Federal regulation of the compressor industry…maybe

It’s an uncertain environment, to say the least, for proposed rules about compressed air efficiency.

By Wayne Perry, Kaeser Compressors

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Compressor manufacturers have been riding the regulation roller coaster, waiting for decisions to be made on proposals to regulate compressor efficiency. Proposed changes to testing procedures, possible new standards for efficiency, a change in administration, and a bevy of back-and-forth discussions have kept everyone on their toes wondering just how this would affect the compressed air industry and end users in plants across the United States. Here is an outline of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we could end up.

If you are not a regular reader of the Federal Register or a regular browser at www.regulations.gov, you may have missed the fact that several years ago, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) started a process to regulate the minimum efficiency of compressors. At about the same time, Europeans started a similar project known as Lot 31. The authority of the U.S. federal government to regulate the energy efficiency of certain products is based on the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, which was a response to the oil crisis of 1973. This act paved the way for establishing a strategic oil reserve and for the ban on crude oil exports (no longer in effect). It also led to such things as the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for motor vehicles.

The range of products with minimum energy efficiency requirements has expanded over the years at the DOE’s discretion. In 2016 the department determined that compressors should be addressed. By that time, the DOE had been working with compressor manufacturers for more than two years to try to understand the industry and the equipment as well as the energy that compressors consume in the United States. In addition to working with individual compressor manufacturers, the DOE sought comments from the compressed air industry’s trade association, the Compressed Air and Gas Institute (CAGI).

A bit of background

In the 1990s, the members of CAGI saw what had happened in the electric motor industry when motors were determined to be covered equipment, and took steps to try to avoid regulation of compressors. These steps included a standardized performance reporting form and third-party, independent performance verification testing of rotary screw compressors. These programs allowed consumers to do direct apples-to-apples comparisons of compressor efficiency and pushed manufacturers to improve their products. That is exactly what CAGI members had hoped would happen. Members also hoped the DOE would see that market forces were moving the industry to improve efficiency without the need for more government regulation. But for some it was not happening fast enough.

To that end, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DOE pushed a number of regulations through during President Barack Obama’s administration. Some of the regulations were a bit rushed. The compressor regulations were among those at the end of the administration’s term.

For those who have not worked with the regulatory process, a brief explanation might be in order. In the case of the compressor rules, the government has to first determine that compressors are covered equipment. Next, the government has to come up with a standardized test procedure for compressors to determine their efficiency. Finally, the DOE has to develop a minimum efficiency level to which it can hold manufacturers. The development of the test procedure and the efficiency standard appeared to be happening simultaneously.

While developing the test procedure, the DOE also compiled all of the available performance information on compressors in order to set minimum efficiency standards. As it turns out, the only verifiable performance information about compressors was for rotary-screw air compressors. There is nothing comparable to the CAGI performance verification program for any other compression technology (e.g., reciprocating and centrifugal machines). Given the apparent push from the administration to get the regulation finished and published, the DOE decided not to set efficiency standards for these other compressor classes. This also eliminated the need to develop several test procedures to cover each of the compression technologies.

To create a new regulation, the government must publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) in the Federal Register, hold public hearings, and have a period of time for accepting written public comment. The compressor manufacturers were initially opposed to any regulation, but as there seemed to be no way to prevent it, they worked to make the regulation as sensible as possible. They attended public hearings in Washington, D.C., and voiced industry concerns, wrote to the DOE, and even requested meetings to discuss specific areas of concern.

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