Study shows lack of compressed-air-system training

Jan. 13, 2011
Compressed training: U.S. Department of Energy study reveals shortfall in understanding air-compressor efficiency benefits.

It’s human nature to be tempted to bury our heads in the sand and wish our problems would go away by themselves. Some smokers, choc-o-holics and even some compressed air system operators choose to go by the old axiom “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” They’re attempting to negate the consequences of their actions by avoiding the facts entirely and staying uninformed. But the consequences speak for themselves; problem avoidance and lack of awareness can hurt your plant budget and profitability big time — in higher energy costs and lost productivity.

What are your costs?

Compressed air system equipment is notoriously lacking in cost-related instrumentation. Most systems include only an indication of system pressure and a few compressor temperatures. Missing are measures of compressed air flow and power consumption. This is much like automobiles used to be, when all you knew was how fast you were going and how much fuel remained, with a few idiot lights thrown in for good measure.

Nowadays, you have a fighting chance. Often, an on-board computer calculates instantaneous and cumulative fuel economy. Lacking that, it’s easy to do a quick tally of the odometer and the number of gallons on the pump, and you quickly have your efficiency number. But, in most compressed air systems, energy readings are missing, leaving you scratching your head in wonder. However, in these days of higher energy prices, it has become essential to be able to know how much your system is costing to operate.

Measure Percentage of Potential Savings
Add, Restore, Upgrade Compressor Controls 30
Reconfigure Piping to Reduce Pressure Loss
Add Compressed Air Storage
Install or Upgrade Distribution Control System 20
Rework or Correct Header Piping
Modify or Replace Regulators (Controls at the process)
Replace or Repair Air Filters
Install or Upgrade (Ball) Valves in Distribution System
Not Otherwise Specified 10
Replace or Upgrade Condensate Drains 5
Replace Current Compressor with More Efficient Model 2
Add Small Compressor for Off-Peak Loads 2
Add, Upgrade or Reconfigure Air Dryers 1
Improve Compressor Room Ventilation 1
The annual cost savings are calculated from the annual energy savings using $0.05/kWh as the unit cost. The unit cost is based on information contained in the table: “Electric Utility Average Revenue per Kilowatt-hour to Ultimate Consumers by Sector, Census Division, and State” prepared monthly by the Energy Information Administration, U. S. Department of Energy. The payback of the energy savings is calculated as the ratio of the capital cost to the energy cost savings from the measures.

What’s at stake?

How much can the average industrial plant gain by knowing its operating costs? One way to answer this question is to consult a research document titled “The Assessment of the Market for Compressed Air Efficiency Services” (Compressed Air Market Assessment), commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) with technical support provided by the Compressed Air Challenge (CAC). See the sidebar for links to supporting documents.


The Compressed Air Market Assessment found that compressed air systems account for 10% of electricity and roughly 16% of motor system energy consumption in U.S. manufacturing industries. Seventy percent of manufacturing facilities in the United States have some form of compressed air system to drive a variety of equipment, including machine tools, paint booths, material separators and material handling equipment. The assessment indicated that recent experience in a variety of “system optimization programs” and the experience of consultants in the field show that more than 50% of industrial plant air systems harbored opportunities for large energy savings with relatively low project costs.

The DOE Industrial Assessment Center program conducted energy audits of small- to medium-sized industrial facilities and identified measures that had average projected compressed air system usage savings of 15% and simple paybacks of less than two years. And many case studies conducted for system optimization programs identified savings in the range of 30-60% of initial system usage. In addition to energy benefits, optimized compressed air systems frequently exhibit corresponding improvements in reliability, product quality and overall productivity.

Energy concerns

Customer awareness of and concern for compressed air efficiency is low. Only 9% of customers interviewed for the program identified controlling energy costs as the primary objective in compressed air system maintenance and management. Only 17% mentioned efficiency at all as a system management objective. This low level of interest and knowledge was echoed in findings from the regional studies and interviews with compressed air system efficiency consultants.

The Compressed Air Challenge
The CAC is a voluntary collaboration of manufacturers, distributors and their associations; industrial users; facility operating personnel and their associations; consultants; state research and development agencies; energy efficiency organizations; and utilities. The mission of the CAC is to be the leading source of product-neutral compressed air system information and education, enabling end users to take a systems approach, leading to improved efficiency and production and increased net profits.

Maintaining a consistent, reliable compressed air supply is the principal objective of system management. Seventy-one percent of users reported that their primary objective in system management is ensuring adequate air supply. According to consultants interviewed for this project, concern about operating consistency provides an effective route to selling efficiency-oriented services.

A large fraction of users report serious problems in compressed air system operation and maintenance. Thirty-five percent of those interviewed reported unscheduled compressed air system shutdowns during the previous 12 months. For 60% of these users (21% of all users), shutdown had lasted two days or more. Two-thirds of the users reported potentially serious operating problems in their compressed air systems. Excess moisture and inadequate air pressure were the most frequently reported problems.

Training and maintenance lacking

More than 35% of interviewed users reported that they conducted leak prevention programs but also reported low incidence of compressed air efficiency measure implementation. A previous DOE sponsored motor market assessment found that 57% of manufacturing plants had taken no action, including repairing leaks, to improve compressed air system efficiency. Seventy-five percent of system operators received no formal training in compressed air system efficiency. Given this level of education, it’s not surprising that a lack of awareness of the real costs of compressed air and what can be done about it results in a significant population of inefficient air systems.

CA operators often in the dark

Try as they might to get users to do the right thing, most compressed air system distributors identified a lack of understanding of the benefits of compressed air efficiency measures as the major barrier to increased sales. Forty-five percent of compressor vendors identified customer perception that compressed air efficiency services were already being provided by in-house staff as an objection to sales efforts.

This finding, combined with the reported low incidence of specific efficiency measure implementation, further reinforces the observation that users are largely in the dark about the nature of compressed air system efficiency measures and maintenance practices.

Real-life proof

Additional evidence concerning the value of non-energy benefits of compressed air system efficiency projects can be gleaned from examples of real-life projects chronicled in DOE’s Industrial Technology Program Best Practices case studies.

Of 22 facilities that provided case-study information on compressed air system improvements, 19 reported benefits such as increased production capacity, avoided capital costs for new compressors and reduced maintenance costs. The reported value of these benefits ranged from $55,000 to $500,000. An analysis of 28 compressed air case studies referred by DOE Allied Partners yielded an average of 3,440,400 kWh saved per completed project. The average payback was 1.1 years. Of the 28 completed projects, 15 reported maintenance savings and 17 reported increased productivity as the result of the compressed air improvements.

Ron Marshall, CET, CEM, is industrial systems officer at Manitoba Hydro in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He also is a member of the Project Development Committee at the Compressed Air Challenge. Contact him at [email protected] and (204) 360-3658.

About the Author

Ron Marshall

Ron Marshall first developed his skills as an industrial compressed air systems expert at Manitoba Hydro, where he worked for 38 years, supporting more than 600 energy efficiency projects. He now operates his own compressed air energy efficiency consulting firm where he provides technical advice, system auditing, and training.  Ron is a level 2 instructor with Compressed Air Challenge and conducts training internationally. Contact him at [email protected].Want to learn more about compressed air? We would suggest sending key staff to one of our Compressed Air Challenge seminars to help them learn what is possible. To learn more about upcoming training opportunities visit the CAC calendar at

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