Almost every professional contractor uses an air compressor. Of course, it's not just a construction tool. Automotive, woodworking, aviation, marine and many other industries use compressors to power air tools. When we got our team together to decide on the best air compressors, we sparked heated debates about brands, styles, prices, and more.
Now that the physical and relationship scars have healed, we're ready to share our expert opinion across a wide range of categories.
Best Air Compressor Overall – Our Top Picks
Metabo HPT 8 Gallon Portable Air Compressor EC1315SM
The 8 gallon EC1315SM builds on the success of the Metabo HPT pancake air compressor (also known as "The Tank") to deliver more CFM and capacity. Delivering up to 225 PSI and 5 CFM (at 90 PSI), you can run 3 framing nailers or 4 roof/siding nailers simultaneously. Operating a trim crew? Attach up to five 15-gauge or 16-gauge finishing nailers and get to work! In either case, each tool will have enough air to drive the nail.
For $459, you get a ton of tools in this powerful package. Between portability on wheels and capacity – we found this compressor to be an all-around workhorse.
- Alternative Choice: Rolair VT25BIG Air Compressor
best small air compressor
Choosing the best small air compressor can mean several different things. Instead of assuming either way, we've given you a typical compressor with tank and inflator to choose from.
Best Pancake Air Compressor: Metabo HPT "The Tank" Pancake Compressor EC914SM
The Tank pancake compressor from Metabo HPT once again delivers great performance. Using 4 CFM at 90 PSI and 200 PSI Max, it outperforms most other pancakes by a mile. Capable of running 2 framing or roofing nails in a row, it doesn't come with a crazy high premium either. Take it home for just $199.
With its 6-gallon water tank, "The Tank" has won several accolades. It's our top choice for both the best pancake air compressor and the best 6 gallon air compressor. It also happens to be a 2020 Pro Tool Innovation Award winner. For around $200, we found it hard to beat.
Best Inflator: Ridgid 18V Digital Inflator R87044
We are tool people. When we were picking out the best inflators, most of us wanted a wireless option rather than the 12V that connects to the car.
After much debating, we settled on the $59 Ridgid 18V Digital Inflator. Our reason? It fills faster than most other products we've tested. Adding to its value, it eliminates the cordless vs. 12V debate. how? Get the best of both worlds by including a 12V adapter.
- Also Recommended: Milwaukee M18 Cordless Inflator
Quietest Air Compressor
Makita Quiet Series 3 Gallon Air Compressor MAC320Q
At 60 decibels, the Makita Quiet Series 3 Gallon Air Compressor is quiet enough to carry on a conversation next to you. However, it wasn't just the noise level that made us choose the best quiet compressor.
The MAC320Q offers better air transfer than most. Up to 2.6 CFM at 90 PSI with a maximum pressure of 135 PSI in its 3 gallon tank. Reduced noise by running at 1750 RPM, it still takes only 65 seconds to charge and requires only 8.5 amps to run. You can buy this compressor for less than $200.
Best Cart Air Compressor
Metabo HPT Tank XL Trolley Compressor
Metabo HPT is on our list again – but they seem to be really popular. They simply settled on the design of a 9 gallon Tank XL cart air compressor. It is powered by a Honda GX160 engine for long-term reliability. With a pair of 4.5 gallon tanks, it delivers 9.5 CFM at 90 PSI – only dipping slightly to 9.3 CFM at 100 PSI. We also really like the solid rubber maintenance-free tires for navigating nail-filled job sites. From start to finish, we think Metabo HPT has the most comprehensive range of trolley air compressors.
Best Shop Air Compressors
Ingersoll Rand 80-gal 5 HP 230V Single Phase Air Compressor
Things get heated when we start talking about the best workshop compressors. One thing is clear: In the eyes of our review team, Ingersoll-Rand, Jet, and Rolair dominate the shop compressor space. Any one of these brands represents a solid choice.
We decided to base our selection on the best single stage 80 gallon air compressors each brand has to offer. We realized there were more options than this design we narrowed down to, but we had to make a decision, and this seemed like the best all-around option.
This Ingersoll-Rand offers 100% duty cycle operation at 17.8 CFM (and models up to 24 CFM or higher). At over $3100, expect to pay for the quality you get with this system.
If you're on a tighter budget, consider the similar 5HP 230V Campbell Hausfeld HS5180 80 Gallon Secondary Air Compressor. It offers 14 CFM for almost half the price.
Editor's note: Be sure to check out our recommendations for the best portable air compressors for your home garage
The best air compressor for the money
Metabo HPT Air Compressor
When it comes to name-brand, professional-grade models, we turn to Metabo HPT for the best air compressors for the money. While they're not the cheapest, they consistently outperform the dollar competition. With a long tradition of building quality nailers, it's no wonder they dialed in the compressor, too.
Kobalt air compressor
When you're looking for an inexpensive air compressor, there are several great brands to choose from. Both Husky and Ridgid are great value for money. Beyond those two brands is Kobalt. Found at Lowe's, they have a wide selection. What sets the Kobalt apart are several of the larger capacity quiet compressors that Husky doesn't offer, while still hitting the 80 gallon model.
best air compressor brand
Roller Air Compressor
When cost is no object and your goal is the highest quality throughout your line, more professionals turn to Rolair than any other brand. The Wisconsin-based manufacturer, which dates back to 1959, puts it quite simply: "Our goal is simple: To produce the best compressors known to man."
In our opinion, they still do.
Air Compressor Buying Guide
The most common air compressors run on gas or electricity. Electric models can be 120V or 240V, depending on their performance level.
Smaller electric compressors are very portable. They can run on generators if direct AC power is not nearby. Larger units, on the other hand, tend to be installed on site and piped to the most convenient location for you to install the hose couplings.
Gas units are often used for jobs requiring large volumes of air delivery when mobility is a priority.
Battery-operated air compressors are becoming increasingly popular with several major power tool brands. These are usually low power options, best suited for nailers and other low power applications.
CFM and PSI
CFM and PSI are key specifications when you are shopping for an air compressor. They tell you the most about the performance you can expect.
CFM (usually measured at 90 PSI) lets you know how much air your unit can handle. You can actually get higher CFM out of the tank, but the pump can't replace it as fast as you can use it. This means you have to "take a break". Some tools, such as finishing nailers, require very little CFM to keep up with the job. Other tools, such as air grinders, require higher CFM values to keep running.
PSI (pounds per square inch) is a measurement of the maximum pressure the pump can put into the tank. The higher the pressure, the greater the volume of air that the air tank can hold. 125 PSI is a good starting point, and 200 PSI gets you into the high end of the range for most common units.
In fact, each tool has its own CFM and PSI requirements. Check the packaging or manual for the tool you're considering, and make sure the air compressor you buy can handle both. To ensure you get the most out of your compressor, we recommend models with a CFM 50% higher than your highest tooling needs.
Fuel tank capacity
Tank capacity is a measure of how much air the compressor can hold. Each tank has a pressure rating and is paired with a pump. The higher the pressure provided by the pump, the greater the total amount of air that the air receiver can hold. After that, the gallon count determines the rest of the equation for how long you can work.
Pro Tip: Drain the air compressor after each use. The incoming air carries moisture which can start rusting the tank from the inside, especially in coastal areas.
Even if you find that your compressor's air receiver is a little low on capacity, you can add an extra air receiver to increase it.
Pro Tip: Each tank has an expiration date. Replace it after that date to ensure the tank does not fail.
Most portable air compressors have one or two couplings. A two-way or three-way splitter can also be added. Be aware that you are sharing the air and your system needs to work harder to keep up.
Air compressors can be noisy! Add a small gas engine and they can get loud enough that you need hearing protection.
One way to reduce noise is to use drive methods. Belt drive compressors are inherently quieter than direct drive operation.
If you often work indoors, take up space, or around noise-sensitive campuses, look for a quiet compressor. These can get down to under 60 decibels (though most are higher), and can operate at levels where you can actually hold a conversation next to you.
Most quiet models are on the lower air delivery side. That means you're less likely to find the right material for sanding or roofing.
Duty cycle is a rating that tells you the percentage of time the compressor can run. For example, 50% load capacity means 30 minutes of downtime for every 30 minutes of operation.
If you're looking for the best model for high-use environments, check out the duty cycle ratings. Look for compressors with 100% duty cycle for demanding jobs. For jobs where you can't keep the compressor on for the entire time (most common), a 50% duty cycle is fine.
Without going into detail about air compressor pumps, there are two basic types: oiled and oilless. Oil-free models are more convenient because you don't have to worry about oil levels and require less maintenance.
Don't be afraid of splash-lubricated compressors, though. They don't need to be supplemented in large quantities, even though you should always keep an eye on levels. In the end, your best bet is a compressor that will meet the requirements of your tool whether it needs lube or not.
Types of Air Compressors
We mentioned a few different types of air compressors above. If you're shopping for your first, here's a breakdown of what we mean:
Pizza Air Compressor
Pancake air compressors come in a round, flat tank style with the motor and pump on top. They are highly portable and stable with a relatively small footprint. These are a favorite of decorative carpenters.
Hot Dog Air Compressor
"Hot Dog" air compressors use a long cylindrical oil tank that houses the motor and pump. Smaller capacity models resemble a pancake design in footprint, while larger capacity models tend to take up more space. Some models may have a wheel system built into the frame.
Dual Stack Air Compressor
Essentially, a dual-stack air compressor has a dual-hotdog style. The two tanks can be placed on the base or stacked together, with the motor and pump moved from the top to the front. The advantage is mainly the extra capacity. Some models will have wheels and handle systems built into the frame.
Wheelbarrow Air Compressor
Take a dual stack air compressor, give it some and you've got a trolley compressor. These usually have two high-capacity fuel tanks in the base, and their power unit has a gas engine (there are also electric models). The single wheel between the tank and the handle makes it easy to carry despite the heavier design.
Vertical air compressor
Vertical air compressors use a single high-capacity oil tank with the motor and pump mounted on top. Smaller models usually have a handle and wheels that you can move around like a cart. Larger models are designed to fit and stay in place.
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