Piston vs. screw compressor

Which compressor should you choose: A piston or screw compressor? That’s the big question! 

Reno piston compressors
Reno screw compressors FF Monsun

Piston compressors and screw compressors are the two most popular compressor technologies available today. But what type of compressor best suits your needs for compressed air? In order to make the choice, it is necessary to understand the difference between piston and screw compressors and their functionality.

When investing in a compressor, there are several important factors you need to consider, determining if you are best served with a piston or screw compressor. Factors to consider include cost, energy efficiency, duty cycle and service level. Additional factors that can be considered are the noise level and future air requirements.

This guide will help you to understand the differences between the two compressor types and thereby prepare you to make the choice between a piston compressor and a screw compressor.


The duty cycle

The duty cycle reflects how the compressed air is consumed in relation to the work shift and the load rate. 

Work shifts tell us how many shifts there are per day, where the load rate reflects how much the compressor is used and in what intervals. In general, more work shifts and the higher load rate, the better a screw compressor covers your need.

Piston compressors are designed for intermittent use, making them ideal for lower duty cycle requirements and lower load rates. Screw compressors have long duty cycles. In fact, the screw compressor is designed to run 100% - all day, every day!

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Investment costs

When budgeting a compressor, you should not only consider how much you are paying for the investment, you should also consider how much you are paying for your compressor in the long run - the operation and maintenance costs.

Remember to keep in mind, that up to 70% of a compressor lifetime cost is spent on energy consumption.

In general, the investment cost of a screw compressors is higher than that of a piston compressor. However screw compressors are more efficient and use less energy than piston compressors. In the long run, it can mean lower operating costs on a screw compressor and a larger saving for you.

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Energy efficiency

As mentioned above, energy consumption is the biggest cost throughout the compressor's operating life. It is therefore worth asking yourself: Is the investment cost or the operating costs most important to you and your business?

If both a piston compressor and a screw compressor ran the same number of hours, the screw compressor will be much more efficient and have lower operating costs than the piston compressor.

However, this does not mean that a screw compressor will always be the best choice, as the consumption of compressed air and its use must be considered as well. 


Service and maintenance of the compressor

A compressor can run for many years if it is maintained properly. It is therefore important to keep every type of compressors on a consistent service plan. It can help ensure higher efficiency and a longer operating life.

Depending on the type of compressor, there may also be different legal requirements for the service and installation of the compressor. Contact the service team if you want to hear more about the legal requirements for the various machines.

Generally, there are several moving parts in a piston compressor, which results in increased wear on the machine. However, much of the maintenance you can do yourself with the help of the AirTube app.

Screw compressors do not wear as much, which can reduce the need for maintenance, however, the legal requirements for service inspection may be greater and the maintenance must be performed by qualified service technicians.

It is therefore important to take this into consideration when buying a compressor, as approx. 10% of a compressor’s lifetime cost is spent on service and maintenance.

Reno service technician in car

Additional considerations

Additionally, you should also consider the noise level of the compressor. Piston compressors generally make more noise compared to screw compressors. If you are looking for a compressor with a low noise level, you may want to consider a screw compressor.

Another consideration is the future: How do you expect your future compressed air needs will look?

A disadvantage of the piston compressors is that they cannot run continuously but need cooling periods to avoid breakdowns. So, a piston compressor may cover the need for compressed air today, but if the need for compressed air increases in the future, it may be worthwhile to invest in a more powerful compressor today.


Differences between the compressors

Screw compressor Piston compressor
Suitable for higher air demands Suitable for limited air demands
Larger investment Lower investment
Lower energy costs Larger energy costs
Runs continuously (does not need to rest) Runs intermittent (must have rest)
Larger service requirements Smaller service requirements
Reduced noise level Higher noise level

Read more about the compressors here