For everything from painting to installing trim, and framing to inflating tires, an air compressor can be one of the handiest pieces of equipment to have around the house. Cost, size and complexity once limited air compressors to professional uses only, but today’s compressors are affordable, easy to use, and offer plenty of power to handle any task you’re likely to encounter.
Gas or Electric? The first thing to consider is whether you want a compressor that is powered by a gasoline motor or an electric one. For most applications, you’re better off with an electric-powered compressor, which is quieter and requires less maintenance than a gas air compressor, and also doesn’t produce fumes. Gas motors have the advantage of being able to be used where there are no electrical outlets, so if you do a lot of work on construction sites, farms or other places where power might not be available, consider a gas-powered compressor.
CFM and PSI: The ability of a particular air compressor to power a particular tool is best determined by two important acronyms — cubic feet per minute (CFM), which is the amount of air the compressor can deliver, and pounds per square inch (PSI), which is the pressure that the air is delivered at. Smaller air tools might take as little as 60 PSI to work, while larger tools such as framing nailers might take 120 PSI or more, so size your compressor accordingly.
Tank Size: The compressed air produced by the pump can either be delivered directly to the air tool, as is the case with very small compressors, or, more commonly, it is delivered to a storage tank. Larger tanks require more run time for the motor and pump to fill the tank, but then they will operate the tools for a longer period of time without the motor coming on again. Typically, lighter compressors used primarily for trim work will have a 2- to 3-gallon tank, while larger, heavier compressors used to power larger tools will be in the 4- to 6-gallon range.
Oil-Lube versus Oil-Less: Oil-lubricated compressors have an accessible oil reservoir and a dip stick for checking oil levels. They tend to run a little cooler, but need to always be on a level surface or the oil won’t properly reach critical parts, and they require regular oil changes. Oil-less compressors have sealed bearings, don’t require any maintenance, are easier to transport, and can be operated off-level without concerns about damage. Either type is fine for most construction and small-shop applications.
Portability: You also want to consider where you’ll be using the compressor and how often you’ll be moving it. Stationary compressors for shop use typically have vertical tanks to save floor space, and are bolted to the floor for protection against movement or tipping. However, most people want to be able to take the air to the job site, whether it’s a deck in the backyard or new trim on the second floor, so portability becomes important. Look for a compressor that you are able to lift and carry with reasonable ease, depending on how often you think you’ll be moving it. If you need both a large tank size and portability, consider one with wheels instead of a carrying handle.
When shopping for a compressor, you’ll want to select one that will operate the largest tool you anticipate owning. If you will be running more than one tool at a time, then your compressor needs to be able to handle the combined requirements of all the tools simultaneously operating.
Since it’s not always easy to know what tools you might acquire — or even rent — for future projects, add 20 to 50 percent to these single- or multitool requirements to ensure that you’ll have plenty of power for future requirements as well.
A good compromise between power, storage capacity and portability is a twin-stack compressor. Twin-stack compressors utilize two storage tanks instead of a single, larger one, and offer good balance and a more consistent air supply.
Ridgid, for example, has an oil-free twin-stack compressor (OF45150, $259) that has 4.5 gallons of tank capacity. The compressor is capable of 4.9 CFM @ 90 PSI and can operate at pressures as high as 150 PSI, so it will run pretty much anything you’re likely to have in the garage, shop or job site. All of the controls are up front and easy to read and operate, and there’s a precise ratcheting pressure regulator to help you get the exact air pressure you need for the type of tool and the type of material that you’re working with. All in all, this is a great choice for any application you’re likely to encounter.
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