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While air compressors might not be at the top of every DIYers’ must-have list, these tools are actually very useful for a wide range of purposes. The right air compressor can do everything from inflating your car tires and pool floats to putting the “power” in your power washer to running pneumatic tools such as paint sprayers and air-driven nail guns.
There are portable air compressors and models intended to remain stationary—generally, portable models are best for homeowners or DIYers, while stationary models are better suited to professional purposes. Tank size is another important consideration, as the larger the tank, the more power the tool can provide. Still, for most DIY projects, a 4-to-6-gallon tank is sufficient.
Here are our favorite air compressors in several categories.
Best Overall: Campbell Hausfeld DC080500 Air Compressor
A good, useful air compressor is one that will get the job done whenever you need it. The best isn't necessarily the one that's expensive or packed with the best features. It is the most reliable. The electric Campbell Hausfeld DC080500 fits this position perfectly. With an 8-gallon tank and 125 max psi rating, it is capable of holding and flowing air almost immediately. Large wheels and a rubber grip also make the compressor portable if you want to move it around the garage or outside.
One of the best features of this compressor is its durability. Campbell Hausfeld has designed this thing to last, with several key components lasting up to four times longer than the competition. It is also up to 50 percent quieter than other compressors, meaning you can use this one around the house or in the evening without bothering your neighbors. With its large tank and reliable build, you can confidently use it for projects requiring repetitive tasks like inflation, painting, or power nailing and stapling.
Best Kit: Bostitch BTFP3KIT Air Compressor
This capable air compressor comes with three included air tools to get you started on any project. The kit includes it a 6-gallon compressor, 18-gauge brad nailer, 3/8-inch crown stapler, and 16-gauge finish nailer. The compressor's oil-free electric motor is rated for a maximum of 90 psi and durable enough to last a long time.
For outdoor projects, this option really shines. The high-efficiency motor is designed to easily start up in cold weather. The included extension cord also makes it easy to use outdoors around the yard. At 29 pounds, this compressor is also one of the lightest options on this list. Pick it up, carry it to your work spot, then set it down as much as you want without straining your back.
“The Bostitch compressor fills up fairly quickly. On average, I waited about six minutes for the compressor to reach 140 psi from zero. From there, I could use the separate pressure outlet regulator to deliver the pressure I needed as specified for each tool.”—Justin Park, Product Tester
Best Quiet Performance: California Air Tools 8010 Air Compressor
If noise output is a major concern—the average air compressor puts out up to 90 dB of sound, which can be a problem if your neighbors or family members prefer peace and quiet—the California Air Tools 8010 is a great choice to consider. This one has an oil-free pump capable of 120 maximum psi and an ultra-quiet operation that is only 60 dB loud.
The electric motor is designed to operate at lower speeds, which create less noise and wear during long, continuous running times, but without any loss of power or efficiency. The 8.0-gallon tank is large enough to handle most DIYers’ needs around the home, yard, or workshop, yet the air compressor is a relatively lightweight 48 pounds, and has two wheels that make it easy to position the air compressor right where you need it.
Best Stationary: Briggs & Stratton 3-Gallon Quiet Power Air Compressor
Air compressors with wheels are quite handy around the garage, lawn, or worksite. Despite their mobile advantage, however, they do have some drawbacks. The wheels can make them less stable when running at a higher power. The Briggs & Stratton 3-Gallon Quiet Power offers the ultimate stability as a stationary air compressor, yet is still lightweight enough to easily move around when necessary. The 3-gallon tank is rated for 150 psi.
The high-performance electric motor is designed for quiet and long running times so you can just keep using it time and time again. Compared to other Briggs & Stratton compressors, this one is reported to be up to 80 percent quieter while lasting three times as long.
Best Heavy Duty: Industrial Air ILA3606056 Air Compressor
For some projects, the regular, run-of-the-mill air compressors just won't cut it. If you are a professional or working on commercial projects, a heavy-duty air compressor like the Industrial Air ILA3606056 is going to be your best bet. This one is designed to thrive in mechanic shops, paint shops, and on trucks. All the components are built with a heavy duty mindset, meaning they will last in the most demanding conditions.
The gas operated, twin cylinder pump is built with cast-iron components. Oil changes are simple with an easy to access oil fill and convenient oil gauge. The 60-gallon, 155-max-psi air tank dwarfs anything else on this list. A large tank and powerful motor means this can compress a lot of air quickly. For projects that require continuous running times, the tank will continue to supply air long after others have run out.
Best Portable: Viair 88P Portable Compressor
When midrange and professional air compressors are too heavy or overpowered for the job, the best tool is a portable compressor. These type of air compressors are lightweight, electric, and most often run on rechargeable or car batteries for ultimate mobility. The Viair 00088 88P is the type of air compressor you want when you need to be sure you can inflate things like tires anywhere.
The 12-volt, 120-max-psi motor is perfect for inflating tires with a width up to 33 inches, which covers a variety of bike, ATV, and car tires. A 16-foot hose and three-piece inflation kit will ensure you are prepared for a variety of projects or emergencies. Two alligator clamps are included so you can connect it directly to a car or ATV battery when you are out on the road.
Best Wheeled: DEWALT D55146 Air Compressor
A large air compressor can be quite heavy, but adding wheels makes it much easier to move the tool to wherever it's needed. The DEWALT D55146 comes with one of the best mobility kits available on the market. Its 10-inch foam tires are designed to take the abuse of a variety of outdoor job sites, so you don't have to worry about an inconvenient flat tire. For easy storage, the compressor is also designed with a vertical stand and collapsible handle.
The 4.5-gallon, 200-max-psi storage tank is powered by a 120-volt electric motor. While low, the 200-psi rating lets you compress more air in a smaller space. The pump runs at a consistent 90 psi, which allows the compressor to quickly refill after the initial tank charge is used up.
Best Gas-Operated: Industrial Air Contractor CTA5090412 Air Compressor
Only one thing will keep running when there are no power outlets or batteries around. That is the trusty, gas-powered motor. The Industrial Air Contractor CTA5090412 features a 5-horsepower Honda OHC/OHV motor that is perfect for both residential and commercial uses. The motor is designed to be low maintenance and features an oil free, direct drive pump design with two-piece cooling system to extend its life. Five horsepower will be plenty of power for equipment-intensive projects.
For off-site jobs, the pontoon style tank design is a great option. This uses two separate 2-gallon tanks that can be individually set up, or disassembled for maximum portability. Together, these tanks are rated for a maximum of 155 psi, so more air will fit into the smaller tanks.
The electric Campbell Hausfeld DC080500 (view at Zoro) wins our top spot thanks to its durability, quiet performance, portability, and reasonable size to handle small-to-medium tasks. If you’re looking for an air compressor kit that includes three power tools—a brad nailer, crown stapler, and finish nailer—you can’t go wrong with the highly efficient, yet still lightweight, Bostitch BTFP3KIT Air Compressor.
What to Look for in an Air Compressor
There are two types of air compressor: stationary and portable. Stationary air compressors are larger and are designed to stay in one location, like a workshop. Portable air compressors are much more versatile and more common for residential use since they can be moved easily.
Air compressors can be powered by either gas or electricity, though electric models are more common. They require less maintenance, are quieter, and are suitable for indoor use. Gas-powered models are recommended only if you’ll be working outdoors with limited or no electricity.
Smaller 4 to 6-gallon tanks are sufficient for most household projects, while larger tanks are better suited to large-scale projects or commercial use.
What size air compressor do I need?
There are several factors involved in determining the size of the air compressor you’ll need. One is the way the tool works; tools that operate continuously, such as grinders or sanders, need an air compressor with a larger tank capacity than a tool that only operates in short bursts of power, such as a pneumatic nail gun. For most typical DIY purposes, an air compressor with a 4- to 6-gallon tank is big enough to handle most common tasks, but you could need a larger tank if you’ll be using a powerful tool for an extended period of time—for example, painting the exterior of your home.
The most important factor to consider, however, is the airflow requirements of the tools you plan on using with your air compressor. This is measured in standard cubic feet per minute (scfm). Your air compressor needs to be able to meet and surpass the airflow requirements, which can vary a great deal between different types of tool. For example, when the air compressor is set at 90 psi, the average pneumatic framing nailer or tire inflator only requires around 2 scfm to operate, while an angle grinder needs 5-8 scfm, and a random orbital sander might need more than 10 scfm.
For a rough guideline when determining how much airflow you’ll need, check the required scfm ratings of all the tools you plan on using with the air compressor. Multiply the highest scfm rating by 1.5; for example, if you’ll be using a paint sprayer that requires 5 scfm, multiply 5 by 1.5, which gives you a needed scfm of 7.5. The higher the scfm, the larger the air compressor.
Another number to consider is the pressure generated inside the air compressor, which is measured in pounds per square inch (psi). As a general rule, smaller tools, such as nailers and inflators, only require around 90 psi, while more powerful tools, such as grinders and sanders, might need as much as 150 psi to operate effectively.
How do you use an air compressor?
While the specifics can vary between different brands and models of air compressor, the following basic guidelines apply to most of them.
- Position the air compressor on flat, stable ground within reach of an electrical outlet, and plug in the power cord. Don’t turn on the air compressor yet.
- Check the oil level. Typically, the oil gauge will be near the motor. Note, however, that many newer air compressors no longer require the addition of oil, as they have sealed systems. These air compressors are often sold as “oil free.”
- If the oil level is low, add compressor oil—this oil does not have detergents or additives commonly found in automotive oil—to the oil tank until the oil level reaches the “Full” mark. The oil tank access cap is often found on the top of the air compressor.
- Make sure the drain valve is switched to the closed position. You’ll find the drain valve near the bottom of the air compressor.
- Switch the air compressor on, and let it run until it reaches the pressure capacity. For most air compressors, that will be 100 to 115 pounds per square inch (psi). The pressure gauge is normally on the top of the air compressor.
- Set the air control valve—it will be on top of the air compressor—to the recommended maximum psi of the tool you plan on using.
- Connect the air hose to your air compressor. Some models have quick-connect fittings, while others require you to screw the hose to the fitting. Make sure the hose is tightly secured. You might need to use an adjustable wrench for this.
- Connect the other end of the air hose to your pneumatic tool.
- Use your tool as needed. When finished, turn the air compressor off, disconnect the tool, and unplug the air compressor from the electrical outlet.
- Unscrew the drain valve at the bottom of the air compressor—you’ll typically need an adjustable wrench for this—and allow any accumulated moisture to drain before storing your air compressor.
How do air compressors work?
While different air compressors can have different methods of achieving the goal, all basically work by pulling outside air into a chamber, which then compresses to greatly increase the pressure of the contained air. When you attach your pneumatically powered tool to the air compressor, the compressed air is forced through the relatively tight hose fitting, through the air hose, and into your tool. It’s something like turning on a garden hose, and then using your finger to partly close off the end of the hose; the water pressure increases due to the force of the water compressed within the hose squeezing through the restricted opening.