Podcast: Don’t let compressed air problems cost your facility energy and productivity

Podcast: Don’t let compressed air problems cost your facility energy and productivity

Dec. 20, 2023
In this episode of The Tool Belt, Ron Marshall, founder of Marshall Compressed Air Consulting, offers insight on how to overcome compressed air hurdles.

Ron Marshall is the founder of Marshall Compressed Air Consulting, a compressed air energy efficiency consulting firm, where he provides technical advice, system auditing, and training. He 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. Ron is a level 2 instructor with Compressed Air Challenge and conducts training internationally. Ron recently spoke with Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk about his most recent cover story, "8 ways to justify upgrades to your compressed air system," as well as how to persuade teams to invest in the compressed air equipment they need.

Below is an excerpt from the podcast:

PS: You started your article with a really good point, what you refer to as a “stunning observation” that most of your customers did not view compressed air energy efficiency as their primary concern. Now in a world where we're all watching ESG goals and energy efficiency goals, that would have taken me by surprise, too. But you said you found that many plant managers would willingly spend three or four times more on energy to make sure their systems performed.

RM: Yeah, in the area of compressed air, that's I believe true. There’s more focus these days on energy efficiency, and there's lots of corporations that have corporate mandates, wanting to reduce energy consumption in various areas of their plant. But yeah, I worked for a power utility directly involved in trying to persuade customers to reduce energy consumption on their compressed air systems. We found that that was a really good segment where there's lots of opportunity for savings, and we had millions of dollars to spend, to give if customers would put together an energy efficiency project on their compressed air. 

But I was finding, it was pretty tough to persuade people to do the changes just on the basis of energy efficiency alone. It was really tough. I’d go in there and talk about energy efficiency, and their eyes would kind of glaze over, and it kind of hurt my feelings. In the meantime, we were putting on various Compressed Air Challenge awareness trainings, and I started talking to the people why they were at the training. Very often it wasn't about energy efficiency, it was because of a problem they're having with their system, and they're trying to get some knowledge how to fix that problem.

It could be water in the air, or it could be bad pressure stability, it could be reliability, it could be that they had to buy a compressor and they didn't know what kind of compressor to buy. They're looking for answers. So I started thinking about that and realized that energy efficiency is not on top of people's minds when they're dealing with their compressed air. The most important part is the reliability, air quality, things like that. And so I found that if I changed my sales pitch a little bit in focusing on all those other more important things, then people would listen. They would see there's some free money available to help me buy compressors, and I can buy my new compressor, get some advice about buying it, and fix my problem. 

And then I found okay, we can fix the problem. We can persuade them to do extra stuff, right? Big tanks, efficient compressors, efficient dryers, bigger pipes, things like that, because there's all this money available for them to do so. And the energy efficiency part just came with it, on the coattails of fixing other problems.

PS: That’s really interesting, and it's one of those dynamics run where I think a lot of us either wished or hoped it wouldn't be true, and that energy efficiency would be more top of mind. But on a certain level, I can understand completely. There's practicalities when you're on the job, when you're evaluated as much on throughput as energy efficiency, probably more so on throughput and productivity than energy efficiency for various reasons. Either avoided energy costs are harder to see on the bottom line or simply because, you know, you're a plant, you make things, so your number one KPI is how many things that you make.

RM: Yeah, that's right, uptime, you don't want people hanging around the factory doing nothing because the compressed air system is down. I have one client, I'm dealing with an audit there just now, and it's a farm implement plant, they make these great big swather things that gather up the grain. They've got a powder paint line that's very sensitive to oil. They've got a very high efficient VSD compressor, but there's something wrong with the compressor. It's throwing oil, and that oil goes all the way down the line and ruins the paint job. These things that they're painting are great big 30-feet-long pieces of metal, so every time he starts that compressor, they have problems. His job is on the line, right? He wants to start that compressor and become more energy efficient. But he doesn't want to lose his job in losing thousands of dollars worth of product because of bad air. In the top of his mind, the air quality is much more important than energy efficiency.

PS: The way you put it in your article that you realized there was a way get a double win. I'm just curious on that count, when it comes to getting those double wins, does it take any particular extra verbal dexterity, for example, to make the case like this? Or is more what it takes around where once you understand what the primary issue is – it might be reliability, it might be oil in the airline, it might be water in the airline – once you do solve that main problem, then the conversations sort of naturally follow on?

RM: Yeah, I don't know if it's verbal dexterity or not, but I think that realizing what they're thinking, what they feel is most important with their system, and then using the energy program to solve their problem. I always talked about it as triple win actually, when we were fixing problems, because I was working for the power utility, so I wanted results, right? That was Win #1. When we could solve the customers problem, that's Win #2. And I told the compressor sales people that they were winning as well, because here's all that extra money that's being spent, because of the financial incentives for bigger tanks, more efficient compressors, premium compressors, so they're more expensive, right? They were winning too, so a triple win, I thought.

PS: That's great. How did people respond when you introduced them to the free money concept and said, hey, did you know there's this incentive and that incentive?

RM: The uptake in our incentives greatly increased. In fact, of all segments in the industrial area in that program, compressed air was the biggest one. In some years, it was at 85% of the total. There's so many projects going through, tons and tons. I would joke that the CEO if he wanted to cut your budget by a million dollars, he just had to fire me, right? We were granting our customers millions of dollars a year in better equipment, incentives for better equipment, and they were happy. They had sometimes a brand new system that was almost bulletproof. Very good systems.

Read the rest of the transcript

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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