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.