Talking about air compressors can get complicated. It’s time we made them simple.
When you think about it, air compressors are everywhere—from your garage to your dentist’s office to large industrial buildings. That’s because they are reliable and make a tough job easier.
Every year we find more ways to use a compressor, and from the moment you put it to work you’ll save more time, more energy, and even more money.
This guide shows you everything you need to know to buy with confidence, so you can get the job done right and quickly get back to what matters most to you.
Air compressors of the past used belts, wheels, and other overly-complicated mechanical contraptions to compress air. We’ve come a long way since then.
Today, air compressors are machines that utilize a powerful electric motor and a pump to pressurize air. There are 3 main types of air compressors: reciprocating piston, rotary-screw, and scroll air compressors. Each type compresses air to be used immediately or stored in a tank to later be released systematically through a hose by using specially-made pneumatic (air) tools.
Air compressors are incredibly versatile and have become invaluable for homeowners, hobbyists, contractors, business owners, and entire commercial industries alike. People are discovering the wide-array of pneumatic tools available and are using them more than ever for woodworking, crafts, metalwork, auto repair, construction, manufacturing, and much more.
Once the maximum amount of air pressure is reached, the “duty cycle” is complete, and the compressor turns off until air pressure drops below a set threshold, thus beginning the next cycle. If you’ve heard about “short cycling,” this occurs when the demands of the compressor exceed its capability, causing it to constantly turn on and refill—straining the equipment while also forcing you to stop working until it refills.
As volume decreases, pressure increases. When air is forced into an enclosed space it is called positive displacement, and this is the most common type of air compression.
Most positive displacement-type air compressors today use reciprocating pistons to compress the air. Single-stage air compressors compress the air in a single “stroke,” and two-stage compressors repeat the process twice, doubling the pressure capacity, which is measured in pounds-per-square-inch (PSI).
The overall air volume a compressor can generate is measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM), and this is often the most important factor in choosing the right one to power all your tools.
Rotary screw technology was introduced for heavy-duty applications that require high power during extended periods; the auto-industry thrives on them! As air enters the sealed chamber, it is squeezed between two (helically-opposed) male and female rotating screws. As the screws inter-mesh, they reduce the volume of trapped air and deliver it compressed, at the proper pressure level.
Unlike reciprocating piston compressors, rotary screw compressor rotors don’t touch and have fewer moving parts, and because they are oil-sealed, require much less maintenance over time.
Scroll compressors are unique as well and are ideal for the pharmaceutical and dental industries because of their 100% oil-free and quiet operation. They use two spiral-shaped scroll pieces to compress air. One scroll is stationary, meaning it's fixed in place and doesn't move, and the other fits inside the stationary scroll and is moved in a tight circular motion without rotating.
Air compressors would be virtually useless without the tools and machines they power. But, with so many types to choose, it can all be overwhelming. Read below to learn about what types of air compressors will suit your needs the best.
For homeowners, owning a small compressor means never having a flat car or bike tire again, and it can easily accompany you on the family camping trip for extra peace of mind. The right compressor makes it possible to power your nail gun or other pneumatic tools, spray paint, brew beer, and save you hundreds of dollars on basic repairs or maintenance to finish projects around the house with ease.
All you need is some practical knowledge of how your compressor and tools work and suddenly your mundane chores can become effortlessly easier and maybe even a little fun, too.
If you are a seasoned Do-It-Yourself enthusiast, you should consider a larger single-stage air compressor, or even upgrading to mid-grade models that your contractor would use. Larger tanks and more power mean more capability when it comes to woodworking or building a deck, re-siding the house, framing a garage, or for doing other advanced home-improvement projects on your own.
For contractors and commercial business owners, the right air compressor can power your garage workshop, an entire job site, or even a tire repair/auto body shop. These air compressors make building a deck, painting a fence, or changing hundreds of tires a breeze.
Contractor-grade air compressors are built to withstand the rigors of the job-site. With building professionals in mind, these units are designed to be durable and portable. They can be carried by hand, on a wheeled cart, or be attached to a vehicle to always be where you need them.
For small businesses, you should be asking how long you need to run the compressor and how much air volume do you consistently need to produce to get the job done? Do you have an adequate and consistent power supply, and how clean does your air need to be? You won’t have the same setup in a dentist’s office as you would in a tire shop.
These mid-grade compressors pack much more power than entry-level models and are designed for consistently large air demands. If you constantly need to power multiple air tools at high air volume, you need a properly outfitted professional-grade air compressor.
Manufacturers and entire industries are becoming more heavily reliant on air compressors to keep up with the constantly changing economy and drive success by keeping production moving and efficiency at a maximum.
If you’re looking for an industrial air compressor for your facility, the list of requirements for picking one that is suitable is extensively longer than the needs of regular consumers. These compressors are the most powerful in the market, and with serious power comes a serious price tag—so being readily-informed of all critical information will ensure your purchasing decision makes sense for you and your company.
Decisions on the environment, location, pump lubrication, CFM ratings, 1 or 3-phase power requirements, virtual air treatments, air dryers, line filters, regulators, and more are essential to properly size an industrial compressor. Every stone must be turned for these types of compressors.
When sizing an industrial grade air compressor, it’s also important to consider business growth. Your air demands today could double in five years, and you should ensure the compressor(s) you purchase can adjust for that growth. Just remember that dramatically oversizing a compressor can cost you in wasted electricity, too.
The options for commercially-operated air compressors are extensive and even include custom builds for unconventional applications. To keep things simple, we’ve broken out these factors in a guide specifically geared toward commercial/industrial applications.
We know choosing the right air compressor can be tough. But now that you know more about the grades and types of compressors available, we’ve created a few more resources to help further guide you in your journey to finding the perfect air compressor for your unique needs.
Below you’ll find more important information that should be considered before making a final decision.
Under-sizing your compressor will force it to work much harder and use more electricity, leading to a faster burn out by overclocking it constantly. Over-cycling will cause your compressor to overheat, or you’ll have complaints that the air tools aren’t working properly.
Similarly, oversizing a compressor has unique problems as well, such as wasted electricity, so it’s important to speak with a professional before making a final decision.
To narrow your search quickly, ask yourself three simple questions:
The fastest way to narrow your search is to clearly identify what you’ll be using the compressor for.
What tools do you need to power and how much CFM do you need for each tool? How often will you use the compressor, and how consistently does it need to run? If you need a compressor for personal use in your home or garage, then Industrial/commercial air compressors won’t apply. Similarly, if you are a contractor, we have air compressor models tailored for the work you do on the job site.
Commercial applications require industrial-grade machinery, and your search will be limited to state-of-the-art models that meet those needs.
Will this compressor be used in your home? Garage? A large facility? Is portability important to you? Don’t rely on long air hoses alone if you need to move the compressor around while you work.
Keep in mind that there are hand-carry, wheeled, and wheelbarrow-mounted compressors made to move where you do. These compressors sacrifice some performance for portability and will operate less powerfully than a stationary unit.
Wall-mounted or truck-mounted compressors have different requirements for operating under certain conditions, and special compressors are designed for uses like these.
Commercial environments will require additional considerations for air filtration, installation locations, and more. Will the air compressor be used in dirty dusty conditions? Is there sufficient air flow for the compressor to breathe and cool down? See “Air Treatment Considerations” below.
What types of tools do you need to power? How many do you need to control at once? You will also need properly gauged extension cords to ensure safety during operation. Determining a PSI and CFM rating will help narrow your search to decide between single and two-stage compressors.
Checking the specifications on the air tools you want to use will help determine this. If you plan on using multiple air tools at the same time, you must add the air volume (CFM) ratings of all tools to determine the total CFM rating for your compressor.
For commercial-grade compressors, you’ll need to determine if you are using single phase or 3-phase power. In these applications, you’ll additionally need to know how much air volume you consistently need to produce to operate your equipment and tools. See “Air Treatment Considerations” below.
Air quality and treatment is paramount to protecting and ensuring the long life of your compressor. Not properly outfitting your compressor is like never brushing your teeth; over time the damage adds up until you’re faced with very expensive fixes (or replacements).
Using pneumatic tools with a constant barrage of unfiltered air will damage your tools and the compressor’s internal components over time.
Additionally, industrial/commercial-grade compressors need to meet mandated specifications for air purity to protect the business, workers, consumers, and longevity of the compressor.
See every component in an air treatment system in action:
Air-line filters prevent water, oil, and dirt from damaging your pneumatic tools and your compressor by filtering out impurities and contaminants in the air.
The medical, food and beverage, and dental industries rely on clean, dry air to ensure the safety of all people when manufacturing food and drinks and performing dental work or surgery.
To understand everything you need to know about air filtration for air compressors, read our guides to air compressor filters.
Think about how air conditioning works in your HVAC system. When air is compressed quickly, moisture is created. Air dryers prevent moisture from building up inside your compressor and air tools, preventing rust and other dangerous situations from occurring over time.
Air dryers come in a few different types based on the necessary applications. Check out the guide below to understand the differences and uses between desiccant, refrigerated, and membrane air dryers.
Air tools revolutionized the way people and business work. For the first time, they allowed more work to be done much faster at a fraction of traditional costs. Air tools are incredibly versatile and can do almost any job better than traditional hand tools.
Unlike battery operated tools, air tools don’t require internal motors or external power to work, but still deliver optimal power and performance.
Filling a garage-workshop with a pneumatic impact wrench, spray gun, nailer, stapler, ratchet wrench or sand blaster will allow you to complete nearly any task at home using one power source (air compressor) and without breaking the bank. If you invest in air-line filters, these tools will also be virtually maintenance-free.
Air compressors that air used properly and are regularly maintained will last much longer than those that are left on their own. We offer many kits for installing and maintaining air compressors, as well as accessories that improve the performance of your air compressor system. These include lubricators, regulators, additional air tanks, pumps, air hoses, extension cords, oil, and even gauges and replacement parts.
If quiet operation is an important factor for you, there are compressors that cater to those needs as well. There are some solutions like compressors built with rubber components or sound dampening materials, but if you need a stationary compressor and it makes a lot of noise, some manufacturers like California Air Tools offer enclosures for the compressor to dampen the sound even further.
With technology advancing, we now have quiet oil-free compressors and oil-free rotary screw compressors that are exceptionally low-noise due to their enclosures and can run all day without slowing down—making them ideal for industries that require around-the-clock operations.
It’s also important for businesses to consider their employees that will be working near the compressor, where communication and proper hearing protection is important (like an auto body shop).
If you’re buying a portable consumer-grade air compressor, you need not worry about much else other than having a reliable, properly sized power source and properly gauged cord to plug into the source.
If you are considering a stationary compressor for home or small business use, you will need to seek the help of a certified installer who is familiar with state and local codes and can ensure that the proper protections are in place and they are up to power and application requirements.
In the industrial/commercial world, certified installers and electricians are required for the installation process. Phase power and electricity must be verified and checked, as well as the installation location to prevent air contamination or overheating issues with your system in your unique environment.
Air compressors at all levels of use can improve productivity every day they’re used. Although finding the right one may be daunting at first, you now have the knowledge and tools you need to make an educated decision on which compressor might be right for you.
Now that you know the types of compressors that exist, applications/industries that suit them best, and the considerations you need to properly size the right one for you, it should be easier to discover the compressor you actually need and not guess at the one you think could work.
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