Regular maintenance keeps air compressors humming

A faulty air compressor can bring a shop’s maintenance operations to a halt. Ironically, it’s a lack of regular maintenance that typically causes an air compressor to begin producing air inefficiently and ultimately break down.

People tend to take a compressor for granted as long as it’s making air and that inattention can lead to costly repairs and possible early compressor failure, points out Darrell Murray, manager technical/customer support for Chicago Pneumatic Compressors, a quality leader in performance air tools since 1901 (

“Compressors are mechanical units that need regular maintenance,” he says. “There are things you need to do daily to keep them running smoothly for many, many useful years without problems.”

While manufacturers provide a recommended maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual, many of the several hundred service calls that the Chicago Pneumatic customer service support technicians manage each day could be prevented if operators followed the schedule.

“The biggest things we see every day are with improper installations and that people don’t keep up with the maintenance,” says Murray, who has worked in the compressed air industry for 36 years. “They don’t do maintenance at all or they don’t do enough to keep the compressor running properly. It becomes an expensive lesson for customers to learn.”


Performing regular maintenance on a compressor can reduce energy costs, improve work productivity, prolong equipment life and ensure a clean, stable air supply. He advises shops perform the following basic preventative activities to keep a compressor in top running condition:

Drain condensate from the storage tank daily.

“This is an overlooked but crucial task,” says Murray. “Depending on the environmental conditions, compressors can produce gallons of water-based condensate during the compression process. Draining the condensate maintains the tank’s storage capacity – helping the compressor run efficiently – and prevents corrosion inside the tank.

“If the compressor has an automatic condensate drain, ensure that it’s operating properly.”

Check the oil level and for leaks daily.

“This is another simple task that can be neglected,” he says. Manufacturer designs vary, but most compressors have a sight glass on the oil tank for inspection. Check for dirt and debris in the oil. A milky appearance can be a sign that condensate remains in the oil, which could indicate an issue with the air/oil separator.

Change the oil according to recommendations and operating conditions.

Manufacturer recommendations vary, but it’s important to follow them, Murray says. Compressors that operate in dusty or poorly ventilated environments likely will need to have more frequent oil changes.

Inspect air filters weekly.

Clean air filters will help keep a compressor operating efficiently and prevent it from working harder to produce clean air. For rotary-screw compressors, it’s recommended that the inlet air filter be cleaned at least weekly, depending on the operating conditions.

Check belts and belt tension regularly.

Inspect belts daily or at least weekly for signs of uneven wear, nicks or other defects that could cause belt failure. Even on units with automatic belt tensioning, check the tension based on manufacturer recommendations to ensure proper operation.

“Arguably the most important factor is simply making time for compressor upkeep, particularly for major activities such as annual maintenance,” Murray says. “Schedule those tasks during expected down times for the compressor so that you don’t harm productivity by taking the unit out of service during working hours.

“If you do the routine maintenance and have authorized technicians perform the major maintenance, your compressor should run for a long, long time. Don’t just fire it up and forget to pay attention to it until something happens.”