They are used to power the operations of a wide range of businesses, from industrial plants to major tire repair centers, to mom-and-pop size automotive repair shops. But they are often placed away from a plant floor or a mechanic’s garage and frequently do not receive the full maintenance attention that they require.
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Yes, for many industrial and commercial businesses, air compressors play the role of unsung hero – often overlooked until there is a major problem.
Below, Rob Peterson, a 28-year veteran of ExxonMobil Lubricants & Specialties, provides several key maintenance tips that maintenance professionals can use to help extend the lives and maximize the performance of their company’s air compressors.
Understanding how to manage and maintain compressors and related components safely is an important first step, since it can eliminate a potential liability and improve overall workplace safety. Before working on or around compressors, be sure that the following measures are in place.
First, make sure to follow proper safety lockout, tag-out, and de-energizing procedures.
OSHA regulations require companies to have a lockout/tag-out program to help prevent injuries that can occur when working around equipment that can start-up unexpectedly or release stored energy. Compressors typically cycle on and off without warning, posing a potential hazard. In addition, compressors often have pressurized components that can pack a mighty punch if tampered with under pressure.
To ensure safety when working on compressors, the power supply should be locked out, and all related components depressurized. Each individual working on a compressor should have his, or her, own unique lock applied to an approved power supply lockout device, preventing compressor operation until all locks are removed. A tag should be attached to each lock, identifying its owner.
Safety pressure relief valves are the most important safety devices found on compressors. When properly engineered, installed, and maintained, these valves prevent compressed air from exceeding safe pressure limits.
Should safe pressure limits be exceeded, compressor components and tanks may explode resulting in possible serious injuries. Therefore, safety relief valves must be routinely inspected, tested, and replaced as necessary, to ensure compressor safety. In addition, pressurized components and receiver tanks should have visible pressure gauges, displaying system pressure at all times.
An Original Equipment Manufacturer certification plate should be affixed to all compressors and receiver tanks, stating the maximum allowable working pressure. High-pressure receiver tanks should also display a tag indicating the date of the last hydrostatic pressure test. Such testing and certification is typically done in compliance with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Boiler and Pressure Vessel code.
Loss control insurers typically require re-inspection and certification on a periodic basis. It is extremely important to ensure that system operating pressures never exceed certified pressure limits.
Something that is often overlooked but can help improve overall safety, is posting personal protective equipment requirements, such as the need for safety glasses at many points throughout a facility. As is the case in any hazardous environment, specific requirements for personal protective equipment should be clearly posted and enforced.
When dealing with compressed air systems, enforcing the use of safety glasses is highly recommended. This is because an unexpected discharge of compressed air can propel debris into the eye resulting in a lacerated cornea.
Optimizing Compressor Performance
Start by checking for air leaks. Running a compressor with air leaks is like driving a car with the emergency brake on. It not only wastes energy and reduces output capacity; it significantly shortens equipment life and increases maintenance and repair costs. For example, the air leaking from a typical one-eighth inch hole consumes about one horsepower of energy.
Make sure operating pressures are kept at the minimum requirement. This is best accomplished by identifying the maximum application pressure requirement of the system. To this, add the conveyance pressure loss, typically about five PSI required to move air from the compressor to this application. The sum of these two pressures should be the pressure setting of the receiver tank. For example, if the maximum system application pressure requirement is 75 PSI, then the receiver tank should be maintained at 80 PSI. Only minor adjustments should be necessary to fine tune this set point. Never exceed the maximum allowable working pressure stated on the certification plate.