The Ultimate Guide to Air Compressors

Senior Man Examining Air Compressor In Shop

So you’re thinking about purchasing an air compressor. You want to know if it’s something that you will use more than once. You want to know some tricks that can help you to maximize your investment. Are there other uses for this helpful tool than what you’re planning on using it for that can extend its value? This guide will cover the many uses for an air compressor, maintenance tips, repair options you may have, accessories Q&A, plus some of the creative uses some owners have found for their air compressor.

Are you ready to get started? Here’s the ultimate guide to everything you ever wanted to know about air compressors.

What Types of Air Compressors Are Available?

When you’re looking for an air compressor to use around the house, the most common type you’ll find is single-stage, piston-type air compressors. These also have some limited commercial and industrial applications. If you have a home-based workshop, for example, this type of air compressor is going to meet most of your needs. It typically has a gasoline engine or an electric motor which drives the piston so air is forced into its storage tank. As more air is stored, the pressure goes upward until it reaches a certain point.

You might find a two-stage compressor to be useful as well. This type of air compressor is a little more efficient than its single-stage sibling. The first piston compresses air and then sends it through a check valve to the second piston. This compresses the air a second time, creating a faster recovery during use. Two-stage compressors also typically have a higher PSI than single-stage options.

What is PSI? PSI stands for “Pounds per Square Inch.” It’s a measurement of the volume of air that the air compressor can deliver. Higher PSI levels indicate the air compressor delivers more air volume than a unit with lower PSI levels. 

You’ll find single-stage and two-stage options available in five basic compressor types. 

  • Pancake air compressors. These air compressors have storage tanks that are round and very flat. The motor is mounted on the top of the tank. This design is fairly lightweight and allows for more overall portability than other options are able to provide. Pancake air compressors are also very easy to store with their reduced size and design. We’ve covered the best pancake air compressors in our reviews here.
  • Wheelbarrow air compressors. Most air compressors of this type have dual cylindrical tanks which fill with compressed air. There are some brands which offer single tank options with this design. These air compressors are still portable thanks to a frame with handles and wheels, but offer an equal capacity to units that aren’t as portable. We have a lot of this type of air compressor on in our reviews of the best air compressor.
  • Hot dog air compressors. These are the most common air compressors you’ll find for residential use. They may or may not be in a frame and feature a single horizontal tank.
  • Twin-stack air compressors. This type of air compressor is exactly like the hot dog air compressor, but it has two horizontal tanks incorporated into its design instead of just one.
  • Inflators. This is the smallest type of air compressor that is available right now. They don’t have a storage tank, so the motor must continuously run. They are typically used for inflating tires, camping or sports equipment, and other small items. We have these types of compressor models on our page of the best small air compressors.

The more portable your air compressor happens to be, the more suited it will be for quick and light projects. Light cleaning duties, airbrushing work, or nail and brad guns do well with portable units. If you want to do more serious work, you’ll need to invest more in a full size, heavy duty air compressor.

Please Note: Every air compressor has specific instructions for use, which must be followed. This will allow you to maintain your air compressor properly while maintaining personal safety. 

What Are the Features of an Air Compressor? 

Air compressors will come with a wide variety of features that individualize each model from each brand. Knowing what these features are able to provide will give you an advantage as you’re reading through the best air compressor reviews found on this site. 

Here is a brief overview of the 6 most common features you will find on the air compressors that are available for purchase today. 

  1. Oil-free pumps. This feature reduces a user’s overall maintenance responsibilities. These air compressors will not accidentally mix oil into your compressed air either. When compared to units that do require oil, however, the oil-free air compressors have 10x less of an average lifespan.
  2. Multiple coupling options. With more couplers, you have an ability to handle more tasks in a shorter amount of time. Having just one coupler means you will have to connect and disconnect each tool in order to use it.
  3. Adjustable exhaust venting. Do you really want to work with the exhaust from the air compressor motor blowing in your face? That can even be dangerous if you’re using a gasoline engine. This feature allows you to direct the exhaust away from your work area to avoid fumes for swirling debris.
  4. Thermal protection. When the motor of an air compressor gets too hot, it can burn out the gears, fans, or other mechanisms it contains. Many burnouts aren’t covered by a manufacturer’s warranty because this would be considered user error. Look for an air compressor that has thermal protections in place so if it gets too hot, it will automatically shut off.
  5. Belt-drive systems. Many entry-level air compressors are direct-drive models. If you invest into a belt-drive system, then this feature will create a quieter overall tool. Some belt-drive systems operate as low as 60 decibels.
  6. Combination kits. Some air compressors come with blowing guns, nailers, hoses, and other tools that you’re going to need. Not every air compressor will come with the air hose it needs, so make sure to read the best air compressor reviews carefully and each product description before making a purchase to avoid unpleasant surprises. 

Please Note: If your preferred air compressor does not come with a hose, the one you purchase for it must meet the specifications set forth by your unit’s manufacturer. You must also consider the specifications of the tools and accessories you plan to use with your air compressor.

How Do You Properly Maintain an Air Compressor? 

When it comes to maintenance with your average air compressor, being proactive is worth a lot more than funding a reactionary repair. You can save a ton of cash just by maintaining your air compressor properly. You’ll want to perform these checks every time you operate your unit so you’re not stuck paying for a repair in the future. 

  1. Check your compressor pump oil level. Unless you own an oil-less air compressor, this is your most important maintenance check. Inadequate oil levels will cause damages that are not covered by your warranty. Make sure the air compressor is off and removed from a power source. It should be on a flat, level surface. Remove the fill cap or plug, inspect the crankcase to look for debris, and then double-check the oil level. It should not be more than the halfway point of your sight glass. 
  1. Change your compressor pump oil. This maintenance task is easier to complete when the air compressor is warm. Make sure the unit is turned off and disconnected from a power source. Remove the fill cap or plug and then place a collection container underneath the oil drain. Remove the oil drain cap and allow the oil to drain out. This may take several minutes. Then replace the drain cap and fill the crankcase with an appropriate level of oil. 
  1. Check and/or replace your air filter. If your air compressor is equipped with a filter, you’ll also want to check on it after every use. Most filters can be removed by unscrewing them from their location. Blow out any debris or dust, replace the filter if needed, and then attach it back to the air compressor. Always do this with the air compressor turned off and disconnected from a power source. If the filter is attached to the compressor pump, allow it to cool before starting this maintenance task. 

Please Note: Other daily maintenance tasks involve listening for strange noises or vibrations during use, draining water that may form in the tank, checking for air leaks, and inspecting the belts. 

Some maintenance tasks are able to be completed just once per month. This includes checking the safety relief valve, tightening any bolts that may have vibrated loose, and all couplers/connections for leaks. You may also need to check interior belts on some models. 

Once per year, it is a good idea to have your engine or compressor pump serviced. Think of it as a “tune-up” for your air compressor. 

Troubleshooting Your Air Compressor Q&A 

Q: My air compressor won’t start. What is going on?

A: The most common reason why an air compressor won’t start is a lack of power. Double-check to make sure it is plugged into a power source or the engine is operating. You may have blown a fuse that needs to be reset. If that checks out, then check your oil level. Some brands have manufactured air compressors that won’t start if oil levels are too low. Then check your pressure switch and how much pressure is in your tank. 

Q: My air compressor has always been loud, but now it’s unbearable. What could be the problem?

A: There’s a good chance that you have a loose clamp, bolt, cooler, flywheel, pulley, belt guard, or clamp. When your unit is off and disconnected, check each component and tighten anything that feels loose. You may also have a lack of oil in your crankcase or the piston might be hitting your valve plate. The floor mounting can also loosen and create excessive noise, so check and tighten as necessary. The worst case scenario here is a defective or broken crankcase, which would need a repair or replacement. 

Q: Why did my air compressor begin to make a knocking noise?

A: A loose flywheel is the most common cause of knocking. Just tighten it up and the noise should go away. If it doesn’t or the flywheel is tight, then you’ve either got a rod bearings problem, a wrist pin bearings problem, or a main bearings problem. These bearings will need to be replaced in order for the knocking to stop. It’s a rod bearings problem if the knock only occurs while the compressor is loading. 

Q: Why does the oil in my oil reservoir look like milk?

A: This happens when water has entered the oil reservoir of your air compressor. When the air source that is being compressed is quite humid, this is a normal outcome. Move the air compressor into an atmosphere with less humidity if possible. It can also mean that it is time for an oil change. The oil and filters should be changed every 45 days or every 500 operating hours at minimum. Make sure you’re also draining the water from the tank every day. 

Q: Should my air compressor be burning this much oil with every use?

A: If you notice that your air compressor is burning through a lot of oil, then there’s a good chance that your air intake has been restricted in some way. Check your filter to make sure it isn’t blocked and clean as necessary. You may also have a slight oil leak, which can be fixed with a quick tightening or replacement of the affected gasket. Worn piston rings or a scored cylinder can also cause this problem. If you’ve checked all of these things and oil is still being used abnormally fast, then you may be using the wrong viscosity of oil. If that is correct, check to see that your compressor is flat while being used. 

Q: Is there a reason why my air pressure is low?

A: Belts can slip from time to time. This causes air pressures to lower. Tightening the belts will typically solve the problem. You might also have an air leak in the system somewhere or a blocked air intake. If repairing these issues doesn’t solve the problem, then check to make sure you’re using a hose that meets your air compressor’s specifications. Your accessories might also be using too much air compared to the output of your unit. 

How to Use Your Air Compressor Safely 

An air compressor might seem like a pretty basic tool to use, but it can also be quite dangerous if it is used improperly. Following a few air compressor safety tips will enhance your experience and help your project to be completed quickly and efficiently. Before using your air compressor for the first time, make sure you take some time to read your owner’s manual. Each unit has specific information, which must be followed for safe use. 

Always wear eye protection and hearing protection whenever you operate an air compressor, especially if you are using it in an enclosed area. 

Air compressors should never be used in areas that are wet. Water exposure can cause tanks to rust, damage your accessories, and create shorts in your electrical units. 

Don’t forget about your hoses. All of your hose fittings should be tight. If your fittings are loose, this will change how the air compressor is able to perform. You also increase the risks of damaging the equipment or causing a personal injury when the fittings are loose. Clean out any dirt and debris when discovered immediately. 

Always turn off your compressor and disconnect it from its power source before performing any maintenance chore. This will reduce the risks of a fire occurring, smoke, or other heat-associated problems when refueling the air compressor or adding oil to it. 

Keep any tools or accessories pointed away from your face and body at all times. Keep your finger off of any triggers until you intend to use the air compressor. 

Electrical air compressors should always be plugged into an outlet that has been properly grounded. If the outlet is not properly grounded, then it can damage the circuit or cause a short, which increases the possibility of a fire. Extension cords can result in a loss of power, especially when using longer length cords. Consult your owner’s manual for your brand’s recommendation for your particular model before proceeding. 

Inflating Things with Your Air Compressor 

Once upon a time, there was a family who loved to go camping. The father had a bad back, however, so he would always sleep in the car instead of the tent. One day this family discovered a miracle invention: the inflatable mattress. 

They bought it right away and tried it out that weekend. The only problem was that the inflator for the air mattress was one of those foot-powered units. It took them 45 minutes to fill up the air mattress. Even when taking turns pumping the inflator, the entire family was so exhausted by the experience that they didn’t do anything at all for the remainder of that day. 

One entire day of the weekend holiday went to waste. 

Thankfully technology has evolved since those early days of air mattress inflation. If you can’t afford one of those models that has a built-in motor that automatically inflates and deflates your mattress, you can often compliment a basic air mattress with a small air compressor called an “inflator” for less than $20. 

Inflators are designed to fill up anything that stores air. Bicycle tires, sports equipment, and anything else that stores air can benefit from having an inflator on-hand. 

Not every inflator is designed for large tasks. Filling car tires, for example, may require a different type of air compressor than one designed for an air mattress. It is important to check the ratings on your inflator before you begin to inflate things because you may find yourself burning out your unit. 

Why does that happen? Because inflators don’t have storage tanks like other air compressors. This forces the motor to run continuously. Just like the family in the example above burnt themselves out from using a foot pump over a long period of time, an electric motor can burn out on an inflator. The family can rest and be ready to manually pump once again, but a broken inflator isn’t going to work right ever again. 

Inflating things with your air compressor requires some basic points of care that really are common sense. If the inflator feels warm, then give it a couple minutes to rest and cool down. Don’t try to fill your vehicle’s tires with an inflator unless it is rated to do so. If you are filling up a tire, make sure you have a gauge on-hand to make sure you don’t under- or over-fill the tire. 

Anything that is over-filled, including an air mattress, creates the potential for personal injury. 

The best part about owning an inflator is how portable they are. Many of them run on a 12v power source, which means they can plug into your vehicle’s outlet to operate. Some inflators come on portable “jump packs” which have a lithium-ion or nickel-cadmium power source that is strong enough to jump-start a dead battery in addition to having a strong enough air flow to fill up a tire. 

What type of inflator is right for you? That depends on your personal needs. A basic inflator is good for air mattresses, basketballs, and very light cleaning duties. Tire inflators are generally used for just the task that their name reflects. Multi-use inflators are the best option for those who have multiple portable inflation requirements. Emergency inflators may be able to fill up a spare tire, restore a patched tire, or provide needed air in other critical situations. 

How do you find which brand and model will meet those needs? By taking some time to read the best inflator reviews that can be found on this site. 

Tips and Tricks to Maximizing the Use of Your Air Compressor 

If you’ve found the perfect air compressor to meet your needs, then congratulations! Now you’re ready to begin using it. Here are the ways you can maximize this investment. 

  1. Make sure you follow all of the instructions in your owner’s manual. Whether this is your first or your fifth air compressor, never assume the actions you should take to operate it properly. The instructions given in the owner’s manual are designed to maximize the durability and longevity of your specific air compressor. 
  1. Discharge your air pressure before opening your water drain valve. You’re going to be in for an unpleasant surprise if your system is filled with air pressure when you go to drain the water from your tank. Always discharge the pressure so you don’t receive a pressurized spray of water that is headed for your face. 
  1. You have a leak if your air compressor randomly starts up when not using it. Take the time to locate the leak. If you can find it with a visual inspection, then spray some soapy water over each joint. The place where you see soap bubbles begin to form is where your air leak happens to be. Although leaks can be found almost anywhere, joints, fittings, and threads are your most common leak locations. 
  1. Discharge the air if you don’t plan to use your air compressor regularly. If you plan to use your air compressor a few times per month, then you’re better off discharging all of the air in the unit and keeping it turned off. Only with daily use should you leave your air compressor in an on position. 
  1. Check for leaks immediately. New air compressors don’t need to have a “breaking in” period like other tools and appliances sometimes need. After installing your air compressor and making sure it has proper oil and fuel levels, power it up from its 0 setting to whatever your cut-off pressure settting is. This will allow you to check for leaks immediately. 
  1. Don’t ignore the value of a pressure regulator. If you want to get the most use out of an air compressor, then invest in one that offers compressed air at high pressure. You can still use it for lower air pressure needs with the installation of a pressure regulator. Some brands offer this as an included feature. If your preferred brand does not, you should still be able to install one independently. 
  1. Always wear personal protective equipment. Most folks know the value of eye and hearing protection when it comes to using an air compressor. Depending on how you use your air compressor, you may wish to consider some additional personal protective equipment options. Airbrushing, staining, and painting typically requires clothing protection. Air ratchets, wrenches, and similar tools usually require sturdy work gloves. Nailers may benefit from safety guides to prevent accidental injury. 

An air compressor can be an extremely useful addition to any home or business. By implementing these tips and tricks, you’ll be able to maximize the value of your investment. 

Fun Ways to Use Your New Air Compressor 

Sure. It’s fun to blast compressed air at random things to watch them blow away. With appropriate safety precautions in place, you can even give your hair the windswept look. With a lot of skill, you can create some amazing works of art with painting tools connected to your air compressor. Here are some additional fun ways to use your new air compressor. 

Get Your Auto Repairs Done in a Snap

If you’ve ever fought with your hand tools to fix a problem with your car and the car won, then the value an air compressor can provide is beyond compare. Bolts and screws naturally expand with vehicle use and this can make it virtually impossible to change your breaks, give your car a tune-up, or swap out a used fuel filter for a new one. Instead of struggling for hours to remove a stuck bolt and using who-knows-what lubricants on it, an air compressor can get that bolt safely off in seconds. 

Become a Sandblaster

Why spend hours using sandpaper to refinish a piece of furniture? Old paint, stains, and other decorative items can be quickly removed when you add sandblasting tools to your air compressor. It works on more than just wood as well. Take paint off of your old bicycle, change the color of your car, or take out that problematic mold in your attic with ease. 

Give Rooms an Instant Upgrade

Are the cabinets in your kitchen looking a bit greasy and worn out? Could your fence use a new look? Want to change the wall color in your room? Spray painting is super easy when you’ve got an air compressor to use. Any fine painting projects can be completed quickly and with professional results. It can literally make anything look brand new. 

Find Your Inner Carpenter

Finish carpentry requires precise placement. It can take years to develop that skill by hand. With an air compressor and the right accessories, you can finish crafts, carpentry projects, or build things in just a day. Pneumatic tools are also remarkably lighter than their traditionally powered counterparts, making it a lot easier to work longer hours with a tool to produce better results. 

The fact is that an air compressor is one of the most versatile and flexible tools that you’ll ever have the privilege of owning. You really are only limited by your imagination. Just remember to follow all safety protocols so you don’t wind up with an unexpected and unpleasant surprise. 

In Conclusion 

The best air compressor will provide you with multiple solutions that your projects may need. Inflators can help you enjoy a day on the lake in an inflatable boat, a good night’s rest on an air mattress, or keep your vehicle’s tires at a proper pressure to avoid premature wear. How you care for your air compressor will influence how long it works for you. 

This ultimate guide to air compressors will help you choose the right brand; the right model, and then help you to maximize that investment. Use it as you shop for your new air compressor using our guide to the best air compressor and you will be able to have confidence in the purchase you eventually make.

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