Bio: Peter Modrow is senior product manager, stationary air compressors at Sullair, LLC. Modrow joined Sullair in 2020 as a product manager in air treatment, bringing 10+ years of product development and launch experience to his role. He moved to his current position in stationary air compressors in August 2022. Modrow holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.