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Rotary screw compressor versus piston compressor

rotary screw compressor

Whether you’re a DIY enthusiast, small business owner, or purchaser for a packaging plant, choosing between a rotary screw or piston compressor can be confusing. But the good news is that understanding the differences between the two types of compressors can help you make an informed decision about which one is best for your needs. So let’s take a closer look at each type of compressor to give you a better idea of which one is right for your project.

Rotary Screw Compressors

Rotary screw compressors use two meshing helical screws to pressurize air. This makes them more efficient than piston-driven compressors, as they can operate continuously without interruption. They are also quieter than piston-driven models—an important consideration if you plan on using your compressor in an area where noise levels should remain low. On the downside, rotary screw compressors require more maintenance than their piston counterparts and they are generally more expensive upfront.

How Do Rotary Air Compressors Work?

Rotary air compressors feature two main components: an electric motor and a rotating vane or screw system. The motor is responsible for powering the compressor’s rotating blades or vanes which create a vacuum inside the chamber as they rotate. As the vanes move through the chamber, they draw in ambient air from outside; this air is then compressed within the chamber as it gets pushed out of the exhaust port by the blades or vanes. This process continues until the desired pressure level has been achieved and maintained.

What types of projects use rotary screw compressors?

Rotary screw compressors are made to use at full capacity. Most rotary screw compressors are used 100% of the time. They are never turned off and could even be damaged if they are used infrequently. Projects that frequently use rotary screw compressors are;

  • Food Processing and packaging
  • High-volume manufacturing
  • Robotic manufacturing
  • Conveyor systems
  • Paint production lines
  • Hospitals
  • Applications requiring very clean air
  • Collision repair
  • Industry that needs continuous compressed air


Piston Compressors

Piston compressors use pistons to draw in air from outside then force it out into a chamber under pressure. This makes them less efficient than rotary screw models when it comes to energy consumption, but they are also much cheaper upfront—making them a great option for those working with limited budgets who don’t need continuous operation. Piston compressors also require less maintenance compared to rotary screw models, but they do tend to be louder when running.

How Piston Air Compressors Work

Piston air compressors use pistons to compress air into a tank, which is then released into an outlet valve. The pistons work by drawing in air from the atmosphere and then compressing it into the tank by applying pressure to the walls of the tank. This compressed air is then released when needed, allowing for a continuous flow of compressed air to be supplied. This type of compressor is typically powered by either electricity or gas, and they are relatively easy to maintain and service thanks to their simple design.

What Types of Projects Use Piston Air Compressors?

Piston air compressors are not designed to be operated full-time. They are often the compressors of choice for DIY projects, handymen, and small business owners. Piston air compressors are acceptable when short bursts of air are needed. Projects that frequently use piston air compressors are;

  • Small machine shops
  • Tire shops
  • Airbrushing
  • Sandblasting
  • Construction work
  • Residential usage
  • Blow-off for cleaning
  • Manual power tools
  • Manual applications


When it comes to deciding between a rotary or piston compressor, there’s no single answer that works for everyone—it all depends on your specific needs and preferences. If you’re looking for a quiet, powerful option that can be operated all day, a rotary screw compressor is probably better for you. If you are looking for a compressor for more casual use than a piston compressor may be the better choice. It is best to consult with an air compressor expert to determine which is best for you.

Pacific Air Compressors offers air compressor maintenance and installation in Portland, Oregon. You can also shop from our online catalog to have the compressor shipped to you. Contact us today at 503-674-2744 or online for more information.


Dear valued customers,

We normally keep all our inventory in stock. However, due to backorders from many of our vendors and parts shortages, some items that we have listed may not be in stock or could have a long lead time although they show as available on our store. If you need your items right away, please call or e-mail to ensure availability.