Nearly every professional contractor uses an air compressor. Of course, it’s not just a construction tool. Automotive, woodworking, aviation, marine, and many others use a compressor to power air tools. When we got our team together to decide on the best air compressor, we sparked a fierce debate concerning brands, styles, prices, and much more.
Now that the physical and relational bruises have healed, we’re ready to share our expert opinions across a wide range of categories.
Best Air Compressor 2021
It’s really hard to nail down the best air compressor for 2021 with so many styles available (and this is where most of our bruises came from). Still, we know you need answers, and we’re willing to put it all on the line for you.
Trying to check off as many boxes as possible, we decided that a portable electric model would be the way to go. We still wanted good capacity and a more than 5 CFM at 90 PSI.
Fitting the bill is the Rolair VT25BIG. It runs on 120V and delivers 6.5 CFM at 90 PSI with a 5.3-gallon tank. It has a splash lubricated design, so you need to keep an eye on your oil levels. We believe that’s a small price to pay for this kind of air delivery in a relatively small, highly portable package.
Best Small Air Compressor
Choosing the best small air compressor can mean a couple of different things. Rather than assume one way or the other, we’re giving you both a typical compressor with a tank and an inflator to choose from.
Best Pancake Air Compressor: Metabo HPT “The Tank” Pancake Compressor EC914SM
Metabo HPT (formerly Hitachi) delivers outstanding performance with their “Tank” model. With 4 CFM at 90 PSI and 200 PSI Max, it outperforms most other pancakes by a mile. Capable of running 2 framing or roofing nailers continuously, it doesn’t come with a crazy-high premium either—$199 takes it home.
With its 6-gallon tank, “The Tank” takes home a couple of accolades. It’s our top choice as the best pancake air compressor and the best 6-gallon air compressor. It also happens to be a 2020 Pro Tool Innovation Award Winner.
Best Inflator: Ridgid 18V Digital Inflator R87044
We’re tool guys, so when we hashed out the best inflator, most of us wanted a cordless option rather than a 12V that connects to your car.
After much debate, we chose Ridgid’s 18V digital inflator for the simple reason that it’s faster filling than the others we’ve tested. Adding to its value, it eliminates the cordless vs 12V debate by including a 12V adapter, giving you the best of both worlds.
Best Quiet 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 hold a conversation next to, but it’s not just the noise level that made it our choice as the best quiet compressor.
It offers better air delivery than most, with up to 2.6 CFM at 90 PSI and a maxing out 135 PSI in its 3-gallon tank. Keeping the noise down by running at 1750 RPM, it still takes just 65 seconds to charge and only requires 8.5 amps to run.
Best Cordless Air Compressor
DeWalt and Milwaukee both make solid cordless compressors that have similar specs. Milwaukee earns the nod from our review team with a system that runs on its popular 18V batteries and is 11 decibels quieter. That’s a significant noise difference considering our Pros see cordless compressors as a primarily indoor air source. It’s $349 bare and $598 with a 12.0Ah battery and is a 2020 Pro Tool Innovation Award winner.
DeWalt makes its case with a little higher tank capacity (2 gallons compared to 2 1/2) and a $299 price tag that includes a battery and charger. DeWalt’s lower price is certainly enough to grab some attention.
- Also Consider: DeWalt 60V Max 2.5 Gallon Air Compressor Kit
Best Wheelbarrow Air Compressor
Makita really nailed the design of their 5.5HP Big Bore air compressor. Powered by a Honda GX160 engine paired with a V-twin pump design, it’s oozing long-term reliability. With a pair of 5-gallon tanks, it delivers a monster 12.5 CFM at 90 PSI and we really like the control deck layout. From start to finish, we think Makita has the all-around best wheelbarrow air compressor available.
Best Shop Air Compressor
Rolair 5HP Light Industrial Air Compressor V5160PTO3X
Things got heated when we started talking about the best shop compressor. One thing is clear: Ingersoll-Rand, Jet, and Rolair dominate the shop compressor space in the opinion of our review team.
We decided on to base our choice on the best single stage 60-gallon air compressor each brand offers. We realize there are a lot more choices than just this design we narrowed it down to, but we had to make a decision and this seemed like the best all around.
Ingersoll-Rand and Rolair both offer 100% duty cycle operation with their 5HP models. What kicked it over in favor of Rolair is that we get 21.1 CFM at 100 PSI compared to IR’s 18.1 CFM at 90 PSI.
If you’re working on a tighter budget, Ingersoll Rand’s SS5L5 is $250 less than Rolair’s comparable V5160PTO3X.
- Also Consider: Ingersoll-Rand 5HP Single Stage Electric Air Compressor SS5L5
Best Air Compressor for the Money
Metabo HPT Air Compressors
When it comes to name brand, professional-grade models, we turn to Metabo HPT to get the best air compressor for the money. While they’re not the cheapest, they consistently pack better performance than their competition for the dollar. With a long heritage of building quality nailers, it’s no wonder they have compressors dialed in as well.
Kobalt Air Compressors
There are several great brands to choose from when you’re looking for an inexpensive air compressor. Husky and Ridgid both offer a lot of bang for your buck. Topping out both brands is Kobalt. Found at Lowe’s, they have a wide selection. What sets Kobalt apart are a couple of larger-capacity quiet compressors that Husky doesn’t offer while still reaching up to 80-gallon models.
Best Air Compressor Brand
Rolair Air Compressors
When cost is no object and you’re targeting the highest quality across an entire line, more of our Pros turn to Rolair than any other brand. With a history dating back to 1959, the Wisconsin-based manufacturer says it quite simply, “Our goal was simple: Produce the finest compressors known to mankind.”
In our opinion, they did, and they still do.
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Air Compressor Buying Guide
The most common air compressors run on either gas or electric power. Electric models can be either 120V or 240V, depending on the level of performance they have.
Smaller electric compressors are highly portable and can run on a generator if you don’t have a direct AC power supply nearby. On the other hand, larger units tend to be installed in place and piped to the most convenient locations where you install connectors for your hoses.
Gas units are usually reserved for jobs that require high air delivery when mobility is a priority.
Battery-powered air compressors are becoming more popular with several major power tool brands making them. These are typically lower power options that are best for finish nailers and other low-supply applications.
CFM and PSI
When you’re shopping for an air compressor, CFM and PSI are the key specs that tell you the most about performance.
CFM (often measured at 90 PSI) lets you know know the volume of air the unit can sustain. You can actually get higher CFM out of the tanks, but the pump won’t be able to replace it as fast as you’re using it and you’ll have to take some breaks. Some tools, such as finish nailers, require very little CFM to keep up with the pace of the work. Other tools, like air sanders, need much higher CFM values to keep running.
PSI (pounds per square inch) is a measurement of the maximum pressure the pump can put in the tank. The higher the pressure, the greater the amount of air the tank can hold. 125 PSI is a good starting point and 200 PSI gets you into the high end of the spectrum for the most common units.
The reality is that every tool has its own CFM and PSI requirements. Check the package or the manual for the tool you’re considering and make sure the air compressor you’re buying can handle both. To make sure you get the most from your compressor, we recommend going with a model that gives you 50% higher CFM than your highest tool’s needs.
Tank capacity is a measure of the amount of air volume your compressor can hold. Each tank has a pressure rating and pairs with a pump. The higher the pressure the pump delivers, the greater the total amount of air the tanks hold, though they constrain to a specific number of gallons until you release it into the tool.
Pro Tip: Drain your air compressor after every use. The air that comes in carried moisture with it and can start to rust the tank from the inside, especially around coastal areas.
Pro Tip: Every tank has an expiration date. Replace it once you reach that date to ensure the tank doesn’t fail.
Even if you find your compressor’s tank capacity is a little low, you can add an additional reserve tank to increase it.
Most portable air compressors have one or two couplings on board. It’s possible to add a two or three-way splitter, just be aware that you’re sharing the air and your system is going to have to work harder to keep up.
Air compressors can be noisy! Add in a small gas engine and they get loud enough that you’ll want hearing protection.
One way to reduce noise is with the drive style. Belt drive compressors run quieter than direct drive by nature.
If you frequently work indoors, in occupied spaces, or around noise-sensitive campuses, look for a quiet compressor. These can drop down below 60 decibels (though most are more) and operate at a level you can actually hold a conversation next to.
Most quiet models are on the lower air delivery side, so you’re unlikely to find one that’s good for sanding or roofing.
Duty cycle is a rating that tells you the percentage of time your compressor can run. For example, a 50% duty capacity tells you it needs 30 minutes of downtime for every 30 minutes of running.
If you’re looking for the best model in a high-use environment, check the duty cycle rating. Look for a compressor with a 100% duty cycle for high-demand work. For work that doesn’t keep a compressor working to keep up the entire time (most common), a 50% duty cycle is just fine.
Without going into a ton of detail about air compressor pumps, there are two basic types: oiled and oil-free. Oil-free models are much more convenient since 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 require a ton of refilling even though you should keep an eye on the levels frequently. In the end, your best bet is the compressor that meets your tools’ requirements whether it needs oil or not.
Types of Air Compressors
We mention several different types of air compressors above. If you’re shopping for your first one, here’s a breakdown of what we mean:
- Pancake air compressor: uses a round, flatter tank style with the motor and pump on top. They’re highly portable and stable with a relatively small footprint. These are a favorite among trim carpenters.
- Hot dog air compressor: uses a single, longer cylinder-shaped tank with the motor and pump up top. Smaller capacity models are similar in footprint to pancake designs while larger capacities tend to take up more room. Some models may have a wheel system built into the frame.
- Twin stack air compressor: essentially, it’s a double hot dog style. The two tanks can be on the base or stacked on top of one another with the motor and pump shifting from the top to the front side. The advantage is primarily additional capacity. Some models will have a wheel and handle system built into the frame.
- Wheelbarrow air compressor: a twin stack on steroids, wheelbarrow compressors usually feature two high-capacity tanks on the base with a gas engine for its power plant (there are also electric models). A single wheel between the tanks and handles on the opposite side make it portable despite its much heavier design.
- Vertical air compressor: uses a single high-capacity tank with the motor and pump mounted on top. Smaller models usually have a handle and wheels that you can move around similar to a hand truck. Larger models are designed to be installed and stay in place.
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