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Pneumatic System Components and How They Work

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Pneumatic systems are the technology behind many things in our everyday life that we take for granted. Pneumatic systems use pressurized air to transfer power from one location to another. It is a system that uses compressed atmospheric air to accomplish work.

These systems are found in many types of automated systems in the industrial and construction industries. They are used in dental drills, air brakes on buses, exercise machines, inflatable structures, pneumatic nail guns, and jackhammers. They have many more uses and are an important part of our world. Regardless of the pneumatic system and how it is used, they work using the same simple components.

Table of Contents

How Do Pneumatics Work?

Before we delve into pneumatic system components, let’s explore how the system works. Do you remember when you were a child and used to blow up a balloon and let it fly around the room when you let go? It was the pressurized air inside the balloon that propelled it forward.

This is an example of a simple pneumatic system. Pressurized air is the science behind pneumatic systems. The principle is the same whether the system is used to break concrete or in an Aeropress coffee machine.

Pneumatic System Components and How They Work_About Air Compressors

When you use your lungs to put more air into the balloon, it causes the gas inside to become compressed. This compressed air has what is called “potential” energy. That is energy that could be used to do work. In this case, the compressed energy is stored in the rubber balloon. The rubber of the balloon acts like a storage tank for the compressed air and its potential energy.

The more compressed air is forced into the container, the higher the potential energy. When you blow up the balloon more, it will fly faster than if you just blow it up a little bit. That is because it has more potential energy. The energy in a balloon is limited because there is no way to supply more compressed air.

When the gas in the balloon is used up and the potential energy is used up, the balloon falls to the ground. Pneumatic system components create a way to create a continuous compressed air supply so the gas and potential energy does not run out.

When this gas and its energy are released, it can be used to drive other components to do the work that is needed. This is the process for transforming the potential energy into kinetic energy, which is the energy of motion that performs the work. In a pneumatic system, this energy can drive a piston or gear.

This is a rather simple explanation, but every system works on the same principle. Now, let’s explore some of the pneumatic system components and how they work.

Intake filter 

The process begins at the air intake filter. For a pneumatic system to work properly, the air used in it must be of high quality. The air that we breathe is plentiful, but it also contains particulates like pollen and dust. It also contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like cleaning products or petroleum fumes. The air passes through a filtration system to remove all of these contaminants. It also removes any water, which can damage the machine. 

Air Compressor

The next question that you might have is how the air compressor gets the compressed air that it needs to work. The entire system works in a vacuum. When you blew up the balloon, you were pushing the gas into the rubber storage tank, but air flows into a pneumatic system using a pull system that works by creating a vacuum. 

The air is drawn into the system using a piston. When the piston is on one end of the cylinder, a vacuum is created that draws air in. When the piston moves to the other end of the cylinder, it pressurizes the air, forcing it through a check valve into the storage tank or accumulator. This piston is moved back and forth by an electric motor with a crankshaft and connecting rod attached.

Sensors tell the system when the tank is at maximum pressure. The compressor shuts off when this maximum number is reached. It will turn on again when the compressed air pressure in the accumulator drops below a certain level.

Check Valves 

Check valves are an important part of the pneumatic system. This is a type of valve that only allows compressed air to flow in one direction. Systems use different types of valves, such as solenoid valves and directional control valves. This means that when the compressed air reaches the next stage of the process, it cannot flow back into the component through which it just passed.

This allows the air pressure to build up so that it can do work. Pneumatic systems often contain check valves at several different points – for example, compressors have specific “tank check valves” which are located between the compressor pump and the tank.

Air Treatment Unit

Before the air is ready to pass into the accumulator and become pressurized, it must pass through one more step. The air treatment unit has another set of filters. This set of filters is of a finer grade and will remove smaller particles than the first set.

This unit also contains a dryer to remove any water that remains in the air. The air is cooled to lower its dew point and allow more moisture to drop out to be collected. The gas is then warmed back up before moving into the accumulator. Some air treatment units use desiccants, which are a type of chemical that attracts and collects moisture from the air.

In a lot of cases, compressors will have FRL units installed after the compressor. FRL units consist of a filter, regulator, and lubricator all in one. Typically designed to remove dust particles and moisture from the compressed air while also providing the necessary lubrication for any air-driven tools that require it.

In some situations, it may be necessary to have a standalone lubricator, filter, or regulator. Depending on the type of equipment you’re working with, and how much lubricating they may need, or filtering, or even regulating to a different pressure than that of the compressor’s tank.


The accumulator tank is often called the buffer tank. This is a cylinder that receives the air from the compressor. It allows the air to accumulate and build pressure. Accumulators have a primary shut-off sensor, and they have a relief valve that will prevent the tank from becoming pressurized beyond the strength of the materials of the tank walls. We all know what happens when you blow up the balloon too far. Relief valves prevent this from happening in pneumatic systems by letting off a little compressed air from the cylinder to maintain proper pressure.

Feed Lines

Feed lines move the compressed air through the various phases of the system. Larger hoses allow the compressed air to be moved quickly. They are made to be able to take the strain of the pressure without rupturing the cylinder.


Actuators are the parts of the system that do the work. The most common type is a cylinder and plunger. Compressed air is forced into the chamber and forced out a smaller hole when the piston moves forward. This is used to drive chisels, drills, or move the coffee forcefully through the filter for the perfect cup. 

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Pneumatic Systems

Advantages of Pneumatic Systems

Pneumatic System Components and How They Work_About Air Compressors

Pneumatic systems have several advantages over hydraulic systems that use pressurized oil. The first is that there is a plentiful supply of air, and the system has a simple design. They are reliable and often have a long service life with very little required maintenance. Air absorbs shock better than liquids rather than transferring it like hydraulic oil. This means that pneumatic systems are a good fit for environments where they will receive shocks.

Today’s pneumatic systems are safe, and there is little chance of fire, compared to hydraulic oil. The tanks, lines, and valves are over-engineered so that they can withstand many times the maximum pressure of the tank. They do require some maintenance and regular inspections, but they generally last longer than hydraulic systems when properly maintained.

Air is easier to move than hydraulic oil and is typically used in applications where a lower force but faster motion are required. It is typically easier to control than hydraulic oil. The installation of a pneumatic system is often simple and low-cost. They are often the system of choice for applications that only need low pressure to operate. They can also be easily controlled by computer systems with precision, such as the technology used in hospital ventilators.

Disadvantages of a Pneumatic System

One of the disadvantages of a pneumatic system is that it can be noisy. They can be slow to start because the tank must build up pressure before work can be done. When compared to hydraulic systems, pneumatic systems generally are not used for applications that require high forces, such as for a forklift or heavy industrial machine applications.

Today’s pneumatic systems have the technology, such as dampers, to help reduce the noise and vibration caused by them. They also have more efficient systems that do not take as long to build up pressure. Pneumatic systems must meet strict safety guidelines and have layers of safety protocols, especially those that will be operating close to people. The technology behind pneumatic systems is simple, but they have undergone many advances to make them reliable, safe, and more efficient.

Now, you understand a little more about pneumatic system components. This is a basic explanation of what a pneumatic system is and how it works. Regardless of the system, the basic components and general principles are the same. Pneumatic systems are a part of our everyday lives and are the technology behind many of the things that we take for granted, such as the control system that operates our heating and air conditioning system. The next time you hear the familiar hiss when you raise the trunk lid of our car, you will understand a little more about it, and have a greater appreciation for the technology behind it.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

How do pneumatic systems work?

Pneumatic systems work with a constant supply of compressed air. An air compressor sucks in air from the atmosphere and stores it in an air receiver tank, supplying the system with compressed air through a series of feed lines (piping) and valves.

What are the basic components of pneumatic systems?

The basic components of pneumatic systems include a compressor, actuators, check valves, air treatment units (filters, separators, regulators & lubricators), an accumulator (air receiver tank for storage), and feed lines.

Why do we use pneumatic systems?

Pneumatic systems have copious amounts of uses. From anything as little as inflating bike tires to providing power to pneumatic tools like nail guns or impact wrenches. You will therefore find pneumatic systems being used in a wide array of industries and applications.

If you have any questions regarding pneumatic system components and how they work, please leave a comment below, with a photo if applicable, so that someone can help you!

By Bill Wade

About Air Compressors has been helping folks with their Air Compressor Problems since 2002 online. We're a community of DIY and Compressed Air professionals who are keen to support everyone across the globe with their air compressor issues and troubleshooting. Whether you're trying to identify an old air compressor, or troubleshoot an error code on a sophisticated new industrial air compressor - the community at About-Air-Compressors.com is here to help you

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