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Like a small internal combustion engine, a conventional piston compressor has a crankshaft, a connecting rod and piston, a cylinder and a valve head. The crankshaft is driven by either an electric motor or a gas engine. While there are small models that are comprised of just the pump and motor, most compressors have an air tank to hold a quantity of air within a preset pressure range. The compressed air in the tank drives the air tools, and the motor cycles on and off to automatically maintain pressure in the tank.
At the top of the cylinder, you'll find a valve head that holds the inlet and discharge valves. Both are simply thin metal flaps–one mounted underneath and one mounted on top of the valve plate. As the piston moves down, a vacuum is created above it. This allows outside air at atmospheric pressure to push open the inlet valve and fill the area above the piston. As the piston moves up, the air above it compresses, holds the inlet valve shut and pushes the discharge valve open. The air moves from the discharge port to the tank. With each stroke, more air enters the tank and the pressure rises.
Typical compressors come in 1- or 2-cylinder versions to suit the requirements of the tools they power. On the homeowner/contractor level, most of the 2-cylinder models operate just like single-cylinder versions, except that there are two strokes per revolution instead of one. Some commercial 2-cylinder compressors are 2-stage compressors–one piston pumps air into a second cylinder that further increases pressure.
Compressors use a pressure switch to stop the motor when tank pressure reaches a preset limit–about 125 psi for many single-stage models. Most of the time, though, you don't need that much pressure. Therefore, the air line will include a regulator that you set to match the pressure requirements of the tool you're using. A gauge before the regulator monitors tank pressure and a gauge after the regulator monitors air-line pressure. In addition, the tank has a safety valve that opens if the pressure switch malfunctions. The pressure switch may also incorporate an unloader valve that reduces tank pressure when the compressor is turned off.
Many articulated-piston compressors are oil lubricated. That is, they have an oil bath that splash-lubricates the bearings and cylinder walls as the crank rotates. The pistons have rings that help keep the compressed air on top of the piston and keep the lubricating oil away from the air. Rings, though, are not completely effective, so some oil will enter the compressed air in aerosol form.
Having oil in the air isn't necessarily a problem. Many air tools require oiling, and inline oilers are often added to increase a uniform supply to the tool. On the down side, these models require regular oil checks, periodic oil changes and they must be operated on a level surface. Most of all, there are some tools and situations that require oilfree air. Spray painting with oil in the airstream will cause finish problems. And many new woodworking air tools such as nailers and sanders are designed to be oilfree so there's no chance of fouling wood surfaces with oil. While solutions to the airborne oil problem include using an oil separator or filter in the air line, a better idea is to use an oil free compressor that uses permanently lubricated bearings in place of the oil bath.
A variation on the automotive-type piston compressor is a model that uses a one-piece piston/connecting rod. Because there is no wrist pin, the piston leans from side to side as the eccentric journal on the shaft moves it up and down. A seal around the piston maintains contact with the cylinder walls and prevents air leakage.
Where air requirements are modest, a diaphragm compressor can be effective. In this design, a membrane between the piston and the compression chamber seals off the air and prevents leakage.