Keeping your compressor in tip-top condition18 August 2021

Portable diesel- and petrol-powered compressors play a critical role in providing the air that drives pneumatic tools. But why do they suddenly fail sometimes, bringing a project to a grinding halt – and what can be done to prevent this happening?

Without the correct maintenance and servicing programme in place, portable air compressors, be they diesel or petrol powered, will undoubtedly fail at some point – and most likely while engaged on construction, repair or fabrication duties on site, bringing the pneumatic tools to which they are connected to a grinding halt.

As Portland Compressor comments: “Air compressor owners often forget that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Maintaining your air compressor can save you both time and money down the road.”

How much time and money varies greatly. The downtime suffered as a consequence could just be a minor irritation while equipment is swapped out or have a serious impact on a project where no immediate replacement is to hand. But whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: most portable air compressor breakdowns of this nature can be mostly avoided, if the appropriate steps are taken.

None of this is new or particularly onerous and yet, time and again, the basic principles of maintenance and servicing are widely neglected. Why? Often because a formal programme has never been implemented and enforced within the business.


Nicol Low, chief operating officer, Vert Technologies, has this opening gambit for anyone looking to get the most from their portable compressor equipment: “First and foremost, read the manual!” Failure to do this is more widespread than many might think, he says, with far too many organisations leaving the health of their compressors to fate.

“The thing is, there is a great deal of information readily available within the compressor manual that can be used to keep that equipment in good working order. By neglecting the manual, there is a real risk of issues arising that could prove costly to remedy, especially where a portable compressor might break down and need to be repaired, with the impact this can have on the assignment it is being used on.”

One of the biggest areas of oversight Low singles out concerns air filters. “These are very cheap to replace, yet they are often overlooked. The role of the air filter is to trap contaminants before they enter the compressor. As the portable compressor ingests more and more air, the filter runs the risk of becoming blocked by all the material it is trapping. This can lead to two scenarios: the compressor runs very poorly, as there is a big restriction in the incoming air supply, or the filter itself ruptures and all the trapped contaminants are dumped into the internal workings of the compressor in one go, with catastrophic results. That equipment may then be costly to fix or irreparable.”


Why does he feel this level of inattention to the health of compressor equipment occurs? “It’s a matter of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Yet it’s only a 5-10 minute job to remove a cover and replace a filter, for example. There is an assumption that every time you switch something on and it works, then it will always be fine. The right approach is to assume that this won’t always be the case, and so you need to have the proper maintenance and servicing regime in place.”

Even where maintenance and servicing is carried out, equipment failure can still happen. “Usually, this is a matter of timing,” states Low. “Sometimes equipment may not be serviced at the next upcoming interval, because it hasn’t been used very much. But that doesn’t mean the compressor hasn’t suffered wear and tear; it still needs to be thoroughly checked out. Conversely, it may have been heavily employed and the agreed service level interval should be adjusted to take that into account.”

Vert Technologies’ portable compressors come with a visible signal that the machine is approaching the time frame in which it needs to be serviced. They also boast oil-injected systems, which, he says, ensures “100% duty”, as they have a higher tolerance to the heat that is generated while being used. “Dry-running compressors generally can’t match that and are more likely to run at 25-50% duty, as they have to be allowed to cool down periodically or they will overheat and possibly break down.”

Ultimately, he concludes, if you weigh the cost of maintaining and servicing compressors against the impact of failures arising from a poor or inadequate regime, there is no case to answer. “You may be looking at tens of pounds for new filters – or downtime that can be in orders of magnitude higher than that.”


According to Atlas Copco, it’s portable compressors are built to last and able to cope with lockdowns, including periods of inactivity. Even so, to ensure a smooth re-start, it recommends performing a 12-point check-up to ensure the equipment is ‘good to go’.

  • Any leaks in your systems? No? Double-check!
  • Drain water from the fuel filter and fuel tank
  • Drain water from the compressor oil vessel
  • Check the oil and coolant levels of both the engine and compressor. Top up when necessary
  • Check the air filter element for dirt and oil residue. Replace when needed
  • Check the non-return valve in the fuel (return) line
  • Check the electrical systems and cables
  • Check the electrolyte level and terminals
  • Check the torque on critical connections
  • Inspect the fan belt. Adjust it when necessary
  • Make sure the regulating valve functions smoothly

Check the tyre pressure.

And finally, after you’ve loaded the unit, adds Atlas Copco, “build up pressure steadily and keep monitoring the parameters”. Get most of the above right and the likelihood is that your portable compressor will run for longer and healthier, helping the business to complete projects on time, with fewer holdups, ensuring a better return on investment, and ongoing client satisfaction and loyalty.


There’s another important consideration, though, and one that will probably have even greater significance to your portable compressor strategy and that is: which type of compressor do you go for in the first place?

According to Approved Index (AI), which sources solutions and services for companies, including compressors, petrol air compressors are generally regarded as more “versatile than, for instance, electric-powered machines and are especially useful for professionals working on a construction site with no fixed electrical power system in place. With a petrol air compressor, there is no need for an additional generator”.

Diesel air compressors also benefit greatly from their portability. “Users of a diesel-powered compressor do not have to worry about the electricity supply cutting out unexpectedly, a common problem on construction sites and when working in adverse weather conditions,” comments AI. However, there are downsides, too. “Diesel air compressors can be bulkier and heavier, and will also be noisier than a compressor using electricity or petrol for power.”

Finally, there are the related safety factors to bear in mind, such as the toxicity of the exhaust fumes emitted by portable compressors, it adds. “Measures need to be taken to protect operators, particularly where they are being used indoors.”

Brian Wall

Related Companies
Atlas Copco

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