Oil vs. Oil-Free Air Compressors


Air compression is essential in several industries, including the pharmaceutical, automotive, food and beverage, and agricultural sectors. There are several air compressor variations; for instance, some handle heavy-duty applications better than others. However, you can typically place air compressors into two overarching categories: oil-lubricated compressors and oil-free compressors.

Oil-Lubricated Air Compressors

All air compressors have moving parts. You must lubricate these moving parts to avoid damaging your air compressor. If you do not adequately lubricate your compressor, it will fail to function correctly. Oil is the most common lubrication material used for machinery, and traditional oil-lubed compressors utilize this tried-and-true medium.

Oiled compressors are rugged and durable, and their oil usage makes them ideal for industrial applications. They tend to produce a lot of heat, but the oil acts as a coolant.

Oil-lubricated compressors are versatile and reliable, but they have some drawbacks. For one, they require a lot of maintenance, and operators have to check oil levels and change the oil and oil filters on a regular basis. Additionally, their large size makes them impossible to transport, so you have to permanently install them at a single location.

The most glaring drawback of using oil-lubricated compressors is the risk of oil contamination. The oil used to lubricate, seal, and cool the machine leaves oil content in the compressed air that you must remove via separation or filtration. In industries where air purity is critical (particularly in sterile environments), even the tiniest drop of oil risks contamination.

Oil contamination can cause product spoilage, rework, production downtime, and even damage to your brand’s reputation if you do not correct the issue. This is where oil-free compressors come into play…

Oil-Free Air Compressors

Oil-free compressors use an alternative sealing, cooling, or lubrication medium, such as water, eliminating the risks and associated costs of oil contamination. Companies use oil-free compressors for applications where even the slightest bit of oil carry-over is unacceptable.

For example, pharmaceutical manufacturing companies must have no hydrocarbons in their products or the air in their production facilities. The same is true for food and beverage companies, such as bottling companies and food packaging manufacturers, because air comes into direct contact with their products.

Here is a list of industries and applications that typically require oil-free air compressors to avoid oil contamination.

  • Medical
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Food & Beverage
  • Life Science
  • Chemical
  • Power Generation

Common Oil-Free Compressor Misconceptions

There are a few myths floating around that people use to discredit oil-free air compressors. We’re going to debunk a few of these myths.

Oil-Free Compressors Are Extremely Loud

We can’t deny that oil-free compressors used to be much noisier than their traditional oil-lubricated counterparts. However, modern oil-free compressors are not nearly as loud as people make them out to be. Today’s oil-free compressors utilize direct-drive, dual-piston pumps and sound-reducing technology, making noise a non-issue.

Oil-Free Compressors Have Shorter Lifespans

The biggest argument against oil-free compressors is their relatively short life expectancy. Again, this may have been the case back in the day, but today’s oil-free compressor lifespans are no longer an issue.

Oil-free technology has advanced significantly, allowing oil-free compressors to run cooler and last longer. Plus, they require less maintenance than oil compressors. However, you will likely have to replace the airend on an oil-free compressor before you have to replace the airend on a well-maintained oil-flooded compressor.

Oil-Free Compressors Run Hotter

While it is true that oil acts as a heat-transfer material and keeps compressors cool, the dual-pump designs of oil-free compressors allow them to achieve the desired CFM/PSI in half the number of revolutions as it takes an oil compressor.

Compare and Contrast the Pros and Cons of Oil and Oil-Free Compressors

Air compressors cover several platforms, including reciprocating, scroll, and centrifugal, and each platform has distinct advantages and applications. However, these are some general advantages and disadvantages of oil-flooded and oil-free compressors.

Advantages of Oil-Lubricated Air Compressors

  • Better suited for heavy-duty and industrial applications
  • Operate longer before needing an airend replacement

Disadvantages of Oil-Lubricated Air Compressors

  • Very heavy; permanently installed at a single location
  • Require far more maintenance and need to be oiled regularly
  • More expensive to lubricate
  • Oil contaminates the surrounding air

Advantages of Oil-Free Air Compressors

  • Compact and portable design
  • Don’t require manual lubrication
  • Easier to operate
  • Suited for applications jeopardized by oil contamination
  • Better for non-commercial purposes

Disadvantages of Oil-Free Air Compressors

  • More expensive
  • Can’t handle heavy-duty applications as well as oil-injected compressors
  • Will probably require an airend replacement sooner than an oil-injected compressor

Which One Is Right for You?

While both oil-flooded and oil-free air compressors have pros and cons, in the end, your application will most likely determine which one is better suited for you. If oil contamination could put your business at risk, then an oil-free compressor is the way to go. If you need an air compressor for a heavy-duty, industrial application, an oiled air compressor is the one for you.

C&B Equipment is a licensed distributor of both oil-flooded and oil-free Gardner Denver air compressors. We can help you determine which air compressor is the right one for your business. Reach out to us today and consult with one of our air compressor experts!

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