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Air Compressor Buyer Guide: Choosing Between Rotary Screw and Reciprocating Compressors


Numerous types of air compressors are available for your burgeoning business. Choosing the right one will come down to your business’ specific needs and preferences as well as the amount of money that you are willing to spend. Typically, the choice comes down to two options—a reciprocating air compressor and a rotary screw air compressor. Although a third option, a centrifugal air compressor, might be mentioned, it is not an economic choice outside of extremely large uses, such as at a power plant.

 

Benefits

 

Regardless of which compressor type you eventually choose, each has its own merits and particular uses that make it ideal in different circumstances. Different sizes and outputs of both types of air compressor can be found to suit your business’ needs.

 

An Old Favorite

 

Reciprocating air compressors are, relatively speaking, old technology. This results in an immediately noticeable advantage if you are checking prices between the two. The reciprocating air compressor is much more affordable than the rotary screw air compressor. The other upside to purchasing older technology is that it has run the gauntlet and come out the other side. You should assume that since this technology has been around for so long, it is worth the investment because of quality engineering, design, and maintenance techniques. People know reciprocating air compressors by now and trust them to do their job.

 

Efficiency and Customizable Output

 

Reciprocating air compressors use a piston, which is housed within a cylinder, operated by a crankshaft to compress air and generate flow. This is not too dissimilar from the way a car’s engine operates. This means that reciprocating air compressor models are capable of operating for prolonged periods of time and, in fact, are the preferred compressors for doing so. The level of air flow and PSI output generated by the compressor is also adjustable, so you can alter your compressor’s output instead of be forced to use a different one. Due to both of these advantages, the reciprocating design often offers increased levels of efficiency in terms of power consumed over time and little need for additional compressor units in house.

 

The Travel-Friendly New Guy

 

Though rotary screw air compressors are new to the compressor scene, they bring with them some impressive advantages. When viewing reciprocating and rotary screw models side by side, it is immediately apparent that the new guy watches his figure. The rotary design lends itself well to small sizes and a lighter weight than reciprocating models. As a result, technicians and workers who need to use portable power tools requiring compressed air have recently turned to rotary compressors for their mobile needs.

 

Minimal Maintenance and Eco-Friendly

 

Rotary screw air compressors are incredibly self-sufficient, requiring minimal maintenance. Although they may be newer, more complex technology, rotary compressors tend to malfunction less than their reciprocating counterparts. Rotary compressors also have the option to forgo oil-based cooling systems in favor of water or air-based ones, resulting in a slightly more eco-friendly design.

 

Getting Cheaper All the Time

 

Though they are the newer technology of the two, rotary screw air compressors have been on the market long enough to see a few price cuts. Each year that this technology is on the market is another year that witnesses additional price cuts.

 

Pitfalls

 

As with all designs, each type of air compressor has a few drawbacks to match its advantages.

 

What’s Your CFM?

 

This is a problem that many new business owners run into before even considering the choice between rotary screw and reciprocating compressors. They do not take into consideration the necessary flow required to run their day-to-day and special operations. As a result, such business owners can find themselves with an over or underpowered air compressor that is not suited to their needs. This eats into additional capital, as the value of the compressor will likely have decreased by the time this dilemma becomes apparent. If you keep in mind your short and long-term goals and requirements, then you should be fine.

 

Heft

 

Reciprocating air compressors are heavy. They are not conducive to mobility and should not be considered for businesses that entertain any amount of fieldwork.

 

Short-Term versus Burst

 

The reciprocating models tend to specialize in duties that require continuous application, not ones that require small bursts of airflow. Alternatively, rotary screw compressors specialize in applications requiring burst, but flounder in continuous usage settings.

 

Cost

The rotary screw air compressor is typically more expensive than the reciprocating compressor design. This is due to the small amount of time that rotary systems have been around when compared to reciprocating systems.

 

Pricing

 

Pricing either type of air compressor will depend on your business’ needs, the amount of flow required, and the size of the tank.

 

The Old Man versus the Up-and-Comer

 

Prices vary based on the name brand, the amount of flow required, and the size of the unit and air tank. Reciprocating air compressors can range from small five-PSI units to six-cylinder, or larger, industrial-strength units designed for continuous application over long periods of time. Smaller units can run from just under $100, while the larger units will run into the thousands. Rotary screw air compressors usually begin midway through the $100 range and move up from there.

 

As always, price is often the bottom line in any business, but in the end, the choice between the two models is an easy one. Consider the type of work that you plan to do with the air compressor. If you need a portable compressor, then you will probably want the smaller and more lightweight rotary screw model. If you are looking for a compressor that is adjustable, then you should probably look into the reciprocating compressors. A rotary air compressor is preferred for applications requiring short bursts, while reciprocating models should be used for continuous usage applications. 

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