How to Choose an Air Compressor

We sorted through the specs, tried them out and found eight great models

When you’re shopping for an air compressor, the first thing you’ll notice is that they’re plastered with specifications: 2 hp, 3 gallon, 2.8 cfm, 130 psi, 73 dB...

But don’t let all those specs confuse you. We’ll tell you what they mean, what matters and what doesn’t, and help you choose a compressor to suit your needs.

We tried the most widely available compressors on the market—more than 20 models—and selected eight that we thought were the best choices for DIYers. We focused on small to midsize models because they were affordable and portable, as well as powerful enough to handle the most common DIY projects.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

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They're not for 'high-demand' tools

None of the compressors we tested are good partners for air-hungry tools like pneumatic wrenches, sanders or paint sprayers. For those tools, you’ll need a much larger compressor.

CFM is the key

Cfm (cubic feet per minute) tells you how fast the compressor can supply air. And it’s usually the most important number to consider. If a tool uses air faster than the compressor can supply it, you’ll have to stop working and wait for the compressor to catch up. Every manufacturer tests its compressors at 90 psi—an average setting for a nail gun—so you can be confident that you’re comparing apples to apples when you look at cfm numbers. The compressors we tested range from 0.6 to 2.8 cfm.

Tank size matters—sometimes

Psi usually isn’t a factor

Some are four times as loud as others

Portability isn’t just about weight

Enough power for nailers?

Oil-free is the norm

Almost all small compressors are now “oil-less,” which means you never have to worry about checking or changing oil. Oil-less compressors generally wear out faster than oil-lubricated models, but that’s not likely to be an issue with normal DIY use.

Ignore horsepower

To get the best read on the amount of air power a compressor can deliver, look at its cfm, not its horsepower.

Shrouding prevents damage

Other Features to Look For

  • Ball valve drain. Water that condenses in a compressor’s tank leads to rusting and pinhole leaks. To prevent this, manufacturers recommend that you drain the tank regularly. All tanks have drains, but there are two different types. The simplest is a drain cock, which is awkward to use, and you may even need a pliers. We prefer a ball valve drain, which works like a faucet.
  • Cord wrap. Most compressors provide a convenient way to wrap up the power cord for easy carrying.
  • Two outlets. Most compressors have a single outlet for connecting an air hose, but a few have two, which lets you and a buddy work together.
  • Kits and accessories. For extra value, look for compressors that come with a hose or a set of inflation accessories. Some may be bundled with a nail gun and hose under a different model number.

Compressor Roundup

We began with a couple dozen models, then narrowed the field to these eight. Each has at least one trait that makes it worth considering, whether you’re looking for power, weight, low noise or just a good deal on a good compressor.

Need More Power? 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.

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.

Impact wrench
Ratchet wrench