By Eric Massinon, Chicago Pneumatic Business Development Director
In a revolving world of changes and updates, one thing has virtually stayed the same: air compressors. In fact, if it weren’t for emissions standards, air compressors would offer the same technology and applications that they have over the past several years with few advancements. Other than better fuel consumption; the air is still used with general construction tools, media blasting equipment, and other air applications.
Air compressors are a vital rental item for most construction and general tool rental stores, but while the power conversion to Tier 4 is nearly complete, the total rental market for compressors is down about 25 percent from last year’s levels. This is because many rental companies built up stock on the iT4 units rather than paying the higher prices for T4F compressors.
The marketing trends caused by these EPA emissions requirements have made for an unstable equipment market. In many cases, manufacturers enjoyed an increase in the iT4 product sales because customers wanted to purchase the lower-price and trusted technology of the Tier 3 or iT4 engines. Everyone knew that the T4F requirements would require new technology and large price increases. These stocking purchases have now resulted in lower than normal sales volumes of the new T4F products. In my opinion, the industry expected the reduction in sales volumes based on the increase in the sales that we saw on the iT4 equipment. But, I think we also expected that following the introduction of the T4F we would see the market stabilize in a reasonable time — but to this point, it has not. If the EPA adds the Tier 5 regulations, this will only increase the time frame of this instability because of the concerns of the equipment prices and technology used to meet the additional EPA requirements.
Diesel Particulate Filters
Engine manufacturers are continuing to work on the solutions to the EPA tier requirements. There are some engine manufacturers who originally chose to use Diesel Particulate Filters (DPFs) to meet the EPA requirements, but they are now going back and assessing their T4F implementation to remove DPFs from their after-treatment strategy. For example, John Deere originally released engines with DPF systems, but they announced at Bauma that they would offer non-DPF solutions and offer their customers the option of not having the DPF. Eventually however, T4F may not be the final tier level required by the EPA.
The belief is that the EPA is looking to add Tier 5 regulations and that would require manufacturers to add the DPF on all engines. The reason the EPA would want to push the DPF systems is that they reduce the volume of particulate, not just the mass or size. Thus far, the DPF systems have created concern because in many applications — generators in particular — there was a steep learning curve for all involved on the software strategy of regeneration. Units did not or could not properly regenerate the DPF under an active or passive cycle at light loads — particularly under cold ambient conditions. This led to a distrust of DPF systems in general and left a bit of a bitter taste in the mouths of fleet owners who had to deal with equipment that would not perform when they needed it to. So the elimination of the DPF at this point is considered to be a good move and is currently a factor to maintain a market advantage. However, as aforementioned, if Tier 5 regulations are introduced, we will most likely be going back to DPF systems.
Tier 5 Emissions
The trend for air compressors is likely to move to additional EPA emissions tier level requirements. This really is the next hurdle that manufacturers face as we hear about Tier 5 emissions. Currently, some engines have been able to meet or exceed the Tier 4 Final (T4F) requirements with only Diesel Oxidation Catalyst (DOC) and Selective Catalytic Reduction systems (SCR). The Tier 5 emissions target is expected to force all engine manufacturers to run a Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) system. Because of this, we believe the development of non-diesel powered equipment (electric-driven and/or natural gas) will continue to grow.
As far as the alternatives go, electric power, gasoline, natural gas, and propane can and have been used in different applications. None of these alternatives have truly proven to be a perfect replacement for the diesel engine-driven compressors used on most construction sites, though. Gas, natural gas, and propane also require spark-ignited engines. These engine fuels are all viable to power the engines, and they have already been used to build compressors for different applications. For the construction industry, the biggest drawback would be handling different fuels on the jobsite.
Key Factors for Rental Stores
With the current EPA requirements, rental stores should be looking closely at how much air customers really need. In the past, the price on single-tool compressors (90 to 100 CFM) and typical two-tool compressors (185 CFM) were priced within 10 percent of each other — so most rental companies standardized on the 185 CFM compressor. Now with the Tier 4 Final regulations, the price difference is close to 35 percent, making the choice for a single-tool compressor a practical one in many cases. Also, for some rental yards it now may make sense to add a smaller fleet of compressors for the single-tool rental customers.
The topic of Tier 5 emissions is only a discussion at this point and is still far from being implemented. While the market remains unstable for T4F, air compressors will always be a vital out on the jobsite and will pick up again as iT4 fades away. The construction and rental industries are gaining momentum and sooner than later, so will air compressor sales and rentals. It is not really a matter of if, but when.