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Guidelines for Buying a Plasma Cutter

Are you thinking of buying a plasma cutter? It can be a daunting prospect to purchase a piece of equipment which is new to you, especially with a lot of manufacturers and models to consider.

To begin with, there are a few questions you should answer before going shopping:

> How hours of daily use will the equipment get? What duty cycle should it have in other words?

> What type of electrical service is available where the machine will be used? Is it 50 amp 220 volt single phase, or maybe 30 amp 110 volt single phase? What other equipment will be using the same circuit at the same time?

> How much portability are you looking for? Will you use it strictly in your shop or outside as well? Will you be able to supply the machine with compressed air in a remote location? Air bottle or portable compressor? How about supplying the supply electric current at the site?

> What type of material do you intend to cut, and how thick will it probably be?

> Will you only do manual cutting exclusively, or will you probably use your plasma cutter with a CNC cutting machine? Generally, the greater the plasma cutter’s amperage output , the greater the duty cycle will be at lower amperages. A lot of people think that a higher-capacity machine is always better, but this isn’t true. Fabricators usually consider oxy-fuel as superior to plasma for cutting steel that have a thickness of .5 inch or more; this is because of the 4 to 6-degree bevel in the cut face made by the plasma. You wouldn’t see it in thinner materials, but it does become more noticeable with increased thickness. Also, plasma has no advantage over oxy-fuel in terms of speed at thicknesses beyond .5 inch.

It is almost useless to buy a plasma cutter that cut 1.5 plate, if you will be using acetylene for the work anyway. If you intend to cut non-ferrous metals like stainless or aluminum, which could not be cut by oxy-fuel, think 50 to 80 amp 220 volt plasma cutter. If you must take your plasma cutter outside the shop, get one of those latest semi-portable machines. These units are small powerhouses weighing under 100 lbs., but they can cut .75″ to 1″ in a pinch. You’re going to need a bottle of air or a compressor, as well as a portable generator.

If you think you might automate your plasma cutting in the future, pick a unit that that runs on a low-frequency starting circuit. A high-frequency start operates like the spark plug in your vehicle. Rather than relying on lower voltage pilot arc to begin the plasma process, it counts on a high voltage spark, which produces electrical interference like computer lockup or destroying files, etc.

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