How to Detect Compressed Air Leaks

compressed-air-system-illustrationAccording to the U.S. Department of Energy, compressed air leaks left unaddressed can waste as much as 20-30% of an air compressor’s output. Wow.

People tend to ignore these leaks and sweep them under the rug, but you must identify and fix any leaks in your air compressor as soon as possible. Air compressor leaks are a critical source of wasted energy. They significantly reduce productivity and system efficiency. Leaks will eventually lead to unexpected maintenance costs if you leave them unattended.

You must check your air compressors for system leaks regularly. If you suspect that you have a compressed air leak, make sure to address the issue right away. You’ll save money in the long run if you fix the leak immediately.

Where Can You Find Compressed Air Leaks?

You can find leaks in any part of a compressed air system, but you will most likely find them in the following areas.

  • Couplings
  • Hoses
  • Tubes
  • Fittings
  • Pipe Joints
  • Disconnects
  • Thread Sealants
  • Condensate Traps
  • Shut-off Valves
  • Pressure Regulators
  • Filters
  • Lubricators
  • Baghouses
  • Cylinder Rod Packing

If you suspect that your air compressor leaks, these are the first places you’ll want to check.

Adverse Effects of Compressed Air Leaks

People often ignore compressed air leaks, but doing so can lead to several problems, including the following.

  • Wasted Energy
  • Reduced Productivity and System Efficiency
  • Reduced Equipment Life and Increased Maintenance

Wasted Energy

Compressed air leaks create an artificial demand for air, which offers no productive value in return. Leaks consume airflow, resulting in operating pressure drops at the points of use. Increasing the compressor’s pressure to compensate for the leaks only exacerbates the problem.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that leaks, artificial demand, and inappropriate usage waste half of all compressed air. Considering the billions of dollars spent on compressed air each year, that’s a tremendous cost for wasted energy that produces no real value. Individual facilities could lose thousands of dollars each year in wasted air alone, not including related operational losses.

Reduced Productivity and System Efficiency

Excessive air leaks cause fluctuations and operational pressure drops. As a result, air-operated equipment and tools will not function properly. They may even shut down entirely, resulting in disruptive and expensive unscheduled downtime. Leaky compressed air systems must work harder to meet production demands, making them ill-equipped to handle additional capacity when production surges occur.

Reduced Equipment Life and Increased Maintenance

Leaks force compressed air systems to work harder than they should, shortening their useful lifespan and leading to increased maintenance costs and unplanned downtime. Eventually, you will have to replace the compressor much earlier than you normally would.

Methods Used to Detect Compressed Air Leaks

Three methods are the most commonly used to detect compressed air leaks.

  • Good Old-Fashioned Listening and Feeling
  • Soapy Water
  • Ultrasonic Leak Detection

Leak Detection Method 1: Listening and Feeling

A low-tech way to detect compressed air leaks is to listen for them and feel around for the leaking air. This method only works for large leaks located in easily accessible locations. It can be difficult to hear leaks over the equipment noise. This traditional method only works in a limited capacity for these reasons.

Leak Detection Method 2: Soapy Water

Using a paintbrush, apply soapy water to areas that you suspect a leak. If there is a leak, soap bubbles will form. This leak detection method is reliable but also time-consuming; it requires direct physical access, meaning leaks in hard-to-reach areas of the system will remain undetected. It also does not indicate which leaks lose the most air, making it challenging to prioritize leak repairs.

Leak Detection Method 3: Ultrasonic Leak Detection

Using ultrasonic leak detection is the best way to locate air compressor leaks. It has quickly become the industry-standard method. These portable devices typically consist of directional microphones, amplifiers, and audio filters. They utilize either earphones or visual indicators to help the user detect the leak.

The equipment works by detecting the high frequency “hissing” sound created by compressed air leaking into the atmosphere, which is inaudible to the human ear. The device locates the sound’s source, pinpointing the location of minuscule leaks, even in noisy environments.

Unlike the other two methods, ultrasonic leak detection doesn’t require direct physical access to the leaks. Some ultrasonic leak detection systems even estimate the leak rate so that you can prioritize repairs.

Reducing and Preventing Compressed Air Leaks

  1. Check Your Connections
  2. Lower the Demand Air Pressure of the System
  3. Audit Your Compressed Air System Regularly
  4. Take Action on Audit Results
  5. Involve Employees in Leak Detection and Repair Efforts

1. Check Your Connections

While you can find leaks anywhere in compressed air systems, they most frequently occur at joints and connections. Worn or improperly applied thread sealant is another frequent culprit.

You can resolve many leaks by simply tightening connections or replacing failed or faulty components. These simple fixes can lead to significant energy savings.

Leak prevention begins with using high-quality equipment, including couplings, fittings, disconnects, tubing, hoses, drains, and traps. Ensure you install them properly with the appropriate thread sealant.

2. Lower the Air Pressure Demand of the System

A comprehensive compressed air audit performed by a reputable company will ensure that your settings are correct. By stabilizing the system header pressure at the lowest practical range, you lower the pressure differential across the leak sites. This stabilization lowers the compressed air flow, reducing the amount of air to leaks.

3. Audit Your Compressed Air System Regularly

Compressed air systems are especially prone to leaks as they age or their demand increases. New leaks can occur at any time, and previously repaired leaks may require attention. Leak detection and repair is a continuous effort. Annual or bi-annual audits will help you keep on top of leaks and prioritize repairs.

4. Take Action on Audit Results

Companies that pay for compressed air audits often take little to no action after receiving the findings. Ideally, you want to reduce leakage to less than 10 percent of your total compressed air production. Even if this isn’t immediately possible, any repairs or improvements positively affect your energy consumption. Start with the most significant and expensive leaks first and repair them during scheduled downtime.

5. Involve Employees in Leak Detection and Repair Efforts

Even if a contractor handles your compressed air audit, your employees still play an important role. As the people who come into contact with the equipment every day, they are the most likely to notice leaks and symptoms, such as reduced pressure in the tools they use. Your employees may not report leaks because they don’t know who to report to, there isn’t a straightforward reporting process, or they don’t realize the harmful effects of leaks.

You should educate all your employees and encourage them to report any leaks they find. You can hold a plant-wide training session to outline the financial impact of leaks and your employees’ roles in helping the company stay profitable and productive. Set up a transparent chain of command and a reporting process (such as an online form) to ensure that the information reaches the right decision-makers.

Leak prevention and reduction programs are well worth the time and effort. Leak prevention lowers energy costs, reduces downtime, decreases the wear on your equipment, improves production, and strengthens your bottom line.

So, What’s the Next Step?

If you find compressed air leaks, tag them and give each one a unique identification code. Record important information on each leak, including the location and severity of the leaks, in a spreadsheet. This information will help calculate repair costs and prioritize which leaks you should repair first.

This documentation process is part of a more extensive compressed air audit that C&B Equipment offers to its customers. Over the course of a seven-day air study of your plant, we detect any operating equipment leaks and measure cubic feet per minute (CFM), pressure, and amp load in the main airlines.

The audit consists of airflow measurements and energy and pressure recordings. We offer complete recommendations for how you can lower energy costs, reduce wear on your equipment, and increase your production efficiency. In addition to our compressed air audits, we also offer extensive equipment maintenance and repair programs.

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