An oxygen concentrator (also referred to as an oxygen generator) manufactures its own oxygen by utilizing molecular sieve beds to sift out the trace elements in room air. It is an electrical or battery-operated device. Concentrators come in many varieties, both stationary and portable and high and low liter flows.
Room air is only 20.9% oxygen-rich. The other things in the air that we breathe are nitrogen, argon, neon, hydrogen, carbon dioxide well as others. The purpose of the oxygen concentrator is to capture just the oxygen in the room air and sift out the other elements. Oxygen delivered this way is “therapeutically equivalent” to liquid oxygen.
Oxygen concentrators were invented in the 1970s. Prior to that, a person on oxygen needed to use liquid oxygen and mostly in a controlled setting. The advent of the concentrator allowed patients who needed supplemental oxygen to go and live at home as opposed to an inpatient facility.
Liquid oxygen was used for many years in the home. It was the “gold standard” for a long time. When oxygen concentrators took hold, they gave patients living at home on supplemental oxygen a way to have more freedom. Liquid oxygen requires delivery to the home weekly or more frequently depending on the patient’s usage. A technician would need to go to the patient’s home, retrieve the liquid system from the home, bring it outside via a hand truck, fill the unit at the curbside, then bring it back inside the home. A lot of times, patients were stuck home, waiting for the technician to arrive. This could go on once or twice a week for most clients.
Liquid oxygen is –297 degrees and has some real hazards associated with its use. Frost burn is one of those hazards. If the liquid oxygen touches the skin, it will burn it. Many of our elderly clients on oxygen cannot afford to have any abrasions to the skin without being at risk for infection or healing issues. Freezing up is the other risk. In very humid or hot conditions, many times the unit will freeze up making it difficult to refill a portable. Pouring a little warm water on the filler will melt the ice and allow the client to fill their portable.
A concentrator is free-standing, plugs into electricity, and makes its own oxygen while it is running. Theoretically, you can have an unlimited supply of oxygen with a concentrator. Newer versions have alarms to alert the patient if the purity of the oxygen is low or if there is a problem with the unit. They are designed to be “workhorses” as they are mostly used all day long. Newer concentrators require minimal care. Normally they have one or two filters on the outside of the unit that will need to be rinsed weekly. Other than that, they do not require servicing except at the manufacturer's intervals. The only real downside is the fact that they use electricity. If you lose power at your home, you will need to use an alternate source of oxygen in the interim (ie: cylinder, battery-operated portable system).
Concentrators come in 3, 5, and 10-liter capacities. Your physician will decide what liter flow you will need in different situations (i.e.: rest, activity, sleep). Concentrators are made to last a long time. They are a bit noisy, but a carpet remnant under them can baffle some of the sounds. Refer to the owner's manual to see when servicing is required.
Author Profile: Laura Castricone, Respiratory Therapist
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