How to Track and Repair Leaks in the Compressed Air System

December 13, 2021

Knowing how to find a leak in a compressed air network, as well as how to repair and prevent leaks in the future. Preventing leaks can offer huge benefits for any company that regularly uses an air compression system.

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If you hear a telltale hiss coming from a component of your air compressor, you may not realise how much damage it is causing to your compressed air system and your profits. Leaks from the air compressor can be incredibly expensive, not only in terms of money, but also in terms of productivity and efficiency. Compressors consume a lot of energy. With such high demands and power consumption, it is essential to keep your compressed air system running at peak performance. 

The cost of leaks from the air compressor

Leaks from an air compressor can easily compensate for a significant amount of energy wasted in industrial plants and can absorb 20-30% of the power of an air compressor. With a proactive leak detection and repair program, losses can be reduced to less than 10% of compressor power in a facility. Depending on the size of your system and the structure, elimination any air leaks can result in huge savings.

In addition to the financial disadvantages, leaks from the air compressor can affect business operations due to:

  • Productivity Losses: If your tools don't get the right amount of air, they won't work effectively. Employees may take longer to complete a task due to lack of power, or they may have difficulty getting the results they need. In any case, productivity will take a hit.
  • Addition of unneccessary capacity: If no action is taken to repair air leaks, the compressed air system will have to work harder to cover the gap dispersed through leaks. Operation in these conditions, can wear out the system and lead to an increase in the electricity bill. In addition, if the losses cause a loss of production time, you may need to spend more on additional production equipment to increase production capacity. Without solving the problem at the source.

The air compressor itself can be damaged by air leaks. Your machine can suffer in several ways. The compressor must operate more frequently and longer than under standard conditions. Usually, structures with high air leaks need to replace their compressed air systems in shorter times because the overall life of the system in this situation is reduced drastically. In addition, longer uptime will increase maintenance times and costs.

How to find air leaks in your air compressor

One of the easiest ways to check for air leaks in your air compressor is to listen to it. Establish a regular leak detection schedule where someone travels through the plant during a period of production non-activity to listen for leaks that reveal themselves with noticeable sound. Of course, not all leaks will be audible to the human ear, and many plants or production lines do not have regular shutdown periods. For these reasons, it is recommended to use ultrasonic leak detectors.

Ultrasonic leak detectors are sophisticated instruments that accurately detect leaks, regardless of whether they produce noise audible to humans or not, within noisy production environments. A combination of directional microphones, amplifiers and audio filters allow them to identify high-frequency hissing sounds produced by air leaks. In addition, these units have become extremely compact and portable. Investing in one of these tools can help in detecting air compressor leaks. To use an ultrasonic leak detector, an operator will walk through the plant with the unit in hand, the headphones or the display inside the detector will signal to the operator the precise location of the leaks.

Leaks can appear throughout the compressed air system, and some components can also be controlled in other ways:

  • Air pipes: With the compressor turned off and the cables disconnected, apply a little hand soap along the pipes. Turn on the compressed air system and look for bubbles that will be created by the soap to track down the location of the air leak.
  • Piping: Metal pipes that connect some parts of compressed air systems can also start to leak. Look for loose connections, rust, or cracks within these pipes.
  • Connectors: Connectors are a frequent place where leaks occur. Check their condition and listen to the hissing noises.
  • Steam traps: Any loose components or build-up may indicate problems with airflow and system health. Keep them monitored and consider a replacement if they start collecting rust. If the air compressor leaks water, it may be due to a bad discharge.

Check every possible component for wear or any visible breakage of a gasket. Connection devices are particularly vulnerable to leak-causing problems.

Don't forget to prioritise certain losses. After performing an air leak check, you may encounter several leaks of various sizes. Some may cost more than others.

To assess the effect of a leak in a plant, the losses of the plant can be measured. To do this, operate the compressor and record the time it takes to load and unload the compressor. This will charge or discharge according to the air demand generated by leaks in the system. Record these times and compare them with the compressor capacity.

If T1 is the loading time in minutes and T2 is the unloading time in minutes, use this equation to find the total percentage of air capacity wasted on air leaks:

Percentage of total loss = [(T1*100)]/[(T1+T2)}

An efficient plant has a loss rate of less than 10%.

Air leaks: Common Problem Spots

As previously mentioned, leaks can occur throughout the plant: from the source of the compressed air to the distribution pipes and the point of use. Although it is important to pay attention to the whole system, some areas deserve a little extra attention. Some of the most common problem spots for leaks include:

  • Control and intake valves
  • Joints, fittings and hoses
  • Cylinder stem gasket
  • Missing gaskets or O-rings
  • Filters, lubricants and regulators
  • Flanges
  • Drains with leaks or malfunctions
  • Open exhaust solenoid valves
  • Open steam traps
  • Joints for pipes
  • Devices for points of use
  • Sealants for threads
  • Worn seals or gaskets

Another common point for losing compressed air is the improper use of the air compressor. If employees use air for a purpose for which it was not intended they create another source of energy loss. Identify these alternative uses and ask employees to use more efficient and appropriate tools for the job. These tools may include engineered nozzles, designed explicity for a specific task to be performed, or cooling units intended for electrical panels or cabinets. They consume less power and can help remove some of the workload from the compressed air system. In addition, make sure that proper maintenance is also carried out on the instruments, so they can effectively use the power of the air.

One area that may be difficult to identify is membranes. Membranes are present within different components of an air compressor system. They may break or wear out and may need to be replaced.

How to Repair An Air Leak

If the air leak is in a place such as an air pipe connection, joint, gasket, or control or shut-off valves, you may be able to repair the leak by tightening the connection. 

Of course it is not always that simple. Other times, repairing leaks is more complicated and expensive, expecially if you want to prevent problems in the future.

High-quality parts are expensive, and unfortunately, many companies opt for cheaper parts to save money. We constantly see that investments in higher quality parts, such as fittings, piping, hoses and valves, pay off in the long run. These high-quality parts tend to experience less loss and less downtime. Opting for quality parts can help reduce air leaks and other maintenance issues in the future.

Start by looking at the entire system and see if you can fix any leaks:

  • Tightening of fittings: Tighten the fittings and fix any loose components.
  • Repair or replacement of parts: Some components may be repairable. See if you can repair a part, if the rest of the component is still in good condition. 

Here's how to deal with leaks in different areas of the air compressor system:

  • Hoses: Replace the section that has the leak.
  • O-rings and valve seals: Replace worn or damaged O-rings and valve seals and make sure they all deliver outgoing air. Rubber parts can lose effectiveness over time due to several factors: wear, heat and pressure.
  • Fasteners: Internally, the motor of an air compressor can become unstable if the screws loosen. Keep an eye on these fasteners and tighten shaky or unstable parts.

Similarly, some old or poorly maintained tools can be a source of losses. They may have weaker connections or be worn out by use, allowing leaks to occur in more places. Replacing them with newer, higher-quality models can offer better performance and lower losses.

How to prevent leaks in the compressed air system

Instead of constantly repairing leaks, a better approach would be to take preventive measures. First, taking the time to perform simple maintenance tasks can save you much more time by keeping leaks tracked. They create more machine downtime and can lead to costs associated with new parts or repairs.

By following a rigorous schedule and training employees extensively, you can react more readily to avoid the costs associated with air leaks and compressor maintenance. Here are some of the things you can do to prevent leaks:

  1. Develop a maintenance program
  2. Employee training

1. Develop a maintenance program

Make sure someone regularly does a leak check and then record the data. For example, any leaks detected should be labeled and transcribed into the logs or maintenance information system. Pay special attention to problem areas or components that may wear out.

Some factories schedule leak repairs in line with the maintenance schedule of the air compressor.

A good approach to preventive maintenance should include:

  • Identification: Regularly check for leaks and their exact location. This control also includes leak labelling;
  • Repair: Repair leaks correctly to prevent them from recurring in the future;
  • Check: Test your system and make sure your leaks have been identified and repaired.

2. Employee training

Employee engagement is critical to proactively identifying new leaks and stay on top of air compressor leak repairs. They are constantly working with and around tools that might indicate leaks, so they are one of the best sources for finding problems. Educate employees about the cost of air leaks, so they share the same concern as you when it comes to identifying and repairing such leaks. Develop a sense of responsibility at the team level that makes everyone aware of the losses and problems they cause. Some facilities incorporate lessons on identifying and reporting leaks as part of their shift start activities. 

As with any management program, you need to communicate often to engage your team members. Consider incentivising employees to identify and report losses.

Compressed air system leak maintenance

Maintaining compressed air system leaks requires continous awareness. Leaks can arise anywhere and anytime, so you and your employees need to be careful of any issues. Developing a consistent leak maintenance procedure can help your facility in many ways. This includes:

  • Reduce downtime: Leak repair typically is done in downtime, so preventive maintenance can help you avoid additional production downtime and prevent more significant issues that may result.
  • Improve efficiency: When you remove leaks, you improve efficiency of your system, which makes the instruments work better, since they receive the appropriated amount of air under pressure. This way you can get things done faster or easier, while also improving your productivity.
  • Reduce energy costs: A well-functioning system can appropriately use all the electricity it consumes and will reduce its use, avoiding waste. Mininmising unused air dispersed through leaks can save a significant amount of money on utility costs.
  • Save money: With less downtime and repairs, your system can keep running, increasing your productivity.
  • Increase reliability: In an industrial plant, downtime can cost a lit. With a consistent leak maintenance schedule, keep your machines running without the risk of the system crashing all the time. You'll spend less time worrying about performing repairs to devote it to managing your plant.

In addition to developing a continous leak mainenance program, it is important to choose suitable equipment for the work of your employees, try to recalculate the pressure utilisation and be sure to use only that necessary for their operations. Excessively high pressures can consume components more quickly, so use only what is necessary to extend the life of your compressed air system.

Loss prevention is not a simple task. It requires a continous approach to maintenance that engages employees at every level. However, it is a job worth investing in, if you consider how much these losses can cost you in the long run.

We have mentioned how high-quality parts can facilitate the operation of the compressed air system. They require less maintenance, last longer and offer better performance.

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