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Types of Contaminants Found in Compressed Air Systems

Atmospheric DirtAtmospheric air in an industrial environment typically contains 140 million dirt particles for every cubic meter of air. Eighty percent of these particles are less than 2 micron in size and are too small to be captured by the compressor intake filter and instead pass directly into the compressed air system.
Water Vapor, Condensed Water and Water AerosolsAtmospheric air contains water vapor (water in a gaseous form). The ability of compressed air to hold water vapor is dependent upon its temperature. The higher the temperature, the more water vapor that can be held by the air. During compression, the air temperature is increased significantly, which allows it to easily retain the incoming moisture. Condensation occurs at various stages throughout the system as the air is cooled further by the air receiver and piping and the expansion of valves, cylinders, tools and machinery.
Rust and PipescaleRust and pipescale can be found in air receivers and the piping of “wet systems” (systems without adequate purification equipment) or systems which were operated “wet” prior to purification being installed. Over time, this contamination breaks away to cause damage or blockage in production which can also contaminate final product and processes.
Micro-organismBacteria and viruses are also drawn into the compressed air system through the compressor intake. Warm, moist air provides an ideal environment for the growth of micro-organisms. Ambient air typically contains up to 3,850 micro-organisms per cubic meter. If only a few micro-organisms enter a clean environment, a sterile process or production system, enormous damage is caused that not only diminishes product quality, but can render a product entirely unfit for use and subject to recall. 
Liquid Oil and Oil AerosolsMost air compressors use oil in the compression stage for sealing, lubrication and cooling. During operation, lubricating oil is carried over into the compressed air system as liquid oil and aerosols. This oil mixes with water vapor in the air and is often very acidic, causing damage to the compressed air storage and distribution system, production equipment, and final product.
Oil VaporIn addition to dirt and water vapor, atmospheric air also contains oil in the form of unburned hydrocarbons. The unburned hydrocarbons drawn into the compressor intake, as well as vaporized oil from the compression stage of a lubricated compressor, carry over into a compressed air system where they can cool and condense, causing the same contamination issues as liquid oil. Typical oil vapor concentrations vary between 0.05 and 0.5mg per cubic meter of air.

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