Piston Compressor Basics — Structure, Working Principle, Advantages and Disadvantages

Evan O' Sullivan
4 min readJun 20, 2021

As both manufacturers and end customers know, in a refrigeration or air conditioning system, the compressor is the equipment core by continuously sucking back and exporting refrigerant. Once the compressor breaks down or stops working, the whole cooling system will be interrupted.

The piston compressor is widely used in large and medium-sized cold storage. Here we will explain in detail the structure, working principle, advantages and disadvantages and common fault diagnosis of piston compressors.

  1. Structure of Piston Compressor

The following is a detailed explanation of the core components of a piston compressor.

1.1 Body

The compressor body includes the cylinder block and crankcase. Generally, it is made of high strength grey cast iron.

1.2 Cylinder

The cylinder is a key component of a piston compressor. According to different pressure, discharge capacity and gas properties of the compressor, users should select cylinders made of different materials and with appropriate structures.

Basic requirements for cylinders are: strength and stiffness, good cooling, lubrication and wear resistance.

1.3 Crankshaft

By changing the rotary motion of the motor into reciprocating linear motion of the piston through the connecting rod, the crankshaft transmits the full power of the compressor. It is one of the key components of the motion system of the compressor.

1.4 Connecting Rod

Connecting rod is the connecting piece between the crankshaft and piston, which transforms the rotary motion of the crankshaft into the reciprocating motion of the piston, and transfers power to the piston to work on gas.

The connecting rod comprises a connecting rod body, a small end bush, a big end bearing bush and a bolt.

1.5 Piston Group

Piston group is the generic name of the piston, including piston pin and piston ring. Driven by the connecting rod, the piston group makes reciprocating linear motion in the cylinder, so as to form a variable working volume together with the cylinder, and therefore to complete the process of suction, compression and exhaust.

1.6 Piston

The piston can be divided into cylinder and disc. Piston material is generally aluminium alloy or cast iron.

1.7 Piston Pin

The piston pin is used to connect the small end of the piston and the connecting rod. It bears a complex alternating load when working.

1.8 Piston Ring

It is a circular ring with a cut on it, and the cut may be straight, inclined or overlap. The angle of the inclined cut is 45 degrees.

The piston ring is comprised of a gas ring and an oil ring. The gas ring works as a seal between the piston and the cylinder wall to prevent the compressed air from leaking from the gap between the piston and the cylinder wall. The oil ring is to distribute oil and scrape off the excess lubricating oil on the cylinder wall.

1.9 Shaft Seal

A shaft seal is for preventing compressed gas from leaking out along the extended end of the crankshaft, and also for preventing outside air from leaking in when the pressure in the crankcase is lower than atmospheric pressure.

1.10 Crankcase Heater

The crankcase heater ensures the normal lubrication of the refrigerant heater in the crankcase by separating the refrigerant in the crankcase.

Users should install a crankcase heater in any environment. When the compressor runs with the crankcase temperature 20 ℃ higher than the environment temperature, the crankshaft heater will be powered off. When the compressor stops, the heater will be powered on.

1.11 Compressor Motor Protection Device

To prevent overload or overheating of the compressor, the motor is built-in with 6 PTC thermistors. Generally speaking, L, N is for power supply, 11, 14 are connected to the control circuit, and 12 is the alarm indicator.

1.12 Oil Pressure Safety Device

The oil pressure safety device monitors the pressure difference between the inlet and outlet of the oil pump to ensure the lubrication of the compressor. It is usually less than 0.7 bar and has 90 ± 10 seconds’ delay. The oil pressure difference of the compressor is 2.5 ~ 3 kg/cm.

The oil pressure difference of a single-stage compressor is calculated as:

Δ P = Oil Pump Outlet Pressure — Suction Pressure.

The oil pressure difference of the two-stage compressor is calculated as:

Δ P = Oil Pump Outlet Pressure — Intermediate Pressure.

  1. Working Principle of Piston Compressor

The work of the piston compressor is completed by the continuous change of the working volume composed of the cylinder, the air valve and the reciprocating piston in the cylinder.

If the volume loss and energy loss in the actual work of the piston compressor are not considered (that is, during an ideal working process), the work completed by the crankshaft of the piston compressor can be divided into four processes: compression, exhaust, expansion and suction.

2.1 Compression Process

When the piston is in the lowest position (called the inner dead centre or bottom dead centre), the cylinder is filled with low-pressure refrigerant vapour inhaled from the evaporator, and the suction process ends.

Driven by the crankshaft and connecting rod, the piston starts to move upward. At this time, the suction valve is closed, the working volume of the cylinder is gradually reduced, the gas in the cylinder is compressed, and the temperature and pressure are gradually increased. The process of gas rising from the low pressure of suction to the exhaust pressure in the cylinder is called the compression process.