If you think that you'll have a need to work for long periods without a break, opt for the largest possible air tank on your compressor.
If you think that you'll have a need to work for long periods without a break, opt for the largest possible air tank on your compressor.

Most people aren't aware of the myriad of different tasks that can be completed using a portable air compressor. Sure, you can use them to inflate your car tires. However, you can also use them to run all sorts of other equipment, like pneumatic nailers and air ratchets.

If you're interested in purchasing a portable air compressor, let us help you find the best one for your needs. Our best of the best pick, the Makita Big Bore 2.5 HP Compressor, stands out for its efficiency and durable construction. Read the following buying guide for advice on choosing a portable air compressor for your needs and a few of our top choices.

Considerations when choosing portable air compressors

When comparing portable air compressors, think about how much power you need, how much maintenance you are comfortable with, and what tank size is right for your jobs.

Electric vs. gas powered

While there are many great electricity-powered air compressors, gas-powered portable air compressors have their advantages, too. They are mostly used in commercial environments because they tend to be larger and more powerful than their electricity-powered counterparts. Electric portable air compressors are generally lighter and easier to transport.

Oil lubricated vs. oil free

Oil-free air compressors are popular because they require less maintenance due to Teflon coating on the cylinders, which removes the need for traditional oil lubrication. However, the Teflon will eventually wear out and need to be replaced, which is complex and time-consuming.

By comparison, oil-lubricated models run far more quietly and have longer lifespans. However, they require regular maintenance and come with the additional cost of frequent oil changes.

CFM

CFM (cubic feet per minute) is essential to the functioning of a portable air compressor. It describes the amount of airflow going through the compressor. Your purpose for using the compressor is important when considering CFM. Some tools cannot operate with air compressors that have a low CFM, so read the specs when shopping to find a machine that supports your tools.

PSI

Pounds per square inch, or psi, is the air pressure generated by your portable air compressor. Anything above 100 psi would likely work for general personal inflation and small tool use. If you have industrial needs, you will need a higher psi.

Horsepower

Horsepower (hp) refers to the workload of the motor. It is directly related to the speed of tank filling and inflation. As with CFM and psi, the greater the horsepower, the greater the capacity for large jobs and a faster inflation speed.

Tank size

The larger the air tank on a portable air compressor, the larger the jobs it can handle. If you only need to use the compressor for basic inflation, you may not even need a tank on your air compressor.

Features

In addition to their power and inflation speed, portable air compressors vary in their design, accessories, and other features.

Portability

Some portable air compressors are easier to transport than others due to size, weight, handle design. Think about how much you plan to transport your compressor when choosing a size and body style.

Oil sight glass

An oil sight glass is available on some models that use oil lubrication. This allows you to easily check your oil level without removing the oil cap.

Inflation accessories

Smaller portable air compressors are generally more likely to include accessories like needles and other items that can help you inflate small recreational items. If your portable air compressor does not come with these items, consider the additional cost of purchasing these accessories.

Price

Smaller air compressors generally cost from $20 to $100 and are suitable for most home repairs and jobs. For $100 to $300 are powerful compressors capable of performing commercial jobs.

FAQ

Q. Is either PSI or CFM a more important factor in the performance of a portable air compressor?

A. CFM is a more important indicator of the compressor's capability since it represents the compressor's ability to push air out efficiently. PSI is more often adequate on almost any compressor.

Q. Are most portable air compressors lubricated with or without oil?

A. Most portable air compressors will be lubricated with oil. As a general rule, the more powerful an air compressor is, the more likely it is to be oil lubricated.

Portable air compressors we recommend

Best of the best: Makita Big Bore 2.5 HP Compressor

Our take: The best portable compressor money can buy.

What we like: Aside from flawless performance, the cast iron parts make it durable.

What we dislike: Expensive, but worth the cost.

Best bang for your buck: Porter-Cable Oil-Free UMC Pancake

Our take: A balanced option between quality and value.

What we like: This compressor has surprising airflow for a diminutive unit.

What we dislike: Filling the tank is time-consuming when compared to other options.

Choice 3: Senco 2.5 HP 4.3 Gallon Compressor

Our take: A quality option that is not quite as dependable as the Makita.

What we like: The quick-filling tank makes for convenient use.

What we dislike: Doesn't always start well in cold weather.

Adam Reeder is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. BestReviews and its newspaper partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. 

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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