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Compressed Air Systems: Friends or Foes of Sustainability?

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Frank Mueller, president, Kaeser Compressors, told us how his company has responded to concerns about compressed air system energy efficiency and sustainability.

Many energy efficiency advocates see compressed air systems as inherently wasteful, as typically less than 20% of the electrical power input to a compressor is converted to work done by the compressed air. Add in the inefficiencies contributed by pressure drops, leaks and sub-optimized driven equipment, and it’s no surprise most would strongly suggest that compressed air be used only where there is not a more cost-effective alternative.

But there are many such applications in virtually every industrial facility, so few would argue that compressed air is here to stay. Fortunately, compressor companies know a lot about the inefficiencies of their equipment and see the competition from blowers, mechatronics and other more energy-efficient approaches to what have been traditionally compressed air applications. So they have become acutely conscious and conscientious about compressed air sustainability.

We recently asked Frank Mueller, president, Kaeser Compressors, to tell us how concerns about energy efficiency and sustainability have influenced product designs and priorities at his company:

SP: Compressed air systems are typically significant consumers, primarily of energy but also water, lubricants, and maintenance resources. How is Kaeser working to improve sustainability by mitigating these consumptions?

Mueller: At Kaeser, we take a systems approach when addressing our customers’ needs. You can have the most efficient equipment in your plant, but if it is not properly applied, you will not have an efficient system and you will not be saving energy. We have helped our customers make considerable progress in reducing their energy costs by conducting air system audits to determine their actual need and then customizing a system to meet that need. In addition to annual energy savings, many of our customers are also able to qualify for energy rebates, which in some cases can be upwards of $25,000.

Our design philosophy is also to build the most reliable, energy-efficient equipment that requires as few consumables as possible. Each time a new product is released, we strive to reduce the amount of lubricant and refrigerant required for operation without sacrificing the quality.

A Kaeser compressed air system delivers stable pressure and a reliable supply of compressed air. This increases plant efficiency and reduces scrap – an often forgotten environmental cost.

Much attention is being paid to compressor efficiency improvements that are now typically in the lower single digits. How can such incremental improvements make any significant difference? Can a financial case be made for replacing a functional older compressor purely on energy efficiency?

It is true that many efficiency improvements may seem to be minor percentage points. Focusing solely on energy costs, however, is a grave mistake. You also need to factor in maintenance costs and downtime. If the equipment is slightly more energy-efficient but requires shorter maintenance intervals and results in increased downtime, you have lost money in this scenario. 

Before making any kind of decision to keep or replace existing equipment, you need to study the system. It is vitally important to understand how the system operates, where leaks are, how much air is being wasted, if there are periods of time where extra air is needed. In some cases, a system may really benefit from simply having the leaks fixed. After evaluating and analyzing the system, you can begin to get a picture for whether or not it would be financially prudent to replace existing equipment.

Going forward, where do you see Kaeser having an increasing effect on the sustainability of industrial facilities and the planet in general?

Kaeser has a longstanding tradition of high-quality, well-engineered products. This is a legacy that began when the company was founded in 1919 by Carl Kaeser, Sr. and it continues to guide our business and design principles today.

While the trend now is cutting corners whenever possible and choosing products that may offer some initial savings but have much higher life cycle costs, we remain committed to going against this grain.

I see our effect on sustainability increasing as plant managers and engineers grow tired of purchasing equipment that simply doesn’t last and deliver the long-term savings and efficiency they had hoped for. Since our commitment to built-for-a-lifetime quality is not going to change, we will be there to offer lasting solutions to our customers.

For more information on Kaeser Compressors, visit www.us.kaeser.com.

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