Upgrade your compressed air efficiency

Establishing a holistic, continuous energy improvement program and fortifying it with traditional and self-learning initiatives is a practical and profitable approach to performance improvement.

By Sheila Kennedy

Enhancing compressed air system performance at a component level can be fruitful, but not nearly as beneficial as taking the whole-system approach. Establishing a holistic, continuous energy improvement program and fortifying it with traditional and self-learning initiatives is a practical and profitable approach to performance improvement.

Continuous energy improvement: Industrial plants can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on the energy that powers their compressed air systems. Energy represents approximately 75% of the total cost of compressed air, according to the Industrial Efficiency Alliance (IEA).

The IEA is helping industries in the Pacific Northwest adopt more energy-efficient business practices. The organization is urging these manufacturers to implement Continuous Energy Improvement (CEI) programs for compressed air systems. On the supply side, it’s working with industrial trade allies to develop energy efficient products and services.

The IEA’s whole-system approach to continuous improvement links industrial end users with trade allies and utilities by:

  • Assigning a plant-wide compressed air system champion.
  • Engaging a qualified third party to perform a compressed air system assessment.
  • Participating in the utility’s energy management programs.

The organization also stresses the importance of identifying and managing against key performance indicators (KPIs) and educating operations, maintenance and management staff. Designating a compressed air system champion to dedicate a fraction of every workday to monitoring system operations, maintenance and safety can yield significant, coordinated cost reductions and system performance improvements. As recommended by the IEA, your champion will serve as an advocate for the proper design, use, operation and maintenance of your compressed air systems, and communicate issues and recommendations to the management team.

Implementing a CEI program will help reduce energy costs, increase equipment reliability, improve safety and product quality and increase production. Managing to these goals through KPIs for both the supply and demand sides of compressed air systems optimizes overall performance. Training that addresses the impact on KPIs as well as strategies for increasing energy productivity will promote ongoing energy improvements.

Financial impacts: To understand how much the compressed air systems at your facility are currently costing you, consult the tip sheet, “Determine the Cost of Compressed Air for Your Plant,” published by the U.S. DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).

Many of the costs and causes of inefficient compressed air systems and approaches to improving performance are summarized in “On the hunt: the top 10 targets of a compressed air audit” (May 2005, page 28).

Evaluating your operational costs in a systematic manner requires an estimate of savings from selected energy efficiency measures. To calculate payback, consider using the AIRMaster+ software from EERE. The application enables auditors to assess the supply side of compressed air systems, model existing and future system upgrades, assess the cost-effectiveness of energy efficiency measures, and evaluate energy savings. AIRMaster+ is available as a download from the EERE Web site. Training by a Qualified AIRMaster+ specialist is recommended.

Educational resources: For self-starters launching into compressed air system energy management, consider a real-time, distance training option such as the “Compressed Air Systems Online Seminar” that the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) periodically offers.

The series of four, two-hour teleconferencing sessions includes real-time interaction with an instructor and other students.

Online education is a convenient way to develop skill sets while avoiding the logistical, timing and cost issues associated with classroom learning environments. Online program formats are numerous and may range from one-hour short courses to degree or certification programs.

They are increasingly offered by educational institutions, trade groups, engineering and consulting firms, and OEM and software vendors.

The typical Webinar is a scheduled online presentation and teleconference call that concludes with an interactive question and answer period. Computer-based short-courses are an independent study option that may conclude with a multiple choice quiz. Hybrid delivery options pair videotapes, workbooks or computer-based tools for home use with “live” company-site laboratories using company equipment. Some distance learning providers offer supplementary message boards for course support, student interaction or mentoring.

Third-party support: If you prefer face-to-face learning, consider Compressed Air Challenge seminars such as the Fundamentals of Compressed Air Systems and Advanced Management of Compressed Air Systems. Numerous consulting, engineering and energy management companies provide hands-on guidance. For instance, PWI Energy assists clients in calculating their energy costs and identifying opportunities for savings.

E-mail Contributing Editor Sheila Kennedy, managing director of Additive Communications, at Sheila@addcomm.com.

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