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Shopping Guide for Best Air Compressors

A portable air compressor is an extremely useful tool. There are dozens of tasks it can help you perform, from filling tires, to framing out your loft, to grinding welds on auto body repairs.

There are also dozens of different models available, and a potentially bewildering range of specifications. Choosing a portable air compressor that meets your needs is far from easy.

BestReviews was created to meet that challenge. We test a huge range of products, then deliver reliable, honest, and unbiased answers. We're independent, so you can trust our results. We never accept manufacturer samples; we spend our own money to buy the same equipment you would, from the same places you shop.

The five portable air compressors above are those that meet or exceed the standards set by our review team. Each offers exceptional overall performance when compared to their rivals, and each receives our approval.

If you’re ready to buy, check out those selections. If you'd like to know more about the features you should look for when buying a portable air compressor, please read the following report.

Air compressors with multiple outlets are useful if you swap tools frequently, or work with another person. In the latter scenario, check that the compressor will produce enough air to run both tools at the same time.

How Air Compressors Work

In essence, an air compressor is quite a simple mechanism. Atmospheric air is pulled into a chamber, where it is compressed by a motor. A tool is attached via a reinforced hose, and a trigger opens a valve, allowing the compressed air to power the tool.

In a few models, pressure is generated by a rotating impeller (it looks a bit like a fan blade), but in most it's done by a piston running up and down inside a cylinder. It's very much like the engine in your car or lawn mower.

In small, cheap air compressors the air produced is used straight away – the compressor runs continually. In larger models, it's stored in one or more tanks. The advantage here is that the compressor doesn't need to run all the time. Once the tank is full, the motor will switch off. When the pressure drops, the motor restarts automatically to refill the tank.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

Campbell Hausfeld 3-Gallon Portable

Features

If you need a compressor capable of handling all those inflation jobs around the garden and garage, the Campbell Hausfeld 3-Gallon Air Compressor is worth a look. Output is 0.5 cfm @ 90 psi, with a maximum pressure of 110 psi. That's plenty for filling up inflatables such as pools and tires, and it will also handle low-consumption tools like a brad nailer. It can even power some spray guns. This model is a little noisy, but the 3-gallon tank means it's not running all the time. Easy-to-read gauges, simple operation, and a handful of useful accessories make it a good kit for the money.

Types of Air Compressor

Though they might look very different from the outside, air compressors can be broken down into a few basic types:

  • Electric- or gas-powered.

  • Oil lubricated or oil-free.
     

All of the portable air compressors we selected are powered by electricity, and can be plugged into an ordinary household outlet. Larger electrical models may have more demanding requirements, but these are normally stationery, and more suitable for professional workshops and factories. Gas-powered air compressors are often big, powerful units used in commercial environments or construction sites, as well as situations where an electrical supply is unavailable.

EXPERT TIP

Make sure hoses and accessories are properly connected. If they come off suddenly at high pressure, they can cause serious injury.


Staff  | BestReviews

The majority of air compressors are lubricated with oil, particularly the more powerful models. Oil level should be checked regularly, and changed periodically. It's a quick and simple maintenance routine that ensures a long working life. Indeed, these compressors are known for their long-term durability.

Oil-free air compressors have Teflon-coated cylinders that don't need lubrication. There's virtually no maintenance, so it's no surprise they are popular.

The drawback with oil-free models is that the Teflon lining will eventually wear, and cannot be replaced. There's no solution other than buying a new compressor. While it sounds drastic, it's a slow process, and a high-quality, oil-free portable air compressor should last many years.

DID YOU KNOW?

Water collects in the bottom of air compressor tanks. A drain valve is fitted, and should be used regularly. If it's not, performance will suffer, and the tank will eventually rust.

Air Compressor Specifications

To understand portable air compressor performance, you need to understand the terminology, and how important each aspect is.

Air compressor specification sheets should supply you with four figures:

  • Horsepower (hp)

  • Cubic Feet per Minute (cfm) or Standard Cubic Feet per Minute (scfm)

  • Pounds per Square Inch (psi)

  • Tank Sizes (gallons)

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

Senco 2.5-Horsepower (PEAK) 4.3-Gallon

Performance

Senco is known for power and durability, and this model is a fine example. The 2.5 hp motor can fill the 4.3 gallon tank in just 67 seconds. Output figures of 4.4 cfm @ 90 psi, with a maximum of 125 psi, underline its suitability for hard work. It's quite capable of driving a small grinder, drill, chisel, or impact wrench, and fast tank refill means you won't spend all day waiting. It may not be pretty, but it's a serious tool, and while rated as “portable” it does weigh 60 pounds.

The horsepower rating tells you how hard the motor can work. The higher the horsepower, the quicker the compressor will get to working pressure, and the faster it will fill the tanks – and refill them while in use.

CFM is a measure of airflow, and the most important characteristic of any air compressor. You can have low horsepower, and the pressure will build up eventually. If you have low airflow, some tools simply won't work – there isn't sufficient power to drive them.

If you only need a compressor to inflate tires or blow up an air bed, low airflow doesn't have much impact. If you're using a nailer, grinder, or impact wrench, then the right output is absolutely vital. All air tools have a cfm rating. If your air compressor doesn't match or exceed that rating, the tool will not work.

The reported airflow for an air tool or compressor should be measured at 90 psi. The figure is used to give a standard for comparison, rather than meaning the tool must be used at 90 psi. Beware of cfm numbers quoted at different psi levels. It can be used as a way to make the compressor appear more powerful than it really is.

All air tools should be rated for airflow (cfm) at 90 psi. Airflow reported at other pressure ratings is probably lower than the number than desired.

Staff
BestReviews

Check the air tools you expect to use before buying a portable air compressor. A brad nailer can have an airflow as low as 0.5 cfm at 90 psi, but a framing nailer might require 2 to 2.5 cfm, and a 1/2" impact wrench could need 4 cfm.

You can always turn the pressure of a big compressor down, but you can't turn a small one up beyond its stated cfm rating.

PSI is the actual air pressure generated. In theory, a 3-gallon tank full of air at 150 psi has 30% more air in it than the same size tank at 100 psi. So, psi could be used to compare how long two compressors would run between refills.

In practice, even the smallest, cheapest portable air compressors will generate 100 psi or more. Anything above that should be more than adequate for DIY and small workshop use.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

PORTER-CABLE Oil-Free UMC Pancake

Power

With just 0.8 hp on tap, you might not expect much from the Porter-Cable UMC Pancake. You'd be wrong. This compact, oil-free unit will give you up to 2.6 cfm @ 90 psi, and a maximum of 150 psi. There's also a big (six gallons) reserve tank, so it will go on working when similar machines are out of puff! There are even two outlets for running different tools simultaneously. At 34 pounds, it's not light, but the built-in handle makes carrying easier. Combines impressive performance with tremendous value, and has excellent owner feedback.

Whether tank size is important or not will depend on the kind of work you do. If you're only looking for a compressor for general inflation duties, you probably don't even need a tank.

If you run a selection of air tools, a tank gives you the advantage of creating an air reserve: the compressor fills the tank to a pre-set pressure, then stops working until the pressure drops. It makes for a quieter working environment, too.

Twin tanks can be useful if two people use the same compressor simultaneously, particularly if they're using different tools. With a large tank, a pressure drop could adversely affect both tools. With twin tanks, each tool can be supplied more effectively.

However, some air compressors that appear to have twin tanks, strictly speaking do not. Two cylinders are used to save overall space, but they are in fact linked, and act as one. This is often true even if two outlets are offered. Read the manufacturer information carefully to determine whether the tanks operate independently.

When you need super powerful tools at your disposal, an air compressor is a must have.

Key Specifications Summary

  • Producing the right amount of airflow (the cfm rating) is absolutely vital. Get it wrong and your tools won't run.

  • High horsepower is good because it means your portable air compressor works hard and fast.

  • High psi is nice in terms of run time, but not the most important element.

  • A larger tank will let you work longer.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

Makita Big Bore 2.5-HP

Design

The Makita Big Bore 2.5 HP compressor is all about durable, reliable power. The large piston runs up and down the cast-iron cylinder more slowly than competitors, yet produces 4.2 cfm @ 90 psi and a maximum of 130 psi. The lazy nature of the motor means it's surprisingly quiet, though at 77 pounds it's not the most portable model. There are several clever design touches: a roll bar to prevent damage if knocked over, twin outlets, an oil-level sight glass, and an easy-to-use drain lever. It adds up to an exceptional product, worth that bit of extra cost.

Other Air Compressor Considerations

  • If portability is important, look at how much the compressor weighs, and whether there's a carry handle or convenient part of a frame to pick it up.

  • It's nice to have clear, easy-to-read gauges. Also, controls that can be adjusted with gloved hands make your work flow much more smoothly.

  • A portable air compressor with a low amp draw at start-up is less likely to trip your household breakers.

  • With lubricated models, a sight glass makes checking oil level simple.

  • A kit of accessories is a useful addition, but they're usually only good for inflation tasks. High-performance portable air compressors tend not to include them.

Air-powered equipment like grinders, nailers and cut-off tools are every bit a dangerous as their electrical counterparts. Always wear suitable protective glasses, face shields, or masks.

What Does A Good Portable Air Compressor Cost?

If all ever do is inflate your car tires, you can buy a small, tankless air compressor for under $20. It will be a bit noisy, slow, and it might not last very long, but it will do the job.

An entry-level machine capable of a wide range of inflation tasks, including powering modest air tools like brad nailers and staplers, will cost between $60 and $140. The actual cost depends very much on power output. With tools like this you often get an accessory kit.

If you want to undertake serious do-it-yourself, auto repair, or other workshop activities, you'll need a minimum of $200. The best portable air compressors cost over $300. However, for that money you'll get a hard-working, reliable tool that ought to last a lifetime.

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