Compressed Air 101: The Basics

Dec 18, 2023

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Compressed air, often described as the ‘fourth utility’ after electricity, water, and natural gas, plays a pivotal role in the modern industrial landscape. Used for tasks ranging from powering pneumatic tools to controlling machinery and process operations, its versatility is unmatched. However, despite its widespread use, there’s a lot to understand about the generation, distribution, and optimization of compressed air. Whether you’re a seasoned engineer or just beginning to grasp the concepts, this guide will provide a comprehensive overview of what you need to know about industrial air compressors and compressed air systems.

What Is an Air Compressor?

An air compressor is a mechanical device that increases the pressure of atmospheric air by reducing its volume. It captures ambient air, compresses it within a confined space, and then stores it in a compressed state, usually in a tank. This compressed air can then be released in a controlled manner to power a variety of tools and equipment, from simple inflation devices to complex industrial machinery. Air compressors come in various types and sizes, tailored for specific applications, and are distinguished by factors such as their pressure output, CFM capacity, and the method of compression they employ.

How an Air Compressor Works

The specifics vary depending on the compressor type, but these steps provide a broad overview of the general process of air compression.

  1. Air Intake: Ambient air is drawn into the compressor through an intake valve.
  2. Compression:The drawn-in air is confined in a closed space. Depending on the type of compressor, this could involve the action of pistons (reciprocating) or rotating screws (rotary screw) or vanes (rotary vane). This action reduces the volume of the air, causing its pressure to increase.
  3. Cooling:As air is compressed, it heats up. Most compressors have mechanisms (like intercoolers or aftercoolers) to cool the compressed air and make the process more efficient.
  4. Storage:The compressed air is then directed into a storage tank. This tank acts as a reservoir, allowing for a steady supply of compressed air to be available on demand.
  5. Delivery:When needed, the compressed air is released from the storage tank through a series of valves and pipes, ready to power various tools or equipment.

See the Diagram of Air Compressor Parts to learn more.

Applications for Compressed Air

Air compressors are integral machines that convert electric power into potential energy stored as compressed air. Industrial applications for compressed air are vast and varied. Common uses for compressed air in industry include:

  • Powering Pneumatic Tools: Compressors provide the necessary air pressure to operate tools like drills, hammers, and spray guns.
  • Machinery Operation: Many industrial machines, automation systems, and conveyor systems rely on compressed air for movement and functionality.
  • Industrial Controls: Compressed air is often used for actuating automated valves and controllers, ensuring precise control in manufacturing processes and production lines.
  • Air Blasting:Compressed air is used for cleaning surfaces, sandblasting, and bead blasting to prepare materials for painting or joining.
  • Spray Painting:In automotive and other sectors, compressors feed paint sprayers for even coatings.
  • Material Handling: Pneumatic systems can move materials in processes like product transportation and packaging.
  • Cooling & Heating:Compressed air is used in certain HVAC systems and processes.
  • Inflation: From vehicle tires to inflatable structures, compressors provide the necessary air.
  • Cleaning:High-pressure air is often used for cleaning parts and components.

Types of Air Compressors

There are several different choices when it comes to purchasing an industrial air compressor. Air compressors for industrial use come in three basic types: rotary screw compressors, rotary vane compressors, and reciprocating air compressors. Within these basic categories, there are also options for lubricated vs. oil-free air compressors and fixed-speed vs. Variable Speed Drive (VSD) compressors. The right choice depends on the application’s requirements, including air purity needs, whether air usage is continual or intermittent, and other variables.

Learn more: Reciprocating vs. Rotary Screw Air Compressors: What’s the Difference?

Rotary Screw Compressor

A rotary screw compressor utilizes two meshed rotating helical screws, known as rotors, to compress the air. As these rotors turn, the volume between them and the compressor casing decreases, compressing the air. These compressors are well-suited for continuous operation and industrial applications, offering smooth, continuous air output with high efficiency. These industrial air compressors are widely used in manufacturing operations requiring continuous air supply and high air volumes for pressures in the 90-120 PSI range.

Rotary Vane Compressor

The rotary vane compressor operates with a slotted rotor equipped with several blade-like vanes. As the rotor spins inside a cylindrical housing, the vanes slide in and out of the slots, trapping and compressing air between the rotor and housing. Known for their compactness, reliability, and quiet operation, rotary vane compressors are often used in tasks requiring a continuous supply of compressed air, such as pneumatic tools, paint spray booths, and air-powered machinery. Like rotary screw air compressors, rotary vane compressors typically operate in the 90-120 PSI range.

Reciprocating Compressor

Also known as a piston compressor, the reciprocating compressor uses a piston that moves back and forth within a cylinder. When the piston draws back, it creates a vacuum that draws in air. As it moves forward, the air is compressed against the cylinder head. Reciprocating compressors are used in a wide range of applications, from small workshops to large industrial sites. They are best used for applications that require intermittent, rather than continuous, airflow. Multi-stage, high-pressure reciprocating compressors are often used for applications requiring pressures above the 100-120 PSI needed for most pneumatic tools and industrial equipment, with some reaching pressures of 3,000-6,000 PSI or even higher.

Oil-Injected vs. Oil-Free Air Compressor

Rotary screw, rotary vane, and reciprocating air compressors come in lubricated and oil-free varieties. Choosing between the two boils down to the specific requirements of the application and the quality of air needed.

Read more:Lubricated vs. Oil-Free Air Compressors

  • Oil-injected air compressors use oil within the compression chamber to lubricate, seal, and cool the moving parts (e.g., screws or pistons). These compressors are more common for standard industrial applications. Oiled compressors have a longer lifespan and more efficient performance compared to oil-free compressors. The use of oil in the compression chamber does lead to higher oil carryover in the compressed air stream. However, proper inline filtration can remove enough trace oil for all but the most sensitive applications.
  • Oil-free compressorsdo not introduce any lubricants in the compression chamber, providing cleaner air output. In these oil-free designs, self-lubricating materials or other mechanisms are used to reduce friction and wear without the need for oil in the compression chamber. Oil-free compressors typically require more maintenance and have a shorter lifespan than lubricated compressors. They are generally used for industries such as pharmaceuticals or food processing where air purity is critical.

Fixed Speed vs. VSD Air Compressors

Air compressors (particularly rotary screw air compressors) may have either fixed-speed or variable-speed motors. The choice between the two hinges on usage patterns and the need for operational flexibility.

Read more: Why Choose or Upgrade to a Variable Speed Drive Air Compressor?

  • Fixed-speed compressorsoperate at a constant speed, delivering a steady output of compressed air regardless of the demand. When the demand decreases, they typically unload and continue running without compressing air, or they may cycle on and off. Fixed-speed compressors are best for applications where the air demand does not vary by much. They are not energy efficient when they are used at less than their full capacity.
  • Variable Speed Drive (VSD) compressors automatically adjust their motor speed based on the real-time air demand. This allows VSD compressors to operate more efficiently, especially in fluctuating demand scenarios, saving energy and reducing wear. While fixed-speed models might cost less up front, VSD compressors often offer long-term savings due to their adaptive nature and energy efficiency.

Elements of the Compressed Air System

In an industrial compressed air system, the air compressor is the primary component of a larger system, which also includes air treatment and distribution. A well-designed compressed air system consists of several elements, each fulfilling specific roles. This system ensures that the air delivered is clean, dry, and at the correct pressure for the task at hand. Understanding these elements and their roles can lead to better system design, longer equipment life, and significant energy savings.

Air Dryers

The compressed air dryer removes excess water from air so that the air supply does not contain moisture that may be damaging to tools, equipment or processes. As air is compressed, its capacity to hold moisture diminishes, leading to condensation within the system. This moisture can be harmful, causing rust, bacteria growth, and equipment damage. Air dryers act to remove this moisture, ensuring that the air delivered downstream is dry. Depending on the application and required dew point, there are various types of air dryers available, such as refrigerated dryers and desiccant dryers

Learn more: Do I Need a Refrigerated or Desiccant Air Dryer?


In a compressed air system, the act of compressing air generates significant heat. A cooling system is used to dissipate this heat and maintain the compressor at a safe operating temperature. Proper cooling ensures the compressor's longevity, maintains the quality of the compressed air, and increases overall system efficiency. The coolers also remove a substantial percentage of the moisture in compressed air, reducing stress on the air dryers. Typically, compressors use either air-cooling or water-cooling systems. Air-cooled compressors rely on ambient air drawn over the compressor via fans to dissipate heat. In contrast, water-cooled compressors use water circulating through a heat exchanger to remove the excess heat.

Oil/Water Separator

In oil-injected compressed air systems, safe handling of oil contaminants in the water removed is necessary. Oil/water separators tackle this by separating residual lubricating oils from condensate. This separation is essential, as direct discharge of this mixture can violate environmental regulations. Using the difference in densities between oil and water, the separator allows oil to float for collection, while purified water is discharged. Integrating an efficient oil/water separator ensures environmental compliance and the responsible handling of compressor oils within the system.

Drainage System

The process of compressing air invariably leads to the accumulation of moisture, especially if air dryers aren’t 100% effective. A drainage system, which may use automatic or manual condensate drains, ensures that this accumulated moisture and condensate are effectively removed from the system, preventing potential damage and maintaining air quality.

Learn more: How to Drain Your Compressed Air System

Compressed Air Filtration

Clean air is essential in many industrial processes. Compressed air filtration removes contaminants like dust, oil, and water from the air. Different filters target various impurities, ranging from large particulates to microscopic oil mists. A well-designed filtration system not only extends the lifespan of equipment but also ensures product quality, especially in industries like food processing or pharmaceuticals, where contamination could have dire consequences.

Learn more: Complete Guide to Inline Filtration for Compressed Air.

Air Storage

Storage tanks (air receiver tanks) play a crucial role in maintaining steady pressure and ensuring a buffer of compressed air during peak demand periods. They also assist in moisture separation, as air cools when it enters the storage tank. Properly sized and strategically placed storage can significantly improve system efficiency and responsiveness. Some reciprocating or piston-style air compressors come with a built-in storage tank. Storage tanks are usually separate for rotary screw or rotary vane compressors. Large industrial operations may benefit from a mix of wet storage (before the air dryers) and dry storage (after the air dryers).

Learn more: Air Receiver Tanks Full Guidelines

Distribution System

Once air is compressed, dried, and filtered, it’s channeled through a distribution system to its end-use applications. This system consists of compressed air piping, valves, and fittings, such as drops and quick-couplers that connect tools and equipment to the distribution pipes. A well-planned distribution system is designed to minimize pressure drops and ensure efficient delivery of air at the correct PSI to all end applications. Undersized or improperly laid out piping can lead to inefficiencies, excess pressure drop, higher energy costs, and inadequate air supply to tools or machinery.

Learn more: 10 Expert Types for an Efficiently Laid Out Distribution System

Control and Monitoring

Modern compressed air systems come equipped with advanced controls and monitoring systems. These systems optimize compressor performance, ensuring they operate efficiently and turn off during low demand. Additionally, monitoring tools can alert operators to potential issues, leaks, or maintenance needs, ensuring the system runs smoothly and sustainably.

Air Compressor Sizing: HP, CFM and PSI

When selecting an air compressor, it’s vital to choose one appropriately sized for its intended application. Three primary metrics guide this process: HP (Horsepower), PSI (Pounds per Square Inch), and CFM (Cubic Feet per Minute). Understanding these metrics and their relationships to one another will help you select the right size air compressor for your application.

  • HP (Horsepower): Represents the power output of the compressor motor. A higher HP generally means more air can be compressed in a given time.
  • PSI (Pounds per Square Inch): This is a measure of the pressure produced by the compressor. Different tools and applications require varying pressures, so it’s vital to ensure the compressor can achieve the necessary PSI.
  • CFM (Cubic Feet per Minute): Indicates the volume of air the compressor can produce per minute at a specific pressure. It’s arguably the most crucial metric because it determines if a compressor can keep up with the demand of the tools or processes.

An air compressor is rated for a maximum airflow (CFM) at a certain pressure (PSI). The CFM rating for an air compressor is directly related to its horsepower; a higher HP motor will yield higher CFM, holding pressure constant. However, PSI and CFM have an inverse relationship. As PSI increases, CFM decreases, and vice-versa, given the compressor’s constant output power. For example, a compressor rated for 100 CFM at 100 PSI will deliver less CFM if the pressure is set to 120 and more CFM if the pressure is set to 90.

Sizing the Air Compressor for Your Application

Correct air compressor sizing is essential for the efficient operation of the compressed air system. If the compressor is too small, it will not be able to provide enough airflow at the required PSI to run all tools and equipment. If the compressor is larger than needed, it will drive up energy use and costs (though a VSD motor can help to calibrate compressor output to actual air use). Here are the basic steps for sizing an air compressor.

  1. List All Tools/Processes: Enumerate all pneumatic tools or processes you’ll run simultaneously.
  2. Determine CFM & PSI Needs: For each tool or process, note the CFM and PSI requirements. Usually, these values are specified by the manufacturer.
  3. Total CFM: Sum the CFM values of all tools/processes that will be operating simultaneously. This gives you the total CFM requirement (or peak CFM demand). Our CFM calculator can help.
  4. Max PSI: Identify the tool or process with the highest PSI requirement. This will be your system’s minimum necessary PSI. Be sure to factor in pressure drop across the distribution system (usually 2-3 PSI in an efficiently designed system). Note: there is no benefit to setting plant pressure too high
  5. Add a Buffer: It’s wise to choose a compressor with slightly more CFM and PSI than the calculated values to ensure efficient operation and account for potential future needs.
  6. Factor in Duty Cycle: Ensure the compressor’s duty cycle (how long it can run within an hour without overheating) matches or exceeds your intended usage. Applications that require continuous airflow will need a compressor with a 100% duty cycle (built for continuous operation), while applications with intermittent air use can be served by a compressor with a shorter duty cycle.

Learn more:What Size Air Compressor Do You Need?

Air Compressor Maintenance

Air compressor maintenance is the linchpin of a long-lasting and efficient air compressor system. Regular and proactive upkeep not only prolongs the lifespan of the compressor but also ensures optimal performance, reduces the risk of unplanned downtime, and maximizes energy efficiency. As with many industrial tools, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to compressed air systems.

Essential Air Compressor Maintenance Steps

Typical air compressor preventative maintenance activities include:

  • Regular Inspections: Check for signs of wear, leaks, or any abnormalities in operation.
  • Change Air Filters: Dirty filters reduce efficiency and can allow contaminants into the system. Replace or clean them regularly.
  • Drain Moisture: Regularly drain the moisture from tanks and filters, especially in humid environments.
  • Lubrication: Ensure moving parts are adequately lubricated to prevent wear and tear. This is especially crucial for oil-lubricated compressors. Do not extend oil changes beyond manufacturer recommendations.
  • Belt Tensioning: If your compressor uses belts, check and adjust their tension regularly.
  • Clean Intake Vents: Ensure that intake vents are clean to allow for efficient operation and to minimize contaminants.
  • Monitor System Pressure: Regularly check and adjust the system pressure to ensure it’s within optimal and safe ranges.
  • Replace Worn Parts: Components like seals, gaskets, and valves wear out over time. Regularly inspect and replace them as needed.
  • Keep a Maintenance Log: Document all maintenance activities, noting dates, replacements, and any issues observed. This aids in predicting future needs and troubleshooting.

Be sure to follow all manufacturer recommendations for your make and model of industrial air compressor to extend the life of your compressor. Service intervals will depend on your compressor type, model and usage patterns.

Find the Best Industrial Air Compressor for Your Application

Fluid-Aire Dynamics is your source for compressed air system design, installation, service, maintenance and repair. We can help you select the best industrial air compressor for your processes and environment.

Ready to optimize your compressed air system? Talk to us about our free compressed air system assessment. We can help you right-size your air compressor and optimize your system for energy efficiency, reliability, air quality and performance.

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