Guide to Choosing the Right Compressed Air Piping System

Guide to Choosing the Right Compressed Air Piping System

Industrial efficiency depends on compressed air systems. Ensuring air compressor pipe systems function optimally guarantees smooth operations. In this post, we simplify the complexities of piping used in compressed air systems to help you buy, use, and maintain a reliable system.

Think of your compressor as the power source and the pneumatic air tools it drives as light bulbs. In this analogy, compressor piping acts as the electrical wires that connect everything. Compressed air piping systems are essential as they transport the compressed air to its intended end-use applications. Remember, it’s not just the compressed air piping design that affects system efficiency; the piping materials are equally important.

How Do Compressed Air Piping Systems Work?

Air compressor piping systems generate a compressed air stream that flows through a network of pipes to power various tools and machines. Once the air is compressed, it is stored in tanks and distributed through the piping system using a compressor. 

The distribution network delivers precisely pressurised compressed air of the right quality to the point of use with minimal pressure loss. Once the compressed air reaches the end-use point, it powers pneumatic tools and machines by converting the compressed air energy into mechanical energy. 

A well-planned design ensures sufficient volume and pressure, keeping machinery in optimal condition. However, an inefficient system causes higher energy expenses, frequent equipment breakdowns, and more maintenance demands, reducing production efficiency.

What Type of Piping Material is Best for Compressed Air?

Selecting the best type of compressed air piping is essential in the planning and design phase, and various materials are available. Options range from lightweight ABS, easy to cut and install, to more robust materials like HDPE, aluminium, and stainless steel. Metal pipes, like black or galvanised steel for example, have a strong track record but can also accumulate blockages over time, deteriorating the system’s efficiency. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends adhering to specific safety standards during the installation of these systems. Each material has its merits and should be chosen based on your needs and requirements.

Galvanised Steel Piping

  • Environment: Galvanised pipes have a protective coating that offers some rust resistance. However, this galvanised coating only partially prevents corrosion, so there may be better choices for highly humid environments. 
  • Air Quality Requirements: Over time, the protective coating on galvanised pipes erodes, and its flakes may contaminate the compressed air, potentially compromising air quality.
  • System Pressure: The weight and sturdy construction of galvanised pipes make them suitable for high-pressure systems. However, threaded or welded joints can be failure-prone, which could pose issues in high-pressure applications.
  • Cost: Galvanised pipes tend to be more expensive than plastic alternatives. So, consider the added cost of installing more robust suspension and fixings.

Aluminium Piping

  • Environment: Aluminum’s anti-corrosive characteristics make it an excellent choice for many corrosive or high-humidity environments.
  • Air Quality Requirements: The interior smoothness of aluminium reduces line losses and prevents contamination, ensuring high-quality compressed air.
  • System Pressure: Despite its lightweight nature, aluminium can comfortably cope with high-pressure systems, providing a reliable and efficient solution.
  • Cost: Although the initial investment for aluminium might be higher than some alternatives, the long-term efficiency, ease of installation, and simple reconfiguration make it cost-effective in the long run.

Stainless Steel Piping

  • Environment: Stainless steel pipes offer excellent resistance to interior and exterior corrosion, making them a reliable choice for various environments, including humid or demanding conditions.
  • Air Quality Requirements: Stainless steel pipes are also popular in many sectors like healthcare, research labs, clean rooms, and pharmaceutical industries, where high air quality standards are critical. They prevent contamination, ensuring the delivery of clean, uncontaminated air.
  • System Pressure: Stainless steel pipes, such as SS304L or SS316L, are structurally robust and capable of handling wide-ranging system pressures, making them versatile for various applications. But they are also heavy!
  • Cost: The initial cost of stainless steel may be higher than other options like plastic or black steel. However, its durability and reduced maintenance needs can often justify the expense in the long run.

Copper Piping

  • Environment: Copper is corrosion-resistant, making it suitable for many environments, including damp conditions.
  • Air Quality Requirements: Copper pipes offer excellent air quality due to their antimicrobial properties. They keep the air clean and free from microbial contaminants, making them a preferred choice, especially in the medical sector.
  • System Pressure: Although copper is not as strong as black steel, it can still handle moderate to high-pressure systems. Its easy manipulability makes it suitable for complex piping layouts.
  • Cost: Copper piping is more expensive than plastic alternatives and even black steel in some cases. However, the wide availability of fittings and the fact that many installers are familiar with this easy-to-install material can offset the initial cost, and its longevity ensures a return on investment.

Black Steel Piping

  • Environment: Black steel is durable and robust but may corrode in humid conditions. Therefore, there may be better choices for damp environments.
  • Air Quality Requirements: If your operations demand high air quality, black steel might not be ideal. Rust can contaminate the compressed air, affecting the quality. However, adding a desiccant dryer or similar may overcome this issue.
  • System Pressure: Black steel is suitable for high-pressure systems due to its strength and sturdiness.
  • Cost: Black steel is generally more expensive than plastic options. However, its longevity and durability might offset the initial cost over time.

Plastic Piping

  • Environment: Plastic piping is highly corrosion-resistant, making it suitable for damp or humid environments. However, certain plastic materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can become brittle over time and cannot withstand high pressure, posing a risk of pipe rupture and shrapnel injury.
  • Air Quality Requirements: Plastic piping does not rust, ensuring the delivery of clean, high-quality compressed air. However, the exact level of air quality would depend on the specific plastic material used.
  • System Pressure: While plastic piping like Polyethylene can handle a fair degree of pressure, it is not recommended for very high-pressure systems due to the risk of expansion and potential rupture, especially in the case of PVC piping.
  • Cost: Generally, plastic piping is less expensive than black steel, making it an affordable option for compressed air systems. Although simple to install, the potential risks and costs associated with safety violations if using inappropriate plastic material like PVC could offset the initial cost savings.

Common Types of Plastic Piping

  • Polyethylene (PE): PE piping is flexible, chemically resistant, and durable. PE pipes are often used in underground or above-ground compressed air systems.
  • Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS): ABS piping is lightweight, impact-resistant, and often used in low-pressure applications where ease of installation is essential.
  • High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Suitable for a wide range of pressures, HDPE piping is durable, flexible, and resistant to chemicals and is used in many underground applications.
Guide to Choosing the Right Compressed Air Piping System
Guide to Choosing the Right Compressed Air Piping System

Using the Right Materials for Piping

Today, many industrial facilities prefer aluminium compressed air piping for compressed air distribution systems due to its lightness, durability, and resistance to corrosion. While the initial material cost may exceed the galvanised pipe’s, the labour cost savings during installation easily offset the difference. 

In plants using oil-free compressors, stainless steel piping is the go-to option to prevent corrosion and consequent contamination. Welding was previously the only way to install older types of stainless steel piping, which was costly and time-consuming. Modern innovations make stainless steel crimped air systems easy to install and significantly reduce installation costs. 

Always adhere to the system manufacturer’s installation guidelines while planning to design your piping configuration. Doing so will optimise system efficiency and stay within outlined specifications and limitations for pressures and temperatures. 

For more information, reach out to an expert from Control Gear.

Guide to Piping Installation Design and Layout

A well-considered design ensures compressed air system efficiency. This proactive step can prevent inflated energy costs and promote optimal airflow.

Layout options warrant thorough evaluation, including single, two, and four-pipe systems. Each presents unique impacts on air pressure and flow: 

  • A single-pipe system is simple but may limit extension.
  • A two-pipe system offers flexibility and expansion capabilities.
  • A four-pipe system, although complex, provides the ultimate control over air quality and pressure.

Installation Best Practices

Installing compressed air systems needs precision and expertise. Employing certified installers to install a new system can avoid common pitfalls, such as improper connections and hose or pipe leaks.

Focusing on each installation step ensures the system’s longevity and efficient operation.

  • Plan the layout of the compressed air piping system. Determine the required flow rates, pressure drops, and potential expansion.
  • Use high-quality piping materials that can withstand the pressure and temperature of the proposed compressed air system.
  • Install the piping system with minimal fittings and bends to reduce the pressure drop and energy loss.
  • Ensure that the piping system is well-supported and secured to prevent sagging that can cause stress on the connections. Insufficient support for pipes can also cause leaks.
  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to cut and deburr each pipe’s ends. Smooth edges and a secure fit allow air to pass unimpeded through connections.
  • Conduct a thorough test and inspection to check for leaks and verify the system’s proper operation before commissioning it.

Maintenance and Safety

Regular Maintenance Tasks

  • Regularly inspect for leaks, as they can lead to loss of air pressure, reducing efficiency. 
  • Ensure lubrication of moving parts to prevent wear and tear, extending the system’s lifespan.
  • Monitor and clean air filters frequently. Clogged filters can increase energy consumption and compromise the compressed air’s quality. 
  • Schedule routine servicing of the compressor itself. Check the oil level, drain the condensate cylinder, and inspect the safety relief valve. 

Safety Protocols

  • Never use improper materials like PVC, which can rupture under pressure, leading to dangerous accidents.
  • Always adhere to safety guidelines to prevent risk from incidents during system operation.
  • Regularly train personnel on emergency procedures and the correct handling of compressed air equipment to maintain a safe work environment.

Get Expert Help

Careful selection of the appropriate materials for compressed air piping is vital to optimise operational efficiency and minimise costs. The right choice of material, tailored to your specific needs, can significantly enhance system performance and longevity, reducing the risk of costly breakdowns and maintenance. 

Professional advice can prove invaluable in this context, helping you navigate the complexities of system design and material selection. 

Contact Control Gear’s experts for personalised advice to ensure you get the best compressed air piping system for your operations.