Introduction to piston compressors

What is a piston compressor? How does a piston compressor work? And is it the compressor you need? Find the answers here.

Estimated time to read: 3 mins

January 18, 2024

There’s a good chance you’ve already used a piston compressor. They’re undoubtedly one of the most common types of air compressor on the market. In fact, most businesses invest in a piston compressor—or a reciprocating compressor as they’re also known—before they invest in any other kind of compressor.

How does a piston compressor work?

In the world of compressed air, you’ll generally use either a screw compressor or a piston compressor. While a screw compressor has turning rotors that compress air, a piston compressor uses a system of valves and valve discs and—you guessed it—a piston.

The piston moves up and down in a cylinder. When it moves in one direction, the piston draws in external air. The valves close to stop compressed air that is already in the system from escaping. When the piston moves in the other direction, it pushes the newly drawn-in air towards the valves. The valves then open, allowing the newly compressed air to be pushed further into the system with the rest of the compressed air.

The different types of piston compressors

Your compressed air now moves away from the piston as it continues on its journey. Where does it go? It could be to a cooler or a dryer, possibly straight into a canister or other vessel for storing it, or perhaps even a tool. It’s just as possible it will move into another cylinder where it undergoes the same compression method with a second piston.


In fact, the air might be compressed several times by several different pistons until it’s reached the desired level of compression. It all depends on the level of pressure you need and the speed or flow rate at which you need it. This is why there are different types of piston compressors:


  1. Single-stage piston compressor

  2. Multi-stage piston compressor

  3. High-speed or separable reciprocating compressor

  4. Low-speed (integral) reciprocating compressor.

Single-stage and multi-stage piston compressors

A single-stage piston compressor has one cylinder in which air is compressed to raise the pressure from atmospheric pressure to operational pressure. A good example of a single-stage piston compressor? A bike pump. Yes, it’s as simple as that. 


Dual-stage or multi-stage compressors are a different story though. They’ve been gifted with two or even more cylinders in which to compress air. When an air compressor has more than one of these compression cylinders, there’s a little connection between each of successive cylinders. As the air passes through this connection, it’s cooled by ambient air. Cooling it down increases the efficiency of the compressor. You’re able to reach much higher pressures with a multi-stage compressor than with a single-stage compressor.


Which compressor is right for you?

Each of the four types of piston compressors outlined above are available in different models. Which one is right for you? The best way to decide is based on your compressed air needs. What level of compression do you need? Because different piston compressors will only produce certain pressures. Do you need a steady flow or occasional, small bursts of compressed air? Because this may mean deciding between a piston compressor or a screw compressor.

If you’re unsure or just want to double-check you’ve made the right decision, get in touch with us. We are always happy to help.

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