Air Compressors Buying Guide

Air compressors can be used for more than just pumping up tires. In fact, these versatile tools can power nail guns, spray guns, wrenches, and many other tools. Our buying guide will help you select the right one for your needs.

Man using an air compressor on a tractor tire

Why You Need an Air Compressor

Air compressors can pretty much do it all, from inflating balls and tires to powering high-consumption tools. With a selection of various types and capacities, there's one out there for you to make everyday tasks easier and more efficient.

Things to Consider When Picking an Air Compressor


A compressor that’s too small will need time to recharge its pressure after a few uses, which can be frustrating to wait for. One that is too big will use an unnecessary amount of energy, increasing operating costs.


A compressor’s airflow is measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM) and should be greater than its operational requirement but less than its maximum output. Calculate the CFM of all tools you’ll be using on a regular basis, then add a buffer of 30 percent to ensure you won’t run out of air pressure and have to wait.

Electric vs Gas

There are two ways to power a compressor: electricity or gasoline. Electric motors are lower maintenance and less expensive, while gas motors offer portability and manoeuvrability.

Additional Features

Look for the little extras that can make life and maintenance easier, like stainless steel finger valves to eliminate corrosion, oil-monitoring devices to prevent damage caused by low oil levels, one-piece connecting rods for fewer internal adjustments, and more.


Using an air compressor for pneumatic tools means you can get the job done faster, more efficiently, and more powerfully. Some tools that use an air compressor include: nail guns, orbital sanders, reciprocating saws, socket and ratchet wrenches, drills and drivers, air hammers, paint sprayers, tire inflators, and more.

Types of Air Compressors

Pick the right type for the tools you'll use and the jobs to be done. Air compressors come in different capacities and knowing which one suits your needs will help you select the right one.

Piston-Type Compressors

These have tanks that store compressed air. The motor shuts off when the pressure in the tank reaches a specified level. As air is depleted from the tank, the pressure inside drops, and the motor restarts to build the pressure back up.

The pressure settings are adjustable according to the operator's requirements. There are two types of piston compressors: single-stage and two-stage.

Single-Stage Compressors

This type of compressor has one piston that compresses and delivers air to the storage tank. The single-stage system is normally found on light-duty compressors with a maximum rating below 150 pounds of pressure per square inch (psi). Single-stage compressors are adequate for most home users.

Two-Stage Compressors

With this model, there are two pistons that compress and deliver air to the storage tank. The first piston compresses the air and pushes it through a check valve to the second piston. The second piston further compresses the air and delivers it to the storage tank. The two-stage system is usually found on commercial heavy-duty compressors with maximum ratings above 150 psi. Two-stage compressors are good choices for continuous use or shop environments.

Compact Air Compressors

If you need something for small tools or jobs, these are the smallest and lightest compressors available. These compressors don’t have storage tanks, so they must run continuously to supply air. Compact compressors power caulk guns, glue guns, small spray guns, and can inflate sports equipment and tires.

Other Considerations

Power: Horsepower ratings are a measure of the horsepower (HP) the compressor motor produces. Compressor motors generally range from 1.5 HP to 6.5 HP, with more powerful units are available for industrial applications. Usually higher horsepower motors yield greater psi and are capable of carrying a heavier workload.

Power Supply: Electric-powered compressors are the most common and are easy to use in any area with a ready electrical supply. Gas-powered air compressors are a good choice for areas where electricity is limited or unavailable.

Note: Don't use gas-powered compressors in confined or unventilated areas.

Design: Compressors come in a variety of styles — pancake, hotdog, vertical, horizontal, truck-mounted, wheelbarrow, and twin-stack. Pancake style tanks are most stable because their round, flat storage tanks are mounted on the bottom of the unit.

Maintenance: Oil-free compressors have sealed bearings and require less maintenance than oil-lubricated compressors, and have plenty of power for most noncommercial uses. Oil-lubricated compressors require the user to change the oil regularly. Most industrial compressors are oil-lubricated.

Tip: Consult the owner’s manual for specific oil-changing intervals.

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