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Evaluating True Horsepower and CFM Ratings of Air


Don't Believe the "Peak Power" Advertising!

Air compressors for the home or small shop have been advertised and sold with
ridiculously inflated horsepower ratings. This was especially true before the
year 2004, when the US government said it would enforce more honest ratings
(see the end of this essay), and it seems to be returning to the marketplace after
a year or two of spotty compliance. The specs and stickers on the unit likely do
not tell the truth, and add confusion instead of critical information to buying
decisions. But you do not need a testing laboratory to calculate true horsepower
or CFM delivered. I will explain below how to estimate these ratings from
pressure readings and elapsed time measurements.

The way to measure true power is to measure the time it takes to pump the
reservoir tank of known volume from a known starting pressure to a known
ending pressure. Then you can figure the true CFM from the difference in
starting and final pressures, times the volume of the tank, divided by the time it
took to pump up. You can also time the pump-up cycle from the cut-in to the
cut-out pressure, since that's how one usually runs a compressor. These true
performance measurements are impossible to fake.


My Chinese-import compressor bears a big yellow sticker claiming the unit

delivers 6.5 HP, and 10 CFM at 90 psi. Let's see what it really delivers.

My compressor says it has a 25 gallon tank, and I confirmed that with some
rough measurements and volume calculations. If I trigger a refill cycle by
bleeding out air slowly with the relief valve, I observe on the tank gauge (not
the downstream gauge) that the compressor "cuts in" at 85 psig and "cuts out"
again at 102 psig, a difference of 17 psi. It cranks for 35 seconds to build up
that pressure.

Divide the tank volume in gallons by 7.48 (1 cu-ft = 7.48 gallons) to get the
tank volume in cubic feet. Thus the tank volume is 25 gallons / 7.48 gal/cu-ft =
3.34 cubic feet.
In units of atmospheres of pressure, since 1 atm = 14.7 psi, the 17 psi of
pressure added during the cycle is 17/14.7 = 1.16 atm of pressure during the

When a compressor pumps one "CFM" (cubic foot per minute), that means the
intake port inhales one cubic foot of "free air" (air at atmospheric pressure,
which is 0 psig) per minute. (Note: A CFM does not mean in any sense the
compressed volume.) So the unit really measures the mass of air flowing per
minute, not volume per minute, since a cubic foot of free air is a unit of mass.
Some people labor under a stubborn misundertanding that these units refer to
the flow of compressed volume (as opposed to free air volume), but this
is flatly wrong.

Thus in one cycle, the rate at which air is being pumped into my tank, is the
pressure rise times the volume of the tank, or 3.34 cubic feet * 1.16 atm = 3.87
cubic feet per 35 seconds. To proportion the 35 seconds up to minutes, to get
the pumped volume per minute, multiply by 60/35, or 3.87 * 60/35 = 6.6 CFM
(at 85 psig).

The error range in our estimate is perhaps about 30 percent (the true value
might perhaps be as much as 8 CFM or as little as 5 CFM). Certainly this is not
performing at 6.5 HP like the advertising sticker says, or the 10 CFM on the
data plate. I was hoping for better, especially since it is wired for 240 VAC.

Now you know why the data plates on the electric motors have blank boxes for
horespower ratings. A true power rating from the motor manufacturer would
expose the lie of the advertised compressor power.

Tip: Any motorized device that takes power from a 120 VAC outlet, surely
delivers less than about 2 HP, and likely far less. Why? Standard AC cords are
limited to 15 amps of current, or about 1800 watts. At 746 watts/horsepower,
and considering efficiency losses, 2 HP is all you can get, and even then the
starting currents might be tripping circuit breakers.

Tip: CFM ratings are meaningless without an associated delivery pressure. I

have a 600 CFM compressor in my garage that uses only 1/3 HP! (It's a fan
delivering 0.1 psi.)

Rules of thumb:
• A good compressor, per true HP, will deliver about 4 true CFM at 100
• The tank should be sized to be at least 1 gallon of volume per CFM of
the compressor.
• Uncooled compressed air is hot, as much as 250 to 350 deg F!
• Many tools require more CFM at 90 psi than what is physically possible
to get from the power available through a 120 VAC outlet. If you don't
observe this physical reality, then either your tool won't run right, or you
won't be able to run it at a decent duty cycle.
• Beware also, that the CFM figure given as the required air power on
many tools (e.g., air chisels/hammers, sandblasters) is for an absurdly
low duty cycle. You just can't run these constantly on anything but a
monster compressor, but the manufacturer still wants you to believe you
can, so you will buy the tool.

Assumptions: We have assumed a single-stage compressor, which is to say,

just about anything small or portable; two- and three-stage compressors are
somewhat more efficient, and will yield better results, but only become
economical in larger sizes. Our proportioning calculations are based on the
ideal gas law PV = nRT with isothermal compression (pressure and volume of
the compressed air are changed, but the temperature is not, which is the case for
cooled compressed air). This method does not account for ambient humidity
condensing in the tank, for different ambient pressures, or for heating/cooling
of the air; these are relatively minor but not necessarily insignificant factors.

Reference: Machinery's Handbook (26th edition,

see http://www.industrialpress.com/mh.htm) has an excellent section on
analyzing compressed-air systems, including formulas and tables on the
horsepower required to compress air, and losses in pipes and hoses. Marks'
Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers describes the thermodynamics
of expansion and compression of air in the section on "General Principles of
Thermodynamics", subsection "Special Changes of State for Ideal Gases", item
5 "Polytropic"; and practical compressor technology in the "Pumps and
Compressors" chapter.

Other Terms: An "SCFM" (standard cubic foot per minute) is a CFM

produced with input air at 68 deg F, 36 percent RH, and 14.7 psia pressure (the
mere letters "SCFM" refer to no official standard, and while various
temperature and RH values are in use, these are the most commonly accepted
values). "Displacment CFM" is the rate of volume displaced by a reciprocating
piston compressor, which is compared to the delivered CFM to evaluate
volumetric efficiency. "Peak horsepower" typically means the electrical power
drawn by the motor at the instant of starting; this figure is a meaningless
specification because it says next to nothing about the sustainable horsepower
delivered by the system. "Peak horsepower" most definitely does not mean
anything like "what you get if you run this unit full throttle", "what the motor
can deliver for short periods of time", or "what the motor can do if heavily
loaded". Also, rated CFM at "90 psi" can really mean the inflated value
measured from the CFM input during a pump-up from 0 to 90 psi. Such
trickery is what you get in the absence of well-defined engineering testing
standards and methods, which is to say, "consumer" mentality. This applies to
larger systems like the 5 HP 80-gallon units common in auto repair shops, just
as well as the homeowner models.

Wet Air: As much as you might want to believe that your carefully-chosen
compressor is providing a useful supply of compressed air power, the fact is
that without an expensive drying unit, your compressed air is of very limited
application. This is because the "air" being sucked into your compressor does
not consist of just compressible gases like nitrogen and oxygen, but lots of
water vapor. In all but the very driest climates, the compression from
atmospheric pressure (14.7 psia at sea level) to the total tank pressure
(typically, 100 psig = 115 psia, or so) compresses the atmospheric water vapor
to the condensation point inside the compressed air tank and delivery system.
This is why you have liquid water collecting in the tank, which must be
periodically drained. But the water does not stop at the tank. While you can
strip any liquid water out of the air line with an inexpensive coalescing filter,
the water vapor remains everywhere in the flow of compressed air at close to
the condensation point (100 percent "relative" humidity), and will condense
into liquid with the slightest cooling downline from the initial heated
temperature. This is why you can have liquid water sputtering from your air
lines into your tools, tires, paint spray, etc., even after a so-called filter/dryer;
hot, steamy air fills the air line even after the filter, and if allowed time to cool,
the humidity condenses into liquid water. While this water-contaminated air
spoils the lubrication in your air-powered tools, robs power, throws your tires
off balance, etc., it positively ruins the operation of tasks like painting and
sandblasting that cannot contaminate the work with specks of liquid water or
water vapor. You do not just have compressed air, you literally have
compressed steam as well. (Tell your friends your shop is steam-powered!)

Dry Air: The only solution to wet air is a refrigerated air dryer. This is a unit
that costs more than many small compressors. It is essentially a small air
conditioner that chills the air stream running through a coiled tube, thereby
condensing almost all the water vapor to liquid, which liquid is then separated
and drained out of the unit. Such a unit is all that is needed for most dry air
applications, yielding a relative humidity of about 10 percent in the output air,
literally drier than a desert. For demanding applications requiring even less
humidity, dessicant filters with a complex system to regenerate themselves with
heat are used, typically after a refrigerated dryer, yielding a truly near-zero
humidity. The grim thermodynamic reality is that there is no easy or cheap way
on a small scale to purify air from contaminating water vapor. Water is a
problematic contaminant in compressed air, and wet air is greatly inferior to
dried air. Think of it as another thing the Sears salesman didn't tell you about
the compressor's performance, namely, that without further expensive
treatment, it produces water-contaminated output.

Caveats: Making estimates with the pump-up timing method requires

trustworthy measurements. Pressure gauges are often way off calibration.
Confirm the specified tank volume by measuring the geometry instead of just
accepting the specified value (watch out for imported units that have had design
changes without updated documentation). Measure the elapsed time carefully
over several cycles. Measuring delivered air power also requires that you
consider the resistance and losses involved in the regulator(s) and hose(s)
between the tool and the compressor; these can rob significant amounts of

The Manufacturers Repent (or Did They?): In early 2004, consumers and
the government, organized under a class-action lawsuit, attempted to force
several major manufacturers of air compressors to stop advertising inflated
values for compressor horsepower. The lawsuit alleged that "the companies
knowingly labeled, promoted and sold consumer air compressors with electric
motors as having higher horsepower motors than they actually contained." The
settlement requires manufacturers to measure horsepower based on the
continuous power output of the electric motor shaft, or continuous power input
to the compressor shaft. Advertising based on "peak power", "max developed
power", "max kinetic power", or "breakdown torque", is no longer to be used.
Manufacturers agreeing to this settlement include Campbell Hausfeld,
DeVilbiss, Ingersoll-Rand Co., and Coleman Powermate, Inc. While the usual
boilerplate in the court settlement absolves them of any illegal actions, these
firms implicitly admit that their behavior was deceptive and uneconomic.
See http://www.aircompressorsettlement.com/[broken link now, I guess they
gave up on this]. Historical information on this settlement has been available
at classactionworld.com.
In the years since this settlement, however, one sees just as much advertising
and labeling of inflated compressor power as ever. The awards to consumers
from the class-action lawsuit consisted of nothing more than discounts for more
mislabeled equipment from the deceptive advertisers!

Let us be generous and think of the whole affair this way: perhaps none of
those manufacturers wanted to be inflating horsepower ratings, but once
specifications started being inflated (however it started), they all had to do so as
a matter of marketing self-defense. It took a consumer lawsuit to get them to all
agree to return to the most elementary rules of honesty and fairness. The
horsepower output of a machine is as certain and standardized as the weight of
a bag of apples at the produce stand. Honest weights and measures are as
important to prosperity of the air compressor business as any other.