Compressed Air: 5 Top Tips for Sustainability

By Libby Peacock, Category Manager – Fluid Power, Brammer Buck & Hickman

In the packaging industry there’s been a lot of talk given to sustainability and carbon reduction over the years, but not nearly enough headway has been made.  With COP26 making headline news across the world, companies of all sizes are now examining their own strategies to achieve net zero by the earliest date possible.

For many businesses this will require significant changes in the coming years, from energy sources and usage, through to production processes and equipment, and beyond.  Yet not everything needs to be a giant leap to get where we need to be.  If anyone has ever shown even a passing interest in cycling, they may have heard the phrase ‘marginal gains’.  Developed by Performance Director of British Cycling from 2003, Dave Brailsford came up with the theory that small yet significant improvements can lead to substantial results.  Up until that point, the team had just one gold medal to show in its 76-year history.  Under Dave’s guiding hand and adoption of the ‘marginal gains’ theory, the British Olympic cycling team won seven out of 10 gold track cycling medals at the 2008 Olympics.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The marginal gains idea is not only applicable to sport, but has made an impression in industry and commerce.

At Brammer Buck & Hickman, we have been looking at how marginal gains can be applied across our customers’ businesses to improve productivity and reduce costs.  We have applied this same theory to issues of sustainability and one area where it has had the most impact is in compressed air usage.

Compressed air is used extensively throughout the packaging industry, most notably in pneumatic conveyor systems used to transport products and materials along a line.  Generating compressed air is energy intensive and, as a result, expensive.  Up to 73% of the total cost of ownership of compressed air installations can be attributed to the cost of energy consumed by the compressor and ancillary equipment over a ten-year period.  Is it possible to reduce this energy usage without negatively affecting a machine’s performance and without significant expenditure?  The answer is a resounding yes!

Here are our top five tips to reducing energy consumption when it comes to compressed air in the packaging industry:

Tip 1: Choose the correct components

Switching to high flow couplings could increase the productivity of air tools by some 50% and reduce energy consumption by up to 30%. In more than half of all applications, the pneumatic drive is too large for the intended purpose. Simply downsizing the cylinder or using single acting cylinders are often all that is required of a pneumatic system and can help reduce air consumption.

Air consumption can be further reduced by adding a nozzle to open pipes, which is particularly beneficial in labelling machines as it not only saves energy but improves performance as the air is concentrated and better directed.

Also look at the connectors you are using.  Every tube run, fitting and filter causes a pressure drop.  Every 1 bar pressure drop means an increase of 7% to the cost of compressed air generation.  A 90⁰ elbow can be the equivalent of a 1.6 metre pipe length.  Check to see if you can change elbows to straight connectors and Tee’s to Y pieces.

Tip 2: Hose and tubing sizes

In the packaging sector we frequently see machinery produced with standardised hose and tubing sizes, which is understandable from the OEM’s perspective as it’s more efficient for them.  However, this often means hose and tubing is larger than it actually needs to be.  This can easily be swapped on site by the user for a tubing size with a smaller diameter for valves and cylinders, which can reduce air consumption.  For air tools, choosing a larger diameter hose can save money. Using tubing with low drag co-efficiency can increase air flow and reduce pressure drops to optimise compressed air systems to achieve yearly savings of around £15,000.

Tip 3: Reduce the pressure

Incorporating pressure regulators at point of use can very quickly pay dividends. Reducing the pressure by just 1 bar can see up to a 10% reduction in energy usage. Installing a regulator means the pressure may be reduced without having a negative effect on the operation of the machinery. As well as wasting compressed air, operating at too high a pressure can increase wear on the components leading to burnout and the associated maintenance and replacement costs.

Tip 4: Switch off and save

Pneumatic equipment left idling can consume between 20-70% of its full load power. Apply responsible usage principles to pneumatic components such as: installing manual shut off valves and switching off when machinery is not in use; implementing time-operated solenoid valves which allow the operation of pneumatic components only if a subsequent piece of equipment is in use; or installing sensor-operated interlocks which detect the need for compressed air equipment to operate can isolate or apply air as appropriate.

Tip 5: Stop leaks

In a pneumatic system, leakages can account for between 5-10% of the air supplied, although some systems record a loss of 40-50% of the air input. One of the biggest sources of air leaks are push-in fittings, although it’s probably not the fitting that’s to blame but the tube.  Using scissors, box cutters and the likes to cut pneumatic tubing can compromise the seal and cause the fitting to leak.  Using a tube cutter ensures a good seal.

Consider installing a flow meter, which is the most effective way of reducing leaks and energy consumption, by monitoring leaks as part of a facility wide maintenance programme.  You might also want to consider investing in a Compressed Air Leak Audit to fully identify leaks so you can take remedial action.

These small adjustments are easy to make without the need for any costly equipment or intervention from third parties.  In fact, they can be done by some of the most junior employees, including Apprentices, ensuring everyone can participate in the move to more sustainable processes.

We regularly run workshops on compressed air under the name of ‘REHAB’, which stands for:

  • Reduce Energy
  • Education
  • Health & Safety
  • Autonomous Maintenance
  • Best Practise

These workshops are designed to empower customers to make changes for themselves and the response is always one of astonishment when we can prove together, with hands on training, how these minor adjustments can generate significant results.  When you consider that compressed air represents around 30% of electricity usage for an average UK factory, and 30% of compressed air is wasted or misused you can see why this is so.

With climate change an inescapable fact and companies moving sustainability up the agenda, everyone has a part to play and even small changes can have a big impact when made universally.

REHAB training workshops are available exclusively from Brammer Buck & Hickman.  For more information, contact your local branch or download the REHAB brochure from

Written by Dominy Jones