When it comes to air compressors, everyone has something specific they’re after. For me, it’s got to be portable, and therefore small and compact.
There’s no point having a compressor with all the bells and whistles in the world attached if you can’t transport it easily or if takes up half of your garage.
Noise can also be a big issue when it comes to air compressors, which is why I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for the perfect quiet compressor.
Portable Air Compressor - Comparison Guide
Cord Length (Approx.)
Viair 00073 70P Heavy Duty Portable Compressor
Value For Money
EPAuto 12V DC Portable Air Compressor Pump
Solid 12V Option
P.I. Auto Store - Premium Digital Tire Inflator
Great For Tires
California Air Tools 8010 Ultra Quiet & Oil-Free
LifeLine AAA 300 PSI 12 Volt DC Air Compressor
How Portable Air Compressors Work
Air compressors, as their name implies, use a motor to compress air. They consist of a motor, either powered by gas or electricity, a storage tank, an air hose with connectors, and gauges. There are two settings for the gauges, an upper limit, and a lower limit.
When you power on the motor, air is pulled from the motor and pushed into the storage tank. The more air that is forced in, the higher the pressure becomes. When the upper limit level is reached, the motor will shut off, and the air in the storage tank awaits release.
As you use a tool, sprayer, release valve, etc., the high-pressure air uses its built-up kinetic energy to move through the air hose and power the tool or inflate the tire (for example). When the air pressure in the tank reaches the lower limit, the motor turns on again to start the process over.
Benefits of Having a Portable Air Compressor
With a portable air compressor, you gain many benefits. Depending on the size and rating of the compressor, you can do a myriad of things. Besides requiring less power for their motors, most portable compressors are powered with the 12V power supply in your car. Newer models also have USB power options. With a portable compressor, you can:
The possibilities are near endless. Almost anything you need compressed air for is available to you in a smaller, more compact design. The portable air compressor takes less time to pressurize and less time to fill up than a standard compressor. While it does need to refill more often, quick jobs or projects that are in remote locations are easily handled with a portable compressor.
Types of Portable Air Compressors
When buying your air compressor, you have choices in brands, sizes, and capacities. You also have to choose between power options, oiled motors, and how your compressor will be powered.
Tank vs. Tankless
You can easily recognize most air compressors by their tanks. However, tankless models are also popular. The tankless designs don’t store air, and the motor builds as much pressure and kinetic energy as possible before releasing the air into the air hose. Most commonly, these types of air compressors are found in roadside emergency kits for quickly inflating car tires.
With a tankless model, you won’t have the big, bulky tank to contend with, but you also won’t have a lot of air pressure either. Most tankless units can’t power paint sprayers, air tools and only have limited reach with their hoses.
Electric vs. Gas Powered
Gas-powered models are generally more versatile since they aren’t tethered to an outlet. They are much louder than electric motors and are usually heavier and bulkier. Most will come with a cart or mounted on wheels to improve mobility, though, which is where a gas-powered compressor excels compared to an electric one.
Oil-Free vs. Oiled
Oiled compressors require a lot of maintenance. Their motors need oil and oil changes, just like the motor in your car. Oiled units are slightly less expensive, but the added cost of oils, fuels, and other start-up items negate any savings.
Oil-free models use Teflon instead of oil for lubrication. They never need to be changed, and maintenance is quite low. The downside, though, is that Teflon will wear out, and when it does, you will need a new motor. Oil-Free models are easier to use and not as heavy, but they aren’t as durable and don’t last as long as oiled options, either.
Various Types of Compressors
There are three basic types of air compressors. They are reciprocating, rotary screw and rotary centrifugal.
Within these categories, compressor types can be broken down even further. You will notice variations with the number of compression stages, cooling method, drive method and the lubrication needed.
Reciprocating Air Compressors
These are positive displacement machines that increase the pressure by reducing volume. This means that volumes of air are confined within the closed space which elevates the air to a higher pressure. This is accomplished by a piston within the cylinder.
Single-stage compressors will range from 70-100 PSI while two-stage compressors can range from 100-250 PSI. These compressors can be air-cooled or water-cooled and come in either lubricated or non-lubricated configurations.
Rotary Screw Air Compressors
These are positive displacement compressors which are often found in a single stage helical or spiral lobe oil flooded compressor. They will contain two rotors within a casing and these rotors compress the air internally.
There are no valves present in this type of air compressor. They are oil-cooled and the oil seals the internal pieces. This type of compressor is a continuous duty package. They are easy to maintain as well as operate.
This is a dynamic compressor which depends on a transfer of energy from the rotating impeller to the air. It produces a high-pressure discharge which is accomplished by converting angular momentum from the rotating impeller.
These compressors will rotate at higher speeds than your other varieties. They allow for a higher capacity and continuous flow. The centrifugal air compressor is oil-free.
Quality Compressor Brands
While there are many brands on the market to choose from, two of them stand out as some of the best brands to watch for.
The VIAIR Corporation offers high-quality air compressors as well as air accessories. There are several VIAIR components that are also used in OEM vehicles.
Some of the products they currently offer include air compressors, portable air compressors, pressure switches and needle gauges. In addition, you can find air systems, electrical relays, check valves, air pressure regulators and more.
Since 1998, their products have been found in on-road, off-road, industrial markets and medical devices. VIAIR effectively leads the industry standard for automotive aftermarket products across the world.
California Air Tools
Since 2002, California Air Tools have been focused on creating products that are useful and offer superior performance. Not just that, but they pair their outstanding products with excellent customer service.
They are currently located in San Diego, California have had many new products introduced. In 2009, they produced “Ultra Quiet” air compressors. In 2011, they were a leader in the introduction of the SPRAYIT LVLP Spray Gun and were also recognized as the top rated air compressor brand.
In 2015, they introduced the new “SP” motors and finally in 2016 the “Quiet & Light” Air Compressor hit the market.
How to Choose the Best Portable Air Compressor
When you are ready to pick out your next portable air compressor, there are several factors to keep in mind.
Air compressors can be powered by gasoline or electricity. An electric compressor will run on standard household voltage.
Choosing a compressor that exceeds two running horsepower requires a 220-240V outlet. These are the best option for indoor usage. It is important to note that running an electric compressor with a generator has the potential to damage the motor.
A gas-powered compressor is a choice for most builders and contractors. That’s because they offer high output and are more mobile. Since they don’t require electricity, they can also be used for all stages of construction.
The downside is that they emit exhaust and should only be used in well-ventilated areas.
Size of the Tank
The size of the tank will determine how long the compressor can run air tools before the compressor needs to turn back on. Most tank sizes are rated in gallons and will offer anywhere from a 1-gallon tank all the way up to 80-gallons.
When using air tools that require high volumes of air for continuous use, you should look for the larger tank size. To use a tool intermittently, the compressor would be fine with a smaller tank size.
Tools requiring a short burst of air such as brad or finish nailers, drain the tank slowly. For simple tasks such as these, a 2-6 gallon tank should be adequate.
Determining the air compressor you need based on weight will be a personal decision. It will require you to factor in the amount of time you need to move the compressor around.
Most portable compressors are smaller enough to carry. If they weigh more than what most people can carry, they generally include wheels.
Depending on the model you get, the size and type of motor, you can expect a lot of noise. While there are some models marketed as “quiet,” for the most part, you can expect a noise level between 67 and 110dB.
Electric motors are quieter than gas-powered motors, but either one will continuously turn on and off to keep the tank full. You also can’t forget about the noise level of the tool attached to the hose, either. Regardless of the compressor, you have (except for a 12V portable car air compressor), you should use hearing protection when the air compressor is operational.
There are two pressure ratings to take note of, airflow (measured in cubic feet per minute, or CFM) and air pressure (measured in pounds per square inch, or PSI). The rating you need will be determined by the tool you are using. An air chisel, for example, might have a rating of 5CFM. This is the minimum your air compressor output needs to be to power that tool.
If your air compressor produces 5CFM at 90PSI, for example, the air chisel will work just fine. It is better to get the highest rating you can within your budget and considering all the other factors (size, portability, etc.). The best approach is to think about the tools you will use, the projects you will complete, and then find the highest demand from your tool selection.
If you choose an air compressor that can power your most demanding tool, the rest won’t be an issue.
Some models will list a performance rating on their marketing materials or packaging. This is basically a round-up of the total ratings of the compressor (HP, PSI, CFM, and capacity). The higher the rating, the better the overall performance of the air compressor.
This doesn’t mean that a higher rating means a better compressor. For example, a contractor that needs to run multiple tools at once may find that a higher HP and larger CFM don’t equate to a higher performance rating. In this case, the contractor needs to go with a machine that can provide the output he needs for the job at hand, regardless of the performance rating.
Price & Warranty
Obviously, the price will be a factor as well. Thinking long-term, your budget for an air compressor needs to account for the air compressor, tools you will use, and projects you will use it for. If the number of projects is small, or you will only use the air compressor in emergencies, you can opt for a less expensive model.
You also need to check the warranty. Most air compressors will have a warranty on the motor, tank, and fittings. Determine the warranty period length as well as what it actually covers. You may find that a less expensive model covers more items and offers a better warranty, which can sway your decision.
There are several other features that are worth looking at when choosing your next air compressor:
what about Choosing a Quiet Air Compressor?
When choosing a quiet air compressor, the noise level is certainly your main concern. The level of noise can be measured in decibels (dB). Many units on the market will offer ratings between 40 to 90 dB.
To understand how loud that is, a normal conversation between two people can be rated at just 60 dB. The lower level of quiet air compressor is comparable to the noise a bird makes during calling.
On the other extreme, a noise level of 85 dB within an 8-hour shift can lead to hearing loss. These continuously loud noises can also lead to headaches and ear ringing.
For an air compressor to be rated as a quiet air compressor, it needs to have a level that produces 75 dB or less.
When picking the dB rating that is going to work for you, start by determining what level would be too high for you to tolerate. Then, you’ll be able to shop the available brands below that dB rating. Keep in mind that the lower you go with a dB rating, the more you are most likely going to pay.
At this time, it is not possible to find a portable air compressor that doesn’t make any noise, but choosing one with minimal sound is what is best for your health.
Top 5 Portable Compressor Reviewed
Lucky for you, I’ve found five amazing products which tick all these boxes, and more. Read my portable air compressor reviews below to find out more…
1. Viair 00073 70P Heavy Duty Portable Compressor
- 12 VOLT - 100 PSI Maximum Working Pressure,...
- 1.06CFM Free Flow @ 0 PSI
- Deluxe carry bag included
- Brass twist-on tire chuck
First up, the perfect compressor for anyone looking for a classic is this one from Viair – anything described as ‘heavy duty’ is always going to be a winner in my books! This air compressor works extra hard so that you can, too. Great for use with paint sprayers, this compressor will allow you to work as long as you need to without sputtering or giving up.
Running at twelve volts, Viair’s compressor is a powerful beast, and comes with a fifteen foot cable – perfect if you want to paint your car and need to strut around. Amazingly, this product is quiet, despite the power behind it, so you can crack on with your DIY at any time of day without worrying about the neighbors.
This compressor is also great for inflating car tires, and comes with various attachments so that you can use it for pretty much any odd job around the home. It’s handy for blowing up spare mattresses – it gets the job done quickly without shaking the walls like so many compressors do!
It’s nice and compact, meaning you can store it in the trunk of your car if needed, or can squeeze it onto a shelf in the garage or shed, awaiting your DIY and painting jobs.
2. EPAuto 12V DC Portable Air Compressor Pump
- Convenience: Plug directly into Cigarette...
- Multiple Uses: Inflate tires on cars, bikes,...
- Capacity: Does NOT Support truck tires, for...
- Easy to Read: 4 Display Units: PSI, KPA, BAR,...
EPAuto have created a great little air compressor for under $50 with all the power and tech of a pricier product.
Again, this compressor is great for any painting jobs you may have – it’s powerful enough for you to easily spray paint your car, walls and anything else you fancy. It comes with handy add-ons, so you can use it for various jobs around the home and garden, too.
Portable and lightweight, this is a lovely product for anyone who wants something reliable to keep in the car, or store at home. Noise is kept to a minimum with this air compressor so you won’t be disturbing anyone – the best portable air compressor for those who need to stay quiet!
Of course, this air compressor can also be used to re-inflate car tires. I love this for the fact that it shuts itself off if it’s getting close to over-inflating your tires, perfect for anyone else with the attention span of a goldfish!
This handy feature joins forces with temperature-control – it will switch itself off if it gets close to overheating, saving you the stress that can come with so many other compressors out there.
The digital display on this compressor is easy to read and self-explanatory, and is accompanied by an LED flashlight for those emergency, midnight road-side stops.
3. P.I. Auto Store Premium Digital Tire Inflator
- PREMIUM FEATURES – New 2019 Improved Air...
- VERY SIMPLE TO USE – Plug into your 12 Volt...
- COMPACT ROBUST DESIGN - Compact design and...
- VERSATILE - Best for Car, Bicycle, Motorbike,...
PI Auto Store have created this lovely little compressor, which is perfect for all your needs in and around the home.
This smart thing is easy to carry due its lightweight frame, and comes with a carry case to make it just that bit easier to transport. It’s super user-friendly, with an LED, digital screen to keep track of what you’re doing, and, get this – you can set the pressure you want to hit and it’ll carry on at this level automatically once its reached without going any higher. Genius!
Thirteen glorious feet of extension cable means that you can use this in the driveway or garden easily, and it comes with adaptors for in-home use, too. It’s quiet enough to use with a paint sprayer while still packing the punch you’re looking for.
It plugs into the cigarette lighter in your car so you can roam around and get all those odd jobs done, like sorting your tires out. This promises to inflate your tires in such a way that the tread will wear evenly, meaning you’re kept safe in your car with ‘optimum traction and control’. Sounds good to me!
This compressor is speedy and reliable – the best portable air compressor for those on the move.
4. California Air Tools 8010 Ultra Quiet & Oil-Free
- Ultra Quiet only 60 Decibels. Low Amp Draw...
- Oil-Free Pump for Less Maintenance & Costs;...
- Powerful 1.0 HP (Rated / Running) 2.0 HP...
- 3.00 CFM at 40 PSI - 2.20 CFM at 90 PSI
California Air Tools have specifically designed this air compressor for those working in environments where noise is an issue. Small, portable and verging on silent? I think I’ve found the best quiet portable air compressor out there! This compressor only reaches a tiny 66 decibels – amazing given how much power is pumping through it.
I also love this product for the fact that it’s oil free, keeping the air nice and clean and making maintenance a lot easier than some of the other products currently on the market. Great for anyone looking for something to help out with spray painting, you can use this to paint the car or any outdoor surface!
As with most compressors, you can use this one to blow up tires, mattresses and to run power tools. It runs for a long time, silently, of course, and recovers quickly if it does get used for long periods of time. It’s easy to transport, despite its slightly bulky appearance.
Given the high quality of this product, you’d expect it to be at the top end of the price spectrum. Not so – this compressor is an absolute steal at under $130. A great investment piece for anyone who’s looking for a multi-purpose air compressor they can really rely on.
5. LifeLine AAA 300 PSI 12 Volt DC Air Compressor
- AAA Quality: Inflate a standard spare car...
- Compact: The 10 ft DC power cable and 1.5 ft...
- Versatility: Using the included nozzle...
- Peace of Mind: This air compressor is...
Last, and least only in terms of price, is this gem from LifeLine AAA. It may look pretty basic, but don’t let that put you off.
This budget air compressor made my top five list partially because of it’s incredibly low price, but also for its versatility. Any DIY-ers out there will be thrilled with this compressor and its ability to be used in conjunction with a paint sprayer.
Home maintenance is easy with this ten foot cable, and they’ve handily included some adaptors so that you can use it on mattresses and car tires, too.
This, for me, is the best small air compressor for those on a budget and is a great addition to any vehicle’s trunk! Reliable and quality-guaranteed, you can use this for as long as you need to without it running low or giving up, as some budget buys can do.
The pressure gauge on the side may not be as fancy as some of the digital displays that my other top picks boast, but, for the price you’re paying, you’re still getting an awful lot!
This is a relatively quiet product, maybe not as deadly silent as some of the more expensive picks on the list, but it’s great value for money.
Air Compressor Applications
What do air compressors do? Besides make a lot of noise and store air at high pressures, they power a lot of different tools and can accomplish many different tasks. The list includes:
Setting Up & Using Portable Air Compressors
For the most part, portable air compressors don’t require a lot of set up. Once you remove them from their packaging, they are basically ready to go.
For electric models, you need to read all the warnings and ensure the fittings are tight. Plus, the unit in and turn it on to begin storing air. For gas-powered models, you will need to check all fittings and ensure the engine has fuel and oil (if an oiled unit).
It is a good idea to let the compressor run to fill up the tank at least twice before you put it into service. This will remove any oils or debris inside the tank and hoses that may be leftover from the manufacturing process. Don’t forget to release the air in the tank before storing it.
Car & Truck Tires: What To Look For
When driving a car it is always wise to carry a portable tire inflator with you. At any time, tires can lose air pressure for a wide range of reasons. Having a small air compressor available makes it easy to get back on the road again.
Some portable compressors will boast of high PSI numbers and will cause you to believe they are powerful. Sometimes, these figures can be misleading. The PSI is only what the gauge can measure, not what the inflator is actually capable of.
Most car tires require 32 to 40 PSI so you should be able to find a compressor worthy of using. If you need to inflate RV tires, you could be looking at up to 120 PSI. It would be wise at that point to purchase a compressor capable of up to 200 PSI because they won’t typically achieve values that high.
Keep in mind that car tires aren’t the only uses for portable air compressors. Don’t forget to use them for your bicycle, trailers, lawn mowers and wheelbarrows as well.
Is a 12v Portable Air Compressor Enough for Me?
Most people enjoy using a 12v portable air compressor for inflating car tires. Thankfully, there are many other uses for these portable compressors. They can also be used for simple, pneumatic tools such as a nailer. Because they are ultra-portable, you could use these tools anywhere you go.
A 12v portable air compressor isn’t for everything. The air flow isn’t as high as a regular compressor and might not be enough for the bigger air tools. When determining if a 12v compressor is enough for you, take into consideration the minimum airflow needed for the particular tool you want to use. Bigger air tools require lots of pressure and air flow to run.
You might think that inflating a mattress or inflatable swimming pool would work well with a 12v air compressor, but it’s not true. These items require low pressure but high air flow which your portable compressor won’t offer.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Can’t I Use A Small Compressor For?
You won’t use a small compressor for air tools, paint sprayers or sanders.
Are All Portable Compressors Quiet?
The more expensive portable compressors are quiet, while the budget-friendly options tend to be noisier.
What Is The Price Range Of Small Compressors?
You can spend as little as $15 up to a couple hundred depending on what features you need.
What is the difference between cheap and expensive models?
Most of the differences in cheaper models will be the power ratings, size of the tanks, and durability. Cheaper models aren’t usually designed for daily use and will most likely come with a short-term warranty if there is a warranty at all.
How big of an air compressor do I need to run air tools?
Your tools will determine the size of the compressor for air tools. Each tool in your collection will have a CFM and PSI rating. You should ensure that the air compressor you buy has a high enough rating to power those tools. The general rule is to multiply the CFM rating of your tool by 1.5. So, for example, an air chisel with a CFM rating of 6, will require an air compressor with a minimum CFM of 9.
How big of an air compressor do I need to inflate regular car tires?
Almost any portable air compressor will be strong enough to inflate regular car tires. Most car tires have a capacity for less than 6 gallons of compressed air. A compressor with a 10-gallon tank and a PSI of 90 will fill 4 regular car tires from 0 PSI to 30 PSI.
What other essentials will I need when using these machines?
You will need to ensure that you have the correct fittings for your various tools. If you are using the compressor for a wide variety of jobs, you will need couplings for smaller tools, tire gauges, and sprayers. Most air compressors come equipped with a quick-release fitting that clamps onto your tool’s air fitting. Having extra fittings and hose extensions isn’t required, but it is a good idea.
So, there you have it – the best portable air compressors out there.
I’ve covered a variety of air compressors within a broad price range, so hopefully there’s something for everyone out there. Air compressors can be used for a lot of jobs around the home, as well as on the side of the road.
When it comes to re-inflating your tires, these are all great for doing so, quickly and reliably, and make great travel companions. I also love using air compressors with paint sprayers – the power behind them makes it so easy to paint a car or outdoor surface efficiently.
You’ll never use a paint brush again…