Rotary Compressor VS. Reciprocating Compressor: what’s the difference?

You don’t know what to spend your money on between a reciprocating compressor and a rotary compressor, which one would fit your needs more, which is the right air compressor, or which one has better energy efficiency? Hopefully, this article will clean the air for you to make the right choice.

Context of use2

Rotary air compressors and reciprocating compressors, what are they for?

The first key to understanding which one to pick would be to ask yourself what you hope to achieve by purchasing either. In short, they both fulfill the same function, rotary air compressors and reciprocating compressors reduce the volume of air by shrinking it, thus producing compressed air through the process called positive displacement.

Both achieve the same result by different means.

Rotary compressor vs Reciprocating compressor2

What is a rotary screw air compressor?

Rotary compressors, also known as rotary screw air compressors, are the more modern device first invented in the 20th century. As the name suggests, the main mechanic to compress air is the rotors. The rotary motion forces continuously compressed air out of the chambers.

Understanding the process of rotary screw compressors would be easier by breaking it into the following steps:

  1. As the device is switched on, the screws start rotating.
  2. The rotation of screws produces an air vacuum in the chamber.
  3. The air that moves through the chambers compresses following the spinning of rotors.
  4. And finally, the compressed air leaves the chamber.

Easy to understand the mechanism of the rotary screw machine makes it an easy choice for a new air compressor purchase to consider.

Advantages of rotary screw air compressors

The advantages of purchasing a rotary screw compressor should be evident:

  1. It is a more modern piece of technology.
  2. Has less oil carryover.
  3. Longer lifespan.
  4. Higher speed.
  5. Cooler internal operating temperature.
  6. Consistent flow.
  7. Smaller size.
  8. It isn’t very noisy.

It is a preferable choice to operate a nonstop duty cycle for conveyor systems that deal in productions that demand a cleaner environment, such as food processing.

Disadvantages of rotary screw air compressors

However, it is not without its disadvantages, as a rotary screw air compressor:

  1. Comes at a rather high price upfront.
  2. Requires a higher skillset for repairs and maintenance.
  3. Demands a cleaner environment to operate properly.
What is a rotary screw air compressor

What is a reciprocating air compressor?

Reciprocating air compressors, aka piston-type air compressors, have been in industrial use since as far back as the 17th century, and as such is the definition of why you shouldn’t fix something that’s not broken. Unlike rotary compressors, the reciprocating air compressor is a pistons-driven air compressor that pushes air out of the cylinders.

The mechanism behind reciprocating compressor can be understood by breaking it down as such:

  1. The rotor starts spinning, activating both pistons simultaneously, kick-starting the reciprocating motion.
  2. The first piston sucks in the dry air and pushes it to the intercooler.
  3. The air lowers its temperature as it passes through the intercooler.
  4. Pressurized steam is compressed further by the smaller second piston.
  5. The compressed air is released from the chamber.

Tried and true, the reciprocating air compressor provides reliable results with its piston and cylinder arrangement and remains a classic among positive displacement compressors.

Advantages of reciprocating air compressors

As for the advantages of reciprocating compressors, a potential customer should consider:

  1. The lower skill ceiling for maintenance.
  2. Lower costs upfront (especially when you compare prices for rotary and reciprocating compressors).
  3. It can be used in most environments.
  4. Overall, better energy efficiency.
  5. Maximum delivery pressure of 1000 bar.

Most customers shouldn’t just consider this machine a relic of the past, there are many advantages to consider for people who wish to operate a cheaper machine or for a smaller-scale business.

Disadvantages of reciprocating air compressors

Here’s where reciprocating compressors start to dwindle in appeal:

  1. Noise pollution.
  2. Heats up quickly and easily.
  3. High oil carryover.
  4. The machine is very demanding and high maintenance
  5. Big size.
What is a reciprocating air compressor

Also read the article about air compressor efficiency.

Context of use

If you are still unsure when to use which air compressor, then consider the following elaborations on the context of use. Despite intrinsically fulfilling the same function, the machines are in no way interchangeable.

The context for using rotary air compressors

A rotary compressor is a powerhouse of machinery designed to power large-scale businesses and manufacturers, with a fixed-speed compressor meeting the demand for a strong and consistent flow of operations.

Rotary air compressors are used in clean environments for clean operations such as food processing and paint lines, making clean air an essential part to consider while deciding on your purchase.

However, the opposite is also true, if your compressed air demand varies or is not that high, to begin with, then this consistently powerful unit might end up being overkill.

The context for using the reciprocating air compressor

A reciprocating compressor is your first choice if you need to meet compressed air demand in intervals.

If you wish to run your own workshop for business or just for pleasure, then this is your first choice, as the operative word with a reciprocating compressor is control.

However, once again, the opposite is also true, if you wish to expand to a bigger conveyor system, a reciprocating compressor may end up becoming a ceiling in rapid business expansion.

Context of use

Get more information in the article – which are better rotary vane or reciprocating compressors.


What is the difference between a reciprocating air compressor and a rotary screw air compressor? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions regarding a reciprocating compressor and rotary compressor.

Can a rotary compressor be operated at variable speed?

No, the main advantage of the rotary compressor is its fixed speed. Still, if you wish to retain the same large-scale efficiency as a rotary compressor but use it in intervals, you may consider going for a variable-speed drive compressor instead.

Which air compressor lasts longer?

With a superior cooler internal operating temperature and a more modern mechanism, the rotary compressor lasts longer than the reciprocating compressor.

Which one is cheaper?

The reciprocating compressor is cheaper than the rotary compressor upfront; however, it might even out due to more frequent maintenance costs.

Do they require air receiver tanks?

Rotary screw air compressors do not require an air receiver tank while reciprocating compressors do.


While intrinsically fulfilling the same function, make no mistake, rotary and reciprocating compressors are not interchangeable. The former is most suited for businesses that require consistent pressure and a large volume of compressed air, while the latter is perfect for intermittent use that requires high pressure.

James Cole

Considering that most people continue to pay the masters in the service for a consultation, I decided to create my blog.

Leave a Comment