Chapter 2: The Modern Industrial Compressed Air System

Chapter 2: The Modern Industrial Compressed Air System

There are three common types of compressors used in industry in the modern age: reciprocating compressors, rotary compressors and jet compressors, all of which act upon different mechanisms to produce force in the form of compressed airflow. Each type of compressor design works differently and has different uses.

As with the wide range in industrial practices, there are many different types of compressors that offer levels of versatility to today’s consumer. Whether it’s for the woodworking, automotive or manufacturing industries, compressed air is a vital utility in the creation of many of our modern goods and services.

Compressed air systems demand a great deal of energy to produce the force required for the task, so understanding energy efficiency and how to use your compressed air system effectively is essential to your bottom line. Not all air compressors are created equally. Picking the right compressor for your desired application is important, as is understanding the amount of power needed, how energy-efficient the system is and what it will take to maintain the system.

The purpose of a compressed air system is to pressurize air to a certain level to generate a steady stream of airflow, which is important for the proper function of tools and other pneumatic equipment. Different compressor sizes offer distinct advantages, including efficiency, output and power. More powerful compressors need more energy to create the desired levels of pressure, or force, for tools and pneumatic applications to work efficiently.

Here are three of the most common types of air compressor systems and how they operate:

  • Reciprocating Compressors: A reciprocating compressor compresses air through pistons and valves. Using an intake valve, air is drawn into a chamber through a piston, while the compressed air is pushed out through an outlet valve. The constant motion of pistons compresses the incoming air using one-way intake valves. Reciprocating compressors are commonly used in industries that utilize blast furnaces, or in the business of refining petroleum and natural gas. A single-stage reciprocating piston compressor draws air into the cylinder, where it is compressed in a single-piston stroke of approximately 120 PSI and then sent to a storage tank. A two-stage compressor includes an additional step, where the air is compressed by a second, smaller piston to a pressure of up to 175 PSI.
  • Rotary Screw Compressors: Similar to the positive displacement method of reciprocating compressors, rotary compressors also drive air into a chamber. Matched helical screws shrink the chamber’s size, unlike the method used from a piston stroke. The process compresses the air taken into the chamber, as its size decreases from the rotary screws. Rotary screw compressors are among the most common types of systems used in industries today. From the automotive industry to the food processing industry, rotary screw compressor systems are efficient and highly capable of producing the pressure levels needed for most compressed air equipment and tools.
  • Jet Compressors: Unlike rotary screw compressors or reciprocating compressors, which utilize moving parts such as pistons and screws, jet compressors produce great force using highly pressurized water or gas vapor that forces air into a diffuser. There are several types of jet compressors that use different mechanisms to produce the desired force. Because of the variations, jet compressors are often reserved for more specialized industrial tasks, making them less common than rotary screw compressors and reciprocating compressors.


If you understand the operational methods used by each compressor design, you may have a better idea of which compressor you need for your desired application. Rotary screw compressors and reciprocating compressors are the most common, and they can handle most industrial tasks. When selecting a compressor, consider size, portability, power and maintenance, all of which offer their own advantages and disadvantages.

In the subsequent chapters, we will explore some of the most common industries that depend on compressed air to manufacture or provide services around the world. If you need compressed air for a specific task not mentioned or you’re unsure what type you need, Quincy’s talented team of professionals is always available to help. Quincy provides excellent support for any of your compressor needs, and we can be reached online through our support locator.

Your authorized Quincy distributor has the experience and expertise to help you make the best decision for your business. By contacting a representative, Quincy’s team will take the time to gather information about your business needs and applications — and then recommend the best product for you and your budget.