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Fixed compressors can be impressive beasts, but they are also large, heavy, and impractical outside of a professional environment.
In this review, we've concentrated on flexible, portable air compressors that have many different uses around the home. We've also included some with extended capacities that make them suitable for keen-amateur or semi-pro home remodelers and auto enthusiasts.
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There are gas-powered air compressors available, but they really should only be used outdoors, so all of our choices are electric. As we'll see, however, there can be a big difference in the motor and tank capacity between different electric models.
Air compressor output isn't just about the actual pounds per square inch (psi) generated. In fact, the cubic feet per minute (CFM) of the air compressor is more important, and we'll show you how to navigate this consideration when making your purchase decision.
Richard is a seasoned small business owner in the hardware industry. He also owns a pool maintenance business and serves as an advisor on groundskeeping committees for a number of prominent organizations. He’s a regionally renowned safe cracker/locksmith expert, and in his spare time, he renovates and repairs vaults, safes, appliances, and a number of other products.
Some air compressors come with all kinds of fittings and inflators, while others are very basic. We investigate the accessories and fixtures of all the models in order to guide you to the best machine for your specific needs.
There are some very cheap air compressors available, and they are intended purely for tire inflation. We've tried them and they simply don't meet our standards for most use cases. However, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to spend a fortune for good equipment. We'll tell you which machines give you the most value for your money.
Oil-filled motors typically last longer and are more powerful, while oil-free motors tend to be cheaper and lighter.
The compact Campbell Hausfeld FP209499 Air Compressor has a 1 horsepower, oil-free motor and a tank capacity of 3 gallons. At just 19 pounds, it's a lightweight unit and is similar in performance to the cheap air compressors that are used for tire inflation. However, its large tank provides a consistent air supply and should mean the pump isn't working all the time, which is a huge advantage. At 84 decibels, some owners did find it to be a little noisy, although a few of the other units we tested were even louder.
Things might appear confusing when you see that the Porter-Cable C2002-WK Pancake Compressor is rated at 0.8 running horsepower - which is less than the Campbell Hausfeld. In fact any motor produces more horsepower as it starts, but it then evens out. The two manufacturers are using different measurements, but the effective power is actually very similar. The Porter-Cable also has an oil-free motor, which is maintenance free but is not as durable as an oil-filled model in the long term. Its 6 gallon tank capacity is much bigger, and at 34 pounds, it's a fair bit heavier - although that's still no great weight to move around.
Many air compressors have accessible valves that release excess moisture to protect parts from corrosion and rust. Become familiar with the location and operation of these valves.
The Senco PC1131 Compressor produces 2.5 horsepower 'peak' performance which is quite an increase over the Campbell Hausfeld and Porter-Cable, even allowing for a slight reduction in normal use. It's also a good bit heavier at 60 pounds. The motor is an oil-filled unit, which many owners found to give it a much longer life. The teflon bores and pistons of oil-free motors do wear eventually, but they can't be replaced, whereas oil-filled versions are much like a car engine - they require some maintenance but are more durable and can be repaired if necessary. How important that is depends on your requirements, as even the smallest oil-free motors should last at least several years with moderate use. The Senco holds 4.3 gallons in twin tanks. This is a space-saving design feature, not to be confused with professional two-stage air compressors.
An initial look at the specifications of the Makita MAC2400 Big Bore Air Compressor give a similar reading to those of the Senco: a 2.5 horsepower, oil-filled motor and twin air tanks with a capacity of 4.2 gallons. At 77 pounds, the Makita does weigh a bit more, part of which comes down to the 'big bore' cast iron cylinder that runs at slower rpm and will therefore last longer. There's also a useful wrap-around roll cage to protect the motor from damage, which many owners find to be a nice touch.
At 91 pounds, the California Air Tools CAT-10020 Air Compressor stretches the idea of portability, although it does have wheels to make it easier to move around. The motor is a 2 horsepower, oil-free unit, feeding a giant, ten gallon tank which accounts for quite a bit of that extra weight. A standout feature of the motor is how little noise it makes: an almost whisper-quiet 70 decibels. Many of the owners we surveyed found this to be a true difference maker.
You can judge the capabilities of your air compressor by its SCFM. The higher the number, the stronger your product.
Most people think of air pressure as pounds per square inch (psi), but when it comes to air compressors there's also SCFM: Standard Cubic Feet per Minute (usually just written as CFM). All pneumatic tools have CFM ratings - usually measured at 90 psi - so you can tell whether your air compressor will drive them. A brad nailer, for example, has a low CFM, while a pneumatic impact wrench or angle grinder has a high CFM. The Campbell Hausfeld FP209499 Air Compressor delivers 0.5 CFM @ 90 psi, which means that this is a light-duty machine. Its maximum air pressure is 110 psi, so it's perfectly adequate for a wide range of inflating jobs, and it should be able to drive some tools with low pressure requirements - like the aforementioned brad nailer, for example.
The neatly designed Porter-Cable C2002-WK Pancake Compressor can produce more actual air pressure - at up to 150 psi - and is rated at 2.6 CFM @ 90 psi, so it will drive a wider range of accessories than the Campbell Hausfeld. This is also where the benefit of the larger tank can be seen. If you've got a six gallon reserve, you can deliver more compressed air for longer. While it takes a while to fill the tank, once it is done the pump doesn't have to work as hard or as often in order to keep it topped up and to maintain working pressure.
For longer jobs you’ll want a machine that can refill its tank quickly. Some can refill in under a minute, others require up to five.
While lower-rated machines can take several minutes to fill their tanks, the more powerful Senco PC1131 Compressor takes just 67 seconds. Its maximum pressure is 125 psi, which at first seems quite a bit down from the Porter-Cable, but the Senco produces 4.4 CFM @ 90 psi, so it's actually capable of providing more useable compressed air and will drive all kinds of construction tools. Roofing nailers are quite demanding and find the machine to be slightly inadequate, but most owners we surveyed told us that the Senco gives more than enough power for what they need. It also "recovers" quickly - that is to say it quickly refills the tanks once depleted.
Performance figures for the Makita MAC2400 Big Bore Air Compressor are close to those of the Senco. Maximum pressure is 130 psi, and it delivers 4.2 CFM @ 90 psi, so in operational terms it's going to be able to drive the same kind of tools. Once again, owners were complimentary about fill time and recovery. A standout feature of the Makita is that the large pistoned pump actually works surprisingly slowly, making it a cool-running and quiet unit at 79 decibels.
The California Air Tools CAT-10020 Air Compressor takes a similar low-reving approach to the Makita and is even quieter at just 70 decibels. Many of the owners we surveyed remarked that they could hold a normal conversation while standing next to it, which is not something you can say for most of the machines of this type. Although its maximum pressure is a fairly ordinary 125 psi, it's the most powerful of the machines we've rated, producing 5.3 CFM @ 90 psi. Additionally, its pump produces compressed air quickly enough to fill that big ten gallon tank in just under 130 seconds, which is really quite remarkable for that size.
The Campbell Hausfeld FP209499 Air Compressor is quite a basic unit, but it does have nice, clear gauges so that you can monitor air pressure easily. It is also equipped with a useful accessory kit containing a number of inflation nozzles, needles, adapters, a blow gun, and 25 feet of recoil hose. A number of owners have criticized the hose, saying that it's brittle and prone to fracture. However, that's a relatively cheap item to replace, and many people had no problems once they upgraded to a more flexible version.
You get very much the same set of accessories with the Porter-Cable C2002-WK Pancake Compressor as you do with the Campbell Hausfeld, except that the hose is not the recoil type and thus doesn't receive the same negative comments. The dials are conveniently positioned and are easy to read, there's a useful molded handle to make it more comfortable to carry around, and the compressor has a general look of quality about it, which is no surprise given Porter-Cable's reputation. The low amp motor is great with with cold-starts and also ensures that it doesn't trip breakers by overloading them. Unusually on a "home use" compressor, there are two outlets - indicating that you can run two tools at the same time. Indeed it's a feature that several owners have found particularly impressive in such a compact unit.
Always use proper safety tools when using an air compressor – gloves, glasses and the like. If you have a louder product, we also suggest wearing noise-cancelling earmuffs.
The Senco PC1131 Compressor has a very functional appearance, and its components seem to have been assembled where they would take up the least amount of space rather than for any visual appeal. You won't have any problems reading the gauges or operating the controls, but it's not the most ergonomic of designs. There are no accessories provided, but to be fair, that's often the case with more professional-standard machines - neither the Makita or the CAT supply them either.
When you compare the Makita MAC2400 Big Bore Air Compressor with the Senco, you see what can be done with a bit of thought about product design. It's a remarkably neat and tidy unit, with everything well positioned and ergonomically placed. The design incorporates a roll bar to protect the pump and offers two outlets - and indication of just how hard the machine is expected to work. There's also a low amp starting system, just like most of the other units on our shortlist. Attention to detail is reinforced by little things like the oil sight glass - so you know when it's time to top up - and the lever handled drain valve that's much easier to use than the normal petcock.
The California Air Tools CAT-10020 Air Compressor is another machine with a more industrial approach to design, but then again it's quite difficult to imagine how they could possibly go about concealing that ten gallon tank in a more elegant manner. Nevertheless, the gauges are very legible and the controls fall easily to the hand. There's a handle on top, but given that the machine is over 90 pounds, it is mostly used for pulling the unit - not carrying it. As you might expect with this kind of capacity, the machine comes with twin outlets and a low amp starting system. Some owners we surveyed were unhappy with the wheels and had problems with them seizing up, but alternatives are widely available so this is ultimately a relatively simple problem to remedy.
If you’re using an oil-filled air compressor, be sure to check the oil each time you use it. If the oil runs low, it can harm the motor.
The Campbell Hausfeld FP209499 Air Compressor is currently on offer at a fraction under $71 - down from a usual price of $130. It's undoubtedly a budget model - suitable mostly for inflating jobs rather than air power tools, but it has a big advantage over cheaper "pump only" compressors in having a tank to even out pressure flow. Some owners did mention that the tank takes quite a long time to fill, but most customers found performance acceptable for the price.
List price for the Porter-Cable C2002-WK Pancake Compressor is close to $340, so being able to get one for $139 is a tremendous saving. It's a good looking unit from a well-respected manufacturer, and it's got great capacities. It is consistently highly rated in reviews and one owner's description of it as "the perfect compressor for around the home," is echoed by many happy customers.
If you live in humid climates, always drain the moisture from your tank, but be sure to release the air pressure from the tanks first.
At around $224 (down from $326), the Senco PC1131 Compressor is a solid deal. Senco are another one of the big names in air compressors, and while it doesn't have the style of the Porter-Cable, there's no doubting this machine's abilities. Owners are particularly pleased with its build quality, power output, and noise control. Some customers do seem to struggle to start it outside in cold weather, but we found that if you take it indoors to warm it up a little, it's trouble-free.
The Makita MAC2400 Big Bore Air Compressor is available at the moment for $319, reduced from a list price of $493. It's a well thought out unit, attractive, quiet and - according to one satisfied owner - powerful enough to drive an impact wrench on occasions. That's a lot to expect of a home air compressor and is a good example of what it's capable of if pushed.
Right now, the California Air Tools CAT-10020 Air Compressor is $475, which is well below its list price. That's quite an outlay for a tool for around the home and garage, but it's very competitive for a professional-standard air compressor - which is how you should look at this machine. If you're thinking about using more air power tools in a home shop, or if you want something for site work but don't need a big stationery air compressor, the large tank and higher CFM rating of this machine may be the perfect fit for you.
Cast iron components should give it an exceptional operational life, and being oil-filled can only add to that.