5 Things to Pay Attention to when Picking an Air Compressor

portable air compressors

Claims to be portable…

What tools does a guy need to have his garage feel like a shop?  A table saw for sure, a drill press would add a little flair right?  One of the most overlooked tools though is the air compressor.

Air compressors sometimes are almost sometimes even afterthoughts.  If you really look at them though, and what they can do, they probably should be one of your first purchases if you want to have a decent shop.  I wish I had a much, much larger one but I don’t.

My air compressor is a little industrial Senco with an extra 1.5 gallon receiver (in addition to the compressor receiver.)  I built a wooden cart for them, the compressor on top and the receiver on a shelf below. The cart is on 4 casters so I can take it anywhere it needs to go pretty much.  Except for really slanted roofs I guess lol.

Air compressors can do a bunch of work from simple things like general cleaning to running tools like grinders, nail guns, and paint sprayers.  The cool thing about using air (pneumatics) to power your tools instead of electricity, you don’t have to wait for your NiCad or lithium batteries to charge.

Air compressors usually fill up their receivers or tanks plus the hoses to where you can get lot of work done before it starts and refills.  And the cool thing is, you can keep working during usually (depends on the pressure or flow rate you need.)

In this post, I’d like to point out 5 things that you should know about air compressors and what to look for and pay attention to when shopping, narrowing down your choices, and making the final purchase.  You ready?  With that, let’s get right into it.

What Are You Going to Use it For?

Porter-Cable C2002-WK Oil-Free Air Compressor

A Porter-Cable pancake compressor.

Now this doesn’t count towards the 5 things promised in the title.  Sue me.  But this step is probably most important.  Ask yourself, what will I be using this for?

Are you going to be doing some serious do-it-yourself stuff, or maybe some framing?  You’re going to want to look at the industrial/construction style air compressors.  Are you mainly going to be filling up like soccer balls or pool floaties?  You could probably get away with the smallest of the small compressors.  As long as your friends don’t see it.

If you figure that you’re going to be doing a mix of these things and more, like maybe putting up new baseboard or trim, or painting the exterior of your house, or blowing out your gutters, or filling your heavy duty truck tires, you could get away with getting one that can do it all – not too expensive and not too flimsy or cheap.

Now on to the 5 things you should pay attention to when trying to pick an air compressor:

Oil Checks?

Are you going to have to doing oil checks all the live long day on your compressor?  When comparing models, try and find out what kind of pump she has installed.  Pump type is very important as this determines if you will have to do routine maintenance or not.

There are 2 types of air compressors, oil lubricated or oil free.

Oil lubricated requires oil and routine maintenance as in changing the oile every so many hours.  Oil free means just that, no oil or maintenance.  Oil free air compressors also can be transported or put in uncomfortable positions ((like in the back of a VW) does anyone get that reference?) without danger of spilling the oil.

Senco PC1010 Air Compressor

A portable Senco – super duper light.

No waste oil also means you don’t have to worry about disposal or clean up either.  Shazam.

The Almighty SCFM

What does scfm stand for?  It stands for standard cubic feet per minute and it is the measure of air flow a compressor is capable of producing.  A fan, an air handler, all can put out certain amounts of air which is measured in cubic feet per minute.  Air compressors are the same except that you want to make sure that the compressor you choose puts out enough for what you need.

A great standard is to use or select an air compressor that has an scfm of at least 1.5x the amount needed to operate your pneumatic tools.  If you paint sprayer says it needs 30 scfm, try to have a compressor that can put out 45 scfm.

How Big Is Your Tank?

This is where the compressed air is stored, the bigger the tank…

When you turn on your air compressor or after you have triggered it to refill because you are using a tool, it fills the tank or receiver.  The bigger your tank, the more capacity you’ll have to run and operate tools for longer periods of time.

For example, if you are doing some framing and are going to be running 2 nail guns off of one compressor, you might want to get one with a larger receiver so that the refill happens less often.

Maximum Pressure Output

buying an air compressor

Nameplate data – awful picture I know but here is where you’ll find some data.

Of course this measured in psi or pounds per square inch.  This is the maximum pressure the air compressor can generate inside the tank.

A higher max psi allows for a longer operating time without the motor and pump starting up to build pressure back up.

Some air compressors come with valves and controls that let you adjust the output pressure or flow rate depending upon what you need.  The maximum pressure it can deliver will always be just that, the absolute max that this particular compressor can deliver.  It varies from compressor to compressor so make sure to check it.


The horsepower basically tells you the power of the motor.  This is important because higher hp motors can fill the tank more efficiently which helps in reducing or minimizing tank recovery time.


You want to, or need to, make sure that the air compressor you select meets or preferably exceeds the pneumatic requirements of the tool, tools, or applications you plan on doing.

First, I’d decide what your main uses of the compressor will be, from super light duty to ultra heavy duty.  Then as you look around, make sure that you check and compare the type of pump, oil or oil free, as well as the horsepower, receiver capacity, max pressure, etc.

Also don’t settle for a piece of junk like one of those car ones and don’t go overboard either.  You can really take your garage or shop to the next level though if you play your cards right.  You can run come copper piping all around and install quick connects in spots so that instead of rolling your air compressor around, you can just plug your pneumatic tool in close by.

Hope this was useful for you.  Until next time my friends.  Stay frosty.

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