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Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation

Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation

Understanding Supplemental Oxygen—Equipment Fundamentals

Understanding Supplemental Oxygen—Equipment Fundamentals

For people in need of supplemental oxygen equipment, the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation offers a primer on oxygen systems and choosing the best one for you.

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Those new to the world of supplemental oxygen may feel overwhelmed by what they don’t know. To help you understand the basics of oxygen, the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation (PFF) offers a step-by-step guide, beginning with determining need and what a prescription entails.*

Stationary versus portable systems

Supplemental oxygen comes in stationary and portable systems. Most people requiring oxygen therapy get a stationary system for the home and a portable system for when they’re away.

A stationary system remains in its setup location. The oxygen delivery tube is generally either 25 or 50 ft long (versus 7 ft for portable systems), to make moving around the home or office more convenient. 

There are two types of stationary systems:

  1. Concentrators extract oxygen from the surrounding air, then deliver the concentrated oxygen through tubing to either a nasal cannula (prongs that fit in the nose, for normal flow and nose breathing), a reservoir cannula (for high flow and nose breathing), or an oxygen mask (for high flow and mouth breathing).
  2. Liquid systems involve a pre-filled container that is refilled by the oxygen company on a weekly basis. Oxygen becomes liquid when cooled at very low temperatures. When the liquid oxygen leaves the container, the room temperature warms it, and it returns to its gaseous state before flowing through the delivery tube. Note: Not all suppliers offer liquid.

There are three types of portable systems:

  1. Compressed gas tanks come in several sizes, and can either be pre-filled and delivered weekly or refilled at home (called “home-fill” or “trans-fill” units) using the stationary concentrator. The canister may be carried in a backpack or on a roller.
  2. Portable oxygen concentrators (POCs) are smaller versions of stationary concentrators. They also vary in size and weight, and require no tanks or filling. Run on regular electricity or batteries, they are easy to recharge, even in a car, and can usually be taken onto airplanes. POCs are generally not sufficient for people requiring high oxygen flow.
  3. Liquid oxygen tanks weigh between 3 and 11 lbs, and are refilled from a stationary system or reservoir. Filling the portable tank requires training to avoid cold burn. These canisters may be larger than POCs and can accommodate greater continuous flow.


Delivery is a significant factor to consider when choosing an oxygen system. Delivery type can be pulsed or continuous.

  • Pulse delivery releases oxygen only when the user takes a breath. This is achieved by the portable oxygen system sensing when the user has inhaled.
  • Continuous flow delivery sends oxygen in a steady stream, regardless of whether the user is inhaling. Like high flow oxygen, continuous delivery depletes the oxygen supply and device batteries faster than pulse delivery.

Choosing wisely

Your physician will collaborate with you and your oxygen supplier to determine which system best meets your medical needs and lifestyle preferences.

Selection criteria include:

  • Amount of oxygen prescribed (written as liters of flow per minute)
  • Your activities inside and outside the home
  • Home size and layout
  • How often you leave your home, and for how long
  • Your size, strength, endurance, and dexterity
  • Whether you breathe primarily through your nose or mouth

Speak with your healthcare provider about the best option for you.

For more information, including pictures of the equipment, refer to the PFF’s guide on supplemental oxygen.

*Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. (n.d.). Oxygen Basics: A step-by-step guide to supplemental oxygen [Digital booklet].

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