Cut the Cost of Compressed Air

Some easy-to-take steps can yield significant savings.

By Tim Last, Atlas Copco Compressors

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Chemical makers, just like other manufacturers, are suffering from today’s economic conditions. To help trim costs and keep operations profitable, many have reduced production levels, cut hours, imposed wage and hiring freezes and, in worst cases, resorted to layoffs and even plant closings.

However, despite the push for savings, plant technical staff often overlook a number of steps that can trim costs without sacrificing productivity or manpower. Indeed, in many instances, these moves actually can increase productivity and efficiency.

One area that demands attention is energy use. While energy costs have escalated in recent years, technological advances have helped facilities increase productivity and do more with less. Many energy- and money-saving tips are really quite easy and straightforward — maintaining infrastructure, coupled with sound decision-making and sensible operating practices, quickly can add up and save most facilities revenue that otherwise would be squandered through simple laziness and improper equipment use.

Water, electricity and fuels such as natural gas are critical components for plant operation and their basic costs are out of your control. However, you can control the cost of the often forgotten fourth utility, compressed air, which is just as critical to production.

Some estimates indicate that poorly designed and maintained compressed air systems in the U.S. waste up to $3.2 billion in energy every year. A careful review of your compressed air system likely will reveal multiple opportunities to reduce energy draw and, thus, dramatically lower operating costs.

As one of the Top 100 global sustainable companies, Atlas Copco knows firsthand how to maximize production and lower energy usage during manufacturing. The company shares this knowledge in various ways. Our service team provides free compressed-air-system health checks that can help a plant’s technical staff recognize areas where improvements are possible (Figure 1). We also offer a free 156-p. “Compressed Air Best Practices Guide.” (For a copy e-mail Put “Manual — Chemical Processing” in the subject line and include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail.)

Opportunities for Savings
For plants that operate 24/7, several money-saving options can improve efficiency and provide a quick return on investment. For example, variable speed drive (VSD) air compressors continually and automatically adjust compressed air production to match actual plant requirements (Figure 2); analysis shows that VSDs suit more than 90% of compressor services. Compared to a fixed speed drive, a VSD sized for the same end applications requires about 35% less power, which translates into a comparable cut in energy costs.

The cost of energy is significant for compressors. Consider a plant running a 200-hp air compressor 24 hours a day. Five years ago, electricity might have cost 3¢/kWh. Today, electricity costs 8¢/kWh or more. So, the annual tab for electricity to operate that compressor has risen from around $41,000 (at 3¢/kWh) to about $110,000 (at 8¢/kWh). Switching to a VSD compressor could save almost $39,000 annually.