Leaked: how to save money on your fourth utility

Air leak detecting

By Andy Batey, head of engineering, Brammer Buck & Hickman

ON average 10% of all industrial electricity consumption can be attributed to the production of compressed air. For many in the industrial sector, compressed air is viewed as the fourth utility, alongside those of water, electricity and gas. 

Although sounding like a minor issue in your daily operation, a compressed air leak, if not resolved quickly, can become a major issue.Air leaks are a significant source of lost energy, often wasting as much as 20-30% of your compressor’s output and costing you a significant amount of money.

There are many problems that can be associated with air leaks, some of which include a noticeable drop in system pressure as well as your machinery and tools functioning less efficiently.

Air leak locations and how to fix them

The most common places to find a leak is in the couplings, hoses, tubes and fittings, along with disconnects and pipe joints. In disconnects, seals might be missing whereas, in pipe joints, missing welds are most common. 

Filters, regulators and lubricators (FRLs) are something to look out for as well as, if incorrectly installed, they often show leakage signs. Open condensate traps could also be the issue causing you a loss of money. This can be due to the improper installation of solenoids alongside dirty seals. 

Other common places that air leaks occur are through stems of control and shut off valves, missing welds in flanges and worn packing materials in your cylinder rod packing. 

However, fixing these issues, if caught early, shouldn’t be an issue. Reduce your overall cost by making sure your pipe joints are correctly sealed and welds are correctly applied, alongside lowering the air pressure of the operating system. The lower the pressure, the lower the rate of flow, therefore reduced system pressure will result in reduced leakage rates. 

Stabilising the system’s primary pressure at its lowest function range will ultimately help minimise the leak rate. 

Once your leaks have been repaired and resolved, your compressed system should then be re-evaluated and adjusted. 

Air leak identification 

Of course, fixing the problem can only be done once you’ve identified where the leak is coming from.

Investing in a regular air leak audit is a small but sensible investment which could save you thousands of pounds.

Usually, as a scheduled routine check, an air leak audit will address all appropriate machinery for leaks, as well as identifying possible changes in your current equipment. In most cases, a good audit will also provide a running report of items examined along with any suggestions to ultimately save you costs. 

By using ultrasonic equipment, a good and thorough audit will collect the data whilst the audit provider should prepare a detailed report with a description of the leak. Alongside this, your audit provider should then estimate monetary value per leak, photograph the part or area which is leaking, and suggest a remedial list of parts or actions required to fix the problem. 

Magna Exterior Systems – an air leak audit case study 

Magna Exterior Systems is a leading global automotive supplier dedicated to delivering new mobility solutions and technology. The company’s products can be found on most vehicles today and come from 348 manufacturing operations and 91 product development, engineering and sales centres in 28 countries. 

Magna Exterior Solutions’ UK plant in Banbury, Oxfordshire invested in a compressed air system audit, provided by Brammer Buck & Hickman.

Working with Magna Exterior Systems, Brammer Buck & Hickman introduced a leak detection programme for the compressed air systems. The system was analysed using state-of-the-art ultrasonic technology and a detailed photographic report on any leakage found in the system, showing the location, size and cost of each leak, was provided. 

The customer’s maintenance crew then took over to address the leaks using the report as a road map.  

“Our technicians went around the plant using these reports and signed each off as they completed the work,” stated Paul Howard, energy improvement co-ordinator at Magna Exteriors Systems.  “What’s more, we did the same six months later – and every six months from then – and audited the results so we have proof of the success of this approach. It has really improved our energy efficiency. Air is one of the most expensive forms of energy. It’s free to breathe but is very expensive to compress and pressurise!”

At Magna Exterior Systems, the audit resulted in £130,000 savings over three years. The company has gone from running three compressors full time to two, with the third for back-up. They are now using just two thirds of the energy and have reduced their servicing costs.

There are further benefits to be had, as Paul explained: “Another useful aspect to this service is the safety data provided. Compressed air is potentially very dangerous; it can damage equipment and cause serious injury. Knowing where the potential risks are is important and Brammer Buck & Hickman were able to recommend and provide suitable equipment to address any such issues.”

Up to 30% of a compressor’s output is lost through air leaks – a significant source of wasted energy and money. Air leak audits are a low cost, quick means of identifying leaks, putting you in a position to fix them.

Compressed air system