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What are the different types of air compressors?

After deciding that your application requires an air compressor, and working out how much air you need, how you’re going to power it, and how you’re going to drive the compressor, you need to decide which one you actually need. Fortunately, Glaston is here to help. Continue reading our helpful guide on the different types of air compressors to aid your selection process.

Different air compressor types

Air compressors are vital components for applications across many industries. There are many different types of air compressors, each with their own qualities, uses and advantages.

Based on their internal mechanisms, air compressors can typically be categorised as either positive displacement or dynamic. Under these two categories, there are commonly four different types of compressors, which are:

  • Reciprocating air compressor
  • Rotary screw compressor
  • Axial compressor
  • Centrifugal compressor

What is a displacement air compressor?

Positive displacement is an umbrella term for all air compressors that are powered via positive air displacement. A cavity inside the machine stores the air brought from outside, and then slowly compresses the cavity to increase the air pressure and potential energy.

Compressors of this nature can be used for a variety of construction needs. The different types are:

  • Reciprocating air compressor
  • Rotary screw compressor

Reciprocating air compressor

Reciprocating air compressors are a popular type of compressor that are typically found at smaller locations, such as garages and home construction projects. A reciprocating air compressor isn’t designed for continuous use and has more moving parts than a rotary screw compressor, for example. This type is an oil-lubricated air compressor to produce a smoother and more efficient movement, these parts are lubricated with oil.

A reciprocating compressor works via a piston inside a cylinder. This compresses and displaces air to create pressure. These types of compressors are typically available in single or multi-stage designs, which affects the pressure ranges that can be achieved. If your application requires more power, a multi-stage compressor is more suited to your needs.

Multi-stage compressors can reach up to 30 horsepower and provide the power needed for intense construction projects, like auto assembly and maintenance.

Rotary screw compressor

Rotary screw compressors work by generating energy via two internal rotors that turn in opposite directions. The air is then trapped between the rotors and builds up pressure within the housing. They’re large industrial-sized machines that can be run either with oil to lubricate components or oil-free.

A rotary screw compressor is one of the easiest air compressor types to maintain because they’re equipped with an internal cooling system. Because of this cooling system, they can be run continuously and can generate between five and 350 horsepower.

What is a dynamic air compressor?

Dynamic compressors generate power by bringing in the air with rapidly rotating blades, then restricting the air to create pressure. The kinetic energy is then stored as static within the compressor.

These types of compressors – of which there are two: axial and centrifugal – are designed for use in large-scale projects, like chemical plants or steel manufacturing.

Axial compressor

Axial compressors are highly efficient and powerful and, as a result, are usually found in high-speed engines on vehicles like aeroplanes or ships. However, they can be quite expensive. These air compressor types can generate thousands of horsepower which is why they’re favoured for use in high-speed engines and aerospace applications.

Centrifugal compressor

Centrifugal compressors use a diffuser to cool and slow the air to generate energy. Using a multi-stage compression process, these air compressor types can produce high amounts of energy, even in smaller machines.

They require minimal maintenance, produce oil-free air, and can deliver up to 1,000 horsepower, making them useful for chemical plants and steel manufacturing.

How to choose between different air compressor types

With many different air compressor types available to choose from, there are a range of considerations you should factor into your decision-making.

Consider air quality

Most air compressors rely on oil to lubricate components and internal mechanisms, and the fumes can contaminate the air. The risk is greatly reduced when using an oil-free air compressor which does cost more than their counterparts, but they’re the only option for clean manufacturing.

Use energy efficiently

Variable speed-driven compressors can save energy by increasing and reducing output on demand. A fixed-speed compressor constantly produces the same amount of energy and requires a cool-down period while the machine comes to a stop. As the unit slows down, energy is wasted.

Portability limitations

If you need to transport your compressor between sites, a portable one is a suitable option. Smaller, lightweight machines can still deliver energy, but obviously not as much as larger, more static machinery.

Air compressors at Glaston

At Glaston, we boast a comprehensive portfolio of products for the production of compressed air. We make a substantial contribution to increasing the energy savings and efficiency of many manufacturing plants throughout the UK. Many satisfied clients have benefited from a successful compressed air system installed by Glaston.

Our reliable air compressor systems are designed for round-the-clock operations, delivering consistently high performance. Air compressors can be applied to a vast range of industry sectors, including food, chemical, engineering, automotive and other sectors.

For the latest cutting-edge products and reliable air compression systems, contact Glaston today on 01695 51010, or email us at

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