If you like to work on your car at home, you know how important it is to have the proper tools. Whether you’re changing spark plugs or freshening suspension components, you won’t get very far without the right equipment.
Of course, sometimes the right equipment needs some power behind it. For pneumatic tools, you’ll need to have an air compressor. As the name suggests, an air compressor takes air from the atmosphere, increases its pressure and then sends it through a tube to deliver the compressed air to the attached tool. Some common auto tools that use pneumatic power include impact wrenches, tire inflators and paint sprayers.
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“An air compressor can be used for so many different domestic projects, even though so many people mistake them for something that only commercial areas need,” Says Andy King, founder and managing director of Jamjar.com, a UK-based online service devoted to car-buying comparisons. “Whether you’re working on your car, motorbike, or even bicycle, an air compressor can be a fantastic tool. Using these tools for anything mechanical helps to reduce touchpoints, which can help to keep you and your items clean.”
How can you find the air compressor that’s best suited for tire pressure? Read on, as we’ve detailed the best air compressors across a variety of categories, based on customer satisfaction and expert recommendations. Then, we’ve compiled more information about air compressors in hopes of answering any other questions you may have.
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For the best air compressor, look no further than the Industrial Air’s 20-Gallon Electric Air Compressor. It offers the perfect combination of reliability and power. And if you have to move it, the 159-pound unit has handles and wheels to make transporting it not an impossible task.
It’s also an effective compressor, with 135 max pounds per square inch (PSI) of pressure and rugged cast-iron construction for the body. The pump is oil-lubricated (which cuts down on noise), and while the motor is wired for 120-volt power, it can be converted to 240-volt if necessary.
Customers also give props to this Industrial Air unit for its quiet operation, made-in-the-USA tank and price tag that won’t ravage bank accounts. All in all, it’s enough to make Industrial Air’s model our top overall choice.
Air compressors come in a variety of sizes — and a variety of prices, as well. While there are cheaper, smaller models that can be used very effectively for garage applications, if you spend a bit (or more than a bit) more, you can get a truly premium model.
The Quincy QT-54 is just about everything you could want in an air compressor. It’s got a huge 60-gallon tank with bottom drain valve and a high (175) max PSI. That power — plus an efficient build designed to use less energy — make it the ideal stationary air compressor for automotive work.
While the price is high, this reciprocating compressor with an oil-lubricated pump is rated for 30,000 hours of use to power your impact wrench, spray gun, tire inflator or any other pneumatic tools you have in your arsenal. It could very well be the only air compressor you will ever need. Just make sure you have a 220-volt outlet to power this bad boy.
California Air Tools
Air compressors are known for being loud while the motor operates. To an extent, there’s nothing that can be done about it. However, there are some models that are quieter than others, and if you’ve ever used a compressor with a 100-decibel motor, you might be interested in something with a quieter pump.
California Air Tools specializes in air compressors with not-so-loud motors, and one of its larger models is the CAT-20015HP. The CAT-20015HP operates at 70 decibels, which is quieter than a standard vacuum cleaner. As other compressors can be as loud as motorcycles, that’s a valuable feature.
A quieter running pump volume isn’t the only thing this air compressor offers — it has a 20-gallon steel tank and a high max PSI of 175. It also has wheels, in case you need to move it around the garage if you don’t have an air hose that’s quite long enough.
If you want an air compressor with a huge tank and you’ll spare no expense, there’s the Industrial Air 80-Gallon Stationary Electric Air Compressor. Rest assured, this is a true stationary compressor model; it’s not going anywhere.
It’s true that this larger tank air compressor might seem more at home in a professional garage, but maybe you have multiple cars that you work on at once. Maybe you have large projects and don’t want to have the motor run constantly. Maybe you just want an air compressor that delivers 155 PSI and lasts longer than just about any other you can buy. As far as heavy-duty goes, this is it.
Of course, the price is heavy-duty as well — at $1,258, the 80-Gallon Stationary Electric Air Compressor is more than just an impulse purchase. That said, if you know you’re going to be using a lot of compressed air a lot of the time, it may be the long-lasting solution you need.
Most homeowners want an air compressor that can deliver the power they need, but without breaking the bank. That presents a challenge — it can be difficult to find the exact right combination of power, tank size, and price that delivers the ideal experience.
Craftsman’s 20-Gallon Air Compressor is the best of all worlds, with a tank large enough to keep your tools running, a max PSI of 175, a peak horsepower of 1.8, and a price tag of $400. It’s also portable, with a handle and 8-inch wheels that make it easy to take from site to site as needed.
The compressor currently has a rating of 4.5 out of five stars on Amazon with more than 60 customer ratings. While satisfied customers admit that the compressor runs louder than other models, they also appreciate the performance and value.
Pancake air compressors are named for the shape of their tank — although maybe “short stack” would be more accurate. In any case, they’re a popular type of small air compressor, with many models affording portability and easy transportation from the garage into the house for when you need to run things like a brad nailer.
The Craftsman 6-Gallon Pancake Air Compressor is the best pancake air compressor on the market, boasting 4.8 stars out of five on Amazon with over 7,000 customer ratings. It’s also the second-best-selling portable air compressor on the site. Satisfied customers cite the model’s ease of use and efficiency when performing smaller operations.
It’s little wonder why the Craftsman Air Compressor is so popular. It delivers a maximum PSI of 150, comes with a 13-piece accessory kit, and has a six-gallon tank size. That last statistic is made even more impressive by the fact that the entire pancake compressor weighs only 32.5 pounds.
California Air Tools
Like pancake air compressors, hot dog air compressors are also named for their tank’s shape — hold the bun. While hot dog air compressors often have larger tanks than pancake air compressors, this isn’t always true, as demonstrated by the Craftsman model above. A lot of the difference, then, is aesthetic.
If you prefer a hot dog air compressor, it’s hard to outdo California Air Tools’ 2010A Ultra Quiet and Oil-Free 1.0 HP 2.0-Gallon Aluminum Tank Air Compressor. Like the name promises — and like other California Air Tools models — it’s a quiet air compressor that runs at only 60 decibels. It also weighs just over 35 pounds, making it a relatively easy portable compressor to bring from place to place.
The 2010A has a two-gallon tank capacity, making it a little smaller than some of the other models on the list. Still, the 120 PSI of pressure allows the user to perform many automotive tasks, even if the pump needs to kick on for a refill more often.
Briggs & Stratton
Lots of air compressors advertise themselves as portable, but just because they have wheels, it doesn’t mean they’re easy to move around. Likewise, if they’re too small, they’ll need to be refilled with air so often that it becomes inconvenient.
Briggs & Stratton BS0231041 10-Gallon Vertical Air Compressor manages to deliver the right mixture of tank size and weight, making for a truly portable model. It’s 70 pounds, with a protruding handle and large rubber wheels that make moving it a breeze. It also delivers the power that you’ll need to get your tools running, with a maximum pressure rating of 150 PSI.
Customers also endorse this Briggs & Stratton 10-gallon air compressor model with 4.4 stars out of five and a 90% recommendation rate. It’s also affordably priced at just $155.
Comparison of the best air compressors for 2021
|Make||Model||Tank size||Oil-lubricated/oil-free||Max PSI||Price|
|Best air compressor overall||Industrial Air||IL1682066.MN||20 gallon||Oil-lubricated||135||$640|
|Best stationary air compressor/Best premium air compressor||Quincy||QT-54||60 gallon||Oil-lubricated||175||$1,400|
|Best portable air compressor||Briggs & Stratton||BS0232041||10 gallon||Oil-free||150||$155|
|Quietest air compressor||California Air Tools||CAT-20015HP||20 gallon||Oil-free||175||$493|
|Best big air compressor||Industrial Air||ILA4708065||80 gallon||Oil-lubricated||155||$1,258|
|Best affordable air compressor||Craftsman||CMXECXA0232043||20 gallon||Oil-free||175||$400|
|Best pancake air compressor||Craftsman||CMEC6150K||6 gallon||Oil-free||150||$149|
|Best hot dog air compressor||California Air Tools||2010A||2 gallon||Oil-free||120||$155|
What are air compressors and what do they do?
An air compressor is a machine designed to take air from the ambient environment and, using a power source (typically electricity or a combustible fuel), compress it with a pump to the point where it can be used for specific applications. Since many of these applications have automotive benefits — like filling tires or powering paint sprayers and pneumatic tools — many car enthusiasts choose to keep air compressors in their home garages.
Air compressors work via internal pump mechanisms that are designed to increase the pressure of air. While there are many different types of air compressors, the methods by which they perform the task fall into two categories: positive displacement and dynamic displacement. Positive-displacement compressors (the more common type) draw air into internal chambers that get smaller, thereby compressing it. Dynamic-displacement compressors make use of rotating components that use kinetic energy to compress the air.
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Two of the most popular types of positive-displacement compressors are rotary-vane compressors and reciprocating compressors. Rotary-vane compressors use rotation to contract chambers and raise air pressure; reciprocating compressors, also called piston compressors, use pistons to compress air. Rotary-vane compressors are considered more durable and efficient than reciprocating compressors, but reciprocating compressors are more affordable — at least in the short run.
Air compressors are broken down into further groups, often based on their shape or their specific method of functioning. For instance, pancake air compressors, in addition to being lighter and smaller than most other compressors, have short, cylindrical tanks that give them their name. Hot dog air compressors have longer, thinner cylinders for tanks, which lay on their sides — they look like hot dogs, though you may have to use your imagination a bit. Meanwhile, rotary screw compressors, piston-type compressors, and centrifugal compressors are all named based on how they work.
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How do air compressors vary in terms of power?
Like with all power tools, models vary based on the output they can deliver, and you’ll want to make sure to get the one that best fits your needs. For instance, air compressors are rated based on the air volume they can deliver. This measurement is given in either CFM or standard cubic feet per minute (SCFM). The difference between these two measurements is that SCFM is taken when air is at standard pressure, so it can incorporate variables like ambient air pressure, temperature, and humidity. CFM is taken when air is compressed, and so it’s always lower than SCFM.
It’s also important to take PSI into account. PSI and CFM differ in that PSI measures the pressure exerted on a single square inch of space, while CFM measures the compressor’s output rate. The two factors have a direct relationship, meaning that if one rises (based on settings or variations between compressors), so does the other. Typically, an air compressor will have a gauge and dial to allow you to adjust the PSI within the machine’s specific range. As far as what PSI is right for you, it depends on the tools you’ll be using. For example, a smaller framing nailer may require 70 to 90 PSI, but shears and air sanders could take from 100 to 120 PSI to function properly.
In what other ways do air compressors vary?
Another method of differentiating air compressors is by size. Besides larger compressors typically offering higher CFM capabilities, the sizes of their tanks vary as well. Typically, air compressor tanks range from one gallon to 60 gallons, though some are even larger, like the Industrial Air model shown above. The size of the tank you need depends on the jobs you want to do; larger jobs requiring more powerful tools will be easier if your compressor has a large tank.
You also may prefer a portable air compressor if you want to be able to access compressed air in multiple locations. Portable air compressors must be lighter than stationary air compressors, so their tanks tend to be on the smaller side. They also have smaller motors, which can make them less powerful than their heavier counterparts.
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Another distinction is whether a compressor is oil-free or not. While all air compressors need lubrication to function, in some, parts are coated with special chemicals designed to reduce friction. Again, each kind of compressor has its strengths and weaknesses — oil-lubricated compressors tend to be heavier and more powerful, while oil-free compressors are lighter, cleaner, and require less maintenance. Oil-lubricated compressors also tend to last longer than oil-free compressors — up to 15,000 hours compared to up to 2,000. If you have an oil-lubricated compressor, you should change the oil at least once a year.
“While oil-free air compressors are lighter, require less maintenance and are often cheaper, it’s important to note that oil-lubricated compressors are more durable,” says King. “So, if you’re looking for the best air compressor for you, it would depend on your usage. If you’re going to be using it often and for longer periods of time, an oil air compressor might be better. However, if your usage at home will be limited, an oil-free compressor could be better for you as it requires less investment in both time and money.”
Steve Nappy agrees with that assessment. Nappy is the managing director of Hydramech, Western Australia’s hydraulic cylinder specialist and mobile mining machinery supplier. “Oil-free air compressors are cheaper, lighter, and need less maintenance. On the other hand, oil-lubricated compressors are more reliable.”
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What to know about using an air compressor
Once you’ve got your air compressor, you’ll want to make sure you know how to use it. Of course, each model will come with its own instructions, both for usage and safety. These should be followed to the letter and supersede any general information about air compressors.
That said, there are still some features and rules that are common across different kinds of air compressors — not necessarily universal, but found very frequently. For instance, most air compressors have two pressure gauges, which may be confusing. One of these gauges — the tank gauge — displays the air pressure inside the compressor’s tank, while the other — the regulator gauge — displays the user’s intended pressure for the tool or application being used.
You may notice that your air compressor seems very loud when it’s operating. Volume of operation typically depends on what kind of air compressor you have — electric compressors are often quieter than gas-powered ones — but some can get as loud as lawnmowers. This is the sound of various parts of the compressor motor running and moving against one another; anti-friction measures can only do so much.
Finally, it’s important to drain the remaining air out of your compressor each time you use it via the drain valve. Otherwise, your machine will be susceptible to rust and damage — especially if you leave the remaining air in for an extended period of time.
Five things to know before buying and using an air compressor
- What kind of air compressor do you want? While air compressors fall into two categories in terms of how they work (positive displacement and dynamic displacement), there are many other subcategories based on shape or function.
- How much power do you need? For home use, you’ll typically need less than 150 PSI, so air compressors providing that level of force will be sufficient. However, depending on your applications, you may be able to sacrifice some power — or want some more.
- What size air compressor works for you? Larger air compressors may have larger motors (making them more powerful) or larger tanks (meaning they can hold more air without being refilled). Smaller air compressors may be portable and less expensive.
- Do you want an oil-lubricated or an oil-free air compressor? Oil-lubricated compressors tend to last longer, but oil-free air compressors are quieter and cleaner, especially for the air around the unit.
- How do you use your air compressor safely and effectively? Make sure to familiarize yourself with all of the included instructions so that you can avoid injury or property damage when using an air compressor.
Written for Roadshow by Scott Fried.