How do you choose a suitable air compressor?

Selecting an air compressor is an important decision. The right model provides the air power you require for your projects and tools. The wrong one leaves you lacking pressure or volume.

This guide explains the key factors in picking the best air compressor for your needs. We cover types, size, power source, and extra features. Read on to learn how to match an air compressor to your work.

air compressor

What Will You Use It For?

The first step is determining your air compressor applications. This steers you toward types designed for that use.

Common uses include:

  • Operating air tools like nail guns, impact wrenches, spray guns and air brushes
  • Inflating tires, sports equipment and inflatable objects
  • Running air-powered equipment like airbrushes, sandblasters and paint sprayers
  • Supplying pressurized air to a work area

Consider which tools you need to power now and may add later. A compressor suited for intermittent inflation may not handle repeated nail gun use.

Understand the air requirements of your tools. Some require higher pressure, while others need more airflow or volume. Selecting a unit matched to your tools ensures adequate power.

Also factor in duty cycle – the percentage of time a compressor can operate at full capacity before needing to cool down. A lower duty cycle is fine for inflation but will cause frustration powering air tools.

Types of Air Compressors

There are a few main designs of air compressors, each with pros and cons.

Piston Compressors

These use a motor-driven piston to compress air in a cylinder. They offer:

  • Durability and long life
  • High pressure output up to 150 PSI
  • Relatively low purchase price
  • Portability with small wheeled models

Drawbacks include louder operation and lower duty cycles – usually 30-50% at best.

Piston compressors work well for DIYers, auto shops, small contractors and inflation needs. Models with cast iron pumps tend to outlast aluminum ones.

Rotary Screw Compressors

These use rotating screws or impellers to compress air. Advantages are:

  • Quieter operation
  • Higher duty cycles – 80% or more
  • Continuous air flow
  • Fast recovery during heavy use
  • Typically cost more than piston types

Rotary screw compressors suit high-volume professional demands like body shops and large job sites. Look for cast iron impellers for maximum longevity.

Airbrush Compressors

Designed for detail work like airbrushing, these put out 15-40 PSI at low volumes. They include:

  • A pressure regulator and gauges
  • A moisture trap to prevent water reaching the airbrush
  • Small, portable size for tabletop use

While less powerful, airbrush compressors offer precision control for detail work.

Air Compressor Size

Compressor size correlates to two main factors:

  • Tank size, in gallons
  • CFM rating (cubic feet per minute of airflow)

Tank Size

Larger tanks hold more pressurized air. Benefits include:

  • Extended run times between refills
  • Consistent pressure when drawing more air
  • Allows for higher pressure
  • Less motor start/stop cycles

For intermittent uses like inflation, a 2-6 gallon model is fine. Frequent air tool use needs higher capacities like 20+ gallons.

Tanks give you a reserve to operate air-powered equipment. Their size matches compressor usage.

CFM Rating

CFM measures air volume delivery. The higher the CFM, the more air power available.

Tools and equipment have recommended CFM needs. A compressor should meet or exceed those levels.

Higher CFMs allow more tools to run simultaneously or continuously. Insufficient flow causes loss of power.

For example, continuous nail gun use requires around 5-6 CFM per tool. Airbrushes need 15-30 CFM.Match your compressor’s outputs to your tools’ requirements.

Power Source

Air compressors run on electric or gas engines. Each option has pros and cons.


Most DIY and small workshop compressors are electric. Benefits include:

  • Typically cost less than gas models
  • No emissions or fumes
  • Use standard wall power – no fuel needed
  • Well-suited for intermittent use
  • Quieter operation
  • Require less maintenance

Electric compressors trade off some power capacity for convenience. Corded and portable cordless types allow flexible placement.


Driven by small engines, these offer:

  • Portability for remote work sites
  • Higher air outputs than similarly sized electric units
  • Continuous, heavy-duty performance
  • No need for electrical access

Downsides are more noise, exhaust emissions, fueling and engine maintenance. Gas models suit construction crews, industrial settings and extreme usage.

Consider your location, tasks and power needs when choosing between electric and gas compressors.

Key Features to Consider

Whether electric or gas powered, look for compressors with features to match your applications.

  • Air filters prevent dirt, dust and particulates from contaminating the air stream. This protects tools and improves output quality.
  • Air dryers remove moisture before air enters the tank. This prevents moisture in lines which can damage air tools.
  • Multiple air outlets allow operation of more than one tool or device at once. Look for at least two outlets.
  • Quick connectors make changing air supply lines fast and easy. Couplers allow quick connects and disconnects.
  • Wheels and handles improve mobility for portable compressors. These make it easy to move them around your workspace.
  • Noise level ratings – compressor operation produces noise, measured in decibels. Quieter models cause less disruption in work areas.
  • Automatic start/stop – Compressors refill tanks when air is used then shut off at full pressure. Automatic operation provides hands-free convenience.

Match features to your planned compressor uses and environment. Favor units better suited to your specific needs.

Top Air Compressor Brands

Sticking with proven brands helps ensure compressor quality and reliability. Top manufacturers include:

  • Makita – Japanese company renowned for power tools. Makes piston and rotary screw models.
  • DeWalt – Leading American professional power tool company. Offers a broad compressor lineup.
  • Porter-Cable – Known for durable, affordable compressors. Now owned by Stanley Black & Decker.
  • California Air Tools – Focus on quieter designs well-suited to home shops.
  • Senco – American brand popular with home DIYers and contractors.
  • Rolair – Specializes in small, portable, pancake-style piston compressors.

Favor reliable companies with a track record building compressors. Check reviews and comparisons to find the best brand for your applications.

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Matching an Air Compressor to Your Needs

Choosing the right air compressor involves:

  • Defining your applications – tools, tires, equipment, etc.
  • Determining required airflow (CFM) and pressure levels
  • Selecting a design suited for those tasks – piston, rotary screw, etc.
  • Matching tank size and power to your typical usage periods
  • Considering desired features like portability, filters and connectors
  • Choosing a suitable brand known for quality and reliability

Take the time to evaluate your workspace needs and typical compressor uses. This ensures you pick the best model to provide enough pressurized air power whenever you require it.

Investing in an air compressor matched to your applications saves frustration, avoids lacking airflow or pressure and allows you to take on more jobs. Making the right choice also provides years of reliable service.

We hope these tips on compressor types, sizing, features and brands helps you select your ideal air compressor. Let us know if you have any other questions as you evaluate options for your workspace or job site needs!

Frequently Asked Questions About Choosing an Air Compressor

What size air compressor do I need?

The right size depends on your tools’ air requirements in cubic feet per minute (CFM), tank capacity in gallons to hold pressurized air, and desired pressure levels in PSI. Match compressor outputs to your tool demands.

Is a gas or electric compressor better?

Electric compressors are typically cheaper, quieter and more convenient for home/hobbyist use. Gas models offer more power and portability for heavy-duty remote applications.

What features should I look for?

Key features include air filters, dryers, quick connectors, multiple outlets, wheels, noise ratings and automatic operation. Pick features to match your workspace and tasks.

What are the quietest compressor brands?

California Air Tools, Rolair and certain DeWalt models offer quieter operation around 60-80 decibels. Compare noise ratings – lower is quieter.

Can a small compressor run pneumatic tools?

It depends on the tools’ CFM requirements. Small 2-3 gallon models are often underpowered for sustained pneumatic tool use. Opt for higher air delivery.

How long should an air compressor last?

With proper maintenance, top brands like DeWalt and Makita provide 5-10 years of reliable service. Quality matters – avoid cheap units with shorter lifespans.

Is a custom auto shop air compressor worth it?

For professional use, rotary screw models with higher duty cycles, CFM and pressures work well. Budget brands have limited longevity under frequent heavy use.

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