Compressed Air Gauge

Regulating the compressed air industry for improved energy efficiency

May 23, 2022
In this podcast episode, Matt Smith explores the future of the compressed air industry.

Matt Smith is Vice President of Sales and Customer Experience at FS-Curtis, and he also serves on the Compressed Air and Gas Institute’s board of directors. Matt recently spoke with Plant Services managing editor Anna Townshend about his work with CAGI, current and upcoming regulations, and what the compressed air industry can expect for the future.

PS: So, today we're talking about energy efficiency for air compressors and regulations surrounding their use in industry. I know there's a lot to talk about. To start off, why don't you tell us a little bit about the history of regulation for air compressors and what's been done thus far for industry regulations?

MS: Well, here in America, at least up until recently, the history of air compressor regulation has been mostly about self-regulation. It's different in Europe, and in some Asian countries where regulation has played a much bigger role, where there are bigger rebates available for energy-efficient compressors.

We do have energy-efficiency rebates in some areas here in North America that typically drive a lot of variable speed sales, but they are typically administered by local utilities and vary greatly in terms of what qualifies and how much rebate is available. Government-sponsored subsidies for energy efficient compressors in places like Germany and Taiwan are more widely available and typically more substantial.

But here in America, go back to the Compressed Air Challenge, which grew out of Department of Energy efforts to help end users get more objective information on how to save air or save energy in their air compressor systems, because at the time, compressor manufacturers were frequently publishing inflated claims. So, the DoE came up with this effort to get better information out there so that compressor end users could really find good ways to cut costs in their air compressor systems.

That effort, kind of dovetailed with the industry association, the Compressed Air and Gas Institute, implementing what we call the Performance Verification Program, which was a way for manufacturers to prove to end users that their air compressors performed to the levels that they were claiming. And essentially the performance verification program is a voluntary part of Compressed Air and Gas Institute participation, where if you want to be a part of the performance verification program, you have to agree to have three machines tested a year, three randomly selected machines tested a year. And then if your performance doesn't match your published marketing data, then you can get dinged. And if you get dinged, if you fail a test three times, then you can get kicked out of the program. So it's, again, self-regulation.

So we as manufacturers decided that we really wanted to step up and ensure that we were energy-efficient and the Compressed Air and Gas Institute performance verification program was a way to do that. And it's worked well for a long time. And then, under the Obama administration, the Department of Energy decided that they wanted to move into regulation of air compressors. And they used a lot of the CAGI data that we had compiled over the years with the CAGI performance verification sheets as kind of the basis for establishing the levels of energy that could be saved by making air compressors more efficient. So that in a nutshell is the history of regulation for air compressors up to now.

PS: Air compressors are such an integral part of so many manufacturing facilities. I imagine there's an immense amount of data out there to be collected and analyzed. That's important work to do for sure. So, with everything that has been done so far, where do regulations stand now for industry?

MS: Well, I mentioned earlier that the Department of Energy tried to move into regulation under the Obama administration. What happened when the Trump administration came in was they basically put a halt to all of those efforts to publish and enforce the compressor efficiency levels. But in the gap that was created there by the Department of Energy, some states, four states in particular, Vermont, California, Washington, and Colorado, went ahead and moved forward with their own regulation, which was modeled after the DoE proposal on the efficiency levels that DoE recommended in their draft proposals.

And one of those states is the most impactful when it comes to compressors, and that's California, because it’s roughly tied with Texas for the biggest compressor market. And those regulations went into effect in January. And you've got a lot of compressor manufacturers that are struggling to try to figure out the regulation and get registered and make sure that they're complying with the California efficiency standards that are in place right now. So that's kind of where it stands.

Interestingly, after a couple of lawsuits, the Trump administration was forced to publish the efficiency standards that they had in a proposal and that had gone through the whole process. They were forced to put those into the Federal Register, January 10th, 2020. And given that there's a five-year waiting period those regulations will go into effect nationwide, January 10th, 2025. And presumably, at that point, they will supplant any state regulations that may be causing confusion right now.

Listen to the entire interview

PS So, what would you say all this really means for industry? Is this a good thing?

MS: I'd say yes and no. I mentioned in the answer to the last question that some manufacturers are struggling with the California regulations. So you've got a little bit of confusion in the marketplace. But I think that's going to work out and I think by the time the federal regulations go into effect, hopefully, we'll have a template for how to roll this out and how to comply. So yes, it's good that we will have more efficient compressors. But the confusion is a little problematic. Now, I guess you could probably say that about any regulation, that you have to let it work its way through that initial period before the marketplace understands and reacts accordingly.

The other thing is, it's good to have more efficient compressors, but the compressor is only one part of the air compressor system, it's a really important part of the air compressor system. But if you don't understand how to apply compressors, you can get a really efficient compressor or a compressor that runs really efficiently at full load, but given the varying demand of an end user's plant it may be very inefficient, maintenance intensive, and unreliable at part loads. So, it's good to have the regulations push us forward, even though we were headed in that direction already, but it's really important not to give up on educating end customers on the whole system.

One important negative aspect of the DoE regulations, and the state regulations based on them is some end-customers have legitimate reasons to favor dependability over efficiency, and as a result, they buy specialty compressors that sometimes use oversized components, which reduce their efficiency. Some of our unenclosed RS units are examples of this. As long as an end-customer consciously makes the decision to buy an inefficient compressor, I believe the regulations should be written to allow this, but no such exceptions are included at this time.

PS: Yeah, that's a really good point about considering the whole system and not just the individual parts. Sounds like there's some confusion to work through and some additional work to be done yet. But where do you think industry goes from here?

MS: Well, I think we're going to have to get more energy efficient. Like I said, we were already headed in that direction. I think those of us who belong to the CAGI performance verification program, in particular, were really headed in that direction. A lot of European and Asian manufacturers who were subject to regulations in other parts of the world, were already putting in the R&D to try to get more and more energy efficient. This just speeds things up a little. And hopefully, by the time we get to 2025, we will, like I said earlier, have a clear model for how to comply and will probably already be compliant by that time because of the things that some of the states are already doing.

PS: Good. So there's some time for adjustment as industry can prepare for these changes. To wrap up for our listeners, what do you think is the most important for compressor users to understand?

MS: Well, I think the thing that is most important to understand is that the compressor is only one part of the puzzle. And even when you think about just the compressor, specifying and understanding which compressor is right to put into an application is really the most important thing. And it's impossible to go to something like the California modern appliance efficiency database where you have to register your compressors, and just look at which one has the best performance and say that's the one I want because you'll get into all kinds of problems if you take that approach.

It's much more about looking at the overall system, understanding the air demand at any particular facility, and applying the right compressor to that demand profile. The right compressor or compressors, in probably most cases, it's better to have at least two compressors in most plants. So, that's the most important thing is that you've got a system and a system that really requires expertise. So, in addition to understanding your system, you're probably only going to be able to understand it to a certain point. You really need to bring in experts, local service providers who are trained, potentially CAGI certified, CAGI recently launched a couple of programs around certification of consultants for air compressor systems.

And so, at the end of the day, it's going to be best for you as an end customer, if you hire an expert like that, who understands the whole system, and can put the right combination of compressors and air cleanup equipment together to not only save you money with the upfront purchase, but to save you money over the lifecycle of that compressed air system, both in terms of energy, in terms of maintenance, and in terms of the reliability of the system.

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