5 tips for tackling compressed air optimization

Here's how to set yourself up for success with a compressed air optimization project.

By Neil Mehltretter, Kaeser Compressors

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Chances are, your compressed air system is the lifeblood of your production line. And although compressed air is vital to production, compressed air optimization projects tend to be myopic, failing to take into account how each piece contributes to plant processes.

A successful optimization project, by contrast, will allow time for analysis of the current state of the entire system. It will rely on a holistic approach to help personnel understand how individual components work together and impact overall efficiency. It will take into account leakage, maintenance, pressure control and energy use and will result in creating a customized plan to move forward. In short, it will depend on looking before you leap.

A successful compressed air optimization project requires some careful planning and strategy. Here are five tips for approaching one.

Tip 1: Conduct a system assessment

Before you start on the path of optimization, you need a reliable road map to guide your actions. Beginning with a thorough system assessment will help prevent missteps later on. A system assessment (also sometimes referred to as a compressed air audit) will establish your plant's demand profile. A demand profile can help you understand how much compressed air you are using, how much extra capacity you have, and also how plant demand changes over different shifts and days of the week.

Many optimization projects begin with the assumption that more capacity is needed. This is sometimes true, but it’s quite often the case that purchasing additional equipment would be wasteful. However, this is something that can be confirmed only by taking careful measurements over a period of time and then analyzing the data. Here’s one example (Figure 1):

This chart shows an actual demand profile from a manufacturing plant. The plant wanted to purchase additional compressors to address downtime and pressure fluctuation problems. It conducted an assessment to help determine the size and number of compressors needed. The actual findings, however, revealed that the plant wasusing only half of its available capacity and that leaks accounted for 45% of plant demand. In this case, the plant saved a considerable amount of money on energy, maintenance, and capital costs by addressing system issues instead of buying more compressors.

As illustrated in this chart, an assessment can also identify nonproductive loads, such as leaks. Although it will not show the amount and location of each individual leak (this is something that can only be done with a leak detection audit), it can give an overview of the amount of air you are wasting to leaks. If you know that your plant has a high leak load, you may want to conduct a leak detection audit to identify the leaks and fix them prior to conducting the compressed air assessment, as this will give you a much more accurate demand profile. Further, fixing leaks provides immediate savings – something that can go a long way inpersuading upper management to proceed with additional energy-efficiency initiatives. A single quarter-inch leak for a system running at 110 psig, 8,760 hours a year, and $0.10/kWh costs $17,818 annually. And that’s just one leak. Think of how many you probably have in your system – the savings potential is huge.

Tip 2: Get buy-in

Having the best plan of action for your energy-efficiency improvements means absolutely nothing if you don't have the support from key decision-makers to implement the changes. Unless you control all of the resources necessary to source, select, purchase, and install new equipmentor make changes to existing equipment, you need to begin your optimization project by getting buy-in from those who do. Getting buy-in from the start will pave your optimization project with more than just good intentions.

This is how many projects get derailed before they begin. Plants may conduct an assessment or have a consultant make recommendations for improvements, but when it comes time to put those recommendations into practice, they never follow through. The report is emailed for review, lost in the black hole of inboxes, and ultimately forgotten (or ignored). If, however, you begin by getting everyone on board with the optimization project and you work together to set specific, realistic goals, your project will have a much better chance of success.

The compressed air assessment will provide you with cold, hard truths about your system and will explain the system in terms upper management understands: cold, hard cash. The assessment will provide energy saving recommendations and different options for obtaining different levels of savings. Use the language of dollar signs to communicate with management, and don’t forget to include cost savings for maintenance and downtime.

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