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The Best Air Compressors to Power Up Your Tools

The air compressor is the power supply for air tools. Most are powered by electricity, driving a pump that fills an included air tank. This allows the compressor time to rest, while the air is being used out of the tank. The capacity of the air compressor is a combination of the tank size and the amount of air that the unit can compress, measured in CFM (cubic feet per minute).

When selecting an air compressor, it's a good idea to select one that's slightly larger than what you need. As you buy more air tools, your existing compressor will be able to work with them rather than having to upgrade to a larger compressor.

One nice thing about using an air tool is they're less expensive and more compact than their electrically operated counterparts since it's much easier to build an air motor since it has fewer parts. Your compressor essentially acts as the power supply for all your pneumatic tools as opposed to buying one for each tool.

Air tools are also safer than electric tools which is why they're so common in industrial operations. There is no electrical cord that can get cut, causing the potential of electrocution. and the tool itself can't short out, even if dumped in a bucket of water. While air tools can wear out, they are easily rebuildable.

There are numerous configurations of best compressors in 2021 available on the market, allowing the consumer to select a compressor that best meets their needs. Our buyer's guide will help you pick the compressor which will best work for the way you need to use it.

Comparing the Best Air Compressors for 2021

Makita Air Compressor

California Air Tools probably makes the quietist line of air compressors on the market. The motor on this 1 HP unit runs at only 1680 RPM, contributing to the low noise level of only 60 dB. Oh, and the pump is oil-free, eliminating one of the biggest maintenance hassles for most compressors. The 1.6 gallon tank is made of aluminum, helping to keep the overall weight down to 35 pounds. Although small, this compressor packs a wallop, filling the tank in under a minute. The compressor put out 3.80 CFM at 40 PSI and 2.35 CFM at 90 PSI.

California Aluminum Tank Air Compressor

This compressor from Bostitch comes is an incredibly small package, weighing in at only 23.5 pounds. The hotdog tank is rather small, but that’s part of what makes it so portable. Even so, it will still deliver 2.8 CFM of air at 90 PSI, which is more than enough to run any air nailer. This compressor also has an oil-free pump, reducing maintenance and worry. The design of the compressor allows it to double as a roll cage, protecting it from potential damage on the job site. All the controls are located on a nicely designed control panel, making it very easy to work with. This model even has a place to wrap up the cord and air hose for taking it with you.

Rolair 2 HP Wheelbarrow Air Compressor

Rolair makes some excellent air compressors, including this single stage one. For a portable, it’s rather large, with a 9 gallon tank capacity and delivering 8.8 CFM at 90 PSI. That makes it one of the largest wheel mounted compressors around. Watch your back though as it weighs a hefty 175 pounds. The pump itself is cast iron and has twin cylinders, which explains its high output volume and it also uses ball bearings for longer life; in fact, all the components of this unit are high quality so it has a very long service life.

California Air Tools CAT-15020C 2.0 HP Air Compressor

California Air Tools is a little-known company out of, you guessed it, California. This companies line of compressors that this particlaur one comes from boast oil-free pumps and an ultra quiet design. In fact, this model only produces about 60 decibels of sound pressure, about the same level as a typical conversation. It has a 15 gallon tank which is large for a compressor with a 2.0 HP motor and it also provides 6.40 CFM at 40 PSI or 5.30 CFM at 90 PSI. Although this is an oil-free design, it has been independently tested to provide over 3000 hours of use before needing servicing.

California Air Tool Air Compressor

Ingersoll Rand has an extensive line of air compressors, including this 30 gallon model for contractors as well as use in a small shop. The 30 gallon tank provides a lot of air usage, before the motor has to kick on; that’s great for people who need a lot of air quickly. This compressor is designed to provide 5.7 CFM at 90 PSI. It’s also built for 100 percent continuous duty, so you don’t have to give it a cooling-off period. If you’re in need of a rugged compressor, this one’s for you.

Campbell Hausfeld Air Compressor

Campbell Hausfeld is another one of those companies that offers a lot of compressors to pick from. This 8 gallon model is a convenient size for home use and it will produce 3.8 CFM of air at 90 PSI, storing it in its compact tank. The really great thing about it is that it’s another oil-free compressor. This cuts down on maintenance and making it easier to transport the compressor from one jobsite to another.

BelAire 2 HP Air Compressor

This is a two stage compressor with a 5 HP motor that runs off of 3 phase 230 volt AC current. The two stage compressors produce a higher maximum pressure than single stage compressors can – in this case, a maximum of 175 PSI. They also last longer because the work is spread out between the two stages. The tank is 80 gallons with a vertical orientation. It produces a maximum of 18.5 CFM at 90 PSI and 16.6 CFM at 175 PSI. An automatic electric tank drain and an oil level sight glass are included in this model.

Campbell Hausfield CE7050, 80 Gallon, 2 Stage Air Compressor

Campbell Hausfield has one of the most extensive lines of air compressors on the market, with an excellent selection in both industrial and consumer models. This is one of their smaller industrial models, sporting a 5 HP motor and an 80 gallon tank. The pump itself is two-stage, providing the higher compression expected of a two-stage compressor, and not being affected as much by the output pressure. This one will deliver 16.60 CFM at 175 PSI and 17.20 CFM at 90 PSI. The compressor is rated at over 17,000 of useful life, which works out to over 4-1/2 years of 12 hour days. They used Viton o-rings for the pumps pressure seals, instead of gaskets, because of their superior sealing and longer life. This unit requires a 230 volt, three phase connection. The same compressor comes in a horizontal configuration as well.

Rolair Air Compressor

Dropping down to something a little more affordable in price, we find this unit from Rolair. Once again, they have a number of models, but I have chosen this 5 HP, 60 gallon model because it would be a good, general shop compressor. Even though it's only a single stage compressor, it will still deliver 175 PSI of air pressure. The maximum volume delivered at 175 PSI is 16.0 CFM and it can deliver 21.1 CFM at 100 PSI. This unit has a 60 gallon tank, so it's a little smaller than the first couple we've looked at, but it is rated for continuous duty, not a 60% duty cycle.

Ingersoll Rand SSSL5, 60 Gallon, Single Stage Air Compressor

Ingersoll Rand has a great reputation as a compressor and air tool manufacturer, being a favorite for industrial applications. This 5 HP compressor is also rated for 100% continuous operation, like the Rolair we just looked at. It won't provide 175 PSI of air pressure, but let's face it, that much air pressure would ruin the air tool. Instead, it will produce 135 PSI, which is still more than most air tools are rated for. At 135 PSI, it will provide 15.5 CFM of air and at 90 PSI it will provide 18.1. It comes with a 60 gallon tank and needs 230 volts of single phase power to operate.

Buyer's Guide

Anyone who uses any sort of air tools, from air nailers to impact wrenches, needs a compressor to power them. What type of compressor and how big a compressor are questions that may be hard to answer. Nevertheless, they have to be answered in order to pick out the best possible compressor for your needs.

While there are many ways of compressing air, the standard way used for air compressors is via a piston. The piston works much like the piston on an engine, packing the air into about 1/8 of its original volume. This compressed air then leaves the piston and is stored in a tank. By using a tank, the compressor is able to supply bursts of air which are a much higher volume than the compressor can produce.

Air compressors are typically designed to compress the air to 120 PSI, the maximum most air tools are designed to handle. However, air tools are typically rated for operation at 90 PSI, so you’ll see many air compressor specifications listed at this pressure. Manufacturers usually list specs for two pressures, 30 PSI and 90 PSI respectively.

Air Compressor Types

Due to the high number of different air compressor models available, there are actually many different ways of categorizing air compressors,. Air compressors are used in home workshops, woodworking shops, and mechanics shops, as well as extensively in heavy industry as well. For the purpose of this buyer's guide, we are concentrating primarily on air compressors that would be used by a do-it-yourselfer or a contractor, not industrial-model compressors.

There are three basic categories of compressors to choose from, with several different styles within each of these categories which include the following:

Portable

Meant to be carried. These compact compressors are used where not a lot of air volume is needed, mostly by finish carpenters for their air nailers.

Contractor

The “mid-range” compressor, used by everyone from building contractors to do-it-yourselfers. These are wheel mounted so that they can be brought to the place where they are needed.

Shop

Shop air compressors are fixed location compressors which are used to provide air to several people working in the same shop. They are large units, which can provide a large quantity of air and have larger tanks.

Contractor compressors traditionally have a horizontally mounted tank and shop compressors typically have a vertically mounted tank. This allows a smaller footprint for the shop air compressor. Recently, manufacturers have started making contractor compressors with vertically mounted tanks as well, specifically so that they will take up less room in a workshop.

Other Types of Compressors

Although we don't list them, because they are designed for industry, there are a couple of categories of compressors that you should be aware of, just so that you will recognize them if you see them.

Gasoline Powered Air Compressors

Contractors working on a construction site may need to use an air compressor where there is no electrical power. Their options are to bring along an electrical generator or to use a gas powered air compressor. There are also diesel powered compressors, which are essentially the same, but designed so that they can be installed on a vehicle that uses diesel fuel instead of one that burns gasoline. Either type of gas powered compressor is much more expensive than an electrically driven one.

Multi-Stage Compressors

Multi-stage air compressors are used in industrial facilities where a large volume of high pressure air is needed. These are very large compressors that compress the air in stages, allowing them to produce a much higher final air pressure. Typically, the air pressure is regulated downward for use in tools.

Important Air Compressor Specifications

Cubic Feet Per Minute (CFM)

Most manufacturers tout the horsepower rating of their compressors, but that’s really not the important specification. The important one is the amount of air that the compressor can continually supply, measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM). The CFM of the compressor has to be higher than any of the tools which are connected to it. If not, the compressor won’t be able to keep up and the tool will slow down, losing power as well.

Shop compressors have a higher CFM rating and are normally intended for several air tools to be connected to them at the same time. In such a case it is necessary that the rating of the compressor be higher than the total of the average air usage of the tools.

Duty Cycle

By average air usage, I'm referring to the duty cycle. If you connect ten tools with the same air volume requirements to an air compressor, but each is only used ten percent of the time, it's the same as only having one tool attached to the compressor. So, you must consider duty cycle when you are determining the total volume of air required for these larger compressors.

Unless a compressor manufacturer specifically states that their product is designed for a 100 percent duty cycle, you can assume that it is designed for a 60 percent duty cycle. That means that the compressor’s motor shouldn’t be running for more than 60 percent of the time. If it does, the unit will produce more heat than it can dissipate, causing damage to the compressor.

Tank Size

Tank size is important in that the compressed air in the tank is the reserve you have. Your tools will draw air from the tank, which will then be replenished by the compressor. A pressure switch turns on the compressor motor when the air pressure in the tank drops to 95 PSI.

Horsepower/Maximum Pressure

Horsepower and maximum pressure are normally stated for compressors, but are not important specifications. The manufacturer will select a horsepower rating that is high enough to drive the compressor. The main reason that the horsepower rating is given is to impress potential customers.

Compressor Configurations
Any air compressor consists of the compressor itself, a motor to drive the compressor and an air tank. How the air compressor and the tank are physically connected together is not as important as that they are. However, through the years, a number of different styles have been developed, giving more variety to the number of compressor models on the market. Some configurations are easier to work with in certain situations than others.

Pancake

Pancake compressors are small, portable compressors, with six gallon tanks. The name comes from the basic shape of the tank. The compressor is mounted above the tank, making a compact unit.

Hot Dog

Hot dog compressors are another type of portable compressor. They use two small horizontal tanks, stacked. The compressor is usually a small one and sits on top of the tanks. These are about the only compressors which are likely to have a control panel.

Wheelbarrow

Wheelbarrow compressors are contractor compressors with two thin horizontal tanks. The name comes from the singe wheel which is mounted at one end, between the tanks. Twin handles are attached to the other end. This makes moving the compressor much like moving a wheelbarrow. The low profile of these compressors makes them ideal for loading in the back of a pickup truck with a bed cover.

Horizontal

The horizontal compressor is the standard contractor air compressor configuration, with a large horizontal tank and the compressor mounted above the tank. They tend to be unstable and tip over easily.

Vertical

Shop compressors are usually vertical compressors, with a large vertical tank and the compressor mounted above it. This allows for a larger tank, reducing the duty cycle of the motor. Some smaller vertical compressors have wheels, allowing them to be moved like a hand truck.

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