Piston vs Rotary Screw Air Compressor

It is only a small step from a piston to a rotary screw compressor, but it is one that can pay great dividends

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Estimated time to read: 3 minutes

June 1, 2023

A small compressor has its limitations

When small businesses or operations invest in a compressor, they often make a decision based on their current compressed-air demand. Often, this demand is relatively low. And so they invest in a relatively small air compressor. Makes sense. The problem is in what happens after. Because these small businesses often find they outgrow their air compressors. It’s an easy mistake to make. We look at why people make it.

Investment cost is not the same as total cost

An operation with very basic compressed-air needs will often buy a basic piston compressor with a low investment cost. Understandable. And not necessarily the wrong choice. However, the price tag on a compressor is not an accurate indicator of how much it’s going to cost over its lifetime.

The initial investment is just a fraction of the total cost of ownership of a compressor. In other words? It’s not a very good indicator of what’s a ‘good deal’.

As it happens, most of the money you spend on your compressor will go toward energy costs. Are you ready? Energy costs make up 70–80% of the total cost. In other words, the price tag and the maintenance, combined, make up 20–30% of the total cost... 

This doesn’t mean that a piston compressor is always the wrong choice. There are definitely times when it’s going to be a brilliant investment, especially for small DIY-type companies that use a compressor so infrequently that the energy costs, air quality or noise aren’t quite so important.

However, if you’re about to invest in a small compressor, at the very least, you should look into the benefits of a rotary-screw compressor. It’s basically one step higher on the hierarchy of compressors. The differences between a piston air compressor and a rotary-screw air compressor are enormous though. 

An investment in the future

First up? The purchase price. This is generally higher for a rotary-screw air compressor, but, as we explained, the total cost of ownership may be much lower. This will depend on how much you use it.

For example, the Sonetto 3-9 rotary-screw air compressor is super-efficient and consumes far less energy than a piston compressor (and less than a lot of its rotary-screw-compressor peers). This means the operating costs are lower. If you use it frequently, the lower operating costs will see you save potentially massive amounts of money as opposed to frequently using a piston air compressor. Another added benefit? Reduced energy use also means fewer emissions and a smaller carbon footprint.

Clean air for cleaner tools and products

Another major benefit of rotary-screw compressors is that they limit the oil content in a compressed-air system. Less oil in the compressed air means less oil going into your air-powered tools. As a result, they’ll last longer. The quality of your end products is going to be better too. 

Time to compare this to a typical piston air compressor. A typical piston compressor has an oil carry-over of more than 30 parts per million, far more than a typical rotary-screw compressor. The Sonetto 3-9 from ALUP cuts oil carry-over to just 5 parts million.

Less noise means more flexibility

Piston compressors are loud. Very loud. In fact, they’re subject to noise regulations. Be careful, because you may end up putting the hearing of the person operating it at risk. Yep. THAT loud. You should expect to find them producing about 85 decibels when they’re well-maintained. 

Here, too, the Sonetto 3-9 from ALUP excels with a noise level as low as 61 decibels. Exactly how loud is this? A normal conversation is in the range of 50 to 60 decibels, so just a little louder than that. This means you’re able to use your rotary-screw compressor in far more places than a piston compressor.

The Sonetto 3-9

ALUP's Sonetto 5

ALUP's Sonetto 5

Wondering why we keep bringing up the Sonetto 3-9? We actually designed this one to be the ideal starter compressor for small operations. It’s wonderfully simple to install, even if you’re on your own. Operating it? Also extremely easy. It uses a very simple, straightforward controller that is called an Infologic Basic. Less complex than a smartphone.

However, perhaps the most important aspect is the maintenance. The Sonetto 3-9 is designed so that anyone will be able to take good care of it. If it needs servicing, a big visual alert appears to let you know. This way, the operator will never miss any recommended maintenance or servicing visits. They’ll know about potential problems and be able to have them fixed before they turn into genuine problems. Peace of mind! 

Choosing the right compressor

You’re hopefully aware of the potential benefits of a rotary-screw air compressor over a piston air compressor. But at the end of the day, it is important to really look carefully at your own demands. For today … And tomorrow. Your current compressed-air needs may indicate that a rotary-screw compressor is the way to go. But even if they don’t, you’ll definitely want to check whether they will in the future.

Unsure which air compressor is best for you? Would you like to know more about the differences between piston air compressors and rotary-screw air compressors? Or do you have a different question about compressed air? Give us a call at ALUP. We would love to help you out.

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