Air compressors have many uses, including:
- Supplying high-pressure clean air to fill gas cylinders
- Supplying moderate-pressure clean air to a submerged surface supplied diver
- Supplying moderate-pressure clean air for driving some office and school building pneumatic HVAC control system valves
- Supplying a large amount of moderate-pressure air to power pneumatic tools (such as jackhammers)
- Filling high pressure air tanks (HPA)
- For filling tires
- To produce large volumes of moderate-pressure air for large-scale industrial processes (such as oxidation for petroleum coking or cement plant bag house purge systems)
Most air compressors either are reciprocating piston type, rotary vane or rotary screw. Centrifugal compressors are common in very large applications. There are two main types of air-compressor pumps: oil-lubed and oil-less. The oil-less system has more technical development, but is more expensive, louder and lasts for less time than oil-lubed pumps. The oil-less system also delivers air of better quality.
The most common types of air compressors are: electric or gas/diesel powered compressors. The power of a compressor is measured in HP (horsepower) and CFM (cubic feet per minute of intake air). The gallon size of the tank specifies the volume of compressed air (in reserve) available. Gas/diesel powered compressors are widely used in remote areas with problematic access to electricity. They are noisy and require ventilation for exhaust gases. Electric powered compressors are widely used in production, workshops and garages with permanent access to electricity. Common workshop/garage compressors are 110-120 Volt or 230-240 Volt. Compressor tank shapes are: “pancake”, “twin tank”, “horizontal”, and “vertical”. Depending on a size and purpose compressors can be stationary or portable.
An air compressor must be differentiated from an air pump which merely pumps air from one context (often the surrounding environment) into another (such as an inflatable mattress, an aquarium, etc.). Air pumps do not contain an air tank for storing pressurized air and are generally much slower, quieter, and less expensive to own and operate than an air compressor.
Compressors can be classified according to the pressure delivered:
- Low-pressure air compressors (LPACs), which have a discharge pressure of 150 psi or less
- Medium-pressure compressors which have a discharge pressure of 151 psi to 1,000 psi
- High-pressure air compressors (HPACs), which have a discharge pressure above 1,000 psi
They can also be classified according to the design and principle of operation:
- Rotary-screw compressor
- Turbo compressor
Positive-displacement compressors work by forcing air into a chamber whose volume is decreased to compress the air. Once the maximum pressure is reached, a port or valve opens and air is discharged into the outlet system from the compression chamber. Common types of positive displacement compressors are:
- Piston-type air compressors use this principle by pumping air into an air chamber through the use of the constant motion of pistons. They use one-way valves to guide air into a cylinder chamber, where the air is compressed.
- Rotary screw compressors use positive-displacement compression by matching two helical screws that, when turned, guide air into a chamber, whose volume is decreased as the screws turn.
- Vane compressors use a slotted rotor with varied blade placement to guide air into a chamber and compress the volume. A type of compressor that delivers a fixed volume of air at high pressures.
Dynamic displacement air compressors include centrifugal compressors and axial compressors. In these types, a rotating component imparts its kinetic energy to the air which is eventually converted into pressure energy. These use centrifugal force generated by a spinning impeller to accelerate and then decelerate captured air, which pressurizes it.
Due to adiabatic heating, air compressors require some method of disposing of waste heat. Generally this is some form of air- or water-cooling, although some (particularly rotary type) compressors may be cooled by oil (that is then in turn air- or water-cooled) and the atmospheric changes also considered during cooling of compressors.