There is a common misconception that an oil/water separator is an optional add-on to an air compressor. The truth is, oil/water separators are not optional, but are mandatory for compressed air applications.
An oil/water separator does exactly what you think it would; it separates oil from water. Air compressors produce a significant amount of condensate in the compressor life-cycle. The condensate that is produced is contaminated with the oil that is used to lubricate the compressor. Before the condensate can be disposed, the oil must be separated from the water (disposed water purity levels are subject to Federal and Local regulations).
The penalties for not using an oil/water separator are significant. Per the EPA, the penalty can be to the company, operator or both for discharges of oil or hazardous substances. Violation can result in significant fines or imprisonment. The EPA assesses penalties based on the following guidelines:
Negligent Violations – $2,500 to $25,000 per day of violation and/or imprisonment up to 1 year. A second conviction for negligent violation is punishable up to $50,000 per day of violation and/or imprisonment up to 2 years.
Knowing Violations – $5,000 to $50,000 per day of violation and/or imprisonment up to 3 years. A second conviction for knowing violation is punishable up to $100,000 per day of violation and/or imprisonment up to 6 years.
Knowing Endangerment – Any knowing violation of certain CWA (Clean Water Act) requirements that places another person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury is punishable up to $250,000 and/or by imprisonment up to 15 years.
False Statements – Any person who knowingly makes any false material statement, representation or certification may be punishable up to a $10,000 fine and/or by imprisonment up to 2 years. A conviction for making false statements may be punishable up to a $20,000 fine per day of violation and/or imprisonment up to 4 years.
The cost of installing an oil/water separator does not even come close to the cost of an EPA violation. If your facility uses an air compressor, it should also have an oil/water separator. Do yourself a favor and make sure your facility is EPA compliant, it just may save you and your peers a lot of time (jail) and money.