That’s Classified

Cost effective options for compressed air in classified areas

By: Michael Camber

A few posts back, we wrote about removing compressors from a bad environment for their health (away from excess heat, dust, etc.). This time we’ll talk about moving them for the safety of people. Specifically, we are talking about hazardous areas where the presence of flammable gases or liquids, combustible dusts or easily ignited fibers exist in sufficient concentrations to cause a fire or explosion, given a source of ignition (such as electricity running through a compressor).   

Obviously, this might apply to parts of (or entire) chemical, oil or gas processing plants.  But it could also apply in other industries we don’t think of as handling hazardous materials. Fine powders or fibers from grains, wood, etc. can create fire hazards. We’re not trying to raise the fear factor. This is not a common concern, and if it does apply in your plant, you are probably are already well aware.  

In the oil & gas and petrochemical markets, there are suppliers who specialize in engineering and modifying air compressor systems and other motor-driven equipment to be “explosion proof.” This gets very expensive, very fast. It also takes time for these systems to be designed, built, installed, and certified to operate. This is specialized work and these suppliers (rightfully) charge a premium for it.

A natural gas processing plant

In the case of a compressed air system, however, there may be an easy cost-saving alternative: Move it. Move it to another part of the plant that is not in the “classified area” and pipe the compressed air in. Usually, the air is not the source of risk. It’s the motor, starter and electrics. Sometimes it just takes a little out-of- the-box thinking to find another spot for the compressed air source. But sometimes there simply isn’t a safe place or enough space for the compressors somewhere else in the plant. In these cases, compressor system enclosures set outside at a safe distance are viable options. 

Compressed air production was moved a few hundred yards away

This solution presents the increased costs of packaging the air system up and of piping the air longer distances. But they may compare favorably to the engineered explosion-proof system. Further, they usually offer faster design, build, install, and commissioning. Not to mention lower maintenance costs by using standard compressed air equipment and less downtime when service is due (think about procedures to get outside personnel into restricted areas).

Weather-proof enclosure with complete compressed air system pre-installed.

Visit our website and download the white paper: Hazardous Area Classification Considerations for more on this subject and check out this ThingLink to see what one of these enclosures looks like on the inside.

Compressor Purchasing Criteria for Energy Efficiency

By: Michael Camber

During the purchasing decision process, it is common for prospects to compare compressors with some sort of utility criteria. In other words, how much air will they get for their money. Below, we address some common approaches we encounter:  

Compressor cost per horsepower 

This is a quick comparison that can be done using basic product literature, but it is a very superficial metric for comparing compressors. Since the requirements of air tools and equipment are not rated in compressor horsepower, and since the flows among compressors of the same nominal hp can vary by 20% or more, this doesn’t tell you how much air (cfm) you are getting or whether a compressor will meet your air demands (assuming you know them). Our experience with hundreds of thousands of systems has shown that without knowing your actual system needs, you are more likely to oversize your system, which leads to higher power and maintenance costs and reduced longevity (see our blog post on oversizing).    

Compressor cost per cfm

This can also be done with literature and is a step forward for basic comparison, and if you know your actual flow demands it will help avoid sizing mistakes. Like the first method, its shortfall is that it only considers initial cost. It does not reflect energy efficiency, so it is not a predictor of the largest component of compressed air life cycle costs:  electricity usage.

Compressor cost and specific power (kW/100 cfm)

Specific power is the true measure of a compressor’s efficiency, so combining this with unit cost is a better indicator of compressor value. Keep in mind, however, that specific power is based on a fixed set of conditions and assumes the compressor is running at maximum capacity, which they rarely do.  Nonetheless, when choosing machines it is very useful to compare the specific power (AKA “specific performance) of the compressors. Most major manufacturers provide this information in CAGI data sheets on their websites or by request (see our blog post on how to read them).  

System specific power

Because most compressors run partly loaded for a variety of reasons (demand fluctuation, oversizing, changes in production), the best metric for energy efficiency (and therefore compressor selection) is system specific power. This metric reflects the ability of the total system to maintain efficiency throughout the full range of production demand and is a far better metric for operational efficiency. This is not easy to assess for new plants (unless there is a similar sister plant in operation), but it is easily done for upgrades on existing systems with tools like ADA/KESS that data log  parameters including compressor run time, system pressure, power consumption and flow, and then select the best mix of machines to meet the need. We strongly recommend assessing system performance anytime you are adding or replacing compressors — even if you plan to simply replace a compressor with another of same size. This is an ideal time to baseline the system and identify inefficiencies in pressure drop, storage, sizing, and controls.

Because compressed air demand changes as plants increase or reduce production levels or upgrade pneumatic equipment, it can be a challenge to maintain optimal system performance. The best approach in multi-compressor systems is a combination of proper sizing of compressors and the use of adaptive smart controls. These learn system dynamics and switch compressors on/off in the most efficient manner while maintaining desired system pressure, balancing load hours and minimizing idle time.

IoT anyone?

By: Michael Camber

Kaeser and most other compressor makers are now equipping their machines with Ethernet and other communications ports to facilitate tying in to plant monitoring and control schemes with the Internet of Things. 

We (and others) offer solutions that optimize multiple unit systems to reduce operating costs, constantly monitor equipment condition, and maintain the required air quality. Despite the advanced communication and reporting capabilities, we find manufacturers primarily use the basic capabilities of pressure stability and compressor sequencing.  We are surprised that so few take advantage of the more advanced features like:

  • remote PM reminders and troubleshooting
  • condition monitoring and data collection
  • energy and energy cost reporting
  • allocation of energy costs to specific products, production schedules or shifts
  • asset management and maintenance planning

What are your thoughts on this?

If you are doing any of these or similar things, we’d like to learn about it and how it may have helped your asset management, decision making, or plant efficiency.  Our goal is to share best practices with other readers. 

Comment below with your thoughts and let us know what your experience has been. You can also use our contact form.

Air Compressor Considerations for Breweries

With nearly 7,000 existing craft breweries in the US and another 3,000-plus in planning (according to the Brewers Association), the craft beer industry is a fast-growing market. As with other food and beverage industries, compressed air is often vital to production. From smaller craft breweries to large international companies with multiple facilities, each system needs compressed air. The questions are how much and how do their needs differ?

Read the complete article in Brewer Magazine.

Keep that trusty recip going

By: Michael Camber, Jeff Owen (Sales Manager for Kaeser USA’s Atlanta branch), and Frank Remsik (System Specialist)

We are in the business of selling rotary screw compressors, and we sell quite a few to users that have outgrown their two-stage reciprocating/piston compressors in the 5 to 20 hp range. Sometimes demand or duty cycle has increased beyond the practical range of their piston compressors. Or they need higher air quality. Sometimes noise and vibration are the issue. But there are many cases where a reciprocating compressor is still a very good, economical fit for the shop, but service issues lead them to think they need a different solution.

Heat is often the enemy

Most small shop recips are not designed to handle 100% duty cycle. In other words, they cannot run flat out for long lengths of time without sustaining heat-related wear or damage. Generally, these small two-stage units operate at relatively high temperatures (275-350°F), so they need to stop and cool down periodically. (This is why they are typically set at 145-175 psig, even though most tools only need 90 psig.) Duty cycles vary — we’ve seen 50% to 80% –depending on the design and quality of construction.

There are a number of heat-related problems, but first let’s talk about what can cause them.

First, the compressor’s environment plays a critical role in its reliability. If the room is too hot, or doesn’t get enough ventilation it will run hotter than designed. To reduce noise, many recips are installed in out of the way locations (e.g. utility closets). Ventilation is often poor, creating more heat and higher discharge temperature.

Second, excessive run time can result in heat-related problems. There are several reasons for excessive run time, and a system can suffer from any or all of them:

  • The compressor is undersized for the productive demand.
  • More users or larger tools have been added to the demand.
  • Leaks have developed (leaks in fittings, hoses and tools are just another type of air user—even if completely unproductive).
  • Lack of storage in the tank due to water. The air leaving the compressor pump is hot and contains moisture in vapor state. In the tank, the air cools and moisture condenses into liquid. Condensate can build up quickly, especially in warmer, humid climates (gallons per day). If the tank is not routinely drained, it will fill with water leaving less room for air. Less air storage => more run time => more heat =>more problems.

Potential heat-related issues

Below are some of the mechanical issues caused by overheating. Generally, these can be repaired economically.

Warped cylinders

Piston rings no longer seal properly against cylinder walls, thus losing compression. When this happens the pump may have to run longer (and even hotter) to meet demand. Lubricating oil breaks down faster and gets past the rings more easily, requiring more make-up oil to prevent further mechanical issues (and degrading air quality).

Failed intake / exhaust valves

Oil carry-over builds up and may prevent valves from properly seating, creating blow-by through valves. This can cause the intercooler safety relief to release, and also cause the voltage supply breaker / fuses to trip due to stalling out the pump. Over time this can burn out the drive motor.

failed check valves

Recips tanks have check valves to make sure they don’t start under load. Over time the elevated temperatures along with oil carry-over can distort the nylon piston in the valve, so the piston can’t seal properly. When this happens, back-pressure from the tank will create head pressure on the pump. When the compressor tries to start, the extra amps drawn by the motor can trip breakers and burn the motors out. If you have issues with belts breaking prematurely, it could be from a failed check valve on the tank. If the compressor pump is trying to start against head pressure, the crankshaft may not move even though the motor is. Motor goes, pump won’t -> belts slip/wear/break.

Motor burn out

Motors generate heat in normal operation but will cool themselves adequately unless they are in too hot an environment or are energized and try to turn something that doesn’t want to be turned, such as a pump with head pressure (see above) or one that is not properly lubricated. Over time, the insulation on motor windings will degrade and the motor will need to be rewound or replaced.

Vibration

By design, reciprocating compressors vibrate. Vibration affect many things. Vibration can loosen piping connections, as well as any threaded nut or bolt. It can loosen up electrical connections and create electrical drop-out, sparking, tripping out breakers and blowing fuses. Pressure switches can also fail due to excessive vibration. Vibration can create cracks in welds and joints at the tank feet, platform and saddles. Excessive vibration also increases noise levels, loosens safety guards, and can even break up a concrete floor.

Replace missing or cracked vibration pads. While you are at it, if the discharge piping from the tank is hard pipe, swap it out for flexible steel braided hose. Same goes for electrical supply from the wall disconnect to the starters. Make sure the belt guard is secure. A missing or loose belt guard is not just a safety issue but is an OSHA violation.

Fence posts, pallets, etc. are not effective vibration isolators.

Noise

Noise can often be abated with well-placed, insulated stud walls. The key is not to restrict airflow. If you are contemplating constructing a separate room to isolate a hot, noisy compressor, it is worth doing the math to see if a rotary compressor makes sense. The quieter rotary unit may cost less that permitted construction and almost certainly take less time to install. This assumes you have a good place with good ventilation and access, and that the unit will be run enough to gain some of the energy advantage.

A note about tanks

As explained above, storage is vital to the longevity of the compressor. It’s also important for meeting demand and system performance. Tanks don’t need much maintenance but you want to keep them dry. Not just for the storage, but to minimize rust. Over time, rust will build up in the tank and plug up the drain port. This makes the case for a quality automatic condensate drain that won’t get gunked up by the oil-water-rust mixture.

It’s not common and may take years, but tanks can rust through. Not a good thing.

An ounce of prevention

The piston style compressor is simple and requires relatively little service, but it cannot be ignored. Here are some tips, whether you are installing new or want to keep ol’ faithful going:

  1. Ventilate the compressor room to maintain positive air flow. If the compressor is in a confined space, install louvers and thermostatically controlled fans as needed.
  2. Routinely drain the tank. Better yet, install an automatic drain (with test function)
  3. Check oil levels routinely. Add make up oil as needed and perform oil changes on schedule with an oil recommended by the manufacturer. Avoid automotive motor oils, which contain a lot of detergents that leave deposits.
  4. Replace the air inlet filter routinely. You may be able to vacuum it out to extend the replacement interval. Plugged air filters restrict the performance of the compressor and increase operating temperature.
  5. Find and fix leaks on the compressor and in the system all the way to the fittings, hoses and tools at point of use. Listen for leaks and hissing sounds while the unit is off. On the compressor, check the intercooler and its SRV, pressure switch, and the liquid drain on the tank (which some people leave cracked open to avoid liquid build up).
  6. The belt life on most recips can be very long if you take care of them, but excess heat will reduce belt life. Look for wear and cracks that might cause them to come apart. Damaged belts can create more vibration.
  7. Check duty cycle. If the unit is running more than it used to, you could be using more air or there could be water build-up in the tank and you have less storage. Another possibility is ring wear. A pump up test will tell you if the machine is still making air to specification and point you toward the cause.

For more information on piston vs rotary screw compressors check out our infographic or read our blog post on the subject.