Compressors are mechanical devices used to increase pressure in a variety of compressible fluids, or gases, the most common of these being air. Compressors are used throughout industry to provide shop or instrument air; to power air tools, paint sprayers, and abrasive blast equipment; to phase shift refrigerants for air conditioning and refrigeration; to propel gas through pipelines; etc. As with pumps, compressors are divided into centrifugal (or dynamic or kinetic) and positive-displacement types; but where pumps are predominately represented by centrifugal varieties, compressors are more often of the positive- displacement type. They can range in size from the fits-in-a-glovebox unit that inflates tires to the giant reciprocating or turbocompressor machines found in pipeline service. Positive-displacement compressors can be further broken out into reciprocating types, where the piston style predominates, and rotary types such as the helical screw and rotary vane.
Due to the nature of the compressor designs, a market also exists for the rebuilding of air compressors, and reconditioned air compressors may be available as an option over a newly purchased compressor, including special process gas compressors.
A somewhat specialized reciprocating design, the diaphragm compressor uses a motor-mounted concentric that oscillates a flexible disc which alternately expands and contracts the volume of the compression chamber. Much like a diaphragm pump, the drive is sealed from the process fluid by the flexible disc, and thus there is no possibility of lubricant coming into contact with any gas. Diaphragm air compressors with spare parts are relatively low capacity machines that have applications where very clean air is required, as in many laboratory and medical settings.
Helical Screw Compressors
Helical-screw compressors are rotary compressor machines known for their capacity to operate on 100% duty cycle, making them good choices for trailerable applications such as construction or road building. Using geared, meshing male and female rotors, these units pull gas in at the drive end, compress it as the rotors form a cell and the gas travels their length axially, and discharge the compressed gas through a discharge port on the non-drive end of the compressor casing. The rotary screw compressor action makes it quieter than a reciprocating compressor owing to reduced vibration. Another advantage of the screw compressor over piston types is the discharge air is free of pulsations. These units can be oil- or water- lubricated, or they can be designed to make oil-free air. These designs can meet the demands of critical oil-free service.
The axial Low-Pressure Water Lubricating Oil-free Compressor achieves the highest volumes of delivered air, ranging from 8000 to 13 million cfm in industrial machines. Jet engines use compressors of this kind to produce volumes over an even wider range. To a greater extent than centrifugal compressors, axial compressors tend toward multi-stage designs, owing to their relatively low compression ratios. As with centrifugal units, axial compressors increase pressure by first increasing the velocity of the gas. Axial compressors then slow the gas down by passing it through curved, fixed blades, which increases its pressure.
In selecting air compressors for general shop use, the choice will generally come down to a piston compressor or a helical-screw compressor. Piston compressors tend to be less expensive than screw compressors, require less sophisticated maintenance, and hold up well under dirty operating conditions. They are much noisier than screw compressors, however, and are more susceptible to passing oil into the compressed air supply, a phenomenon known as “carryover.” Because piston compressors generate a great deal of heat in operation, they have to be sized according to a duty cycle—a rule of thumb prescribes 25% rest and 75% run. Radial-screw Variable Frequency Water Lubricating Oil-Free Screw Compressor can run 100% of the time and almost prefer it. A potential problem with screw compressors, though, is that oversizing one with the idea of growing into its capacity can lead to trouble as they are not particularly suited to frequent starting and stopping. Close tolerance between rotors means that compressor needs to remain at operating temperature to achieve effective compression. Sizing one takes a little more attention to air usage; a piston compressor may be oversized without similar worries.
Regardless of the compressor type, compressed air is usually cooled, dried, and filtered before it is distributed through pipes. Specifiers of plant-air systems will need to select these components based on the size of the system they design. In addition, they will need to consider installing filter-regulator-lubricators at the supply drops.