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Compressed air: avoiding process contamination

21 September 2018

As a key component in many processes in the food production sector, compressed air must always be of the highest possible quality. Keith Atkinson explains the standards that site owners and operators need to adhere to. 

A reliable supply of high-quality compressed air is needed to power the many processes required in food manufacturing. Quality is crucial, as compressed air is often in direct contact with food products, leading to a risk of contamination, which could also affect manufacturing processes and damage tools. With the correct equipment specification, these risks can be avoided.

Site owners and operators need to adhere to the stringent standards governing compressed air performance. These include ISO 8573, a group of international standards stipulating compressed air purity and quality.

ISO 8573 consists of nine separate parts. The first addresses the level of contamination tolerable within a cubic metre of compressed air while the other eight standards identify testing methods for contaminants that may be present in compressed air.

To ensure the highest possible quality compressed air, some food manufacturers are combining ISO 8573 air quality standards with Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles, which were developed with food safety in mind.

The HACCP system prioritises integrating contamination control into production processes over simply checking finished products. This control consists of seven principles designed to eliminate or reduce hazards to acceptable levels and ensure facilities comply with hygiene legislation. The first step involves stakeholders analysing what hazards could contaminate the end product, and the likelihood of their occurrence.
The next step is to establish critical control points, or steps in the manufacturing process, where control can prevent, eliminate or acceptably reduce hazard risks. Appropriate limits should then be set for these control points, with relevant metrics – such as time, temperature and humidity – set out. The hazard should not exceed or fall beneath the designed limits to prevent, reduce or eliminate it, and procedures should be organised to monitor these control points.

Courses of corrective action should then be set out, so employees can prevent problems before they happen, alongside verification procedures to check the HACCP system is being adhered to. Examples of these procedures includes calibrating monitoring equipment, monitoring records and inspecting product samples. Finally, site stakeholders should be able to identify patterns, problems and deviations, and ensure continued compliance through setting up a record system detailing HACCP records.

Going oil-free
As well as adhering to standards further steps can be taken to guarantee consistent, high-quality air. This includes using compressor technology designed with air purity in mind. For example, with oil-lubricated compressors that use filtration to protect products and equipment from being compromised by any oil present in the system. 

It should, however, be noted that when oil-lubricated compressors are used in sensitive production environments, certain guidelines must be followed. Specifically, regulations detailed in European Hygienic Engineering & Design Group (EHEDG) 23 Production and use of food-grade lubricants, Part 1 and 2 (2009). 

Adhering to these guidelines can pose a logistical burden and, with regulations becoming increasingly stringent, there is a risk that current filtration systems may not be fit-for-purpose in the near future, so frequent reviews and upgrades may be required.

Oil-free compressors can help avoid these issues while delivering high-quality compressed air. They are designed to release fewer potentially harmful contaminants, meaning they may be better-suited to food manufacturing sites.

There are many oil-free compressor designs and systems available, meaning the technology is adaptable to the needs of different food manufacturing sites. Gardner Denver, for example, offers oil-free compressors that utilise scroll technology, water-injected rotary screw technology, and its Ultima system which uses two high-efficiency, permanent magnet motors with separate inverters to allow optimised performance throughout the complete volume range.

In conclusion, avoiding compressed air contamination is vital to food manufacturing site processes. To ensure high-quality compressed air it is necessary to follow sector standards and adopt suitable compressor technology. Always keep in mind that compressed air quality is as important as its consistency.

Keith Atkinson is EMEAI sales manager at Gardner Denver.

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