As a dinner party conversation topic, compressed air leakage management is not a mover and shaker, but what is more surprising is that very few companies pay attention to this extremely important area.
While compressed air may not be a sexy discussion point, it is the backbone of most production, with compressed gases (principally air, but also CO2, argon and nitrogen) being used in 98% of production. All factories leak, it is just a question of how much
With approximately 10% of industrial electricity usage used for compressing air, it is shocking that the EU’s own statistics show that 36% of compressed air is wasted, escaping in sometimes minute holes in the pipework.
Some simple leakage detection could find and fix these problems, and a 3.6% reduction in Europe’s industrial electricity bill would be an enormous saving, not just in terms of money and the environment (less CO2), but also in maintenance and hardware – if a factory is using four compressors to provide adequate compressed air fixes its leaks to reduce the demand by 36%, one compressor can be switched off, which means less servicing, less parts and one less compressor to replace.
All factories leak, it is just a question of how much. Equipment ages, gets knocked about, comes loose or was not properly tightened in the first place. Any small escape route for air is costing companies money. Unnecessarily.
Where is the compressed air meter?
With such massive savings on offer, it is curious at first glance why more companies do not pay attention to this saving, but it seems that the reason comes down to accounting and accountability. Compressed air is also known by another name – the hidden utility.
Every well-run factory will know to the penny how much it spends on water, gas and electric, because there is a meter which records this, but no such compressed air meter exists. Coupled with the fact that air is perceived to be free and the problem tends to be ignored. With nobody accountable for the air, there is less incentive to get involved. Shop-floor workers will cheerily show where leaks are to interested parties, thousands of pounds a year being wasted for no reason.
What does a leak cost?
With the perception that air is somehow free, the impetus to deal with the problem is lacking, but the numbers are stark. According to the British Compressed Air Society, a benchmark cost for 1m3 of compressed air (taking in all factors – energy cost, maintenance, cost of equipment etc) is £0.02/m2. A reasonably sized factory uses 30-50m3 a minute during production, so £1 a minute for non-stop production soon adds up, making those 36% leakages an expensive luxury.
In terms of size, a typical 1mm leak running on a system of 7 bar will cost £580 a year, a 2mm leak £2050, according to leakage detection market leader, LEAQS (formerly Leekseek), based in Gothenburg. These numbers increase considerably when more expensive gases are used (CO2 leaks cost about ten times more).
The cost of compressed air leakage detection
With such economic and environmental savings on offer, the practicalities and costs of effective leakage detection are a pleasant surprise. The most effective means of detecting leaks in a noisy factory, where many leaks will not be audible, is by using sophisticated ultrasound equipment, which can be employed without disrupting production.
Leaks are tagged and recorded and then a savings analysis and repair plan is presented to the company, a service which costs a fraction of the price of the ongoing losses, according to Daniel Winkler, founder of LEAQS, who claims that “over our 6,000 documented projects worldwide, the average cost of our survey and repair is 18% of the cost of an annual leakage bill, but we have many examples where that percentage is in single figures.”
With the credit crisis forcing companies to look for savings in all directions, compressed air leakage management seems an obvious choice, although short-sighted companies will point out that capital outlay to produce a saving which is not accountable cannot be sanctioned. However, for those companies who embrace leakage detection, their owners may not talk about compressed air at dinner parties, but they will be able to host a lot more of them.