By: Brad Taylor

Rotary or reciprocating air compressorShould you buy a reciprocating air compressor or a rotary screw air compressor? If you’re shopping for a new air compressor, you may be wondering about the differences between rotary and reciprocating compressors. But while both types of compressors create compressed air, there are important differences in how they work and the applications they are best suited for. Here is how to choose between a reciprocating and rotary compressor for your operation.

What Is the Difference Between a Reciprocating Air Compressor and a Rotary Screw Air Compressor?

Both reciprocating and rotary screw air compressors produce compressed air using “positive displacement”—that is, they squeeze air mechanically to reduce its volume. But the mechanics of how they do this is very different.

What Is a Reciprocating Air Compressor?

A reciprocating air compressor (also known as a piston-type air compressor) uses pistons driven by a crankshaft to compress the air. Pistons were first used to compress air in the mid-1600s. Today’s reciprocating air compressors are largely the same as compressors used in the late 1800s during the industrial revolution.

Reciprocating air compressor diagram

These machines are efficient, easy to maintain, and excellent performers for many general-use applications. They are best for applications that require intermittent use of small amounts of compressed air.

What Is a Rotary Screw Air Compressor?

Rotary screw air compressors (or simply rotary air compressors) have been around since the mid-1900s. They use two meshing helical screws, known as rotors, to compress the air. As the interlocking spirals turn, the air is forced through the chambers and compressed into a smaller space. With this process, the air is continuously compressed as the rotors turn.

Rotary Screw Air Processor Diagram

Because there are fewer moving parts, rotary screw air compressors are more reliable. They are preferred for applications requiring continuous operation and high airflow (CFM).

Which Is Better: Reciprocating Compressor vs. Rotary Compressor?

Choosing between a reciprocating and a rotary screw air compressor depends on how you use compressed air, how much-compressed air you need, and the environment that the compressor will be operating in. This handy chart provides an overview of the pros and cons of reciprocating vs. rotary compressors.

Pros and Cons of Reciprocating vs. Rotary Screw Air Compressors

Reciprocation Air Compressor Rotary Air Compressor
Pros • Low initial capital investment (20-50% less than rotary)
• Simple maintenance
• Can be run in sheltered outdoor or dirty indoor environments
• Better energy efficiency for low CFM, intermittent applications
• Higher CFM per HP
• Cleaner air (less oil carryover, typically 3-8 ppm)
• Better energy efficiency for high CFM, continuous applications
• Longer life (lower total cost of ownership over time)
• Cooler internal operating temperature (80-99°F)
• Quiet operation
• High reliability
Cons • Noisy (up to 100 dB)
• Hot (internal operating temperature 150-200°F)
• High oil carryover (10-50 ppm)
• Lower life expectancy
• Lower reliability and uptime
• High initial capital investment
• Requires regular skilled maintenance
• Requires clean operating environment
Best for • Intermittent use (20-30% duty cycle)
• Lower CFM
• Smaller shops and manual applications
(e.g., manual power tools, blow-off, etc.)
• Continuous use (100% duty cycle)
• Higher CFM
• High-volume and robotic manufacturing and conveyor systems
• Applications requiring very clean air (e.g., paint shops, food processing)

Choosing the Right Air Compressor for Your Application

Which type of air compressor is right for you? It really depends on your application.

When to Use a Reciprocating Air Compressor

Reciprocating or piston-type air compressors are best for applications when you are using short bursts of air intermittently. A reciprocating compressor is a great choice for homeowners and DIYers, small machine shops, construction work, and other small businesses. A reciprocating air compressor can be used to run manual air-powered tools and for blow-off and cleaning, tire inflation (and other inflatables), airbrushing, and sandblasting.

One advantage of a reciprocating air compressor is that it is not damaged by being run intermittently or below its maximum capacity. That means you can purchase a larger machine to “grow into” if you know your shop will require more air in the future. In fact, it is recommended that the reciprocating air compressors be sized at 50% higher than the required CFM to allow the compressor to cycle properly and avoid excessive heat generation and wear and tear on the motor.

Aire Tip: An air receiver tank improves energy efficiency by storing air for short, high-CFM applications such as blow-off and cleaning.

When to Use a Rotary Screw Air Compressor

Rotary air compressors are best for applications that require continuous air. These are the workhorses of the industry, used to power robotic manufacturing equipment and conveyor systems. They are designed to operate nonstop and produce a strong and consistent flow of air. Because the air produced by rotary air compressors is much cleaner than air produced by reciprocating compressors, they are the best choice for paint lines, food processing and packaging, and other applications where clean, dry air is essential.

Fixed speed rotary screw compressors are not designed for intermittent use and may experience performance issues if they are not used close to their full capacity. If your compressed air demand varies, but you want the advantages of a rotary screw machine, you may want to consider a variable speed drive (VSD) compressor. While a fixed-speed compressor is always operating at the same RPM, a VSD motor can ramp up or down depending on demand.

Aire Tip: If your compressed air demand is variable, a VSD rotary screw compressor can reduce energy costs for your compressed air system by up to 70%.

Need help choosing between a rotary vs. reciprocating compressor? Contact us for a free consultation.