Compressed air challenge: Learning to save

Jan. 1, 2007
Compressed Air Challenge introduces an advanced training course, a Web site and case studies.

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If you’re involved in your plant’s compressed air system operations, the Compressed Air Challenge (CAC) wants you. As you might remember, CAC is a private-public partnership devoted to helping U.S. industry tune up its compressed air system operations. Launched in January 1998, the program’s initial goal was to improve system efficiencies 10% by the year 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), one of the program’s 15 sponsors, that gain will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 700,000 tons and lower industrial operating costs by $150 million.

To achieve its goal, CAC has embarked on a comprehensive educational program to help end-users better understand their compressed air systems. “CAC’s primary objective is education,” says Aimee McKane, project manager with the Washington, D.C. office of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which represents DOE’s participation.

Basic training

Last spring, CAC kicked off Level One of its program, Fundamentals of Compressed Air Systems. Designed for facility engineers, operators and maintenance staff, the one-day training session outlines a seven-step action plan, which includes determining baseline performance, identifying leaks and establishing preventative maintenance checklists. According to CAC, by following the action plan, end-users can reduce operating costs by 10 to 15%.

As part of the program’s quality control efforts, CAC insisted on keeping the instructional content product-neutral. “We worked hard to make sure there are no product pitches in the classroom,” explains McKane.


For instructors, CAC recruited 25 experts in compressed air systems. Each was given additional training on “how to teach the program so that adults learn,” says Karen Meadows, director of Wisconsin Energy Center, a Madison-based sponsor and manager of the program.

The first round of training was well attended and received, says Meadows. “We held 59 training sessions around the nation, and they were attended by 1,600 people. At the end of each session, we had everyone fill out an evaluation form on the training and instructors. Overwhelmingly, it’s been very positive.”

However, that’s not good enough for CAC. “You and I both know people can be really pleased with the training and think the instructor was wonderful and still not do anything,” says McKane. As a result, CAC will be conducting a follow-up evaluation of training participants to see if they are taking actions to improve their systems. 

This is not the only benchmarking that CAC will perform. Currently, it is working with DOE to establish a baseline of the current compressed air market. Data were collected last summer from more than 200 interviews with facility engineers and maintenance supervisors, says McKane. This information will be compiled later this spring. It will be used to help measure CAC’s progress towards achieving its 10% improvement goal.

Level Two unveiled

CAC president Joe Fresch, who is employed as a sales and marketing manager for Kenosha, Wis.-based Pneumatech/ConservAIR and represents Cleveland-based sponsor Compressed Air and Gas Institute (CAGI), feels that program’s initial success is directly related to two factors. “End-users have a strong interest in improving their compressed air systems,” he says, “but they don’t have the knowledge on how to approach it. That translates into an incredible appetite for the training services and the other products we’re looking to develop.”

Starting this May in Wisconsin, CAC will be offering its Level-Two training, Advanced Management of Compressed Air Systems. “It will be launched nationally starting this fall,” says Meadows.

This two-day workshop builds on the information contained in Level One and will cover topics such as taking measurements, developing a system profile, compressed air maintenance and understanding controls. “Level Two is going to get much more into control details,” explains Fresch. “It’s also going to give people the knowledge [they need to] effectively do some system analysis and evaluate different service providers.”

Level Two includes a special section on selling system upgrades to upper management. “We hope to send participants away with a package of tools — information and checklists — that they can use to effectively present a proposed improvement in language that management will respond to positively,” says McKane.

Beyond training

“Obviously, training can’t reach everyone,” says McKane. “So we are focusing on other ways we can reach out with our message.” To this end, CAC has launched a Web site (

There you can find a copy of the Sourcebook, a document published by DOE and CAC. “Basically, it does three things,” explains McKane. “It introduces the system parts and how they interact.” The second part has a series of fact sheets to help end-users identify their improvement opportunities, while the third lists places to get more help.

To provide additional assistance to end-users, CAC and DOE operate a toll-free help line: (800) 862-2086. Questions from end-users are collected and e-mailed to CAC’s panel of experts. “When we get three to five responses per inquiry, they are packaged and sent back to the caller,” says McKane. While the caller’s identity is never revealed, the caller does know who has answered his question. This allows them to contact the responders directly for additional information.

CAC also plans to publish two-page booklets on how to select a compressed air system and how to work with a system provider. They are designed to help industrial customers analyze and qualify potential system providers, says Meadows.

Along similar lines, CAC is building a bank of case studies. The first one, which involves a Ford Motor Co. project, will be released this spring. “We are building a portfolio of well-documented stories that support the messages that we are telling people in the training,” says McKane. “Our goal is to get at least 10 done by next fall.” The studies will be available on both DOE and CAC websites.

CAC’s influence spreads to the marketplace

When it comes to managing compressed air systems, CAC teaches a comprehensive systems approach. “The basic approach in the field has been a component focus — both on the part of the end-user and seller,” says McKane. For example, an end-user with fluctuating air pressure would simply purchase a new compressor and hope that his problem was solved rather than test and analyze the entire system.

However, this mentality is starting to shift as more and more end-users and suppliers are exposed to CAC’s system message, says McKane. “What we are seeing is equipment manufacturers starting to interact with customers in a different way.” In fact, product manufacturers are broadening their product lines to accommodate the growing demand for system solutions. For example, compressor manufacturers are extending their brand names to “receiver tanks, filters and other products that they wouldn’t have included five years ago,” says McKane.

CAC’s educational platform also ties into a new educational program being assembled by CAGI. It is launching Level Three (Compressed Air System Design) and Four (Auditing a Compressed Air System) training programs. These two courses will help designers, distributors and manufacturers “more effectively take a systems approach” during the design phase, says Fresch.

Compressed Air System Design is aimed at solution providers, architects and engineers. It will cover best practices, codes and standards and how to properly design a system. Level Four will culminate in an examination for certification as a compressed air system auditor.

The final item on CAC’s itinerary has more to do with marketing than education. “Our big theme for next year will be to build awareness,” says McKane. “We have all this good stuff, and we want people to know about it and use it.” 

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