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Compressed air efficiency paybacks

23 April 2019

Assessing the efficiency of an air compressor network is considered by many to be disruptive and time consuming. However, Stef Lievens argues that, when approached correctly, the process can be efficient, fast and hassle-free and can identify huge energy saving opportunities. 

When conducted responsibly compressed air energy audits can quickly flag-up opportunities for improvements and energy savings. It can offer particular benefits for companies seeking to implement an energy management system while working towards achieving ISO50001. Companies that need to comply with Phase 2 of ESOS are required to conduct audits to identify cost-effective energy-efficiency opportunities. As air compressors can, typically,  consume between 10 and 12% of a factory’s electricity the energy saving potential for realising energy savings by conducting a compressed air energy audit should not be overlooked. 

The initial step should involve a visual assessment – such as Atlas Copco’s free #airCHECK service – which can be conducted in as little as 10 minutes; without any disruption to production. By nature, such an exercise is intended to flag-up ‘quick-win’ opportunities to fix costly air leaks and address inefficient operating practices such as leaving compressors to run during periods of low-demand like evenings and weekends. 

Some companies may be under the illusion that their compressed air system is highly efficient, or are simply happy that it is operating sufficiently. Even for these companies an audit could still offer benefits, highlighting whether a compressed air system is non-compliant or losing serious money. 

In more depth
For those wishing to investigate the potential savings in more depth, the next stage is to perform a straightforward data-logging exercise – such as Atlas Copco’s iiTrak system energy audit. Again, this type of service is intended to be unobtrusive, with the required hardware usually taking less than 15 minutes to install. After set up, the data logging device is left to operate for one-week, during which time software analyses compressed air usage patterns. An Atlas Copco audit will result in the company receiving a free and detailed report, outlining where compressed air production improvements or opportunities to reduce energy consumption could be made; as well as highlighting any non-conformance with ISO standards. 

It is at this stage that an energy audit usually shows its true value, as the potential process and production enhancements, not to mention financial savings, are often compelling enough to enable a plant or energy manager to make a strong business case to invest in a compressed air upgrade. 

Health and safety benefits
Audits can also play an important role in helping identify opportunities to improve health and safety. For example, incorrectly specified compressed air equipment, air leaks and poorly sized pipework with long runs, excessive bends and fittings can all pose a risk and these hazards would be highlighted during the audit process. 

After initially agreeing to an energy audit to check the load cycle profile for each compressor within its system Kingsmoor Packaging, a manufacturer of thermoformed plastic packaging for the food industry, was able to increase both its production capacity and energy efficiency.

The goal was to create a representation of the air and energy being used during a typical production week. The resulting data was then used to extrapolate an annual use of compressed air, the energy used and its cost. The outcomes of the assessment led to the company downsizing from a 110 kW to a 90 kW VSD compressor, which reduced the operating pressure of the system and is saving the company in the region of £47,000 per year.

Despite this type of savings now being widely achievable, due to advances in VSD compressed air technology, some companies continue to be put off by the perception that the crucial installation stage could be disruptive to day-to-day operations. This should not be a problem if handled properly. As long as the process is meticulously planned it should cause very little disruption. 

For manufacturers seeking to continually optimise their compressed air system, it is advisable to utilise the latest advances in remote data monitoring technology. One such solution, which enables air compressors to be compatible with Smart IoT oriented factory environments, is SmartLink. Once activated, the software in the SmartLink data monitoring programme performs live analysis of compressed air usage patterns and, depending on the option chosen, will provide proactive warnings of potential failures and flag up opportunities to improve uptime. One company to have directly benefited from this technology was a UK-based cereal manufacturer whose compressor automatically picked up warnings from its electronic condensate drains and triggered a visit to the site by a service engineer. This early intervention saw the customer fit temporary heaters to prevent the drains freezing up during the winter, which could have led to compressor element damage, condensate reaching the air network, and substantial breakdown costs.

What all of this shows is that making even small changes, based on findings of a visual assessment or full system audit, can often be enough for companies to realise long-term financial savings, production and energy efficiency improvements; as well as highlighting opportunities to implement best practice in terms of health and safety. 

Stef Lievens is business line manager for Industrial Air at Atlas Copco Compressors UK.

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