Compressors are mechanical devices used to increase pressure in a variety of compressible fluids, or gases, the most common of these being air. Compressors are used throughout industry to provide shop or instrument air; to power air tools, paint sprayers, and abrasive blast equipment; to phase shift refrigerants for air conditioning and refrigeration; to propel gas through pipelines; etc. As with pumps, compressors are divided into centrifugal (or dynamic or kinetic) and positive-displacement types; but where pumps are predominately represented by centrifugal varieties, compressors are more often of the positive- displacement type. They can range in size from the fits-in-a-glovebox unit that inflates tires to the giant reciprocating or turbocompressor machines found in pipeline service. Positive-displacement compressors can be further broken out into reciprocating types, where the piston style predominates, and rotary types such as the helical screw and rotary vane.
In this guide, we will use both of the terms compressors and air compressors to refer mainly to air compressors, and in a few specialized cases will speak to more specific gases for which compressors are used.
Types of Air Compressor
Compressors may be characterized in several different ways, but are commonly divided into types based on the functional method used to generate the compressed air or gas. In the sections below, we outline and present the common compressor types. The types covered include:
Due to the nature of the compressor designs, a market also exists for the rebuilding of air compressors, and reconditioned air compressors may be available as an option over a newly purchased compressor, including special process gas compressors.
Piston compressors, or reciprocating compressors, rely on the reciprocating action of one or more pistons to compress gas within a cylinder (or cylinders) and discharge it through valving into high pressure receiving tanks. In many instances, the tank and compressor are mounted in a common frame or skid as a so-called packaged unit. While the major application of piston compressors is providing compressed air as an energy source, piston compressors are also used by pipeline operators for natural gas transmission. Piston compressors are generally selected on the pressure required (psi) and the flow rate (scfm). A typical plant-air system provides compressed air in the 90-110 psi range, with volumes anywhere from 30 to 2500 cfm; these ranges are generally attainable through commercial, off-the-shelf units. Plant-air systems can be sized around a single unit or can be based on multiple smaller units which are spaced throughout the plant.