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Types of Contamination That Can Affect Portable Air Compressors

Types of Contamination That Can Affect Portable Air Compressors

Two red portable air compressors parked next to each other in front of some caution tape

Types of Contamination That Can Affect Portable Air Compressors

Reading time: 6 min

Portable air compressors are essential to modern construction projects. By providing a reliable source of pneumatic power, compressors enable construction crews to use air-powered tools such as nail guns, demo hammers and drills.

In order for air compressors to function optimally, the air they deliver must be of the utmost purity. When contaminants enter a compressor’s air supply, the compressor and the tools it powers may begin to degrade.

Common particulates that contaminate air supplies include water vapor, oils and chemical vapors. By ensuring the air delivered by your air compressor is clean, you can maximize the operational efficiency of the equipment and prolong the service life of the pneumatic tools in your arsenal.

In this guide, we’ll explore the issue of air contamination in portable air compressors and how to manage it.

Applications of Air Compressors

Air compressors are vital for the operation of tools that are critical to many construction activities. Essential tools, such as jackhammers, pneumatic drills, nail guns and paint sprayers, all rely on the compressed air supplied by portable compressors. 

Portable air compressors also play a critical role in powering sandblasters, which are used for cleaning surfaces and removing rust or paint to prep structures for renovation.

In materials handling, air compressors are used by conveying systems to transport bulk materials over short distances, reducing manual labor.

The wide array of applications demonstrates the role of air compressors in the construction industry, enabling many tasks to be performed more efficiently and safely.

Types of Contamination in Air Compressors/Pneumatic Systems

Contamination in air compressors and pneumatic systems poses a significant challenge. Understanding the types of contamination such as water or moisture, oil and chemical contamination, along with their sources and effects, is essential to keeping your compressor and air-powered tools in good condition.

Water or Moisture Contamination

Moisture contamination in air compressors occurs mainly in the form of water vapor, which can condense into liquid water within the compressed air system. This phenomenon can occur due to the intake of humid air, which, when compressed, increases in temperature and then cools, leading to condensation. 

The presence of moisture can be particularly detrimental, as it leads to corrosion within the air compressor and pneumatic tools, damage to air hoses and the premature failure of pneumatic machinery parts. In colder conditions, water in the system can freeze, blocking air lines.

Oil Contamination

Oil contamination in air compressors typically originates from two sources: the compressor's lubrication system and the intake air. In oil-lubricated compressors, fine oil particles can carry over into the compressed air, while the intake air can introduce oil vapor from external sources like vehicle exhausts

Once in the system, oil can degrade the quality of air, leading to the formation of sludge and deposits within the pneumatic tools. This not only reduces the efficiency of the tools but also increases wear and tear, leading to higher maintenance costs and shorter equipment lifespans.

Chemical Contamination

Chemical contamination includes vapors and particulates, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide and other harmful gasses, which can be drawn into the air compressor from the surrounding environment. The sources of these contaminants include nearby industrial processes, vehicle emissions and the breakdown of lubricants within the compressor itself. 

The effects of chemical contamination include health hazards for operators and the deterioration of rubber and plastic components in the system.

The Impact of Contamination on Equipment and Processes

Contamination in portable air compressors can lead to a series of negative effects, directly impacting the compressor's efficiency and the lifespan of its components. 

Valves, seals and air lines can suffer accelerated wear and tear or outright failure due to particulate, moisture and oil contamination. Maintenance may increase as filters, separators and dryers require more frequent replacements to combat the elevated levels of contaminants.

In applications like sandblasting or spray painting, air contamination can affect the quality of the work. Moisture, oil and particulates can lead to flawed finishes, resulting in costly rework. 

For sandblasting, moisture contamination can cause clogging and uneven surface treatment, while in spray painting, oil and particulates can compromise the paint's integrity, leading to a flawed finish. Therefore, air contamination not only affects the equipment and maintenance costs but also impacts the final product.

Preventive Measures and Components Designed for Contamination Control

Implementing preventive measures and incorporating specialized components for contamination control help prevent air contamination. Regular maintenance and inspections are the most crucial of these preventive measures. 

In addition, there are specialized components that can aid in the reduction and elimination of air contamination in portable air compressors.

Air Intake Filters

Located at the compressor's intake valve, these filters are crucial in preventing particulate matter, dust and other airborne contaminants from entering the system. By capturing these particles before they can be compressed and circulated, air intake filters reduce the risk of mechanical wear and contamination buildup.

Water Separators and Dryers

Water separators are installed downstream of the compressor to remove liquid water from the compressed air, usually by using centrifugal force. Dryers, which can be refrigerated or desiccant-based, further reduce moisture content in the air, preventing corrosion and freezing in pneumatic tools and lines.

Oil-Water Separators

These are essential for systems where oil-lubricated compressors are used. Oil-water separators ensure that oil does not contaminate the water system, enabling safe disposal or recycling of both substances and reducing the risk of environmental harm and system contamination.


Positioned directly after the compression stage, aftercoolers cool the compressed air, facilitating the condensation and removal of moisture. This component plays a vital role in reducing the temperature of the air to manageable levels, preventing excessive moisture formation.

Best Practices for Managing Air Quality

Managing air quality in pneumatic systems extends beyond regular maintenance, involving practices that significantly contribute to the longevity and efficiency of air compressors and the tools they power. 

A key aspect is selecting the appropriate compressor for the job site conditions. Opting for a compressor with adequate filtration and moisture control systems designed for the specific challenges of the job site can prevent many issues related to air quality.

Strategic placement of the compressor also plays a crucial role. It should be situated in an area with clean, cool air to minimize the intake of contaminants and reduce the thermal load on the system. Avoid placing compressors near sources of dust, fumes or volatile organic compounds, and ensure there's sufficient ventilation to prevent contamination.

Final Thoughts

Preventing contamination in portable air compressors is a critical investment in the efficiency, reliability and longevity of your pneumatic tools and systems.

The EquipmentShare Shop offers a comprehensive range of OEM and aftermarket air compressor parts. Should your equipment experience contamination issues, these parts offer a timely and effective solution to keep your compressor operating at its best. Don’t see exactly what you’re looking for? Reach out to our parts experts and get personalized assistance.

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