Pneumatic tools that run by a portable air compressor can be a huge help and time-saver on a range of projects and at the construction site. Nail guns, for instance, drive fasteners with the pull of a trigger rather than pounds of a hammer. Impact wrenches can apply tons of torque and twisting power in seconds. Filling a truck tire will go from a nearly impossible task to a cinch with a tire inflator. All of these tools use the pressure and volume created by an air compressor.
A portable air compressor squeezes air into a metal tank, which it then releases through a hose in order to power a tool. Portable air compressors must be fairly lightweight and compact so one person can pick them up, wheel them around, or lift them into the bed of a truck with ease. To create a small footprint (typically between about 25 and 70 pounds), manufacturers keep tanks small and use lighter-duty motors. While this is great for portability, it often comes at the sacrifice of volume and serviceability.
The best portable air compressors are small, handy machines that help make short work of a to-do list, improving accuracy, workflow, and efficiency. Read on to learn what to look for in a portable air compressor and why the following models are among the best in their respective categories.
- BEST OVERALL: Makita MAC2400 2.5 HP Big Bore Air Compressor
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: BOSTITCH Air Compressor Kit, Oil-Free
- BEST COMPACT: Metabo HPT Air Compressor, Ultra-Quiet 59 dB
- BEST LARGE CAPACITY: WEN 2202T 15-Amp 20-Gallon Portable Air Compressor
- BEST WITH WHEELS: California Air Tools 8010 Steel Tank Air Compressor
- BEST GAS-POWERED: Metabo HPT 8-Gallon Portable Air Compressor
- BEST FOR THE CAR: Makita MP100DZ 12V max CXT Cordless Inflator
Before You Buy a Portable Air Compressor
Portable air compressors can be a tremendous help and open DIYers up to a whole range of tools for specific DIY situations. When working in a shop scenario, air compressor shoppers might be better off purchasing a larger air compressor to generate greater volume. Larger models tend to be simpler to service due to their larger, more robust parts that are easier to access and may add to their lifespan.
Types of Portable Air Compressors
Before purchasing a portable air compressor, consider the power source. Portable air compressors run on either electricity or gasoline. Each power source has its own pros and cons, explained below.
Electricity is the more popular power source for portable air compressors. These machines plug into standard outlets and use an electric motor to pressurize the tank. They’re usually reasonably lightweight, and electric motors require very little maintenance over the course of their lifetime.
Electric portable air compressors are a solid choice for home workshops and renovation projects, as there is generally an electrical outlet nearby to plug into. They don’t create exhaust, so they’re suitable for indoor use without worrying about carbon monoxide poisoning.
But electric compressors do have a few shortcomings. They usually aren’t serviceable, as the cost of replacing the motor, pump, and the necessary seals will often cost as much as buying a new compressor. Also, they’re not useful on construction projects that haven’t reached the electric phase, unless the site has a heavy-duty generator to supply enough power.
Gas-powered portable air compressors use internal combustion engines to pressurize their air tanks. Much of their quality depends on the manufacturer of the gasoline engine, the best known manufacturers being Honda, Briggs & Stratton, Kohler, Generac, Subaru, and Kawasaki.
Gas-powered compressors can operate virtually anywhere, as long as there’s fuel in the tank. However, they tend to be a bit heavier than electric model compressors so they’re somewhat less portable. They also require more maintenance, as they’ll need winterizing, an occasional oil check, and fuel filter and spark plug replacements from time to time.
While gas-powered portable air compressors are fine to use on outdoor construction sites and other places without power, they cannot be run inside a closed space, as these engines produce exhaust and can run the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Portable Air Compressor
After considering how to choose the best power source to suit the project at hand, bone up on such important considerations as power, maximum pressure, and tank volume. Understanding these aspects will help narrow down the options to find the best portable air compressor for the job.
Air compressor motors are measured in horsepower ratings, and the machine’s power has a lot to do with its capability. While most air compressors have enough power for general needs, the more powerful the compressor, the faster it will fill its tank with air.
Horsepower can also affect how much maximum pressure a compressor can produce. Small electric motors should have at least 1/2 horsepower, while gasoline-powered options can benefit from as much as 5-horsepower engines.
Again, it’s important to consider the power source. For working primarily on renovation projects, an electric air compressor usually suffices. When taking tools on the road to remote locations, it might be worth considering a gas-powered compressor.
Portable air compressors have varying maximum pressures, which are measured in pounds per square inch (psi). Some might pressurize to 120 psi, while others can produce up to 150 or even as high as 180 psi.
Maximum pressure is important to keep in mind because some tools require more pressure to work properly. For instance, most impact wrenches won’t operate until they reach 60 psi or so. Some nail guns may also require a bit more pressure. While a nail gun may have a working range of 90 to 120 psi, driving long nails into extremely wet or dense wood might require the maximum pressure. That said, as a general rule, most compressors with more than 120 psi will typically be fine for projects around the house or workshop.
The volume of a compressor tank determines how much compressed air the machine can hold. It also determines how often the compressor will run, how long it will run, and what the compressor can do.
Nail guns work with short bursts of air and so require very little volume—4- or 5-gallon tanks are usually enough for DIY projects. Conversely, impact wrenches, cutoff wheels, and pneumatic reciprocating saws use much more air, as users hold their triggers down and let them run to do their job. For this reason, they require much larger tanks, or they will have to cycle on and off more often to maintain the tank pressure. In this case, 20-gallon tanks and larger are most helpful.
Of all of the metrics manufacturers provide with their air compressors, airflow may be the most important. Described as CFM (cubic feet per minute), this metric explains how much air the operating compressor can put out each minute while still maintaining pressure.
Essentially, a compressor needs to be able to run and maintain pressure for as long as a tool is in use. If a tool drains the pressure out of the tank, work will have to stop and wait for the tank to rebuild enough pressure to operate the tool.
While the proper CFM rating will depend on the tools the DIYer will use, most of the CFM measurements provided are at 90 psi. Look for compressors that can maintain at least 2.0 CFM at 90 psi.
To be considered portable, an air compressor must be lightweight enough to lift into the back of a truck or onto a shelf or be wheeled about with ease.
Look for an air compressor that is easy to lift (relative to the user’s strength). Generally speaking, pancake compressors—models that use round air tanks with motors atop—weigh about 30 pounds, making them a great choice for portability’s sake. Some double-tank compressors can offer more volume but weigh more than 70 pounds.
Those DIYers looking for a high-volume compressor but still want portability may want to check into a wheeled option. They come in both vertical and horizontal configurations and feature handles for wheeling them around.
Some additional features can help air compressors maintain durability or improve usefulness.
Built-in roll cages are steel or aluminum frames that protect the compressor. They’re especially helpful in scenarios where a portable compressor could fall from a truck tailgate.
Oil-cooled air compressors use oil to lubricate the compressor pump. This helps them stay cool, extending their lifespan. These models may include low-oil sensors that shut the machine down if there isn’t enough oil, which helps prevent the machine from running dry and overheating—two situations that could kill a compressor before its time.
Other additional features include easily operated petcock drain valves that allow for draining a compressor’s water buildup easily, quick-connect adapters, and thermal overload protection.
Occasionally, an air compressor might come with an accessory kit. This kit can be a great start for DIYers who don’t already have a myriad of air tools and fittings in their shop. These kits often come with tire inflators, quick-connect fittings, and blow-off chucks.
It’s sometimes possible to get a kit with a length of air hose or a set of nail guns. There are sets on the market that include the tools and fittings necessary to get up and running, significantly decreasing the amount of shopping one would have to do otherwise.
If an air compressor doesn’t come with a set of accessories, DIYers can purchase a separate accessory pack that includes the basic tools necessary to set up the air compressor (available here).
Our Top Picks
With the types and shopping considerations outlined in mind, it’s time to start shopping for the best portable air compressor. To help streamline the shopping process, refer to this list, which details some of the best portable air compressors on the market. Just be sure to keep the top considerations in mind when comparing these models.
Makita’s MAC2400 features a twin-stacked tank design with 4.2 gallons of air volume. The motor has 2.5 horsepower and produces pressures up to 130 psi and 4.2 CFM at 90 psi. It has dual hose ports for running two tools at a time as well. The built-in roll cage provides insurance that an accidental drop or fall from a low height won’t take this compressor out of commission.
The MAC2400 isn’t oil-free, so users have to keep an eye on the oil level during use. The benefit, though, is a long-lasting compressor that runs at cooler temperatures.
- Power source: Electric
- Tank size: 4.2 gallons
- Maximum pressure: 130 psi
- Dual hose ports for running two tools at a time
- Built-in roll cage to prevent damage during transport
- Runs at cooler temps for improved longevity
- Will require keeping an eye on the oil level
Get the Makita air compressor on Amazon or at The Home Depot.
The BOSTITCH air compressor kit is worth a look for any budget-minded DIYer. This 6-gallon pancake-style air compressor has a maximum pressure of 150 psi that provides 2.6 CFM at 90 psi. It has just under 1 horsepower, which should be enough for most renovation or building projects around the house (though it might be undersized for large construction sites).
A 10-piece accessory pack includes a tire inflator chuck, blow-off gun, and inflation fittings for sports equipment. It also comes with a 50-foot rubber-and-PVC-blended hose. It weighs 29 pounds and features two hose ports to support two air tools at the same time.
This BOSTITCH machine creates only 80 decibels (dB), making it relatively quiet compared to a noisier gas-powered option. It’s oil-free and maintenance-free, which means users can fire it up when they need it and forget about it when they don’t.
- Power source: Electric
- Tank size: 6 gallons
- Maximum pressure: 150 psi
- Affordable price point for a startup kit
- Runs at just 80 decibels
- Dual hose ports for using multiple tools
- Might be slightly undersized for a large job site
Get the BOSTITCH air compressor kit on Amazon.
If a DIYer is looking for a compact air compressor with some helpful features, this one from Metabo HPT might be the place to start. This compressor has a 1-gallon tank and a 1/2-horsepower electric motor that creates only 59 dB of sound. The Metabo HPT has a maximum pressure of 125 psi and produces up to 0.8 CFM at 90 psi.
The built-in roll cage protects it from falls or drops while also providing a rubber-padded handle for easy carry. It has one hose port, rubber feet for vibration dampening, and weighs in at 25.2 pounds. It will take up just over 1 square foot of space in a shop, plus it’s an oil-free, no-maintenance compressor. Do keep in mind that this model might be too small for air-hungry tools.
- Power source: Electric
- Tank size: 1 gallon
- Maximum pressure: 125 psi
- Very quiet at just 59 decibels
- Lightweight design; weighs about 25 pounds
- Built-in roll cage to prevent damage
- Likely too small for sanders, grinders, or impact guns
Get the Metabo HPT air compressor on Amazon, at Acme Tools, or at Lowe’s.
For DIYers who do a good deal of automotive work, a compressor with enough volume to operate tools like impact wrenches and cutoff wheels is an absolute necessity. The 20-gallon 2202T from WEN might fill the bill, with its 135-psi maximum pressure, 3.8-CFM rating at 90 psi, and large tank. This oil-lubricated compressor has a 1.5-horsepower motor with an automatic pressure sensor to maintain pressure and shut off when it reaches the pressure.
The 2202T has a single hose port with a quick-connect fitting for a ¼-inch hose, but with its volume, swapping it over to dual ports shouldn’t be an issue. It weighs more than 80 pounds but is portable via sturdy wheels as well as a built-in handle, so it can roll around a shop or job site.
- Power source: Electric
- Tank size: 20 gallons
- Maximum pressure: 135 psi
- Large 20-gallon tank for plenty of volume
- 135-psi top pressure will run almost all automotive tools
- 1.5-horsepower motor can keep up with most shop demands
- Scooting the 80 pounds around a shop might be challenging
Get the WEN air compressor on Amazon or at The Home Depot.
The California Air Tools 8010 is an 8-gallon horizontal compressor that can easily go where the work is based. It has two rubber wheels and a handle. Plus, at 48 pounds it’s still potentially light enough for one person to lift into a truck bed or carry up a set of stairs, though it doesn’t have a roll cage for drop protection.
This air compressor has a 1-horsepower motor that creates just 60 dB of noise, so using it inside a home or workshop with the doors closed shouldn’t be unbearable. It produces a maximum pressure of 120 psi and 2.2 CFM at 90 psi. California Air Tools designed the 8010 with a dual-piston pump system as well, to help improve longevity and performance.
- Power source: Electric
- Tank size: 8 gallons
- Maximum pressure: 120 psi
- Large tank but still relatively light at 48 pounds
- Powerful 1-horsepower motor
- Dual-piston design improves longevity and performance
Get the California Air Tools air compressor on Amazon and at Tractor Supply.
If a pro or DIYer needs to take a compressor off the grid, the Metabo HPT Air Compressor is a worthy contender. This 8-gallon, gas-powered model features a 5.5-horsepower Honda engine that boosts the compressor up to a max pressure of 145 psi and 9.5 CFM at 90 psi—high for a portable model. There is a locking regulator to ensure that this compressor is running efficiently to deliver what everyone on the project needs.
This compressor has two cushioned handles to make rolling it around on the large rubber wheel a bit more comfortable. Also, it features dual hose ports for running a few tools at a time. While it might be a bit heavy for one person to lift into a truck (158 pounds), its potential output might outweigh its heft.
- Power source: Gasoline
- Tank size: 8 gallons
- Maximum pressure: 145 psi
- Powerful, reliable Honda motor
- Doesn’t require electricity
- Large wheel and handles for rolling about
Get the Metabo HPT 8-gallon air compressor at Lowe’s.
When it comes to keeping a compressor in the car, compact is the name of the game. The Makita MP100DZ cordless inflator is just that: a battery-operated model that doesn’t take up a lot of space. It can pump up to 120 psi of pressure into a car, bike, or lawn tractor tire. It’s powerful but lightweight, so there’s no need to lug a large, unwieldy compressor to the tire.
While the MP100DZ isn’t exactly a compressor (it doesn’t have a tank), it’s more than capable of filling vehicle tires. The high-visibility pressure gauge shows exactly how much air pressure is in the tire. By presetting the MP100DZ, it turns off automatically when the tire reaches the desired psi. Keep in mind that it does require a charged battery.
- Power source: 12-volt cordless battery
- Tank size: No tank
- Maximum pressure: 120 psi
- Cordless for ultimate portability
- Easy to set to the desired pressure
- Automatic shutoff
- Requires a charged battery
Get the Makita cordless inflator on Amazon, at Acme Tools, or at Ace Hardware.
For DIYers searching for a durable and powerful portable air compressor, Makita MAC2400 2.5 HP Big Bore Air Compressor’s cooler-running design and built-in roll cage makes it a solid choice. However, for those looking to save a bit of money and make the most of a purchase, the 10-piece kit that comes with the BOSTITCH Air Compressor Kit, Oil-Free, is certainly appealing.
How We Chose the Best Portable Air Compressors
Because we are experienced builders and DIYers, portable air compressors are sort of our bread and butter. And putting this guide together relied heavily on our experience, allowing us to choose the features we felt mattered the most for these tools. It also took extensive product research to make this list happen.
First, we collected the portable air compressor options available from all of our favorite brands. Then, we split them by size and power source. Next, we compared the features and power to make sure that these models could do the trick. Finally, we compared price versus value so fellow builders and DIYers would know exactly what they were getting for the price. The result is our list of the best portable air compressors.
If a portable air compressor seems like it might be a big help for certain projects, but you still want more info, consider the answers to commonly asked questions below. For additional questions or concerns, reach out to the air compressor’s customer service number.
Q. How does a portable air compressor work?
Portable air compressors use a motor to operate a piston. The piston draws outside air into a chamber and then stuffs it into a tank. It continues doing so until the pressure builds up enough to operate tools and inflate tires.
Q. How do you set up a portable air compressor?
Most portable air compressors come set up out of the box. If one doesn’t, the most setup that could be necessary is to install a quick-connect on your hose port.
Q. How do you use a portable air compressor?
For electric compressors, simply plug it into an electrical outlet and flip the power switch on. Once the compressor builds up pressure, users can adjust the outlet psi with a built-in pressure regulator to match the tool’s requirements.
For gasoline-powered compressors, fill the fuel tank and check that the engine has oil in it. Flip the power switch to the on position and pull the pull-start cord until it starts.
Q. Why do portable air compressors come in various shapes?
The different shapes of compressors aren’t really a functional design concern, so manufacturers can get creative with their designs. Sometimes separating the tank into two smaller tanks allows the compressor to have a lower center of gravity to aid in portability.
Other times, the designs simply take up less space. For example, a horizontal compressor can fit under a workbench, while a vertical compressor fits better in a corner.
Q. How much air pressure do you need in a portable air compressor?
This really depends on the task. Bike tires and sports balls don’t require much pressure at all. On the other hand, pneumatic tools usually require 90 psi or more to operate effectively. If inflating something, look for the maximum pressure written on the item near the inflation valve.