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How to Choose an Air Compressor

Buy an air compressor that has the CFM (cubic feet per minute) capacity to drive the air tools you want to use. Our brief rundown of compressors tells you the capacity you need for various tools.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

How to Choose an Air Compressor

Buy an air compressor that has the CFM (cubic feet per minute) capacity to drive the air tools you want to use. Our brief rundown of compressors tells you the capacity you need for various tools.

Low CFM tools: Less than 2 CFM

If you're shopping for a new air compressor, consider the ways, and how often, you'll put it to use before buying the cheapest one. Everything depends on how much you'll be running it, and what you plan to use it for. Compressors that cost less than $100 are very portable and will do a fine job of running a trim nailer, filling tires or blowing dust off your clothes—but that's about it. You'll have to be patient; they take a long time to get up to pressure and to fill tires. If you do decide on a cheap compressor, consider it a “throw-away” tool and be prepared to replace it when it dies. Virtually any repair will exceed the replacement cost.

Brad nailer

Brad nailer

Blower and inflation tools

Blower and inflation tools

Air Tools That Require Less than 2 CFM

A compressor rated for less than 2 CFM will run these tools.

Moderate CFM tools: At least 4 CFM

If you can afford to spend about $300, you can get a portable compressor that'll power most DIY air tools and last for a couple of decades (see Photo 2). Look for a compressor with a cast iron cylinder, oil lubrication and air output of at least 4 cu. ft. per minute (cfm). You'll have to change the oil on schedule to keep it humming. But the longer life outweighs the hassle. Also be aware that oil-lubricated compressors inject a fine oil mist into the air line. So you'll need to invest in a separate hose and a filter if you're going to use a paint sprayer.

You can find less expensive, oilless compressors ($129 to $199) that will put out 4 cfm, but don't expect them to last as long. And you'll need to wear hearing protection—they're LOUD!

Air Tools That Require at Least 4 CFM

A compressor rated for 4 CFM will run all of the above tools plus lower CFM tools.

High CFM tools: 5.5 CFM or more

If you're a serious motorhead, you'll have to take a larger leap. If you want to run “air-motor” powered tools like impact wrenches and ratchets, you'll have to get serious with a unit that's capable of at least 5.5 cfm with a sizable air tank. Just forget about running air-powered sanders and sandblasters—those guys require almost 9 cfm. Expect to spend $540 plus for a good one. But the only thing that makes them portable is the wheels. They're heavy and bulky.

Impact wrench

Impact wrench

Ratchet wrench

Ratchet wrench

Air Tools That Require at Least 5.5 CFM

A 5.5 CFM compressor will operate these tools as well as those requiring fewer CFM.

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