Compressed Air Efficiency: Measure, Then Manage It

There’s a great Gene Kranz quote from Apollo 13”: “Let's work the problem, people. Let's not make things worse by guessing.” I am always blown away by the teamwork and innovation that went into bringing those three spacemen back in an ailing ship. I also know that this could never have been done without a great deal of data. The communication systems working on the ship were sending a constant stream of valuable information back to the controllers to help them make the correct decisions, without guessing.

Compressed air system optimization is a great deal less exciting that saving a broken spacecraft, but to keep it running correctly, and to enable quick resolution of problems, there has to be a stream of relevant data coming back to the manager of the system.

Unfortunately, most compressed air systems have little to no energy- or efficiency-related data being collected. This makes it almost impossible to correctly manage the system to keep it running at the lowest possible cost.

Things have changed since the 60s, when the manned space missions to the moon were run. In those days, the instrumentation and system computers cost millions. Today, the common electronics we have in our mobile phones or that we wear on our wrists contain much more computing power than was on board the ships. Industrial instrumentation has gone through similar changes. Once upon a time, things like flow meters cost thousands of dollars, making them unaffordable for all but the biggest systems.

Today, there is very little excuse for not monitoring your compressed air systems.  Instrumentation is affordable and easy to obtain from a multitude of suppliers. System pressure, flow, power, dew point, compressor status, efficiency, and other desired metrics can all be monitored and made available for access via a desktop computer or a mobile device.

As I write this, I am reminded of the value of monitoring. I am currently in Northern Canada assisting a large mining customer with system optimization. Years ago, this company starting measuring its pipe utilities with an eye toward better cost management. The company even started charging its various areas for their compressed air, steam and water. The immediate benefit was a 50% reduction in compressed air flow simply thanks to new awareness of the economics. This large mining complex had been faced with the looming cost of purchasing millions of dollars worth of compressed air equipment, but after the waste reduction these plans were shelved.

Recently, the managers of the areas were offered bonuses for successful waste reduction. Since then, there has been a renewed interest in the data. Area managers have been aggressively attacking the leaks and system waste within their control and are watching the data to ensure their efforts are paying off. The site so far has experienced another 20% reduction in system flows. And that’s where I come in: The data is telling the managers that there is a problem that needs outside help to solve. And I’ve come to the rescue, with a suitcase full of even more instruments.

If you are not measuring your system, you are not managing it. Don’t make your problems worse by guessing!

Learn about the value of measuring ing your energy baseline at a Compressed Air Challenge Fundamentals of Compressed Air Systems seminar. Our calendar of trainings is here.