How to tackle compressed air leaks
By Amber Williams, EECA Account Manager
Staying on top of compressed air leaks can save thousands, yet many large businesses don’t get around to it. Here’s why you should budge it up the list – and tips on how to do it.
Compressed air is used in industrial processes such as cleaning, controlling machines on assembly lines and operating pumps.
It’s inherently inefficient – air leaks typically account for 20–50% of compressed air electricity use – but it’s easy to get a good payback by staying on top of leaks with a routine programme of identifying and fixing leaks at least once a year.
So why don’t businesses get onto it?
It’s often a problem of resource and priority. Until recently, none of the businesses I work with scheduled annual reviews and maintenance along their compressed air lines; they just made repairs on an ad hoc basis.
One solution is to hire an energy expert, who can typically survey a large plant for air leaks in a couple of days. It costs around $1,000-$5,000 depending on the size of the business, and provides a useful report.
However, the common theme I hear from businesses is that it’s hard to justify bringing in an energy expert when this work can be done in-house by maintenance staff. They’re right. Many air leaks can be detected by the naked ear, and it is not difficult to hire an ultrasonic detector gun that picks them up even in a noisy plant.
So businesses can do it themselves – but do they? More often, it gets dropped to the bottom of the list. This is an opportunity cost, because the wasted energy costs more than the survey.
When nudging my clients to take on a compressed air focus, I push them to put a date on when they will address the leaks. You can do it in-house so long as someone dedicates 2-5 days to it at least once a year.
One client started a tagging system, where staff noted leaks on a whiteboard as they came across them. Great start, but you still need to put a timeframe around it and get them done.
A mixed approach has worked for another of my clients. They brought in an energy expert to carry out the leak detection survey, then scheduled themselves two weeks to repair each tagged leak. They repaired 90% of all site air leaks within those two weeks and have a plan for the remainder. Going forward they intend to do the survey themselves and have scheduled an annual date for this.
Another client has decided to use in-house resources. To keep the programme on track, the energy team agreed compressed air would be the focus from mid-June to mid-July. The most significant compressed air leaks and energy saving opportunities were identified and repaired by the maintenance staff. By monitoring the compressor’s energy use, they’ve shown daily energy totals have tracked down by 125kWh per weekday and 275kWh per day on weekends. These energy savings are worth close to $8,000 a year.