(Last updated: Mar. 23, 2019) This comprehensive air compressor guide will break down all the technical jargon and help you successfully shift through the myriad of portable inflators out there in order to narrow down your options and get the one that best suits your needs. But first of all, here are some of the best inflators on the market right now.
Top Portable Air Compressors/Inflators on the Market
These multipurpose units below not only come with outstanding features that make inflating tires and checking their pressure levels an effortless task, but they are also very compact and easy to transport in your vehicle wherever you go.
VIAIR 400P Portable Compressor
Viair 00088 88P Portable Air Compressor
Tacklife ACP1C Auto Portable Air Compressor Pump
EPAuto 12V DC Portable Air Compressor Pump, Digital Tire Inflator by 100 PSI
JACO RoadPro Tire Inflator Pump – Premium 12V Portable Air Compressor – 100 PSI
Teetox Auto Tire Inflator Portable Dual-cylinder Air Compressor Pump
Auto Shut-Off 12v Car Tire Inflator Air Compressor Pump 150PSI, Preset Tire Pressure with Emergency Flashlight, 3 Air Nozzle for Ball/Bike/Airbed/Motorcycle by Dr. Auto
DBPOWER 12V DC Portable Electric Auto Air Compressor Pump to 150 PSI, Tire Inflator with Gauge, 3 High-air Flow Nozzles & Adaptors for Cars, Bicycles and Basketballs
Kensun AC/DC Rapid Performance Portable Air Compressor Tire Inflator with Digital Display for Home (110V) and Car (12V) – 30 Liters/Min
Portable Air Compressor Pump 150PSI 12V – Digital Tire Inflator – Auto Tire Pump with Emergency Led Lighting and Long Cable for Car, Bicycle, Motorcycle, Truck – SUV RV ATV
What exactly is a tire air compressor or inflator?
As the name implies, a tire air compressor/inflator is a device used in inflating the tires of a vehicle or other inflatable objects ranging from sports balls to air mattresses. That said, it is worth noting that despite the fact a tire inflator and an air compressor perform the same function of pumping air into tires, there are a number of slight differences between the two.
An air compressor is usually much larger than an inflator and can come with a tank and wheels depending on the size. By virtue of their larger sizes, they require a lot of power to keep them running and sometimes need to be connected to wall outlets. However, portable ones are designed to run off car batteries or a 12V cigarette lighter socket of a vehicle.
Just like air compressors, inflators are also designed to pump air into the tires of your car and other inflatables. Due to their often small and compact nature, the average inflator is much lighter and more portable than the average compressor. Advanced inflators often come with additional features such as LED torch and USB ports. Being small in size, these inflators usually operate on 12 volts DC and are often run by plugging them directly into your car’s battery or cigarette lighter socket.
NOTE: Despite the slight differences between these two, the names “air compressor” and “inflator” are these days increasingly being used interchangeably.
Types of Air Compressors
Air compressors/inflators can roughly be divided into two types, namely oil-less and oil-lubed compressors. An air compressor basically works by drawing air in with its piston and compressing the air into its storage tank. This air is then released when needed with the aid of the piston chamber, which needs sufficient lubrication in order to work very well. In oil-lubed compressors, the piston chamber needs to be physically lubricated with oil on a regular basis. As for oil-less compressors, their piston chambers come pre-lubricated and never need to be lubricated by the user. And just like everything in life, each of these types of compressors/inflators comes with their pros and cons. Let’s take a look at them below:
Advantages of Oil-lubed Compressors
- They are quieter than oil-free compressors.
- They are more durable and therefore last longer than the oil-free ones.
Disadvantages of Oil-lubed Compressors
- They are more expensive.
- The air they produce isn’t as good as that produced by oil-free compressors.
- They tend to be heavier.
Advantages of Oil-less Compressors
- They are not as expensive as their oil-lubed counterparts.
- They are often lighter.
- Produce air that is of a higher quality and better pressure.
- Doesn’t require as much maintenance as an oil-lubed design.
Disadvantages of Oil-less Compressors
- They tend to be louder than oil-lubed models.
- They are less durable.
Importance of an air compressor/inflator
Why is a portable air compressor a very useful device? As a driver, one of the most important things you need to do in order to drive smoothly and safely on the road is to regularly ensure that the tires of your vehicle are properly inflated. You can achieve this by either going to a gas station or an auto repair shop. However, frequenting these places just to inflate your tires or ensure that the pressure in them is at optimal level is not only inconvenient and expensive in the long run, but can sometimes be practically impossible to do. A typical case of this being impossible is when you suddenly have a flat in the middle of nowhere. This is just one of the many reasons why it becomes very necessary for every driver to have a portable compressor in their car everywhere they go. Portable compressors not only make the process of inflating your tires very easy and convenient, but they can also be lifesavers! Also, in the long run, they are the cheaper option. Below are more details on how truly beneficial air compressors can be:
Proper tire pressure
Inflators make it easier for you to maintain proper tire pressure all the time. Improper tire pressure can lead to negative things such as your tires wearing out faster, your fuel consumption going higher, and even worse this can negatively affect your safety on the road. However, you can avoid all these by getting yourself an inflator and using it to check and maintain your tire pressure on a monthly basis.
For off-road adventures
A compressor is one thing no off-road enthusiast should drive without since when you get off-road you’d need to air down to ensure that you get maximum grip and traction. However, when you get back on the pavement, you’d need to inflate your tires to the optimal levels in order to drive safely. This is where a compressor comes in handy.
Solution to leaky tires
The last thing you want to be doing on the road is driving with a leaky tire. A compressor can come to your aid and quickly pump air back into your leaky tires.
Inflates other inflatable objects
Besides tires, these inflators can also be used to inflate things such as balls, toys, air mats, tube rafts, inflatable pools, etc.
How to use an air compressor to inflate your tires and other items
The process of inflating your tires with a compressor is relatively simple and can be achieved by following the easy steps below:
- Depending on the type of unit you have in your possession, to power it, you might need to plug it’s power cord to your car’s 12V cigarette lighter socket or connect it to the terminals of your car battery.
- Remove the dust cap from your tire’s valve stem and screw the compressor’s air chuck to it.
- Turn the engine of your car on and let it run.
- Turn on your compressor and start inflating your tire.
- Monitor the compressor’s pressure gauge (most compressors come with inbuilt pressure gauges) and turn off the power switch the moment you see that the desired amount of pressure has been reached. Some advanced inflators are designed to automatically turn off the unit’s power the moment the correct pressure is reached in order to prevent under-inflation or over-inflation.
- Unscrew the air chuck from the tire valve stem and disconnect the inflator’s power cord from either the car’s cigarette lighter socket or battery.
What is important when selecting a portable air compressor?
With a shedload of air compressors on the market to choose from, it can be pretty challenging and tricky narrowing down your selection and getting the best. However, the selection process can be made much easier if you take the following vital things into consideration:
Any inflator that comes with an Auto Shutoff system surely has a good thing to offer. An auto shutoff basically allows you to set the desired level of pressure you want and let the compressor run while you go about handling other business without needing to constantly check the compressor. When the set or desired pressure has been reached, the compressor will automatically shut off. This not only makes the compressor more convenient to use, but it also plays a very important role in preventing overinflation – a common issue faced by most compressors that not equipped with this feature.
No matter how you look at it, a fast inflating inflator is better than a slow inflating one, at least in terms of how fast and convenient the whole tire inflation process is. It is for this reason why it becomes important that in choosing an inflator, you go for one that has a high inflation speed. A compressor with a fast inflating speed is one that can fill up the standard tire of a vehicle in just a matter of minutes. For example, a compressor that has the ability to inflate the P195/65R15 tire of a vehicle from 0 all the way to 35psi in about 4 minutes or less is great!
The size of the inflator also matters a lot, especially when it comes to your convenience when using it. The smaller and more compact the compressor is, the easier it is to travel with it in your vehicle and use it to inflate your tires or check their pressure levels wherever you are.
These days, many good compressors come with multiple nozzle adapters or inflation tips that allow them to fit into different valve stems of different vehicle tires as well as the air hole of several other inflatable objects like balls, pool toys, etc.
Getting a compressor that comes with an inbuilt pressure gauge is also another very important feature to look out for in a compressor/inflator since this will help you monitor the inflation progress so that you can know exactly when your tire becomes properly inflated. This feature helps greatly in eliminating the guesswork out of the process of inflating your tire. These built-in gauges often tend to be pretty easy to read and understand.
Another appealing feature that is increasingly becoming very common in many a good compressor is a built-in LED light, whose primary role is to provide light to make inflating your tires in the dark easier and safer. These lights can also act as emergency lights that you can use to call for help or alert other motorists of danger in the dark.
The last thing you want to go for is a compressor that produces loud and unpleasant noise when running. Imagine the disturbance you will be causing in your neighborhood trying to inflate your tires using an unpleasantly loud compressor. For your own peace and that of your neighbors, we recommend that you purchase a compressor with a low operating volume. Compressors with noise levels lower than 40 or 50db are ideal and can be used in a quiet residential area.
The duty cycle of a compressor is the amount of time that it can be used without becoming overheated during a particular time frame at 100 PSI and a temperature of 22.22°C (72°F). So for example, a compressor that comes with a 10% duty cycle means it can only be operated for 10% of 60 minutes (6 minutes out of 60 minutes), after which you must allow it to cool for 54 minutes before you can run it again. Every compressor comes with a Duty Cycle. Below is a one-hour duty cycle chart at 100 PSI and 72° F.
One Hour Duty Cycle
Minutes Off to cool down
Try looking out for a warranty. Is the compressor warrantied? If no, you’d want to think twice before you purchase it because most of the best compressors/inflators on the market often come supported with good warranties.
Key features that a good portable air compressor should have
These are some of the important attributes and specifications that most good portable inflators come with:
- Lengthy plug-in cord: The plug-in cords that good inflators come with tend to be long enough to easily reach and pump all four tires of your vehicle.
- Fast inflating speed: Most good compressors inflate tires at a rapid rate. And most of these compressors can easily fill up a standard-sized tire in about 4 to 5 minutes, thereby saving you a lot of time.
- Compact and portable: For a portable inflator to qualify as a good one, it obviously would have to be compact and so portable that you can conveniently store it in the trunk of your car and drive anywhere you want with it.
- Auto shutoff system: This is a very useful feature that is very common among many bestselling compressors. Not only does a compressor with an auto shutoff system make the process of pumping your tires easy, but it also helps in preventing overinflation since it automatically shuts the unit off when the desired pressure has been attained.
- Inbuilt gauge: The inbuilt pressure gauge is very important as it helps you to easily monitor the amount of pressure inside the tire of your car in order to prevent overinflation.
- Quiet operating sound: The lower the operating sound of a compressor, the better. Many good compressors don’t have very loud sounds.
- Warranty: Fantastic and reliable air compressors often come backed by warranties.
Problems that a user can encounter with a portable air compressor
Below are some of the most common air compressor/inflator problems as well as their solutions:
Air compressor’s pressure gauge not providing accurate pressure readings
The most common reason why the inbuilt gauge of your inflator provides you inaccurate pressure readings is because you are trying to check the tire pressure during inflation. Some compressors are not designed to give you accurate live readings of the amount of pressure in your tire during inflation. The best way therefore to get the most accurate reading is to turn off the compressor before checking the tire’s pressure.
Air compressor won’t start
You have switched on your compressor hoping to start the inflation process of your tire or some other inflatable object but the unit won’t just start. What you need to do in such a situation is to start with the obvious – check to make sure that your compressor has been properly installed and that it has been properly connected to its power source. If you are using an oil-lubed compressor, you should check the amount of oil in the compressor because these oil-based units can only function if the required amount of oil in them has been reached.
In addition to this, you can also try adjusting the compressor’s pressure switches since this sometimes does the trick. If after doing all these things, the compressor still wouldn’t start, you should send it to a certified technician to have a look at it.
Compressor is consuming too much oil
A very common problem that many a user of an oil-lubed compressor experiences is an abnormally high consumption of oil. There are several reasons why this happens. For example, blocked air filters or leakages can easily lead to your compressor consuming too much oil. If obstructed filters are the cause, cleaning the filters on a regular basis can help solve this problem. If leaks are the cause, you should send the unit to an expert technician to work on it.
Compressor is overheating
Despite being one of the most common problems associated with the use of an air compressor, overheating is one of the most easily preventable of these problems. Most cases of overheating come as a result of failing to abide by the manufacturers’ instructions on how to use the compressor. For example, most compressors are designed to operate for a certain period of time before they have to be turned off, so they can cool down. This is what is called the compressor’s Duty Cycle. To prevent overheating of your compressor, you shouldn’t allow it run beyond its stipulated running time. Also, you should regularly take the compressor for maintenance.
Air pressure is too slow
It is not uncommon for the air pressure of your compressor to suddenly start building too slowly. This problem is often caused by filters and air paths that have been obstructed by dirt. Regularly cleaning your compressor can solve this problem. Aside obstructed air filters, sometimes the problem can also be caused by certain parts of the unit becoming loose. In such a situation, tightening them can solve the problem.
Compressor creating loud noise
Having a traditionally quiet compressor suddenly becoming very loud, isn’t rare at all, and this is often caused by insufficient lubrication (that is if the compressor is oil-lubed). Aside inadequate lubrication, another common reason why your compressor would suddenly start operating loudly can be as a result of certain parts of the unit becoming loose. If you are using an oil-lubed compressor, make sure that it always has sufficient oil to keep it properly lubricated. On the other hand, if some parts of your compressor aren’t well tightened, make sure that you tighten them.
Compressor stops unexpectedly
Sometimes it is possible for your air compressor to suddenly stop without any warnings. This is a problem that a significant percentage of compressors users often have to deal with. Whenever your air compressor stops working suddenly, the cause is often an electrical fault. For example, a blown fuse could easily cause that. When this happens, in no circumstances must you try to repair it yourself. Send it to an expert to have it fixed.
General Safety Instructions
In order to reduce your risks of injury and to reduce the likelihood of your compressor getting damaged, you should take the following simple safety guidelines into consideration:
- You should not try disassembling or repairing a compressor when it is faulty. This is the job of a qualified technician.
- Do not allow a compressor to be operated by a child without the supervision of an adult.
- Compressors always become very hot when they are being used and minutes after they have been used. You should therefore not attempt to touch your compressor except its handle with your bare hands during use or immediately after use.
- Don’t store the compressor immediately after use. Allow it to cool thoroughly before storage
- Compressors are designed to be carried by their handles. You should never try carrying them by their power cords or air hoses.
- If the compressor you have is one that is oil-less, you should never lubricate it.
- Always ensure that the unit is switched off when not in use.
- Do not point the compressor’s air nozzle at yourself or any other person.
- If the power cord of your inflator/compressor is coiled, you should uncoil it before using it in order to prevent the cord from overheating.
- If your compressor doesn’t come with an auto shut off feature that automatically shuts off the compressor the moment the desired amount of air pressure has been achieved, you should never leave the compressor unsupervised while it is running because it can easily cause the object it is inflating to overinflate and burst. This will not only obviously damage the object but can also cause you serious injury.
- You should not operate a compressor if you are feeling sleepy or drowsy.
- You should never use the unit in a wet environment except it is one of the very few that are waterproof.
- Always endeavor to devote some time to carefully reading and understanding the instruction manual that accompanies your compressor before proceeding to assemble and use it.
Important things to have in mind when connecting compressor to Vehicle
Here are a few very important things you should be governed by whenever you are connecting your compressor to your car:
- Make sure that the power switch of your compressor is in the OFF position before you attempt to connect its power cord to the power source – the 12V fuse (cigarette lighter fuse) or battery of your vehicle.
- The engine of your vehicle must be running while operating the compressor otherwise the compressor would instantly drain the battery. Having said that, you should take note of the fact that some compressors are designed not to be operated when your car engine is running. If that is how your compressor has been designed, then, by all means, you should obey the instruction. This is the more reason why you should always take your time to read the instruction manual that accompanies your compressor.
- If your power cord is designed to be used with your vehicle’s battery, it is strongly recommended that you don’t alter it so that you can plug it into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter socket. Also, if the power cord is designed to be used with your car’s cigarette lighter, you should not alter it and try connecting it to your battery.