Importance of Maintaining Screw Air Compressor Valves
By Gershom Joel, Product and Support Manager, ELGi North America

Conventionally when we talk about oil lubricated screw air compressor maintenance, it is mostly about replacing consumables such as filters and lubricant on time. While these consumables have a defined usable life and have a direct effect on the efficiency and the life of the air compressor itself when not replaced on time, there are a few critical valves in the air compressor that require maintenance as well. Compressor valves directly affect the efficiency, safety, and the functionality of the screw air compressor. Let us understand some of the commonly available valves in a screw air compressor, why they need maintenance, and discuss some of the frequently asked questions about screw air compressor valves.

Why do screw compressor valves lose efficiency over time?

Though each compressor manufacturer has their own unique valve design, compressor valves in general contain moving parts such as springs, valve plates, and plungers that affect the opening and closing of the valves and rubber seals / seats that offer perfect sealing when the valves remain closed. These moving parts wear or lose their mechanical properties over a period of time and the sealing components typically ‘age’ over time and lose their effectiveness and will need to be replaced.

Compressor manufacturers typically design these components to operate efficiently for several thousand or millions of operation cycles. However, several factors such as variability in the demand pattern, sizing of the air compressor against a certain air demand, the environment in which the air compressor operates, promptness of preventive maintenance, etc. determine how long these valves efficiently operate.

Why do screw compressor valves need preventive maintenance?

Many times, it is difficult to identify a malfunctioning valve or a valve operating with worn-out parts as the compressor continues to generate air. The typical symptoms of a malfunctioning valve are loss in compressor's capacity, increase in power consumption during load or/and unload, drop in discharge pressure, increase in oil carry-over and more load on motor. These symptoms are either difficult to notice or have other frequently common assignable causes such as air leak before suspecting the compressor valves.

Case studies show that operating a screw air compressor with a worn-out / malfunctioning valve could increase its overall power consumption by 10 - 15%. Power cost contributes to more than 75% of the compressor’s total life cycle cost over ten years and hence this is a significant impact. Unserviced valves also lower the life span of downstream accessories by half. In some cases, a malfunctioning safety valve may result in a catastrophe.

Air compressor manufacturers typically offer convenient valve maintenance kits for customers that contain the internal parts of the valve that wear or age out. Changing the valve kits is a much more sensible and economical option than changing the complete valve.

What is the recommended frequency to maintain a screw compressor valve?

It is difficult or almost impossible to identify a malfunctioning valve unless it is opened for inspection. Hence it is absolutely mandatory that these valves are inspected for effectiveness every year and the internal moving parts replaced as a part of preventive maintenance once every year or two depending on the operating conditions of the air compressor. It is typical for compressor manufacturers to mandate a valve kit replacement once every two years as a proactive measure.

In particular, the safety valve must be inspected and certified every year per the local safety laws to ensure they are functional and efficient. Sometimes, replacing the safety valve entirely with a valid certificate for one year is more economical as the certification procedures could be equally expensive on an existing valve.

A timely preventive maintenance on these valves pays back several times as the compressor operates efficiently and safely.

How to identify a compressor that could potentially have a worn-out valve?

As stated before, it is challenging to identify a valve that is worn out unless it is opened and inspected, but there are a few indicators that a qualified compressor technician can use to deduct a malfunctioning valve.

Based on Operating Conditions

  • Low duty cycle operation: A sophisticated screw air compressor in today’s day and age carries a convenient microprocessor-based human-machine interface that keeps track of operating hours of the compressor under load and un-load conditions and the number of load/unload counts the compressor is subjected to over a period of time. A higher un-load hours and load/unload count indicates that the air compressor is oversized against the actual air demand. This in turn indicates the air compressor ‘cycles’ frequently between load and un-load mode as opposed to running continuously on load. Every time a compressor ‘cycles’, the inlet valve, blow down valve, and minimum pressure valve is brought into play where their internals ‘actuate’. Frequent actuation of these valves results in a faster wear of the internals and hence results in shorter life.
  • Extreme operating environment: An abusive environment that is dusty or abrasive also at times impacts the lifespan of these valves.

Based on Operating Parameters

  • High operating temperature: A compressor that runs on a high operating temperature affects the life of the valve’s sealing components, which causes them to ‘age’ fast.
  • Compressor not building pressure: If the air demand has not changed over time and the facility is relatively free of any air leakage, the air compressor is probably not delivering the rated output. There is a high probability that there is a malfunctioning valve.
  • Increase in compressor’s power consumption: An increase in the air compressor’s power consumption profile over a period of time where there has been no abnormal change in the air demand and usage pattern indicates an increase in either the load or un-load power. There is a high probability that this is because of a malfunctioning valve.

Can an oil lubricated screw compressors have valves other than these 4 critical valves?

Based on the design philosophy adopted by the air compressor manufacturer, the oil lubricated screw air compressors could have a few more valves that are critical to functional performance that must be maintained as well. Some of the other valves frequently used in an air compressor are as follows:

  • Temperature control valve (also known as thermal valve) is used to regulate the flow of oil through the oil cooler based on the operating temperature.
  • Oil stop valve is used to prevent the back flow of oil from the airend through the oil injection port.
  • Discharge check valve is used to prevent back flow of compressed air into the airend through the discharge port of the airend.
  • Flow regulation valve (ball valve or gate valve) is used to isolate the compressor’s output and is located in the outlet of the compressor.
  • Drain valves are used to drain lubricant at the time of lubricant change over or cleaning. Air compressors equipped with a moisture trap at the outlet of the after cooler also has a drain valve (automatic or timer based) to discharge water collected
  • Oil sampling valve is used to take lubricant samples while the compressor is still running.
  • Flow check valves are used in control lines and lubrication lines to regulate the flow of lubricant or control air in a certain direction.

The presence or absence of one of these valves and the type of actuation of these valves (electronic / mechanical) depends on air compressor’s design architecture. The Operation and Maintenance Manual (OMM) and the Piping and Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID) supplied by the air compressor manufacturer are excellent resources that explain the purpose, functioning, and maintenance requirements of these valves.

Why is it important to use genuine valve kits supplied by the air compressor manufacturer?

Many of the air compressor valves are highly specialized and exclusive. Their designs are usually complex and some even need special tools to service them. The internal components' build quality and material selection are extremely important and proprietary. Hence it is highly critical that only genuine valve kits issued by the air compressor manufacturer are used to maintain the valves. An inferior after-market replacement will most certainly compromise the performance of the entire compressor, void the original manufacturer's warranty of the compressor, cause consequential damage to other parts of the compressor, and above all, be a safety hazard.

In conclusion, while it is important to change the screw air compressor's filters and lubricants on time, it is equally important to perform preventive maintenance on these critical valves in a screw air compressor as recommended by the air compressor manufacturer. While the intake valve, minimum pressure valve, safety valve, and blowdown valve are critical to the performance and safety of the compressor, there could be other valves in the compressor that are critical and need maintenance. The air compressors sizing and the environment in which it operates are crucial factors that affect the life of the air compressor. Finally, it is critical to proactively service these valves using genuine kits issued by the compressor manufacturer to enable the air compressor performs efficiently and safely.

Healthy Valves = Healthy Screw Air Compressor