Large dial to keep track of the current air pressure. Very adaptable in terms of the types of things you can inflate.
Too large to realistically use for on-the-go activities outside of the home or car.
Compact design keeps everything, including accessories and hoses, all in one place for easy storage. Simple wall outlet is enough for good compression.
Louder than other similar models.
Can work with car cigarette lighter if needed. Great for inflating multiple bike tires or basketballs. Compact and portable. Features an LED light for emergency use.
Car tires might be stretching its capacity a bit, but there’s an optional power cord to handle that task if needed.
Kit includes carrying case, gun, gauge, air hose, and more. You’ll have no problem reaching the rear tires. The standard air hose is 30 feet, and there’s a 30-foot extension, too. Great for RVs and other vehicles.
We recommend these products based on an intensive research process that's designed to cut through the noise and find the top products in this space. Guided by experts, we spend hours looking into the factors that matter, to bring you these selections.
A good electric inflator is an effortless way to inflate anything from a beach ball or paddling pool to a kayak or car tire. With so many potential uses, it should be no surprise that you have a whole host of different models to choose from.
While all inflators operate in basically the same way — a small electric motor drives one or two pistons to provide on-demand air — there’s considerable variation in size, output, and price.
We’ve been busy investigating the various performance options and technical features so we can give you the information you need to make the right choice. As a result of our research, we’ve showcased a number of recommendations that represent the best of a particular type of inflator. In the following comprehensive guide, we look at these invaluable tools in more depth, discuss their suitability for particular tasks and versatility, and look at what separates the best from the rest.
The two biggest considerations when looking at inflators are power source and pressure rating.
Note: We haven’t included CO2 inflators in this review. If you’re a keen cyclist, one is well worth considering for its easy portability, but the comparatively low capacity and lack of a pressure gauge restricts its usefulness for other tasks.
12 volts: The most popular type of electric inflator is undoubtedly the 12-volt DC type that plugs into the internal power socket (cigarette lighter) of your car or attaches to the battery terminals. Most of these inflators are relatively compact, not very heavy, and offer great convenience. Low-voltage protection is a feature of some inflators. If your battery level drops below a certain level, the inflator will stop rather than run it flat. The drawback with this type of inflator is that when you want to inflate things other than your vehicle’s tires, you have to take the item to your car (or truck, van, RV).
110/120 volts: The alternative is a 110/120-volt inflator that plugs into a standard indoor power outlet. A number of inflators are designed to give you both 110/120-volt and 120-volt options, thus offering all the versatility you could wish for, though at a slightly higher price.
Battery: The third option is a cordless inflator, which gives you complete freedom of movement. Compact mini electric pumps are the smallest. There are also handheld models that look much like a power drill and larger units that look similar to corded inflators. The main drawback to these machines is the run time between charges. If the charge isn’t sufficient for a particular task, most of these inflators also have a 12-volt and/or 110/120-volt cable as backup.
It’s not all about choosing an inflator with the highest pressure possible. Many cheap 110/120-volt inflators run at surprisingly low pressure — under 10 pounds per square inch (psi) — but they’re designed for air mattresses and kiddie pools, so they have a wide air hose and produce high volumes of air. In these cases, a 12-volt DC inflator designed for car tires and capable of 60 psi would actually be slower. It will do the job eventually, but it’s designed to produce high pressure at relatively low volume.
RV and truck tires run higher pressure than cars — typically 100 psi — so to give yourself a safe working margin, you need an inflator that exceeds that amount. To be fair, most manufacturers tell you if their product is not suitable for trucks and RVs.
However, psi alone can be deceptive. A small handheld portable inflator might be capable of producing 120 psi, which in theory is powerful enough to inflate a truck tire, but in practice the unit can’t maintain output long enough. In an ideal world, a figure for cubic feet per minute (CFM) of air generated would be provided. Some inflators give you this figure, but the majority don’t.
A pressure gauge is invariably provided with an inflator. On cheap models, this might be an analog dial, but most are digital. It makes the pressure easier to read and often gives switchable ranges. Most of the time you’ll use pounds per square inch (psi), but bar (1 bar is equal to 14.5 psi), kilopascals (kPa), and kilograms per square centimeter (kg/cm2) are all possible. If it doesn’t record a variation in pressure, some cordless devices turn the display off to save battery life. Some digital models can be set to shut off automatically at a preset pressure, so you can go and do something else.
The physical size of the inflator may be a consideration. Many devices are relatively compact, and some weigh less than a pound. At the other end of the spectrum, inflators designed for RVs can weigh in the region of 20 pounds. It’s not tremendously heavy, but it is worth thinking about. Also bear in mind that these devices can be quite noisy.
The speed of the pump is another consideration, and high-end pumps often feature a powerful motor driving two cylinders rather than one. Unfortunately, specific information in terms of motor wattage and cylinder capacity is seldom provided, so it’s almost impossible to make accurate comparisons. The manufacturer may state that its inflator will inflate a car tire in under five minutes, for example, but you really only have its word for it. Online owner comments can be a valuable source of feedback on this.
Auto shutoff: The pistons in these devices work at a furious rate, so they generate a lot of heat. Most inflators have protection and will shut off rather than overheat and seize up. Many heavy-duty inflators quote duty cycles, usually a maximum run time at a given pressure.
Air hose and cable length are worth checking, particularly if you’re inflating tires on long-wheelbase trucks or RVs. On 110/120-volt models, the length of the power cord is probably more important than the length of the air hose. On 12-volt models designed for vehicles, it’s probably the other way around.
Light: A common addition is an LED flashlight built into one end.
USB port: One or two portable devices have USB ports to supply power for a cell phone or tablet, though only for a relatively short time.
Adapters: A variety of adapters are usually supplied with the inflator. You’ll want to check their suitability for the tasks you have in mind. For example, if you have a truck or RV with dual wheels, you might need a long-reach and/or angled version. Additional sets are not expensive, but check the thread size when ordering.
Q. Are the pressure gauges on an inflator accurate?
A. They vary! Cheap inflators can be quite a bit off, not important if you’re blowing up an air mattress, but more so if you’re inflating vehicle tires. High-quality inflators may quote an accuracy of plus or minus a particular psi, or a percentage, or a particular standard (like ANSI), but it’s not a common feature. A separate handheld tire pressure gauge may be a good idea, and it can be as little as $10 or $15.
Q. Why do some 12-volt inflators have a plug for the lighter socket and some have battery clamps?
A. Your internal power socket can only provide 15-amp current, which is simply not enough for more powerful inflators. Many of them need 30 amps, so they need to be connected directly to the battery (and the engine needs to be running, too).
Q. What are pinch valves and Boston valves?
A. Both are commonly used on inflatables like air mattresses and small watercraft. A pinch valve closes automatically to stop air escaping. The inflator adapter pushes it open, but as soon as it’s withdrawn the valve closes again. A Boston valve is also a one-way type (automatic closing), but it has two outlets for faster inflation and deflation. (Just to avoid any confusion, there are also industrial pinch valves, used to control fluid flow, which are very different from what we’re talking about here.)