So you’ve got an air compressor and you’re living the pneumatic powered dream. But what you’ve quickly gotten tired of is dragging that air hose around the shop/driveway and trying to untangle it after every use. A common upgrade after getting an air compressor is to build a management system that contains an air dryer and filtration system as well as routes the air lines out of the way and leaves you with convenient outlets or drops to hook your hose up to. This will minimize the tangled air hose mess and will also clean up the floor/shop. Below we go over the most common types of air compressor piping and why you might chose one over the other.
Let’s just discuss the elephant in the room first. NO we do not suggest using common plumbing style PVC pipe you see at your local hardware store. Sure it’s cheap and easy to work with, but most PVC pipe isn’t rated for high pressures and could explode if they fail (throwing shards of plastic everywhere!). We know your uncle’s, cousin’s, brother ran it in his shop for X years with no apparent issues, but that doesn’t mean it is safe or should be considered. Resist the urge to use PVC and get tubing that can handle the pressures seen by an compressed air system.
Steel Tubing– Probably the most common is using plain steel pipe or “black pipe”. It has been the standard for most industrial applications and is by far the most economic and fheavy-duty solution. Steel pipe can be gotten at most good hardware stores and is fairly easy to assemble. It is also fairly cheap considering its alternatives, but it can be labor intensive to set up. Steel pipe comes in different lengths and usually has each end tapped for pipe thread. The issue is when you need to cut or make changes to the pipe for your custom application. You must tap the end of each pipe and that takes a LONG time and gets tiring. If you’re doing a smaller shop you may be able to rent a pipe threader, your local hardware or plumbing supply store can probably give advice on that topic. Another thing to consider is what type of compressor you’re using and its lubrication system. A traditional reciprocating oil lubricated compressor will put trace amounts of oil in the air and generally is enough to keep your air management piping free of rust. If you’re using an oil-free compressor you won’t have that minute amount in the air and the pipes could rust over time. Given it would take many years to have an issue with the rust inside the piping; it could put small rust particles in your air lines that could cause issues if not filtered out.
Stainless Steel Tubing– Stainless steel tubing has all of the rigidity of standard steel pipe but it doesn’t rust and can be used with any type of compressor. Now you still will need to thread the ends and assemble it all (get a bunch of friends steel pipe gets heavy quick!). Stainless is great, but it comes at a price and could double your air management cost in the end. Stainless tubing is preferred in situations where cleanliness is king like food and surgical factories; or if you’re bordering on OCD/Overkill with your home shop.
Galvanized Steel Pipe– So this is the best of the two options above. The galvanized steel has a coating inside and out that keeps it from rusting easily like plains steel tubing, but it doesn’t come with the high costs of true stainless tubing. You’ll still have to cut and thread the pipe, but once it is all assembled it will outlast you. You may have to look a little harder for the right size galvanized, but well stocked hardware or metal supply stores should stock what you need.
Copper Tubing- Copper Tubing is an option many like to use because it can be found in hardware stores and can be assembled a little easier than threading each pipe like steel. The one thing to remember is that copper tubing comes in many grades and not all are suitable for compressed air. The Copper Tube Handbook, by the Copper Development Association lists Type K, L, or M as acceptable grades of copper tubing to using in compressed air systems. The pressure your system will run at will determine which of those you use. If you don’t want to solder every joint you can buy PTC (push to connect) fittings that will slip right on copper piping, but again they come at a premium cost. Copper tubing is a lot easier to work with and is considerably lighter in weight so it won’t take as much labor and bracing to hang it in your shop versus steel pipe.
Plastic Hybrid Compressed Air Specific Piping- In recent years companies have begun to offer specially designed hybrid plastic piping for plumbing air systems. This piping is ideal to use in a home shop as you can buy kits that come with fittings, bends, and everything you need to get it all mounted. This means no special tools and it is a bit less labor intensive. These kits do come at a cost and are one of the more expensive If you want to get the best bang for your buck you can run the more inexpensive tubing options mentioned above in the main runs of your air lines and after your air dryer/filtration system you can run the plastic to your outlets where it may require more custom cutting and fitting. For a small shop/management system a plastic compressed air kit is the best option as it is quick and easy to set up and very adaptable.
Find all of our Air Management Kits and supplies here: https://www.eastwood.com/shop-equipment/air-management.html