The 6 Most Common Compressed Air Drying Methods

Water is a challenge in every air compressor system. As air is compressed, water is brought into the air stream. During cooling, that water condenses and is mixed with the compressed air that’s delivered to your tool or application. Some water is okay for most applications but too much water can be a problem. That’s where air drying comes in.

There are six common ways of removing or reducing the amount of water in the air stream. The most common compressed air drying methods include:

  • Aftercooler
    • Air-cooled versions
    • Water Cooled Versions
  • Storage Tank Cooling
  • Refrigerant
  • Deliquescent / Absorption Drying
  • Regenerative / Adsorption Drying
    • Dual Tower Regenerative Desiccant Air Dryers
  • Membrane Type Dryer

Each of these air drying methods is unique, with its own benefits and disadvantages. In this article, we will explain each of the common air drying methods in more detail.

Aftercooler Method

A heat transfer will occur between two bodies of different temperature until temperature equilibrium is reached. This transfer of heat can take place in three different ways and, generally, these take place simultaneously:

  1. Conduction
  2. Convection
  3. Radiation

Aftercoolers use this principle to balance the temperature of compressed air with atmospheric air, and some drying also occurs within the process.

An aftercooler is a heat exchanger used to cool compressed air and minimize moisture within the system. Reduced compressed air temperatures cause water and oil droplets to precipitate out of the air, and these liquid contaminants are typically collected and drained off with a moisture separation device and drain trap (either mechanical or timed).

mechanical float-type drain trap

Figure 1. Typical mechanical float-type drain trap

Typical electrically timed drain trap

Figure 2. Typical electrically timed drain trap

The aftercooler should be located as close as possible to the compressor outlet.

Air-Cooled Aftercoolers

Air AfterCooler – 70 CFM

Figure 3: VMAC’s Air-Aftercooler

The air-cooled aftercooler looks very much like a car radiator, and acts like one as well. However, rather than coolant filling the interior tubes, the hot compressed air enters the bottom of the air-cooled aftercooler and tube system, discharging through the upper discharge port into a moisture separator. Some aftercoolers use electrical powered 12V or 24V fans to push air through the system. The tubes have fins, or metal plates, between them to increase their surface area and dissipate the heat more effectively.

As heat from the compressed air transfers to the cooler atmospheric air, some of the heat of compression is removed from the compressed air and carried away.

Water-Cooled Aftercoolers

Water-cooled after-coolers do the exact same thing as air-cooled aftercoolers, only with much more control of the discharge air temperatures. The primary difference between air-cooled and water-cooled after-coolers is that there is a flow of liquid coolant flowing in a shell and tube or a plate-fin design heat exchanger absorbing the heat of compression from the compressed air volume.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Aftercoolers

Advantages

  1. Reduces heat and moisture within the system
  2. Easy to source
  3. Straightforward addition to most compressed air systems
  4. Fan-less systems don’t require electricity
  5. Efficient heat transfer

Disadvantages

  1. Difficult heat recovery
  2. Requires a high volume of water (water-cooled only)

Storage Tank Cooling Method

The storage tank cooling method of drying air uses an air receiver tank to turn some of the moisture that may be present in the air into water droplets as the air comes from the compressor or that may be carried over from the aftercooler.

As soon as air leaving the aftercooler enters the receiver tank, it comes into contact with the cooler steel wall of the tank, which is usually at ambient temperature. At this point, moisture starts to condense out of the compressed air as the air chills.

If the air is stored in the tank for enough time, the temperature of the air in the tank will be the same as the ambient temperature, and no more moisture will condense out. At this point, the air in the receiver tank is 100% saturated at a dewpoint equal to atmospheric temperature, which results in water formation.

It’s important that this water is drained out of the air receiver tank after each use. The storage of condensation and moisture in air receiver tanks leads to the formation of rust and scale on the inside of the tank, which can become loose and get carried down-stream in the outgoing air. The water can also freeze in colder temperatures. This rust, scale, and ice can cause problems of blockage in air-using components and premature blockage of filters.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Storage Tank Cooling Method

Advantages

  1. Air receiver tanks are inexpensive
  2. Air receiver tanks are easy to source
  3. Simple and straightforward

Disadvantages

  1. Air receiver tanks can take up considerable amounts of space
  2. Not the most effective way to cool air
  3. Requires tank to be drained every day it’s used

Refrigeration Drying

Refrigeration drying occurs as part of the refrigeration cooling process, with the two systems working symbiotically.

There are two types of refrigerated air dryers: Cycling and Noncycling. Both types use a refrigeration system to cool the compressed air to a temperature as close to freezing as possible in order to condense out as much water as possible.

Most provide a pressure dew point of 35°F, but some less expensive models with smaller refrigeration systems are rated for the higher dewpoint of 50°F.

The Typical Flow Pattern - The Refrigeration Cycle

Figure 4: The Typical Flow Pattern – The Refrigeration Cycle

In a refrigeration system, hot compressed air enters the air-to-air heat exchanger and flows down the inner tube of a tube-in-tube bundle. The incoming hot air is re-chilled by the air travelling in the outer tube, which has been cooled by the refrigeration section.

As the air cools, water vapor condenses into liquid droplets. The condensed liquid droplets are then removed from the air stream in a separator and automatically discharged to drain by an automatic condensate drain trap. This pre-chilling is done to allow for the use of a smaller refrigeration unit, and increase the efficiency of the dryer package.

The pre-cooled compressed air then enters the air-to-refrigerant heat exchanger, where the heat is removed directly from the compressed air by the refrigeration system down to +35°F.

As the air continues to cool, water vapor again condenses into liquid droplets. The condensed liquid droplets are then removed from the air stream in another separator and automatically discharged to drain by an automatic condensate drain trap.

Finally, the air passes through the secondary side of the air-to-air heat exchanger, where it is re-heated by the incoming hot air. The re-heating of the outgoing air is to prevent downstream pipe sweating, and increasing the effective volume of the air, enabling it to do more work. It also will take longer for a pipe exposed to cool atmospheric temperatures to drop from the re-heated temperature to a point less than +38°F.

Advantages:

  1. Constant dewpoint of +38°F to +50°F (dependent on ISO class)
  2. Low maintenance costs, with no chemical or desiccants to add or replace
  3. No recurring costs other than electricity
  4. No after filter required (a coalescing type prefilter is recommended)

Disadvantages:

  1. Lowest dewpoint available is +35°F but any lower and the air-to-air heat
    exchanger would freeze up
  2. Some dryers have shown a problem with refrigerant leakage

Deliquescent / Absorption Drying

A Typical Deliquescent Type Air Dryer - Absorption Type

Figure 5: A Typical Deliquescent Type Air Dryer – Absorption Type

Another common way to dry air is through absorption. With absorption drying, incoming air enters the vessel near the base and passes through a mechanical separation section. Due to expansion, the free liquids and solids drop to the bottom of the vessel. To some degree, this constitutes a pre-drying of the air.

The air then enters the desiccant bed of deliquescent materials, such as water-soluble salts or shotted urea. These hygroscopic chemicals condense water vapor as they deliquesce or dissolve the liquid.

Absorption occurs until the deliquescent materials are completely consumed, at which time, they must be replaced.

Advantages:

  1. Low initial cost
  2. No electrical hook-up
  3. No moving parts
  4. Simple operation

Disadvantages:

  1. Dewpoint suppression is between 20°F-30°F (on average)
  2. Deliquescent material must be added to or replaced as it absorbs and melts
  3. Downtime required to replace deliquescent material
  4. Ecological problem of disposing of the dissolved deliquescent material
  5. Cost of replacement deliquescent and of disposal of dissolved deliquescent
    material
  6. Carryover of corrosive deliquescent materials into the downstream piping network
    and air using components
  7. Parts of the deliquescent materials can solidify in the bed, causing channels for
    the air to by-pass most of the drying material, which reduces the dryer’s performance

Regenerative / Adsorption Drying

Desiccant Air Dryer

Desiccant dryers lower the dewpoint of compressed air by adsorbing water vapor onto the surface of a desiccant. The three basic types of desiccant used in dual tower regenerative air dryers are:

  1. Activated Alumina
  2. Silica Gel
  3. Molecular Sieve

The process of adsorption begins as the water vapor, which is more highly concentrated in the compressed air stream, moves into an area of lower water vapor concentration in the pores of the desiccant.

Once inside the pores, a natural attraction of the vapor molecules to the solid surface of the desiccant causes water vapor molecules to build up on the surface of the desiccant. As enough molecules gather, vapor changes phase and becomes a liquid. The process continues as long as the concentration of water vapor in the air is greater than the concentration in the desiccant pores.

The water remains on the surface of the desiccant until it is stripped off. This stripping is called reactivating or regenerating the desiccant. By doing this, the desiccant may be used again and again.

Dual tower desiccant dryers

Figure 6: Dual Tower Desiccant Air Dryer Diagram

Dual Tower Desiccant Air Dryers

Dual tower desiccant air dryers go by many names, including pressure swing, regenerative, and instrument air dryers. Both heated and heatless models are available. Despite the varied terminology, all desiccant dryers offer a continuous supply of dry compressed air by using two identical towers that each contain a bed of desiccant beads.

While one tower is on stream drying the compressed air, the other tower is off stream so the desiccant in that tower can be regenerated. The regeneration of the desiccant bed is accomplished by expanding some of the dried air to near atmospheric pressure and directing it across the wet desiccant bed. This swing in pressure produces expanded air, called purge air, with a very low water vapor concentration.

Imagine that the air being used for the purge flow is 80 °F and has a dewpoint of -40°F at 100 psig. This purge air is then expanded from 100 psig to a couple of pounds pressure, heated to a temperature of between 350-600 °F, and passed counter currently through the wet desiccant bed. The moisture holding capability of this superheated, dry expanded air is extremely high.

The vapor pressure of the hot air is so low in comparison to that of the desiccant that the moisture moves from the area of higher vapor pressure (the desiccant) to that of the lower vapor pressure (the hot purge air).The purge air stream then carries the water vapor out of the dryer.

Dual tower desiccant air dryers are typically used to dry instrument air and process air, as well as air in applications where airlines are exposed to low ambient temperatures, below 32°F, and in other critical applications. Typical dewpoints produced by these types of dryers are -40°F to -100°F, although lower dewpoints are possible.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Desiccant Air Dryers

Advantages

  1. Can operate a very low dewpoint in below freezing temperatures
  2. Delivers extremely dry air that meets ISO Quality Classes 1, 2, & 3

Disadvantages

  1. High purchasing costs
  2. High operation costs
  3. Ongoing maintenance costs

Membrane Type Air Dryers

membrane dryer

The membrane dryer operates on the principal of selective permeation through a membrane.

As the compressed air passes through a bundle of tiny hollow (polysulfone) membrane fibers, water vapor and a portion of the compressed air flow diffuses through the semi permeable membrane walls while the dried air continues downstream.

The water vapor which has been separated from the compressed air by the differential gas pressure on the inside and outside of the hollow fibers, is purged out of the housing by the sweep air (purge air).

The membrane dryer must be used only with clean, oil free air. It must have a coalescing prefilter installed ahead of the dryer to remove any liquid water, oil and aerosol contaminants from the compressed air stream, as these would block the permeation of the fibers, reducing the performance of the dryer.

These dryers are point-of-use dryers and are sized for low capacities compared to other dryer types. The membrane dryer can be connected in parallel to increase the capacity beyond that of the single dryer.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Membrane-Type Dryers

Advantages

  1. There are no moving parts
  2. There are no consumables to replace
  3. They require no external power source
  4. They install directly in the pipeline
  5. They can operate in severe environments, such as high or low temperatures or corrosive and explosive atmospheres
  6. They operate continuously without the need for adjustment or maintenance (other than prefilter maintenance)
  7. Dewpoint suppression range is between +40°F and -40°F

Disadvantages

  1. Some models require (consume) about 15-20% of the purge air
  2. Membrane dryers reduce the oxygen content of the compressed air and cannot be used in breathing air applications

Additional Resources

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