Oil vs. Oil-Free Air Compressors: Choosing the Best One for Your Needs

The Latest from C.H. Reed

January 6, 2023

Oil vs. Oil-Free Air Compressors: Choosing the Best One for Your Needs


No matter your industry, you likely have a need for air compressors. For everything from pharmaceutical applications to food and beverage processes, air compressors provide the necessary function of pressurizing air. That air can then be used to power different equipment and systems, such as nail guns, blast equipment, conveyor systems, painting equipment, and so much more.

When considering air compressors, you will note they fall into two main categories — oil-flooded and oil-free. Both categories differ in terms of operation, applications, benefits, and downsides. Understanding how each kind of air compressor works is key so that you can choose the best one for your specific needs.

Oiled Air Compressor Overview

Every air compressor — oil-flooded or oil-free — features numerous components that effectively pressurize air and turn it into power. Without lubrication, they fail to operate, and your air compressor will be useless. Like dozens of other machinery, an oiled air compressor uses oil to provide lubrication to the various parts of the system.

During operation, an oil-flooded reciprocating air compressor pulls in air via a piston. Then, the air is pushed out of the chamber and compressed into a storage tank. Here, oil is critical to ensure the piston has enough lubrication to move — in an oil-flooded rotary screw compressor, the oil also lubricates the rotary screws, which help draw in the air. When the storage tank maxes out, the air compressor turns off, and you can use the pressurized air to power various tools and gear.

To provide the necessary lubrication, an oil air compressor includes a pump, which you can fill with mineral or synthetic oil as you would for a vehicle. Periodically, you must check the oil levels and oil filter to ensure the pump is in working order. Additionally, scheduled oil changes and proper routine maintenance are required for optimal performance.

Any industry that needs pressurized air for its operations can use oiled air compressors so long as contamination is not a concern. A few examples of industries that use these air compressors include automotive, railroad, machinery manufacturing, metal fabrication, and woodworking.

oil free air compressors

Oil-Free Air Compressor Overview

While an oil-free air compressor works almost identically to an oil air compressor, it does not use oil for lubrication. Instead, it is either constructed to prevent mechanical contact or relies on an option other than oil for lubrication. Most often, users keep their oil-free air compressors operational with water or a Teflon coating.

One difference in how an oil-free air compressor works in comparison to its oil-based alternative is that it moves the air through an initial compressor element to cool it down. There is no lubricating medium to cool the air naturally, so an intercooler is required to keep the temperature low. The second difference is that after compression, the air moves into an aftercooler to cool further. Finally, it can be used to power your equipment.

In industries where contamination is strictly prohibited and can be costly, oil-free air compressors are crucial. For example, food and beverage manufacturing, electronics, and pharmaceutical companies must keep their products pure, and any possibility of physical oil contamination or air contamination from running an oil-flooded air compressor is not allowed.

Key Differences Between Oil and Oil-Free Air Compressors

Oil-Free and oil-flooded air compressors operate differently, meaning you may need one over the other for your applications. As you make comparisons, consider the distinctions between each compressor type. Even with all of the above information, you may need help determining which option is ideal for your business.

Below are a few more aspects of air compressors to help you make the best decision possible:

  • Lubrication requirements: As its name suggests, an oil air compressor requires oil to lubricate its moving parts. For example, if you have a rotary screw air compressor with lubricated helical screw pairings, you must change the oil and oil filters to ensure it operates properly. In comparison, oil-free air compressors use a different lubrication medium to operate, eliminating the need for oil.
  • Maintenance needs: It likely goes without saying that oil-flooded air compressors require more maintenance. If users neglect to change the oil or check the oil filters or provide routine maintenance, their air compressors will not be as reliable and might not live a long, trouble-free life. Comparatively, oil-free air compressors come with fewer maintenance needs, but they tend to not last as long as a properly maintained lubricated system. Once the frictionless coating starts wearing off in oil-free compressors, you will need to replace your compressor in short order. They also run hotter than lubricated systems.
  • Maintenance costs: Because oiled air compressors use oil, they are more expensive to operate. To properly maintain your air compressor, you must have oil on hand so you can change out the old oil based on the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule. However, oil air compressors tend to last longer than oil-free air compressors, which can offset the costs required to operate them.
  • Contamination risks: If your company is not concerned with oil contamination, an oiled air compressor can be a highly effective and reliable tool for your operations. For businesses where any contamination must be avoided, the oil-free alternative is the best option.
  • Noise levels: An oil-lubricated air compressor is quieter because it has the oil to lubricate it. If you are OK with using oil in your applications and would prefer to use a machine with less noise in your work area, choose an oil air compressor. Though they still produce more noise, the good news is modern oil-free air compressors are quieter than previous models.
  • Mobility: Oil-free air compressors are lighter in weight than oil-lubricated systems. Part of this is because they don’t require additional oil water separators, gallons of oil, oil filters, and other equipment that oil-flooded systems require. But, if you need a system that is mobile, C.H. Reed can help put a package together for you, regardless if you need oil or oil-free.

Ultimately, your selection comes down to your business’s unique needs, making it a smart idea to work with a professional team to make the process easier for you.

air compressors for sale

Shop Compressed Air Equipment From C.H. Reed Today

Depending on your applications and industry, choosing an air compressor can be a crucial decision. Aside from considering the pointers above to guide your choice, you should also make sure to work with a knowledgeable compressed air solutions provider. C.H. Reed’s Compressed Air Team has the experience and expertise to help you find the best equipment option so you can accomplish your goals.

For decades, C.H. Reed has worked with industrial companies and manufacturers throughout the Mid-Atlantic to provide them with process and equipment improvements. Whether your business requires compressed airpaint finishing or fluid handling or industrial blowers sales, service, or solutions, we can help you meet your goals.

Get started by browsing our service areas or contacting us with our online form for a quote. We look forward to partnering with you!

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