Industrial Utility Efficiency    

Compressor Controls

As readers of this publication know, there are many ways to save energy in industrial compressed air systems. One common supply side technology is the variable frequency drive (VFD) of the compressor. It is well-documented that positive-displacement compressors with VFDs provide cost-effective savings in comparison to inlet modulating, load-unload, and variable displacement control.
Compressed air has moved to higher visibility in the energy conservation field, and the buzzwords abound: “the fourth utility” — “your most expensive utility” — “eight times more expensive than electricity” — “a quarter-inch leak costs $9,000 in wasted energy.” This greater awareness has also produced compressed air auditors that are springing up like summer dandelions. With audits available from many sources, it is important to understand what plant operations, engineers and maintenance managers should expect from a complete audit — or more aptly — a complete air system review.
As a reader of this journal, you are well aware that large compressed air systems often have significant wasted air — often from leaks — that represent tens of thousands of dollars of waste per year. However, it is our experience that the so-called “low-cost” measures identified often go un-repaired, while other more costly capital projects get funded. Why? With an ROI of a half year or less, they seem like IQ tests to many compressed air auditors.
There is a partly true idea floating around some plant maintenance circles that “compressed air is free.” Readers of this journal know that isn’t true. But, what if non-compressed air could be seen as “free?” Is there something we can get for free from nature to reduce the cost of our compressed air? What if lower temperature intake air was nature’s gift? What if all we need is a bit of tin to duct air from a different source?
Vale in Thompson, Manitoba, Canada has reconfigured a system of large turbo compressors in their mining, milling, smelting and refining operation and gained very large energy savings through a series of improvement projects. In addition, these projects qualified for some significant financial incentives from their local power utility.  Vale is a large multinational mining company with headquarters in Brazil.  Vale operations focus on the production of iron ore, coal, fertilizers, copper and nickel.  The Thompson Manitoba operations consist of mining, smelting, milling, and refining of Nickel in the 250 acre complex that employs 1,500 people.
This article introduces a new and useful compressed air system parameter called the “Compressor System Factor,” or CSF. The CSF of a given system defines the relationship between an air compressor, its system, and how the compressor is being operated. Knowing the CSF of a system allows comparisons to be made between existing operating characteristics and the characteristics of a proposed system. Changing a system by applying energy efficiency measures like adding storage receiver capacity, changing pressure bandwidth, or switching to different compressor control modes also changes the CSF. The results of the change can be easily predicted using the CSF number.
A factory expanded their production facilities in response to a new product line being introduced in their plant. The plant was to run as a separate entity with its own utility services. Because this company is very conscientious about their energy consumption, they specified top-of-the-line compressed air production equipment to keep their costs low while maintaining the very clean air quality required by their product. This equipment should have worked wonderfully. Unfortunately, events transpired, and poor decisions were made that pushed their system out of control, resulting in unexpected inefficient compressor operation and higher-than-desired energy consumption.
Acrylon Plastics located in Winkler, Manitoba, Canada manufactures an extensive variety of custom plastic parts for a wide range of end use applications. Years ago changes to their production volumes increased the compressed air flows to above what their compressed air system could deliver. As a result the plant pressure would fall to low levels during production peak demands, which negatively affected sensitive compressed air powered machines. In addition to this during light plant loading conditions the air compressors would run inefficiently. Plant personnel tried a variety of strategies to deal with the plant peaks, with the most efficient solution coming as a result of installing VSD style compressors and pressure/flow control.
Quite a number of worst-case compressed air scenarios have been encountered over the years but none may compare to the conditions that existed in a metal foundry somewhere in North America. For reasons you are about to discover, we will not reveal the name of this factory or its location, in order to protect the innocent from embarrassment.
Production complains about frequent work stoppages due to air supply related problems. It wants a more reliable consistent source of compressed air. Maintenance says it will need to replace an older compressor with a new one to improve the reliability and stability of the system. Maybe purchase a bigger one than currently needed in anticipation of future increases in air demands. Management wants assurances a good return on the investment will be realized from the expenditure before making a financial commitment. For comparing and evaluating alternatives, a benchmark must be established to determine the cost to run the current system. An assessment must be performed to identify the saving’s opportunities and assign dollar values. Questions about the cost of the assessment and what is to be expected in return need to be answered.
This metal fabrication and machining facility produces high-quality precision-built products. Over the years, the plant has grown and there have been several expansions to the current location. The company currently spends $227,043 annually on energy to operate the compressed air system. This figure will increase as electric rates are raised from their current average of 9.8 cents per kWh.