Ask the Expert: Does it pay to run a shop’s complete air system with nitrogen?

Q: Does it pay to run a shop’s complete air system with nitrogen?

A: Nitrogen is an inert gas, hence it is oxygen and moisture-free, and therefore the perfect propellant for pneumatic tools and equipment. Running an entire shop air system off of nitrogen would, presumably, extend the life of most air-powered tools. Furthermore, having nitrogen available via every airline and hose in a shop would certainly make maintaining tires with, and converting them to, nitrogen much easier. However, these benefits are marginal, at best, and the cost will typically greatly outweigh the rewards.

As a tire inflation medium, nitrogen is without peer; it does provide better fuel economy, longer tire life and enhanced safety, all primarily because of its large molecular structure and, therefore, resistance to permeation. Most shop equipment isn’t “inflated” with air, but rather “powered” by it, so the many benefits that reduced permeation produce for tires are meaningless when it comes to tools and equipment. Furthermore, exposure to oxygen has little, if any, practical effect on such tools and there are many solutions on the market to reduce or remove moisture from a shop air system. While having nitrogen available at every air outlet would be helpful for maintaining nitrogen- filled tires, most nitrogen generation systems are very portable and are equipped with multiple outlets to make top-offs quick and painless.

While the benefits of powering a shop air system with nitrogen, from a tool and equipment standpoint, are minimal, the costs can be dramatic. Even the most efficient nitrogen generators require a minimum of two cubic feet of inlet air to produce one cubic foot of nitrogen. Therefore, a shop’s air supply would have to be doubled, at a minimum, to achieve the same pressure and volume with nitrogen as it maintained without nitrogen. In addition to doubling a shop’s compressor capacity, one can also expect a significant increase in the cost to power and maintain the larger, hungrier system.  

While nitrogen remains the best alternative for tires, when it comes to air systems … keep them exactly that: air system.

Information provided by: Dan Brancaccio, National Sales Manager, NitroFill, LLC