Energy Management

Understand the PRICE of nitrogen

Generating your own may be the best way to go
By Brett Maiorano November 8, 2019
With on-site nitrogen generation, consumers can get nitrogen at the purity level needed, often at a cost savings when compared to the cost of highly pure tanked nitrogen. Courtesy: Atlas Copco

If a business is a regular consumer of nitrogen, it’s likely aware (and perhaps even painfully aware) of what a hassle nitrogen-tank rental and delivery can present. Bulky nitrogen cylinders take up a lot of floor space in a facility. Given their weight, and that the vessels contain gas under high pressure, they amount to an ever-present safety risk.

Further, the rental and delivery service can be expensive. Tank replacement regularly leads to downtime and added labor costs. Opting out of the gas company’s strict contracts can be a challenge. The list goes on.

If any of the issues mentioned above sound familiar, don’t feel alone. As many business owners, managers and workers in similar situations have already discovered, it may be time to consider on-site nitrogen generation.

The good news about generating on-site nitrogen is that if an air compressor is available, that’s half the battle. From that point all that’s needed to generate nitrogen in-house is a connected nitrogen generator unit. Two main types of on-site nitrogen generators are available: PSA (pressure swing adsorption) and membrane.

Before getting into the details, let’s focus on the benefits of on-site nitrogen generation in general.

When the time comes to ditch the gas contract (and all the hassles that come with it), take a close look at the current nitrogen situation — and consider the many “PRICE-related” benefits that on-site generation delivers.

Purity control

Tanked nitrogen is 99.99% pure, which is great — when it’s needed. Nitrogen is delivered at that ultra-high purity level because the gas company produces a single variety for all its customers, regardless of what purity level each individual customer needs. But for approximately 75% of the consumers buying tanked nitrogen, this high level of purity isn’t required for their applications. One reason for the high cost of 99.99% pure bottled nitrogen is that a very large system is required to produce this level of purity, so the output gas tends to follow a one-purity-fits-all formula.

With on-site nitrogen generation, consumers can get nitrogen at the purity level needed, often at a significant cost savings when compared to the cost of the highly pure tanked nitrogen. In fact, the tank needed to produce nitrogen at a 99.99% purity level is roughly 10 times as large as the tank needed to produce nitrogen at a 95% purity level.

The bottom line is that If the application’s oxygen tolerance is high, paying a premium for nitrogen that is nearly 100% pure isn’t necessary. A lower purity level will do. Applications for which lower-purity nitrogen might be perfect include tire filling, fire suppression, some food packaging, laser cutting, electronic soldering, plastic extrusion and others. In fact, most applications don’t require 99.99% pure nitrogen.

With on-site nitrogen generation, consumers can get nitrogen at the purity level needed, often at a cost savings when compared to the cost of highly pure tanked nitrogen. Courtesy: Atlas Copco

With on-site nitrogen generation, consumers can get nitrogen at the purity level needed, often at a cost savings when compared to the cost of highly pure tanked nitrogen. Courtesy: Atlas Copco

However, let’s be clear — even with a 99.99% purity level, on-site nitrogen still offers a clear payback and a return on investment that makes perfect sense for the business plan. Of course, the lower the required nitrogen quality, the bigger the payback — but there is a significant payback regardless of the purity level needed.

Reduced efforts

When a business implements on-site nitrogen generation, the reductions it can realize include:

  • Reduced downtime: Because a nitrogen generator is constantly available and its tank is always being refilled, there’s no need to switch out cylinders, resulting in downtime reductions.
  • Reduced labor: On the same note, because the need to switch out tanks regularly is eliminated, the labor costs involved in doing so are also eliminated.
  • Reduced injuries: Since there is no longer a need to switch out and move the heavy nitrogen cylinders, the risk of injuries is greatly reduced.
  • Reduced need for storage space: With just a single tank on-site that is constantly being refilled, there’s no longer any need to store extra tanks in the facility, freeing up space for other purposes.
  • Reduced waste: Because on-site generation can produce nitrogen at exactly the needed pressure and flow rate, no gas is bled off in efforts to get the gas to these required levels. Also, with cylinder-rental services, the tanks are often returned with some gas left in them — which can add up to large amounts of wastage over time, especially for businesses that utilize nitrogen in high quantities. Further, when a tank is not being used for long stretches of time, the pressure builds — creating a need for the relief valve to bleed off nitrogen gas, wasting a costly (and already paid-for) resource in the process.

Increased safety

Typical nitrogen-delivery services use cylinders that weigh over 100 pounds and that are filled with gas under high pressure — so it’s not hard to imagine why safety directors can’t help but see a recipe for a highly dangerous projectile, especially should a valve be broken off. Further, when nitrogen is delivered in liquid form, a high risk for burns can exist. When nitrogen gas is produced on-site, the risks of both burns and projectiles is greatly decreased.

Cost savings On-site nitrogen generation can produce cost savings in several ways. The most obvious example is that generating nitrogen allows business owners to eliminate rental fees on cylinders. These can add up, as most shops generally have three rented cylinders in-house — one in use, another an empty tank awaiting pickup, and a third one full and waiting to be rotated into use. With on-site generation, of course, just one owned cylinder is needed on-site, and it’s constantly being refilled.

Next, when cylinders are rented, there will inevitably be cases when the tanks are returned with unused nitrogen remaining inside — representing waste losses in gas that was paid for but never used. Another consideration, as mentioned above, is that cost savings can be realized when nitrogen of lower purity levels is used for applications with higher levels of oxygen tolerance. More opportunities for cost savings include avoiding any combination of the following: the uncontrollable price increases that can come with purchased gas, avoiding costly contract negotiations, eliminating or reducing hazardous material fees, avoiding delivery surcharges, and reducing the amounts of local and state taxes paid.

Efficiency/environment

A green/eco-friendly practice that also helps the bottom-line, on-site nitrogen generation represents a win for both the environment and the company bank account. The practice creates efficiencies and environmental benefits by effectively eliminating both the production and delivery phases needed for each delivered cylinder, as it eliminates the need to burn energy in converting nitrogen gas to liquid, and it reduces the carbon dioxide emissions generated by delivery vehicles. In addition, by avoiding the return of partially filled tanks, as well as any necessary gas bleed-off/venting before tank return, on-site nitrogen generation reduces waste right at the facility.

If you’re still having nitrogen cylinders delivered to your business — and especially if you’re a heavy nitrogen consumer who sees regular tank drop-offs/pickups at your facility — it may be time to consider all the PRICE-related benefits that on-site nitrogen generation can bring. For many business, the ROI reaped from on-site generation can cover the initial equipment investment very quickly, all while introducing a range of benefits and conveniences.

Escape the gas contract by generating nitrogen on-site — while both saving money and reducing downtimes related to waiting for cylinder/dewar tank delivery. Reliable gas generators that can efficiently and effectively meet nitrogen and oxygen on-site-production needs.


Brett Maiorano
Author Bio: Brett Maiorano is business development manager - industrial gases, Atlas Copco Compressors.