Maintenance Engineering -- Compressors

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Compressors are machines that are used to increase the pressure of a gas or vapor. They can be grouped into two major classifications, centrifugal and positive displacement. This section provides a general discussion of these types of compressors.


In general, the centrifugal designation is used when the gas flow is radial and the energy transfer is predominantly due to a change in the centrifugal forces acting on the gas. The force utilized by the centrifugal compressor is the same as that utilized by centrifugal pumps.

In a centrifugal compressor, air or gas at atmospheric pressure enters the eye of the impeller. As the impeller rotates, the gas is accelerated by the rotating element within the confined space that's created by the volute of the compressor's casing. The gas is compressed as more gas is forced into the volute by the impeller blades. The pressure of the gas increases as it's pushed through the reduced free space within the volute.

As in centrifugal pumps, there may be several stages to a centrifugal air compressor. In these multi-stage units, a progressively higher pressure is produced by each stage of compression.


The actual dynamics of centrifugal compressors are determined by their design.

Common designs are overhung or cantilever, centerline, and bull gear.

Overhung or Cantilever

The cantilever design is more susceptible to process instability than centerline centrifugal compressors. Ill. 1 illustrates a typical cantilever design.

The overhung design of the rotor (i.e., no outboard bearing) increases the potential for radical shaft deflection. Any variation in laminar flow, volume, or load of the inlet or discharge gas forces the shaft to bend or deflect from its true centerline. As a result, the mode shape of the shaft must be monitored closely.

Ill. 1 Cantilever centrifugal compressor is susceptible to instability.

Ill. 2 Airflow through a centerline centrifugal compressor.

Ill. 3 Balancing piston resists axial thrust from the inline impeller design of a centerline centrifugal compressor.


Centerline designs, such as horizontal and vertical split-case, are more stable over a wider operating range, but should not be operated in a variable-demand system. Ill. 2 illustrates the normal airflow pattern through a horizontal split-case compressor. Inlet air enters the first stage of the compressor, where pressure and velocity increases occur. The partially compressed air is routed to the second stage, where the velocity and pressure are increased further. Adding additional stages until the desired final discharge pressure is achieved can continue this process.

Two factors are critical to the operation of these compressors: impeller configuration and laminar flow, which must be maintained through all of the stages.

The impeller configuration has a major impact on stability and operating envelope. There are two impeller configurations, inline and back-to-back, or opposed.

With the inline design, all impellers face in the same direction. With the opposed design, impeller direction is reversed in adjacent stages.

Inline A compressor with all impellers facing in the same direction generates substantial axial forces. The axial pressures generated by each impeller for all the stages are additive. As a result, massive axial loads are transmitted to the fixed bearing. Because of this load, most of these compressors use either a Kingsbury thrust bearing or a balancing piston to resist axial thrusting.

Ill. 3 illustrates a typical balancing piston.

All compressors that use inline impellers must be monitored closely for axial thrusting. If the compressor is subjected to frequent or constant unloading, the axial clearance will increase because of this thrusting cycle. Ultimately, this frequent thrust loading will lead to catastrophic failure of the compressor.

Opposed By reversing the direction of alternating impellers, the axial forces generated by each impeller or stage can be minimized. In effect, the opposed impellers tend to cancel the axial forces generated by the preceding stage. This design is more stable and should not generate measurable axial thrusting. This allows these units to contain a normal float and fixed rolling-element bearing.

Ill. 4 Bull gear centrifugal compressor.

Bull Gear

The bull gear design uses a direct-driven helical gear to transmit power from the primary driver to a series of pinion-gear-driven impellers that are located around the circumference of the bull gear. Ill. 4 illustrates a typical bull gear compressor layout.

The pinion shafts are typically a cantilever-type design that has an enclosed impeller on one end and a tilting-pad bearing on the other. The pinion gear is between these two components. The number of impeller-pinions (i.e., stages) varies with the application and the original equipment vendor. However, all bull gear compressors contain multiple pinions that operate in series.

Atmospheric air or gas enters the first-stage pinion, where the pressure is in creased by the centrifugal force created by the first-stage impeller. The partially compressed air leaves the first stage, passes through an intercooler, and enters the second-stage impeller. This process is repeated until the fully compressed air leaves through the final pinion-impeller, or stage.

Most bull gear compressors are designed to operate with a gear speed of 3,600 rpm. In a typical four-stage compressor, the pinions operate at progressively higher speeds. A typical range is between 12,000 rpm (first stage) and 70,000 rpm (fourth stage).

Because of their cantilever design and pinion rotating speeds, bull gear compressors are extremely sensitive to variations in demand or down-stream pressure changes. Because of this sensitivity, their use should be limited to base load applications.

Bull gear compressors are not designed for, nor will they tolerate, load-following applications. They should not be installed in the same discharge manifold with positive-displacement compressors, especially reciprocating compressors. The standing-wave pulses created by many positive-displacement compressors create enough variation in the discharge-manifold to cause potentially serious instability.

In addition, the large helical gear used for the bull gear creates an axial oscillation or thrusting that contributes to instability within the compressor. This axial movement is transmitted throughout the machine-train.


The physical laws of thermodynamics, which define their efficiency and system dynamics, govern compressed-air systems and compressors. This section discusses both the first and second laws of thermodynamics, which apply to all compressors and compressed-air systems. Also applying to these systems are the Ideal Gas Law and the concepts of pressure and compression.

First Law of Thermodynamics This law states that energy can't be created or destroyed during a process, such as compression and delivery of air or gas, although it may change from one form of energy to another. In other words, whenever a quantity of one kind of energy disappears, an exactly equivalent total of other kinds of energy must be produced. This is expressed for a steady-flow open system such as a compressor by the following relationship:

Net energy added to system as heat and work + Stored energy of mass entering system = Stored energy of mass leaving system = 0

Second Law of Thermodynamics

The second law of thermodynamics states that energy exists at various levels and is available for use only if it can move from a higher to a lower level. For example, it's impossible for any device to operate in a cycle and produce work while exchanging heat only with bodies at a single fixed temperature. In thermo dynamics, a measure of the unavailability of energy has been devised and is known as entropy. As a measure of unavailability, entropy increases as a system loses heat but remains constant when there is no gain or loss of heat as in an adiabatic process. It is defined by the following differential equation:

dS = dQ/T

where T =Temperature (Fahrenheit) Q = Heat added (BTU)

Pressure//Volume//Temperature (PVT) Relationship

Pressure, temperature, and volume are properties of gases that are completely interrelated. Boyle's Law and Charles's Law may be combined into one equation that's referred to as the Ideal Gas Law. This equation is always true for Ideal gases and is true for real gases under certain conditions.

For air at room temperature, the error in this equation is less than 1% for pressures as high as 400 psia. For air at one atmosphere of pressure, the error is less than 1% for temperatures as low as _2008 Fahrenheit. These error factors will vary for different gases.


In a compressor, pressure is generated by pumping quantities of gas into a tank or other pressure vessel. Progressively increasing the amount of gas in the confined or fixed-volume space increases the pressure. The effects of pressure exerted by a confined gas result from the force acting on the container walls. This force is caused by the rapid and repeated bombardment from the enormous number of molecules that are present in a given quantity of gas.

Compression occurs when the space is decreased between the molecules. Less volume means that each particle has a shorter distance to travel, thus proportionately more collisions occur in a given span of time, resulting in a higher pressure. Air compressors are designed to generate particular pressures to meet specific application requirements.

Other Performance Indicators

The same performance indicators as centrifugal pumps or fans govern centrifugal compressors.


Dynamic compressors seldom pose serious foundation problems. Since moments and shaking forces are not generated during compressor operation, there are no variable loads to be supported by the foundation. A foundation or mounting of sufficient area and mass to maintain compressor level and alignment and to ensure safe soil loading is all that's required. The units may be supported on structural steel if necessary. The principles defined for centrifugal pumps also apply to centrifugal compressors.

It is necessary to install pressure-relief valves on most dynamic compressors to protect them because of restrictions placed on casing pressure and power input and to keep it out of its surge range. Always install a valve capable of bypassing the full-load capacity of the compressor between its discharge port and the first isolation valve.

Operating Methods

The acceptable operating envelope for centrifugal compressors is very limited.

Therefore, care should be taken to minimize any variation in suction supply, backpressure caused by changes in demand, and frequency of unloading. The operating guidelines provided in the compressor vendor's O&M manual should be followed to prevent abnormal operating behavior or premature wear or failure of the system.

Centrifugal compressors are designed to be base loaded and may exhibit abnormal behavior or chronic reliability problems when used in a load-following mode of operation. This is especially true of bull gear and cantilever compressors. For example, a 1-psig change in discharge pressure may be enough to cause catastrophic failure of a bull gear compressor.

Variations in demand or backpressure on a cantilever design can cause the entire rotating element and its shaft to flex. This not only affects the compressor's efficiency but also accelerates wear and may lead to premature shaft or rotor failure.

All compressor types have moving parts, high noise levels, high pressures, and high-temperature cylinder and discharge-piping surfaces.


Positive-displacement compressors can be divided into two major classifications, rotary and reciprocating.


The rotary compressor is adaptable to direct drive by the use of induction motors or multi-cylinder gasoline or diesel engines. These compressors are compact, relatively inexpensive, and require a minimum of operating attention and maintenance. They occupy a fraction of the space and weight of a reciprocating machine having equivalent capacity.


Ill. 5 Rotary sliding-vane compressor.

Ill. 6 Theoretical operation curves for rotary compressors with built-in porting.

Rotary compressors are classified into three general groups: sliding vane, helical lobe, and liquid-seal ring.

Sliding Vane The basic element of the sliding-vane compressor is the cylindrical housing and the rotor assembly. This compressor, which is illustrated in Ill. 5, has longitudinal vanes that slide radially in a slotted rotor mounted eccentrically in a cylinder. The centrifugal force carries the sliding vanes against the cylindrical case with the vanes forming a number of individual longitudinal cells in the eccentric annulus between the case and rotor. The suction port is located where the longitudinal cells are largest. The size of each cell is reduced by the eccentricity of the rotor as the vanes approach the discharge port, thus compressing the gas.

Cyclical opening and closing of the inlet and discharge ports occurs by the rotor's vanes passing over them. The inlet port is normally a wide opening that's designed to admit gas in the pocket between two vanes. The port closes momentarily when the second vane of each air-containing pocket passes over the inlet port.

When running at design pressure, the theoretical operation curves are identical (Ill. 6) to a reciprocating compressor. However, there is one major difference between a sliding-vane and a reciprocating compressor. The reciprocating unit has spring-loaded valves that open automatically with small pressure differentials between the outside and inside cylinder. The sliding-vane compressor has no valves.

The fundamental design considerations of a sliding-vane compressor are the rotor assembly, cylinder housing, and the lubrication system.

Housing and Rotor Assembly Cast iron is the standard material used to construct the cylindrical housing, but other materials may be used if corrosive conditions exist. The rotor is usually a continuous piece of steel that includes the shaft and is made from bar stock. Special materials can be selected for corrosive applications.

Occasionally, the rotor may be a separate iron casting keyed to a shaft. On most standard air compressors, the rotor-shaft seals are semi-metallic packing in a stuffing box. Commercial mechanical rotary seals can be supplied when needed.

Cylindrical roller bearings are generally used in these assemblies.

Vanes are usually asbestos or cotton cloth impregnated with a phenolic resin.

Bronze or aluminum also may be used for vane construction. Each vane fits into a milled slot extending the full length of the rotor and slides radially in and out of this slot once per revolution. Vanes are the most maintenance-prone part in the compressor. There are from 8 to 20 vanes on each rotor, depending on its diameter. A greater number of vanes increases compartmentalization, which reduces the pressure differential across each vane.

Lubrication System

A V-belt-driven, force-fed oil lubrication system is used on water-cooled compressors. Oil goes to both bearings and to several points in the cylinder. Ten times as much oil is recommended to lubricate the rotary cylinder as is required for the cylinder of a corresponding reciprocating compressor. The oil carried over with the gas to the line may be reduced 50% with an oil separator on the discharge. Use of an after-cooler ahead of the separator permits removal of 85-90% of the entrained oil.

Helical Lobe or Screw The helical lobe, or screw, compressor is shown in Ill. 7. It has two or more mating sets of lobe-type rotors mounted in a common housing. The male lobe, or rotor, is usually direct-driven by an electric motor.

The female lobe, or mating rotor, is driven by a helical gear set that's mounted on the outboard end of the rotor shafts. The gears provide both motive power for the female rotor and absolute timing between the rotors.

The rotor set has extremely close mating clearance (i.e., about 0.5mil) but no metal-to-metal contact. Most of these compressors are designed for oil-free operation. In other words, no oil is used to lubricate or seal the rotors. Instead, oil lubrication is limited to the timing gears and bearings that are outside the air chamber. Because of this, maintaining proper clearance between the two rotors is critical.

This type of compressor is classified as a constant volume, variable-pressure machine that's quite similar to the vane-type rotary in general characteristics.

Both have a built-in compression ratio.

Helical-lobe compressors are best suited for base-load applications where they can provide a constant volume and pressure of discharge gas. The only recommended method of volume control is the use of variable-speed motors. With variable-speed drives, capacity variations can be obtained with a proportionate reduction in speed. A 50% speed reduction is the maximum permissible control range.

Helical-lobe compressors are not designed for frequent or constant cycles between load and no-load operation. Each time the compressor unloads, the rotors tend to thrust axially. Even though the rotors have a substantial thrust bearing and , in some cases, a balancing piston to counteract axial thrust, the axial clearance increases each time the compressor unloads. Over time, this clearance will increase enough to permit a dramatic rise in the impact energy created by axial thrust during the transient from loaded to unloaded conditions. In extreme cases, the energy can be enough to physically push the rotor assembly through the compressor housing.

Ill. 7 Helical lobe, or screw, rotary air compressor.

Ill. 8 Liquid-seal ring rotary air compressor.

Compression ratio and maximum inlet temperature determine the maximum discharge temperature of these compressors. Discharge temperatures must be limited to prevent excessive distortion between the inlet and discharge ends of the casing and rotor expansion. High-pressure units are water-jacketed to obtain uniform casing temperature. Rotors also may be cooled to permit a higher operating temperature.

If either casing distortion or rotor expansion occur, the clearance between the rotating parts will decrease and metal-to-metal contact will occur. Since the rotors typically rotate at speeds between 3,600 and 10,000 rpm, metal-to-metal contact normally results in instantaneous, catastrophic compressor failure.

Changes in differential pressures can be caused by variations in either inlet or discharge conditions (i.e., temperature, volume, or pressure). Such changes can cause the rotors to become unstable and change the load zones in the shaft support bearings. The result is premature wear and /or failure of the bearings.

Always install a relief valve that's capable of bypassing the full-load capacity of the compressor between its discharge port and the first isolation valve. Since helical-lobe compressors are less tolerant to over-pressure operation, safety valves are usually set within 10% of absolute discharge pressure, or 5 psi, whichever is lower.

Liquid-Seal Ring The liquid-ring, or liquid-piston, compressor is shown in Ill. 8. It has a rotor with multiple forward-turned blades that rotate about a central cone that contains inlet and discharge ports. Liquid is trapped between adjacent blades, which drive the liquid around the inside of an elliptical casing. As the rotor turns, the liquid face moves in and out of this space because of the casing shape, creating a liquid piston. Porting in the central cone is built-in and fixed and there are no valves.

Compression occurs within the pockets or chambers between the blades before the discharge port is uncovered. Since the port location must be designed and built for a specific compression ratio, it tends to operate above or below the design pressure (refer back to Ill. 6).

Liquid-ring compressors are cooled directly rather than by jacketed casing walls.

The cooling liquid is fed into the casing, where it comes into direct contact with the gas being compressed. The excess liquid is discharged with the gas. The discharged mixture is passed through a conventional baffle or centrifugal-type separator to remove the free liquid. Because of the intimate contact of gas and liquid, the final discharge temperature can be held close to the inlet cooling water temperature. However, the discharge gas is saturated with liquid at the discharge temperature of the liquid.

The amount of liquid passed through the compressor is not critical and can be varied to obtain the desired results. The unit will not be damaged if a large quantity of liquid inadvertently enters its suction port.

Lubrication is required only in the bearings, which are generally located external to the casing. The liquid itself acts as a lubricant, sealing medium, and coolant for the stuffing boxes.


Performance of a rotary positive-displacement compressor can be evaluated by using the same criteria as used with a positive-displacement pump. Because these are constant-volume machines, performance is determined by rotation speed, internal slip, and total backpressure on the compressor.

The volumetric output of rotary positive-displacement compressors can be con trolled by speed changes. The slower the compressor turns, the lower its output volume. This feature permits the use of these compressors in load-following applications. However, care must be taken to prevent sudden radical changes in speed.

Internal slip is simply the amount of gas that can flow through internal clearances from the discharge back to the inlet. Obviously, internal wear will increase internal slip.

Discharge pressure is relatively constant regardless of operating speed. With the exceptions of slight pressure variations caused by atmospheric changes and backpressure, a rotary positive-displacement compressor will provide a fixed discharge pressure. Backpressure, which is caused by restrictions in the discharge piping or demand from users of the compressed air or gas, can have a serious impact on compressor performance.

If backpressure is too low or demand too high, the compressor will be unable to provide sufficient volume or pressure to the downstream systems. In this in stance, the discharge pressure will be noticeably lower than designed.

If the backpressure is too high or demand too low, the compressor will generate a discharge pressure higher than designed. It will continue to compress the air or gas until it reaches the unload setting on the system's relief valve or until the brake horsepower required exceeds the maximum horsepower rating of the driver.


Installation requirements for rotary positive-displacement compressors are similar to those for any rotating machine. Review the installation requirements for centrifugal pumps and compressors for foundation, pressure-relief, and other requirements. As with centrifugal compressors, rotary positive-displacement compressors must be fitted with pressure-relief devices to limit the discharge or inter-stage pressures to a safe maximum for the equipment served.

In applications in which demand varies, rotary positive-displacement compressors require a downstream receiver tank or reservoir that minimizes the load-unload cycling frequency of the compressor. The receiver tank should have sufficient volume to permit acceptable unload frequencies for the compressor. Refer to the vendor's O&M manual for specific receiver-tank recommendations.

Operating Methods

All compressor types have moving parts, high noise levels, high pressures, and high-temperature cylinder and discharge-piping surfaces. Refer to Section 4, which discusses compressor safety issues in general. Rotary positive-displacement compressors should be operated as base-loaded units. They are especially sensitive to the repeated start-stop operation required by load-following applications.

Generally, rotary positive-displacement compressors are designed to unload about every 6 to 8 hours. This unload cycle is needed to dissipate the heat generated by the compression process. If the unload frequency is too great, these compressors have a high probability of failure.

There are several primary operating control inputs for rotary positive-displacement compressors. These control inputs are discharge pressure, pressure fluctuations, and unloading frequency.

Discharge Pressure

This type of compressor will continue to compress the air volume in the down-stream system until (1) some component in the system fails, (2) the brake horsepower exceeds the driver's capacity, or (3) a safety valve opens. Therefore the operator's primary control input should be the compressor's discharge pressure. If the discharge pressure is below the design point, it's a clear indicator that the total downstream demand is greater than the unit's capacity. If the discharge pressure is too high, the demand is too low and excessive unloading will be required to prevent failure.

Pressure Fluctuations

Fluctuations in the inlet and discharge pressures indicate potential system problems that may adversely affect performance and reliability.

Pressure fluctuations are generally caused by changes in the ambient environment, turbulent flow, or restrictions caused by partially blocked inlet filters. Any of these problems will result in performance and reliability problems if not corrected.

Unloading Frequency The unloading function in rotary positive-displacement compressors is automatic and not under operator control. Generally, a set of limit switches, one monitoring internal temperature and one monitoring discharge pressure, is used to trigger the unload process. By design, the limit switch that monitors the compressor's internal temperature is the primary control. The secondary control, or discharge-pressure switch, is a fail-safe design to prevent overloading the compressor.

Depending on design, rotary positive-displacement compressors have an internal mechanism designed to minimize the axial thrust caused by the instantaneous change from fully loaded to unloaded operating conditions. In some designs, a balancing piston is used to absorb the rotor's thrust during this transient. In others, oversized thrust bearings are used.

Regardless of the mechanism used, none provides complete protection from the damage imparted by the transition from load to no-load conditions. However, as long as the unload frequency is within design limits, this damage will not adversely affect the compressor's useful operating life or reliability. However, an unload frequency greater than that accommodated in the design will reduce the useful life of the compressor and may lead to premature, catastrophic failure.

Operating practices should minimize, as much as possible, the unload frequency of these compressors. Installation of a receiver tank and modification of user demand practices are the most effective solutions to this type of problem.


Reciprocating compressors are widely used by industry and are offered in a wide range of sizes and types. They vary from units requiring less than 1Hp to more than 12,000 HP. Pressure capabilities range from low vacuums at intake to special compressors capable of 60,000 psig or higher.

Reciprocating compressors are classified as constant-volume, variable-pressure machines. They are the most efficient type of compressor and can be used for partial-load, or reduced-capacity, applications.

Because of the reciprocating pistons and unbalanced rotating parts, the unit tends to shake. Therefore it's necessary to provide a mounting that stabilizes the installation. The extent of this requirement depends on the type and size of the compressor.

Because reciprocating compressors should be supplied with clean gas, inlet filters are recommended in all applications. They can't satisfactorily handle liquids entrained in the gas, although vapors are no problem if condensation within the cylinders does not take place. Liquids will destroy the lubrication and cause excessive wear.

Reciprocating compressors deliver a pulsating flow of gas that can damage downstream equipment or machinery. This is sometimes a disadvantage, but pulsation dampers can be used to alleviate the problem.


Certain design fundamentals should be clearly understood before analyzing the operating condition of reciprocating compressors. These fundamentals include frame and running gear, inlet and discharge valves, cylinder cooling, and cylinder orientation.

Frame and Running Gear

Two basic factors guide frame and running gear design. The first factor is the maximum horsepower to be transmitted through the shaft and running gear to the cylinder pistons. The second factor is the load imposed on the frame parts by the pressure differential between the two sides of each piston. This is often called pin load because this full force is directly exerted on the crosshead and crankpin. These two factors determine the size of bearings, connecting rods, frame, and bolts that must be used throughout the compressor and its support structure.

Cylinder Design

Compression efficiency depends entirely on the design of the cylinder and its valves. Unless the valve area is sufficient to allow gas to enter and leave the cylinder without undue restriction, efficiency can't be high. Valve placement for free flow of the gas in and out of the cylinder is also important.

Both efficiency and maintenance are influenced by the degree of cooling during compression. The method of cylinder cooling must be consistent with the service intended.

The cylinders and all the parts must be designed to withstand the maximum application pressure. The most economical materials that will give the proper strength and the longest service under the design conditions are generally used.

Inlet and Discharge Valves

Ill. 9 Finger valve configuration.

Compressor valves are placed in each cylinder to permit one-way flow of gas, either into or out of the cylinder. There must be one or more valve(s) for inlet and discharge in each compression chamber.

Each valve opens and closes once for each revolution of the crankshaft. The valves in a compressor operating at 700 rpm for 8 hours per day and 250 days per year will have cycled (i.e., opened and closed) 42,000 times per hour, 336,000 times per day, or 84 million times in a year. The valves have less than 1/10 of a second to open, let the gas pass through, and close. They must cycle with a minimum of resistance for minimum power consumption. However, the valves must have minimal clearance to prevent excessive expansion and reduced volumetric efficiency. They must be tight under extreme pressure and temperature conditions. Finally, the valves must be durable under many kinds of abuse.

There are four basic valve designs used in these compressors: finger, channel, leaf, and annular ring. Within each class there may be variations in design, depending on operating speed and size of valve required.

Finger Ill. 9 is an exploded view of a typical finger valve. These valves are used for smaller, air-cooled compressors. One end of the finger is fixed and the opposite end lifts when the valve opens.

Channel The channel valve shown in Ill. 10 is widely used in mid- to large-sized compressors. This valve uses a series of separate stainless steel channels. As explained in the illustration, this is a cushioned valve, which adds greatly to its life.


The leaf valve (Ill. 11) has a configuration somewhat like the channel valve. It is made of flat-strip steel that opens against an arched stop plate.

This results in valve flexing only at its center with maximum lift. The valve operates as its own spring.

Annular Ring

Ill. 12 shows exploded views of typical inlet and discharge annular-ring valves. The valves shown have a single ring, but larger sizes may have two or three rings. In some designs, the concentric rings are tied into a single piece by bridges.

The springs and the valve move into a recess in the stop plate as the valve opens.

Gas that's trapped in the recess acts as a cushion and prevents slamming. This eliminates a major source of valve and spring breakage. The valve shown was the first cushioned valve built.

Ill. 10 Channel valve configuration.

Cylinder Cooling

Cylinder heat is produced by the work of compression plus friction, which is caused by the action of the piston and piston rings on the cylinder wall and packing on the rod. The amount of heat generated can be considerable, particularly when moderate to high compression ratios are involved. This can result in undesirably high operating temperatures.

Most compressors use some method to dissipate a portion of this heat to reduce the cylinder wall and discharge gas temperatures. The following are advantages of cylinder cooling:

  • _ Lowering cylinder wall and cylinder head temperatures reduces loss of capacity and horsepower per unit volume caused by suction gas pre heating during inlet stroke. This results in more gas in the cylinder for compression.
  • _ Reducing cylinder wall and cylinder head temperatures removes more heat from the gas during compression, lowering its final temperature and reducing the power required.
  • _ Reducing the gas temperature and that of the metal surrounding the valves results in longer valve service life and reduces the possibility of deposit formation.
  • _ Reduced cylinder wall temperature promotes better lubrication, resulting in longer life and reduced maintenance.
  • _ Cooling, particularly water cooling, maintains a more even temperature around the cylinder bore and reduces warpage.

Ill. 11 Leaf spring configuration.

Ill. 12 Annular-ring valves.

Ill. 13 Three-piston compressor generates higher vibration levels.

Cylinder Orientation

Orientation of the cylinders in a multi-stage or multi-cylinder compressor directly affects the operating dynamics and vibration level. Ill. 13 illustrates a typical three-piston, air-cooled compressor. Since three pistons are oriented within a 120-degree arc, this type of compressor generates higher vibration levels than the opposed piston compressor.


Reciprocating-compressor performance is governed almost exclusively by operating speed. Each cylinder of the compressor will discharge the same volume, excluding slight variations caused by atmospheric changes, at the same discharge pressure each time it completes the discharge stroke. As the rotation speed of the compressor changes, so does the discharge volume. The only other variables that affect performance are the inlet-discharge valves, which control flow into and out of each cylinder. Although reciprocating compressors can use a variety of valve designs, it's crucial that the valves perform reliably. If they are damaged and fail to operate at the proper time or don't seal properly, overall compressor performance will be substantially reduced.


A carefully planned and executed installation is extremely important and makes compressor operation and maintenance easier and safer. Key components of a compressor installation are location, foundation, and piping.


The preferred location for any compressor is near the center of its load.

However, the choice is often influenced by the cost of supervision, which can vary by location. The ongoing cost of supervision may be less expensive at a less optimum location, which can offset the cost of longer piping.

A compressor will always give better, more reliable service when enclosed in a building that protects it from cold, dusty, damp, and corrosive conditions. In certain locations it may be economical to use a roof only, but this is not recommended unless the weather is extremely mild. Even then, it's crucial to prevent rain and wind-blown debris from entering the moving parts. Subjecting a compressor to adverse inlet conditions will dramatically reduce reliability and significantly increase maintenance requirements.

Ill. 14 Opposed-piston compressor balances piston forces.

Ventilation around a compressor is vital. On a motor-driven, air-cooled unit, the heat radiated to the surrounding air is at least 65% of the power input. On a water-jacketed unit with an aftercooler and outside receiver, the heat radiated to the surrounding air may be 15-25% of the total energy input, which is still a substantial amount of heat. Positive outside ventilation is recommended for any compressor room where the ambient temperature may exceed 1048F.

Foundation Because of the alternating movement of pistons and other components, reciprocating compressors often develop a shaking that alternates in direction. This force must be damped and contained by the mounting. The foundation also must support the weight load of the compressor and its driver.

There are many compressor arrangements and the net magnitude of the moments and forces developed can vary a great deal among them. In some cases, they are partially or completely balanced within the compressors them selves. In others, the foundation must handle much of the force. When complete balance is possible, reciprocating compressors can be mounted on a foundation just large and rigid enough to carry the weight and maintain alignment.

However, most reciprocating compressors require larger, more massive foundations than other machinery.

Depending on size and type of unit, the mounting may vary from simply bolting to the floor, to attaching to a massive foundation designed specifically for the application. A proper foundation must (1) maintain the alignment and level of the compressor and its driver at the proper elevation and (2) minimize vibration and prevent its transmission to adjacent building structures and machinery.

There are five steps to accomplish the first objective:

1. The safe weight-bearing capacity of the soil must not be exceeded at any point on the foundation base.

2. The load to the soil must be distributed over the entire area.

3. The size and proportion of the foundation block must be such that the resultant vertical load caused by the compressor, block, and any unbalanced force falls within the base area.

4. The foundation must have sufficient mass and weight-bearing area to prevent its sliding on the soil because of unbalanced forces.

5. Foundation temperature must be uniform to prevent warping.

Bulk is not usually the complete solution to foundation problems. A certain weight is sometimes necessary, but soil area is usually of more value than foundation mass.

Determining whether two or more compressors should have separate or single foundations depends on the compressor type. A combined foundation is recommended for reciprocating units since the forces from one unit usually will partially balance out the forces from the others. In addition, the greater mass and surface area in contact with the ground damps foundation movement and provides greater stability.

Soil quality may vary seasonally, and such conditions must be carefully considered in the foundation design. No foundation should rest partially on bedrock and partially on soil; it should rest entirely on one or the other. If placed on the ground, make sure that part of the foundation does not rest on soil that has been disturbed. In addition, pilings may be necessary to ensure stability.


Piping should easily fit the compressor connections without needing to spring or twist it to fit. It must be supported independently of the compressor and anchored, as necessary, to limit vibration and to prevent expansion strains.

Improperly installed piping may distort or pull the compressor's cylinders or casing out of alignment.

Air Inlet

The intake pipe on an air compressor should be as short and direct as possible. If the total run of the inlet piping is unavoidably long, the diameter should be increased. The pipe size should be greater than the compressor's air-inlet connection.

Cool inlet air is desirable. For every 58F of ambient air temperature reduction, the volume of compressed air generated increases by 1% with the same power consumption. This increase in performance is due to the greater density of the intake air.

It is preferable for the intake air to be taken from outdoors. This reduces heating and air conditioning costs and , if properly designed, has fewer contaminants.

However, the intake piping should be a minimum of 6 ft. above the ground and be screened or, preferably, filtered. An air inlet must be free of steam and engine exhausts. The inlet should be hooded or turned down to prevent the entry of rain or snow. It should be above the building eaves and several feet from the building.


Discharge piping should be the full size of the compressor's discharge connection. The pipe size should not be reduced until the point along the pipeline is reached where the flow has become steady and non-pulsating. With a reciprocating compressor, this is generally beyond the aftercooler or the receiver. Pipes to handle non-pulsating flow are sized by normal methods and long-radius bends are recommended. All discharge piping must be designed to allow adequate expansion loops or bends to prevent undue stresses at the compressor.


Before piping is installed, the layout should be analyzed to eliminate low points where liquid could collect and to provide drains where low points can't be eliminated. A regular part of the operating procedure must be the periodic drainage of low points in the piping and separators, as well as inspection of automatic drain traps.

Pressure-Relief Valves

Ill. 15 How a safety valve functions.

All reciprocating compressors must be fitted with pressure relief devices to limit the discharge or interstage pressures to a safe maximum for the equipment served. Always install a relief valve that's capable of bypassing the full-load capacity of the compressor between its discharge port and the first isolation valve.

The safety valves should be set to open at a pressure slightly higher than the normal discharge-pressure rating of the compressor. For standard 100-115 psig two-stage air compressors, safety valves are normally set at 125 psig.

The pressure-relief safety valve is normally situated on top of the air reservoir, and there must be no restriction on its operation. The valve is usually of the ''huddling chamber'' design in which the static pressure acting on its disk area causes it to open. Ill. 15 illustrates how such a valve functions. As the valve pops, the air space within the huddling chamber between the seat and blowdown ring fills with pressurized air and builds up more pressure on the roof of the disk holder. This temporary pressure increases the upward thrust against the spring, causing the disk and its holder to fully pop open.

Once a predetermined pressure drop (i.e., blowdown) occurs, the valve closes with a positive action by trapping pressurized air on top of the disk holder. Raising or lowering the blowdown ring adjusts the pressure-drop setpoint. Raising the ring increases the pressure-drop setting, while lowering it decreases the setting.

Operating Methods

Compressors can be hazardous to work around because they have moving parts.

Ensure that clothing is kept away from belt drives, couplings, and exposed shafts.

In addition, high-temperature surfaces around cylinders and discharge piping are exposed. Compressors are notoriously noisy, so ear protection should be worn.

These machines are used to generate high-pressure gas so, when working around them, it's important to wear safety glasses and to avoid searching for leaks with bare hands. High-pressure leaks can cause severe friction burns.


Compressors can be divided into three classifications: centrifugal, rotary, and reciprocating. This section identifies the common failure modes for each.


The operating dynamics of centrifugal compressors are the same as for other centrifugal machine-trains. The dominant forces and vibration profiles are typically identical to pumps or fans. However, the effects of variable load and other process variables (e.g., temperatures, inlet/discharge pressure, etc.) are more pronounced than in other rotating machines. Tbl. 1 identifies the common failure modes for centrifugal compressors.

Aerodynamic instability is the most common failure mode for centrifugal compressors. Variable demand and restrictions of the inlet-air flow are common sources of this instability. Even slight variations can cause dramatic changes in the operating stability of the compressor.

Entrained liquids and solids also can affect operating life. When dirty air must be handled, open-type impellers should be used. An open design provides the ability to handle a moderate amount of dirt or other solids in the inlet-air supply.

However, inlet filters are recommended for all applications, and controlled liquid injection for cleaning and cooling should be considered during the design process.


Tbl. 2 lists the common failure modes of rotary-type, positive-displacement compressors. This type of compressor can be grouped into two types, sliding vane and rotary screw.


Tbl. 1 Common Failure Modes of Centrifugal Compressors


Excessive Vibration Compressor Surges Loss of Discharge Pressure Low Lube Oil Pressure Excessive Bearing Oil Drain Temp.

Units Do Not Stay in Alignment Persistent Unloading Water in Lube Oil Motor Trips

THE CAUSES Bearing Lube Oil Orifice Missing or Plugged Bent Rotor (Caused by Uneven Heating and Cooling) Build up of Deposits on Diffuser Build up of Deposits on Rotor Change in System Resistance Clogged Oil Strainer/Filter Compressor Not Up To Speed Condensate in Oil Reservoir Damaged Rotor Dry Gear Coupling Excessive Bearing Clearance Excessive Inlet Temperature Failure of Both Main and Auxiliary Oil Pumps Faulty Temperature Gauge or Switch Improperly Assembled Parts Incorrect Pressure Control Valve Setting Insufficient Flow Leak in Discharge Piping Leak in Lube Oil Cooler Tubes or Tube Sheet Leak in Oil Pump Suction Piping Liquid ''Slugging''

Loose or Broken Bolting Loose Rotor Parts Oil Leakage Oil Pump Suction Plugged Oil Reservoir Low Level Operating at Low Speed w/o Auxiliary Oil Pump Operating in Critical Speed Range Operating in Surge Region Piping Strain Poor Oil Condition Relief Valve Improperly Set or Stuck Open Rotor Imbalance Rough Rotor Shaft Journal Surface Shaft Misalignment Sympathetic Vibration; Vibration Warped Foundation or Baseplate Wiped or Damaged Bearings Worn or Damaged Coupling

Tbl. 2 Common Failure Modes of Rotary-Type, Positive-Displacement Compressors


No Air/Gas Delivery Insufficient Discharge Pressure Insufficient Capacity Excessive Wear Excessive Heat Excessive Vibration and Noise Excessive Power Demand Motor Trips Elevated Motor Temperature Elevated Air/Gas Temperature


Air Leakage into Suction Piping or Shaft Seal Coupling Misaligned Excessive Discharge Pressure Excessive Inlet Temperature/Moisture Insufficient Suction Air/Gas Supply Internal Component Wear Motor or Driver Failure Pipe Strain on Compressor Casing Relief Valve Stuck Open or Set Wrong Rotating Element Binding Solids or Dirt in Inlet Air/Gas Supply Speed Too Low Suction Filter or Strainer Clogged Wrong Direction of Rotation



Sliding-vane compressors have the same failure modes as vane-type pumps. The dominant components in their vibration profile are running speed, vane-pass frequency, and bearing-rotation frequencies. In normal operation, the dominant energy is at the shaft's running speed. The other frequency components are at much lower energy levels. Common failures of this type of compressor occur with shaft seals, vanes, and bearings.

Shaft Seals

Leakage through the shaft's seals should be checked visually once a week or as part of every data-acquisition route. Leakage may not be apparent from the outside of the gland. If the fluid is removed through a vent, the discharge should be configured for easy inspection. Generally, more leakage than normal is the signal to replace a seal. Under good conditions, they have a normal life of 10,000 to 15,000 hours and should routinely be replaced when this service life has been reached.


Vanes wear continuously on their outer edges and , to some degree, on the faces that slide in and out of the slots. The vane material is affected somewhat by prolonged heat, which causes gradual deterioration. Typical life expectancy of vanes in 100-psig service is about 16,000 hours of operation. For low-pressure applications, life may reach 32,000 hours.

Replacing vanes before they break is extremely important. Breakage during operation can severely damage the compressor, which requires a complete over haul and realignment of heads and clearances.


In normal service, bearings have a relatively long life. Replacement after about 6 years of operation is generally recommended. Bearing defects are usually displayed in the same manner in a vibration profile as for any rotating machine train. Inner and outer race defects are the dominant failure modes, but roller spin also may contribute to the failure.

Rotary Screw

The most common reason for compressor failure or component damage is process instability. Rotary-screw compressors are designed to deliver a constant volume and pressure of air or gas. These units are extremely susceptible to any change in either inlet or discharge conditions. A slight variation in pressure, temperature, or volume can result in instantaneous failure. The following are used as indices of instability and potential problems: rotor mesh, axial movement, thrust bearings, and gear mesh.

Rotor Mesh

In normal operation, the vibration energy generated by male and female rotor meshing is very low. As the process becomes unstable, the energy caused by the rotor meshing frequency increases, with both the amplitude of the meshing frequency and the width of the peak increasing. In addition, the noise floor surrounding the meshing frequency becomes more pronounced. This white noise is similar to that observed in a cavitating pump or unstable fan.

Axial Movement

The normal tendency of the rotors and helical timing gears is to generate axial shaft movement, or thrusting. However, the extremely tight clearances between the male and female rotors don't tolerate any excessive axial movement and , therefore, axial movement should be a primary monitoring parameter. Axial measurements are needed from both rotor assemblies. If there is any increase in the vibration amplitude of these measurements, it's highly probable that the compressor will fail.

Thrust Bearings

While process instability can affect both the fixed and float bearings, the thrust bearing is more likely to show early degradation as a result of process instability or abnormal compressor dynamics. Therefore these bearings should be monitored closely, and any degradation or hint of excessive axial clearance should be corrected immediately.

Gear Mesh

The gear mesh vibration profile also provides an indication of prolonged compressor instability. Deflection of the rotor shafts changes the wear pattern on the helical gear sets. This change in pattern increases the backlash in the gear mesh, results in higher vibration levels, and increases thrusting.


Reciprocating compressors have a history of chronic failures that include valves, lubrication system, pulsation, and imbalance. Tbl. 3 identifies common failure modes and causes for this type of compressor.

Like all reciprocating machines, reciprocating compressors normally generate higher levels of vibration than centrifugal machines. In part, the increased level of vibration is caused by the impact as each piston reaches top dead center and bottom dead center of its stroke. The energy levels also are influenced by the unbalanced forces generated by non-opposed pistons and looseness in the piston rods, wrist pins, and journals of the compressor. In most cases, the dominant vibration frequency is the second harmonic (2X) of the main crankshaft's rotating speed. Again, this results from the impact that occurs when each piston changes directions (i.e., two impacts occur during one complete crankshaft rotation).

Ill. 16 Unbalanced inertial forces and couples for various reciprocating compressors.


Valve failure is the dominant failure mode for reciprocating compressors. Be cause of their high cyclic rate, which exceeds 80 million cycles per year, inlet and discharge valves tend to work harden and crack.

Lubrication System

Poor maintenance of lubrication-system components, such as filters and strainers, typically causes premature failure. Such maintenance is crucial to reciprocating compressors because they rely on the lubrication system to provide a uniform oil film between closely fitting parts (e.g., piston rings and the cylinder wall). Partial or complete failure of the lube system results in catastrophic failure of the compressor.


Reciprocating compressors generate pulses of compressed air or gas that are discharged into the piping that transports the air or gas to its point(s) of use. This pulsation often generates resonance in the piping system and pulse impact (i.e., standing waves) can severely damage other machinery connected to the com pressed-air system. While this behavior does not cause the compressor to fail, it must be prevented to protect other plant equipment. Note, however, that most compressed-air systems don't use pulsation dampers.

Each time the compressor discharges compressed air, the air tends to act like a compression spring. Because it rapidly expands to fill the discharge piping's available volume, the pulse of high-pressure air can cause serious damage. The pulsation wavelength, l, from a compressor having a double-acting piston design can be determined by:

l = 60a/2n = 34, 050/n


l = Wavelength, feet; a = Speed of sound = 1,135 feet/second; n = Compressor speed, revolutions=minute. For a double-acting piston design, a compressor running at 1,200 rpm will generate a standing wave of 28.4 ft. In other words, a shock load equivalent to the discharge pressure will be transmitted to any piping or machine connected to the discharge piping and located within 28 ft. of the compressor. Note that for a single-acting cylinder, the wavelength will be twice as long.


Compressor inertial forces may have two effects on the operating dynamics of a reciprocating compressor, affecting its balance characteristics. The first is a force in the direction of the piston movement, which is displayed as impacts in a vibration profile as the piston reaches top and bottom dead center of its stroke.

The second effect is a couple, or moment, caused by an offset between the axes of two or more pistons on a common crankshaft. The inter-relationship and magnitude of these two effects depend on such factors as: (1) number of cranks, (2) longitudinal and angular arrangement, (3) cylinder arrangement, and (4) amount of counter balancing possible. Two significant vibration periods result, the primary at the compressor's rotation speed (X) and the secondary at 2X.

Although the forces developed are sinusoidal, only the maximum (i.e., the amplitude) is considered in the analysis. Ill. 16 shows relative values of the inertial forces for various compressor arrangements.

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