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How to reduce compressed air energy costs if you are reducing your production

Service engineer

If you have to reduce production at your manufacturing plant during the coronavirus outbreak, you may welcome the chance to save on energy costs. Compressed air accounts for a fair chunk of total energy costs for industrial manufacturers - typically about 12% and maybe as high as 40% in some facilities, so it is an area which could have a big impact. Our 5 tips aim to help you reduce your running costs at a difficult time.

1. Reduce unloaded running hours

Air demand in an industrial compressed air system typically fluctuates. Using these patterns to reduce unloaded running hours is a first step to optimising energy efficiency. Compressor controllers offer user-friendly ways to reduce unloaded running hours. If you have multiple compressors, then they should have been setup to do this automatically. But if there is no central controller, then the compressor pressure bands should have been set up in a cascade method, and the on-board controllers will stop the machines if they are not needed when the compressed air target pressure is achieved. Most Atlas Copco Elektronikon on-board machine controllers have the function of programmable start/stop timers.  Our service sales teams are available to help guide you through this process.

If compressors are left running unloaded after working hours, they still use as much as 25% of the energy consumed at full load. What's more, if there are leaks in the system, the compressors may switch to loaded running occasionally, consuming even more energy.

The shorter the production time, the more you can save by switching off compressors instead of letting them run unloaded. If production is reduced but not stopped, a possibility would be to isolate areas of the factory that are not currently being used. 

2. Eliminate air leaks

Annual cost of air leaks

Leakages are the biggest source of energy waste in older compressed air systems, with a leakage point as small as 3mm costing an estimated £980/week in wasted energy. It is estimated that up to 20% of total compressed air consumption may be lost through leaks.

If you are still working on site and have some spare time, we recommend taking the opportunity to detect the leaks in your system. For example, you could run your air compressor with no production to check for leaks. Fixing air leaks will start to save you money immediately.

3. Reduce the pressure band

As a rule of thumb for most compressors, a reduction of 1 bar in pressure (14.5 psi) will lead to a 7% saving in electricity consumption. The pressure settings of the compressor should be adjusted until the lowest pressure can be reached and the pressure band reduced without affecting the application. 

For centralised systems utilising multiple compressors, by using a central controller, the network can be set to run within a narrow pressure band which ensures that the compressed air network matches your precise needs. The controller can also allow you to manually or automatically create two different pressure bands to optimise energy use within different periods, drastically reducing energy costs at low-use times. 

Also, lowering the system pressure reduces the impact of leaks. A 1 bar pressure reduction decreases the impact of air leaks by 13%. 

4. Turn compression heat into useful energy with heat recovery

One area that offers manufacturers a significant opportunity for savings is to recover the waste heat from air compressors. Without energy recovery, this heat is lost into the atmosphere via the cooling system and radiation. The amount of electrical energy that can be recovered depends on the size of the compressor and the running hours. Typical recoveries are between 70-94%.  It is estimated that 90% of all industrial air compressors used in the UK could be equipped with heat recovery systems.

Recovering heat from compressed air reduces the need for purchasing energy, for example to heat hot water. It is this reduction that results in lower operating costs and CO2 emissions, also reducing your carbon footprint.

To illustrate the vast untapped potential of compressed air heat recovery, it is calculated that compressor heat recovery technology could save 1.99% of the total industrial electricity consumption in the UK. If that statistic isn’t compelling enough, it is the equivalent of removing the emissions from 913,000 diesel/petrol cars per year, or recovering the energy required to power 1.544 million households’ electricity consumption per year. Now, if that isn’t a compelling case for you to look into the possibility of compressed air heat recovery, it’s difficult to say what is!

*Calculations are based on total industrial electricity consumption in the UK, and an average of 10% of industrial electricity consumption being used by compressors.

*Approximately 70% of energy is recoverable from oil-injected screw compressors, and up to 94% from oil-free water-cooled screw compressors. 

5. Ensure the correct type of compressor is installed

Most production processes require different levels of demand in different periods, which may mean that the compressor is running off-load or idle (not producing any compressed air) for long periods of time. Great savings can be made if a fixed speed compressor can be replaced by a variable speed drive unit as it only produces compressed air as and when required. This also minimises offload running of the compressor, which is known to waste energy. (A VSD compressor saves an average 35% energy and a VSD+ unit can save as much as 50% compared to a fixed speed unit, even at full load).

As a fixed speed compressor has a fixed amount of motor starts an hour, the compressor runs offload for a set time which limits the number of motor starts to ensure overheating of the motor does not occur. As a VSD unit ramps up and down in a controlled fashion, the maximum number of starts and stops per hour may be increased, and it also avoids peaks in current when starting.

6. Don’t forget the impact of regular maintenance

The best way of taking care of your compressed air availability is by taking the best care of your compressed air equipment. This means investing in regular preventative maintenance, which will sustain the efficiency that you have gained by purchasing a new compressor, or improve the performance of an older unit.

Whether you prefer to purchase spare parts only and perform maintenance in-house, sign up to a planned maintenance programme at pre-determined intervals from the manufacturer or approved distributor, or choose a total responsibility package that covers breakdowns and leaves no room for surprises, the main thing to remember is that reduced compressor performance is not inevitable as the machine gets older. Regular servicing will improve your equipment uptime and energy efficiency: the opposite could lead to more downtime, increased energy consumption and potentially a breakdown.  

Atlas Copco has the largest compressor service team in the UK and our engineers are trained to service and repair compressors of any brand.

Atlas Copco Compressor Technique