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Are you wondering what is the best pipe material for air compressor lines? Choosing your air compressor pipeline material can be a very difficult decision as you must consider a wide number of factors. This article will provide you with all the necessary information on the possible materials that could be very well suited to your piping system!

Table of Contents

Types of Compressed Air Pipe Materials

Industrial compressed air plumbing was, and continues to be built using black metal pipe. Many folks still use it as it is relatively cheap when lots of pipe is needed for a plant installation. And I suppose it is cheaper if a larger air main is needed.

Air compressor piping materials can typically be listed into two categories:

  • Metal Piping
  • Plastic Piping

Metal Piping for Compressed Air

Metal piping is the more traditional and popular choice for compressed air systems. Metal pipes are typically stronger and more resistant to blowouts and cracks. They do not become degraded by contact with oils and lubricants and thus are less likely to warp than plastic piping. Though they’re more expensive, and can take longer to install, they’re likely to last a longer time.

The following are the most common metal air compressor piping options:

  • Aluminum Pipe
  • Black Iron Pipe
  • Copper Pipe
  • Galvanized Steel Pipe
  • Stainless Steel Pipe

Each material boasts its own set of advantages and disadvantages which we’ll now look into in more depth.

Aluminum Compressed Air Piping

Aluminium being lightweight, corrosion resistant and more easily manipulated than most compressed air piping material alternatives makes it a leading choice in compressed air systems. Aluminum is able to provide cleaner air than alternatives like black iron compressed air pipe.

Aluminium compressed air piping systems are highly modular and can be installed with ease – using standard fittings, rigid aluminium pip can be plumed around an entire facility without a single bend.

Prevost are a large player in the european market for alumium compressed air piping systems and this video really demonstrates the flexibility, yet permanence that can be achieved with these systems. That’s whether in an industrial setting, or in the at home garage!

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Aluminium Piping for Compressed Air

Advantages of Aluminium Piping for Compressed Air
  • Lightweight
  • Corrosion resistant
  • High leak resistance
Disadvantages of Aluminium Piping for Compressed Air
  • Difficult to make changes to the system

Black Iron Pipe Compressed Air Piping

Black iron piping has long been considered a standard material for compressed air delivery, but I believe this is rather outdated. Many older installations use it as it is able to hold up to a lot of abuse due to its strength and durability traits.

However, whether at home or in the plant, I personally would not recommend black pipe unless I absolutely had to. Despite the best efforts at drying the compressed air, some moisture will still condense in those pipes, and rusting will certainly occur.

In time, the rust scales will migrate to the air equipment and cause damage to them.

What Air Pipe? Black Pipe?
What Air Pipe? Black Pipe?

You might have to use black pipe if your air mains are going to exceed 2″ in diameter as there are not too many other options in piping once you get that big in size.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Black Iron Pipe Piping

Advantages of Black Iron Piping for Compressed Air
  • Strong
  • Durable
Disadvantages of Black Iron Piping for Compressed Air
  • Quite heavy
  • Difficult to cut and join
  • Leaks often occur
  • Susceptible to corrosion
  • Rusting occurs

Copper Compressed Air Piping

Copper pipe is commonly used and recommended by many for clean air in compressed air systems. Though, the soldering of joints can be consuming and requires skill, it’s high-quality and works very well.

If you have any experience with soldering copper it is really easy to work with, and has lots of readily available fittings to convert from soldered copper to threads for installation into components.

If soldered properly, the copper fittings and joints should never leak, giving the user the potential to save the energy costs.

A drawback now is that copper prices continue to rise, making an all-copper installation quite expensive. And, if you cannot solder, installing leak-free joints with copper can be a bit of an issue.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Copper Piping

Advantages of Copper Piping for Compressed Air
  • Corrosion resistant
  • High-quality air
  • Rust resistance
Disadvantages of Copper Piping for Compressed Air
  • Costs (significant rise in prices)
  • Difficult to amend the system without experienced plumber

Galvanized Steel Compressed Air Piping

Galvanized steel piping has very similar characteristics to black iron piping in that it is strong and durable, but the galvanization of the steel significantly increases its corrosion resistance. Making it a popular choice for some, but if you ask the masses, they will and I will, advise against using galvanized steel.

You need to be aware that the galvanized coating degrades over time. As the zinc coating degrades, it will flake off inside the piping and can cause blockages or fouling in the air compressors lines. These flakes can also be a safety concern when blown out of the lines at high speeds at the end application.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Galvanized Steel Piping

Advantages of Galvanized Steel Piping for Compressed Air
  • Strong
  • Durable
  • Corrosion Resistant
Disadvantages of Galvanized Steel Piping for Compressed Air
  • Galvanized coating degrades
  • Blockages and fouling will occur

Stainless Steel Compressed Air Piping

Stainless steel pipe is a highly durable and longly used option that prevents corrosion. Boasts similar benefits to black iron piping with the addition of rusting not being an issue. Is most certainly the longest-lasting steel and iron alternative but comes with being the most expensive.

May require specialised installers with the right tools and training to be able to install the network. Probably the least common choices of material for compressed air systems due to their high costs.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Stainless Steel Piping

Advantages of Stainless Steel Piping for Compressed Air
  • Strong
  • Durable
  • Corrosion Resistant
  • Long-lasting
  • Does not degrade
Disadvantages of Stainless Steel Piping for Compressed Air
  • Difficult to cut and work with
  • Prone to leaking around joints and welds
  • High costs

Plastic Piping for Compressed Air

There are several options when it comes to using plastic for compressed air piping. Plastic materials are lightweight, easy to work with, contain good resistance to corrosion, smooth interior surfaces which encourage laminar flow and can simply be glued together, which is less costly and certainly quicker than welding metal pipes together.

You can’t just use any plastic pipes for compressed air distribution, they must be OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) approved, for starters. You must ensure the material is durable enough to stand up to the years of use and will not get damaged by contact with oils and lubricants inside your compressed air system.

The following are the most common plastic air compressor piping options that meet this criteria:

  • Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
  • High-density Polyethylene (HDPE)
  • Nylon
  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polyurethane (PU)

Each material boasts its own set of advantages and disadvantages which we’ll now look into in more depth.

ABS Compressed Air Piping

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is a suitably lightweight and easy to work with material that requires no special bracing or supports. ABS minimizes the risk of particulates making its way into the air flow due to its strong corrosion resistance.

ABS is good at handling severely cold temperatures but it is liable to warping under exposure to direct sunlight which indicates it is not suitable for outdoor use. There are precautions you should take if using ABS, especially when testing, this is an absolute no go. I certainly will recommend against using it.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of ABS Piping

Advantages of ABS Piping for Compressed Air
  • Strong
  • Flexible
  • Kink resistant
  • Excellent abrasion resistance
  • Corrosion resistant
Disadvantages of ABS Piping for Compressed Air
  • Reduced strength and durability compared to metal pipes
  • Restricted sizes
  • Can warp under direct sunlight (not suitable outdoors)

HDPE Compressed Air Piping

High-density polyethylene boasts similar traits to PE with the addition of being more denser, and therefore rigid/stronger. This rigidness results in an inflexible material which is good at resisting cracks. Very commonly found in water pipes and although it is approved for compressed air channels by OSHA, I would

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of HDPE Piping

Advantages of HDPE Piping for Compressed Air
  • Strong
  • Rigid
  • Corrosion resistant
  • UV stabilizer
Disadvantages of HDPE Piping for Compressed Air
  • Reduced strength and durability compared to metal pipes
  • Restricted sizes
  • Not flexible

Nylon Compressed Air Piping

Nylon pneumatic tubing is a more expensive alternative to polyurethane, but comes with a range of enhanced capabilities like greater operating pressures and chemical compatibility.

Rapidair are leaders in compressed air tubing and piping, and their Rapidair flagship range is comprised of nylon pneumatic tubing.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Nylon Piping

Advantages of Nylon Piping for Compressed Air
  • Tough
  • Lightweight
  • Flexible
  • Excellent abrasion resistance
  • Corrosion resistant
  • UV stabilized (suitable outdoors)
Disadvantages of Nylon Piping for Compressed Air
  • Reduced strength and durability compared to metal pipes
  • Restricted sizes
  • Costs more than other plastics

Polyethylene Compressed Air Piping

For my home shop or for a small plant, I would first consider using polyethylene tube to plumb all the airlines.

Polyethylene (PE) tube is low cost, it is rated for industrial compressed air pressures, very easy to install, does not react with moisture in the compressed air and it has scads of different air fittings to enable easy plumbing.

The problems with polyethylene tube are that if you need large volumes of air, you cannot get a tube large enough for that high air flow. If you bend it, it tends to leave a permanent kink and a weak spot in the tubing, and it is not abrasive resistant, meaning you would not use polyethylene tube as an airline to an air tool. Those airlines end up laying on the floor, and PE does not take well to being walked on or hand-trucked over.

There’s also PEX pipe for air line which is cross-linked Polyethylene and though this is typically used for water, PEX-AL-PEX is designed for compressed air system. This version contains a layer of aluminium between two layers of PEX, boosting it’s corrosion resistance and strength traits.

For more information please visit our Using Pex Pipe for Compressed Air Lines – Do’s & Don’ts page!

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Polyethylene Piping

Advantages of Polyethylene Piping for Compressed Air
  • Low cost
  • Easy to install
  • Do not degrade with oil and lubricants
  • Lightweight
  • Corrosion resistant
Disadvantages of Polyethylene Piping for Compressed Air
  • Reduced strength and durability compared to metal pipes
  • Restricted sizes
  • Cannot be bent as this will cause kinks

Polyurethane Compressed Air Piping

Polyurethane is sometimes used to plumb air to valves and air cylinders too, as it is softer, more malleable and able to be bent in tighter circles without kinking. It is also more expensive than polyethylene tube.

Polyurethane also may have some leakage or “blow off” issues when used with some types of instant fittings that aren’t designed for a soft-surfaced air lines.

The ‘natural’ polyethylene air tube is rated to handle industrial air pressure in the 120+ PSI range in normal ambient temperature environments.

Colored forms of P.E. tube get more expensive and are sometimes harder to find. Why consider them, then?

Plumbing a machine with dozens of air valves and air cylinders with colored tubing makes problem diagnosis easier on a larger machine. For example, you might consider making the cylinder extend air lines one color, the retract another. Or, if you have pneumatic logic on a machine, you might make all of the control air lines one color, and the power air lines another.

In this manner, it’s easy to trace a specific air line from the source to its air component, and thus make it easier to determine if there is a problem with air flow to that unit.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Polyurethane Piping

Advantages of Polyurethane Piping for Compressed Air
  • Strong
  • Flexible
  • Kink resistant
  • Excellent abrasion resistant
  • Corrosion resistant
Disadvantages of Polyurethane Piping for Compressed Air
  • Reduced strength and durability compared to metal pipes
  • Restricted sizes

There are some companies that build a composite plastic piping system for compressed air. I know that this product is not approved for use in every state, province, or country, so please ensure you check carefully.

I advise against using PVC and CPVC plastic pipe for plumbing compressed air regardless of the source. I do not recommend PVC pipe for compressed air, it could be catastrophic. PVC’s burst threshold lowers the hotter it gets and when PVC lets go, it often shatters, and anyone and anything around could get shredded. Readers have had PVC pipes swell and burst on them.

PVC and CPVC piping is not approved by OSHA for compressed air systems so they should certainly be avoided. Stick to plastics that are OSHA approved and are oil-resistant, to ensure that the compressor lubricants can’t degrade them.

For your safety and the longevity of your systems, I am summarising materials that I strongly believe to be less suitable for compressed air lines. I’ve also included some negative user comments on compressed air piping materials to follow.

Note: As ambient temperatures rise, the pressure rating of plastic pipes drops dramatically, and they may quickly fall below standard industrial compressed air pressures. Should the plastic pipe fail, rather than springing a leak, the plastic will shatter, sending shards in every direction.

Final Advice For When Selecting A Material For Compressed Air Piping

Ultimately, what pipe you use for your compressed air pipes is up to you, your budget, your installation-skill-level, and how much air you need for your equipment.

I am recommending you to not use any plastic pipe for compressed air unless you contact the manufacturer of that plastic pipe, and get approval in writing from them, that they recommend the use of their pipe for compressed air. No letter? Do not use it – let’s play it safe!

Metal piping may be more expensive, and more difficult to install but it will certainly offer you benefits potentially worth those additional costs. As always, consult a specialist before acting on any advice and please be aware of my information disclaimer here.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is an air pipe?

The purpose of air pipes is to carry and deliver air to the points of application. In compressed air systems, the air must be compressed to be delivered with enough volume, quality and pressure in order to power the components that use the air.

What type of pipe is used for air lines?

Metal pipe like black iron pipe tends to be the most common and universally used pipe for compressed air systems. Though, copper aluminium and stainless steel are also great choices.

It’s possible to use an array plastic piping too, as long as they’re approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) because if they’re not, you could cause harm to yourself and the air system.

What is the best pipe to use for compressed air?

Here are just a few of the best pipes, suitable for compressed air systems:
1. Copper
2. Aluminium
3. Stainless Steel
4. ABS
5. HDPE

Reader Questions and Responses

Using CPVC or PEX pipe for compressed air pipeline

by Jack Waters
(Blairsville, GA, USA)

I am near to the point where I will have time to run pipes to carry my compressed air around to all parts of my home shop. I had planned to use rigid copper, as I know the manufacturers recommend against using PVC. I also know that PVC is not used inside houses for waterlines. However, PEX and CPVC are both considered safe to use inside houses for waterlines. Therefore, I wondered if they can be used for my compressed air system. I plan to use no pressure higher than about 150 pounds psi.

Answer:

Jack, the simple answer is NO, don’t do it.

Yet there are new plastics being developed that might, and I emphasize might be suitable.

Before you take what might be a dangerous decision, I recommend that you note the pipe manufacturer’s name off the pipe, email them this same question, and keep their answer on file if they say yes. In that way, you have redress should the plastic fail.

If not copper, opt for rubber/vinyl (not just PVC) hose with barbed fittings. Relative low cost, forgiving with misalignment, and won’t rust.

An anonymous contributor thinks there is no problem:

What’s the worst that could happen? Air leak OMG someone call 911, I mean come on. If it leaks it probably gonna be at a connection. Is an air leak even at 100psi really gonna be catastrophic?

___________________

If you are in the room when a plastic pipe full of compressed air explodes and it sends shards of plastic into you and those around you… I don’t know, wouldn’t you consider that the worst that catastrophic? Ignorance is bliss. Be blissful then, friend.

Charlie writes in and agrees:

I would strongly caution against using PVC to plumb your airlines.

Years ago, I worked in an auto paint shop in Orlando, FL that was plumbed with PVC. One hot summer afternoon, the line exploded for no apparent reason about 20 ft away from me and it was like a bomb going off. Everyone in the shop came running thinking a car had exploded. Nobody got hurt, thankfully, but there were shards of PVC all over the shop and all work ceased since there was now no air pressure to run tools or paint cars. Bottom line – don’t use PVC for compressed air pipes.


Question from reader: How does galvanized pipe rank for compressed air plumbing?

by Tony
(Fayetteville, NC)

I am currently using PVC (I know I know, not recommended) and I want to upgrade, however I do not want the cost of copper nor do I have the skills needed anyway, and black pipe rusts like crazy.

Answer:

My response: Hi Tony, nice hearing from you.

First off, PVC isn’t just “not recommended”, it could be catastrophic. PVC’s burst threshold lowers the hotter it gets, and I believe that Fayetteville NC might get the odd warmish day?

When PVC lets go, it often shatters, and anyone and anything around could get shredded.

If I had lots of money, my first choice for a compressed air supply line would be copper. But you’re right, it has become very expensive, and even though there are other alternatives to ‘sweating’ the copper, that would be my first choice for putting copper lines and fittings together.

You know, I don’t know of anyone that’s using galvanized pipe as a compressed air line. Don’t know why. As long as the pipe has the pressure rating (and it should), then the galvanized coating would stop rust inside the lines, making it, in my opinion, a good choice.

By the way, I’d much rather ‘sweat’ copper than thread pipe.


Reader Negative Views on Galvanized pipe for plumbing compressed air

Tony, I’m new to this whole compressor pipe world, but in doing some reading I came across this quote on the TP Tools website. “We do not recommend galvanized metal pipe, as galvanization can come off the inside of the pipe, clogging separators and regulators.”

Answer

My response: Matt…thanks very much for your input! I guess the “toss up” is do you get better quality air from galvanized, with the risk of galvanization coming off inside the pipe, or from black pipe knowing that rust will develop for sure, and that rust will flow down the line to your application.

Regardless of your choice of pipe, you really need to have a filter / separator before each application that uses compressed air. These take out the free water, and will remove the “bricks and mortar” that flows down the air lines before it gets to your application.

Again, thank you very much for “chiming in”. I have never professed to know it all…maybe it just sounds that way sometimes. 😉 I appreciate any input from folks that have done more reading or have more experience than me.

Response by Paul Pearce

I judge galvanized piping as a totally wrong application that is doomed to failure.

I can’t imagine how and why anyone would apply this type of weak and inherently flawed piping. It is weak because it is totally susceptible to corrosion, flaking, and pin-hole defects – depending on the skill with which it is dipped.

And once a pin-hole (or even smaller holes) has been established, the corrosion starts immediately.

There is no way on this earth that anyone can guarantee that there is no defect or flaw in a given galvanization – hot-dipped or not hot-dipped.

And then there is the real hard issue of how does one inspect the surface that is really supposed to be doing the “protecting”: the internal pipe surface!

To date I’ve never heard or read of anyone daring to state that the internal surface of a galvanized pipe can be safely guaranteed not to have defects or flaws – because it can’t be inspected.

and that’s not all.

Most, if not all galvanized pipe is threaded. The moment it is threaded, the galvanization has been compromised and breeched. There is

no longer any “protection”, since the galvanization has been stripped and removed at the weakest point – the threads! This methodology or system of ensuring corrosion protection for a pipe has all the ingredients for its own demise.

Response by David:

You’re right the bottom line is in air quality. If you just using the the air to blow off and clean machinery the galvanized is a perfectly good solution not to mention cost effective.

Look at it this way, galvanized pipe was used in home plumbing for years, downside was rust in the lines. but leaks came way later down the road 10 maybe 15, 20 years. if your just moving air and quality does not matter then by all means use galvanized. If its installed properly then you should get many years of use out of it before there is a problem.

Also keep in mind the environment it is installed in. Outside or inside. If your coming from outside to inside then maybe use copper until you enter the inside. Copper has the same corrosion problems that galvanized has when exposed to moisture it oxidizes and pinholes develop.

I know places completely piped in galvanized pipe with no problems because it is used for just cleaning off equipment. If your using air for pneumatic cylinders and other related applications then yes copper is the best alternative.

Response by anonymous:

I have my metal fab shop piped with nothing but galvanized. It has been in place for close to 20 years, without any issues at all. We use many different machines, and a vast array of hand tools. My compressor is located in an unheated environment, and the main line then enters the heated workspace. This would certainly seem to increase moisture issues, but to date,it has not been a problem. When I do find minor excess moisture in the system, it’s usually my failure to drain the dryer. Having said that, I would most likely use copper next time, it’s just easier. Save the plastic for moving poo, hopefully downhill.

Response by Anonymous:

Galvanized pipe not as good as it once was?

Galvanized pipes are not that bad. The thing is that galvanized pipes are not as good as they were in the past…

In my backyard I have lots of galvanized pipes produced in 1970’s and 1980’s
And guess what ? there is almost no rust (keep in mind they’re exposed to rain)

I do have some newer pipes too but I don’t keep them outside… because they rust almost instantly when exposed to moisture, rain etc., stuff just isn’t as good as it was in the past…

Response by Anonymous:

No to galvanized pipe.

galvanized pipe flakes off on the inside that is why they dont use it.

An aluminum option to using galvanized pipe in air systems:

Try Transair – Aluminum Compressed air pipe system. The alloy will not corrode, plus guaranteed leak free. This system was specifically designed for the distribution of compressed air, inert gases and vacuum.

Response by Anonymous:

And one more saying galvanized is bad:

I have worked as an industrial millwright/mechanic for the past 15 years – 6 of them as a fluid power specialist. I would not recommend using galvanized pipe for any compressed air applications! Regardless of the use of dryers and/or lubricators, there are small flakes of the coating that will flake off of the inside of the pipe. This will cause failures in valving, actuators & air tools.


If you have any questions or comments to make on the best pipeline materials for air compressor systems, please add it here along with photos if applicable to help others help you!