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Not attractive, but essential

Your air compressor is critical to your practice. Here are some facts you need to know about this important piece of your office.

Compared to beautiful office designs, state-of-the-art furnishings, and technologically advanced equipment, the air compressor is not the most attractive component of the dental office. But the role it plays in every smooth-running dental office cannot be overstated just ask any doctor who has experienced a failing compressor. The air compressor, along with the vacuum system, is the heart of the dental office.

"If there's anything dentists should have the best of, it should be the air compressor and vacuum system, because they keep you working," said Bruce Wittenberg, a lead service technician and installer for Patterson's Minnesota Branch.

How do compressors work?

This often-underrated workhorse compresses, cleans, dries and stores air, which drives handpieces and operates dental units and syringes.

Your compressor performs by lowering the temperature of the compressed air through an after cooler system, removing impurities from the compressed air via an inline filtration system and removing the moisture from the air through a drying system before it reaches your handpiece.

The ability of the compressor to accomplish these tasks determines its performance. Your practice is dependent on a steady, reliable supply of high-quality compressed air. According to Wittenberg, the consequences of not keeping an eye on your compressor are severe. "If this component fails, your office ceases to function," he said. "And your productivity is out the window."

Common problems

The three most common compressor problems Wittenberg has seen in his nearly 30 years with Patterson are dryer failure; lack of air volume, which occurs when the compressor is too small to handle the needs of the office; and air leaks that can lead to a multitude of problems.

Get the right compressor size

A properly utilized and maintained compressor generally lasts 10 to 15 years. Wittenberg said dentists often expand their office space or take on an associate without considering how their compressor will manage the additional workload. "An overworked air compressor won't last as long because it's working harder than it should," he said.

Plus, an overworked compressor will often have a negative effect on compressed air dryness, as the air drying system cannot keep up with an overworked compressor. Therefore, handpieces and dental procedures may be adversely affected due to the "wetter" compressed air.


Wittenberg suggested rotating the once-a-week responsibility of checking the air compressor among staff members. "Listen for noises – an unfamiliar sound may indicate a problem," he said.


One way to reduce the odds of your compressor shutting down your office is to purchase a twin head system. "If one air compressor head goes bad, the other will get the office through until a service technician arrives, so there's no loss of productivity," Wittenberg said. Until recent years, this system was primarily used in rural communities due to the travel distance required for service technicians to fix a compressor problem. Wittenberg estimates 75 to 85 percent of dentists now opt for this better-safe-than-sorry solution.

When is it time for a new compressor?

If you have an older compressor, periodically monitor its performance. Efficiency is based on the duty cycle, or time it takes to pressurize the tank from zero to maximum pounds per square inch. Most manufacturers have suggested times for a compressor to pressurize, as well as recommended times to cycle from minimum to maximum pressure.

If your compressor is running too long to maintain pressure, there is either a leak in the system or the compressor is becoming less efficient or "weaker."

Also, monitor quality of air coming from the compressor. Over time, a compressor passing more oil, moisture or debris may indicate the compressor is failing and must be evaluated. You can check to see if the air is clean by doing a simple test using a small mirror. Just blow air from your handpiece tubing onto the mirror. Any debris, oil, moisture or contaminates emitted will clearly show up on the mirror surface.

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