Portable Air Compressors
More compact than stationary air compressors, portable air compressors feature smaller storage tanks as well as handles and/or wheels that make them easier to transport. Portable air compressors are available in multiple styles:
- Hot dog compressors: These air compressors have a horizontal design and a single cylindrical tank.
- Pancake compressors: With flat, round storage tanks mounted on the bottom of the unit, pancake compressors offer more stability and take up less space.
- Twin-stack compressors: Similar to hot dog compressors, twin-stack air compressors feature two cylindrical horizontal tanks stacked on top of each other. This provides increased air capacity, without increasing the space the unit takes up.
- Wheelbarrow compressors: This style of air compressor has two cylindrical tanks, with a wheel and handles that provide increased mobility.
Generally, portable air compressors are available either as electric-powered units or gas-powered units.
- Electric: The most common type of compressor, electric portable air compressors need less maintenance than gas-powered models and offer low-noise operation. These units are also better suited to indoor applications, as there are no emissions. All you need is access to an outlet (and most likely an extension cord) and you’re ready to go.
- Gas: These compressors are ideal for outdoor applications where access to electricity is limited. Gas-powered portable air compressors usually have higher horsepower (HP) than electric models, allowing them to produce greater pounds per square inch (PSI).
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Reciprocating and Rotary Screw
In addition to power supply, you need to consider whether you need a reciprocating or rotary screw compressor.
- Reciprocating air compressors: Also referred to as piston-driven compressors, reciprocating models compress air in a cylinder using pistons and then push it to a high-pressure storage tank. This is the oldest type of air compressor and is commonly used at home and for other portable tasks.
- Rotary screw air compressors: Instead of using pistons, rotary screw compressors use twin screws to force air into higher pressures and feature cooling systems that increase efficiency. These are generally more expensive than reciprocating models and are ideal for heavy industrial work.
The choice that is best for you depends on your needs; namely, whether you need to use the compressor continuously or intermittently. Reciprocating compressors are designed to run only part of the time, while rotary compressors run continuously. So if you needed the compressor for a paint job, your best choice would be a rotary model, as it would allow you to continuously apply paint.
Single Stage or Two Stage
You must also decide if you need a single-stage compressor, or a two-stage compressor.
- Single-stage: Most commonly used around the home, single-stage air compressors have an electric motor or gas engine that drives a piston to compress air and move it to a storage tank. The pressure rises as the piston forces in more air and the compressor stops running once the pressure hits a specific level. The compressor restarts to build up more pressure as you use the stored air.
- Two-stage: As the name implies, two-stage compressors have two pistons and two stages. The first piston compresses air, pushing it through a check valve to the second piston, which finishes compressing the air and moves it to the tank. Two-stage units are typically used for heavy-duty applications and tend to deliver greater PSI.
As you look between different portable air compressors, pay attention to the following features:
- Horsepower: The higher the HP, the greater the PSI. HP indicates the power output of the engine or motor and directly translates to the PSI a unit offers, as well as the cubic feet per minute (CFM) and the standard cubic feet per minute (SCFM). You can expect a unit with higher HP to be better for heavy-duty tasks than one with a low HP.
- Pump type: Portable air compressors are available as oil-free and oil-lubricated. Oil-free compressors are usually smaller and lighter, lubricating with specially coated rings and pistons. Expect oil-free models to have a shorter life cycle. Oil-lubricated compressors have an oil tank that lubricates the moving pieces of the motor. They are usually heavier and larger, but offer longer life cycles as long as fluids levels are monitored and changed whenever necessary.
- Tank size: Manufacturers of air compressors rate tank size in gallons, with smaller tanks providing around four to six gallons. Larger tanks are more suited to tasks requiring continuous air flow, due to their increased storage size.
How Much do Portable Air Compressors Cost?
The cost of a portable air compressor depends on the type of compressor, power supply, features, and the dealer you purchase through. What follows is a general pricing guide to provide an idea of what you can expect to pay for your portable air compressor.
- A portable air compressor with 1 to 2 HP, a 15 to 30 gallon tank, and 120 to 200 PSI output has an average cost between $250 and $500.
- A portable air compressor with a 6.5 HP gas engine, a 10 gallon tank, and 135 PSI output has an average cost between $750 and $1,250.
- A portable air compressor with a 7.5 HP two-stage electric motor, 80 gallon vertical tank, and 175 PSI output has an average cost of $2,000 to $2,500.
- A portable air compressor with an 11 HP two-stage gas engine, 30 gallon tank, and 145 to 175 PSI output has an average cost between $2,500 and $3,000.
Before making any final decisions on your portable air compressor, think about the tools you need to use now, as well as any you may need to use in the future. Common tools used with air compressors include:
- Air chisels and hammers
- Impact wrenches
- Nail guns
- Paint sprayers
- Rotary tools
- Staple guns
You need to think about these tools, because most of them have very specific requirements for air volume and air pressure. If the tool is to function properly, the compressor must meet these requirements.