A compressed air system creates pressure that can be used to power machines. Many industries such as construction, automotive care, metalworking, and woodworking use equipment that requires compressed air. Tools that use compressed air systems do not need motors, which makes the tools lighter and more reliable. With fewer moving parts, air-powered tools are also less likely to break. Yet these tools are often more powerful, making compressed air systems very efficient sources of power.

For a compressed air system to work, air must be released through the system at the right pressure and with enough volume and consistency. Although these systems usually pay for themselves, a hole as small as 1/8 inch diameter in a 100 psi system can cost over $1,200 per year in lost energy. Miscalibration is another risk that can steal power from a compressed air system, as can rust, buildup, or debris in the system’s piping. Therefore, it’s important to select the right air compression system and maintain it well.

Another factor that impacts how well a compressed air system works is the piping used in the system. Below are some of the more common materials used for compressed air piping, as well as the pros and cons of each.

Iron

An old favorite, iron piping has been around for decades. One benefit to iron piping is fittings for it can be found at any hardware store and are generally inexpensive. However, tailoring iron piping to your facilities can be challenging and often requires a plumber. Also, because of the condensation that is unavoidable with compressed air systems, iron compressed air piping is prone to corrosion. Corrosion, in turn, leads to rusty debris, blockages, and possibly even leaks that affect the pressure of the compressed air. This, in turn, diminishes the power put out by your machine.

Copper

Copper piping is an excellent choice for use with air compressors. Any condensation that builds up in the system will not corrode copper pipes, so the risk of debris entering the system is very low. It also withstands heat well. However, it can be expensive because installing it requires time and skill. Copper pipes require threading and soldering that can require expertise to be properly installed.

Stainless Steel

A great choice for compressed air piping is stainless steel because it is strong and resists corrosion. Like with copper, corrosion resistance in stainless steel piping produces a cleaner, more consistent stream of air. However, also like copper, installing stainless steel piping can be time-consuming since the joints require welding and threading. Sometimes strut cushion clamps can simplify the installation process depending on the specific demands on the air compressor system, lowering the installation time and cost.

Aluminum

The current compressed air piping material of choice is aluminum. Lightweight but durable and resistant to corrosion, it is easier to install and modify than most alternatives. Typically, aluminum piping arrives ready to install and requires few tools to set up. It does not require soldering or threading, and it provides much cleaner air, leading to lower repair costs and a more efficient air stream. The downside is that, like copper, it can be more expensive upfront. However, many believe that aluminum pays for itself in the long run.

Avoid Using PVC

PVC piping is NOT recommended for use as compressed air piping. While PVC is cheap, easy to adapt, and easy to install, it lacks durability. Heat from the compressed air degrades PVC because it is plastic. This degradation leads to cracks, and in some cases PVC can also shatter, harming not only the compressed air system but nearby employees as well. For these reasons, using PCV as compressed air piping is actually an OSHA violation. There are many better, safer materials than PVC that can be used for compressed air piping.