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Portable air compressor buying guide

Keep your tires properly filled — from your car to your wheelbarrow.

Air compressors can come in handy for lots of reasons, whether the air in your vehicle’s tires is low, your wheelbarrow has a flat or you want to run a tool like a nail gun that requires compressed air. These devices come in a range of sizes and price points, so do your research before settling on the best fit for your needs.

Compare some of the best portable air compressors

NameAverage priceWeight (pounds)Maximum pounds per square inchCapacity (gallons)Power sourcePurchase
DeWalt DCC2560T1 FLEXVOLT$26551352.5BatteryBuy now
DeWalt DWFP55126$13021656ElectricBuy now
Ryobi P731 One+$552335N/ABatteryBuy now
Kensun AC/DC Rapid Performance$63535N/AElectricBuy now
Bostitch BTFP02012$100311506ElectricBuy now
Porter-Cable C2002$100341506ElectricBuy now
Data obtained April 2019. Prices are subject to change and should be used only as a general guide.

What is an air compressor?

An air compressor uses an electric-, gas- or diesel-powered motor to compress air. The energy stored in that air can then be used in a variety of ways, like:

  • Inflating car tires.
  • Inflating kids’ toys, balls, sports equipment and other items.
  • Powering air tools, such as nail and spray guns, impact wrenches and sanders.

Portable 12-volt air compressors are the most common, and are designed to be powered straight from your car’s battery. Popular with off-road enthusiasts, they usually attach to your car’s battery using alligator clips.

Some models can also be powered from your car’s 12-volt sockets or cigarette lighter. There are also some battery-powered or cordless air compressors that use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

Pros and cons


Why get a portable air compressor? There are a few important reasons:

  • They’re handy. Whether you want to put air in your tires before a long road trip or adjust tire pressure to improve fuel economy, an air compressor is a useful tool to have at your disposal.
  • They’re versatile. As well as adjusting tire pressure, you can use a portable air compressor to inflate pool toys, sports equipment and more.
  • Essential for offroaders. If you love taking your four-wheeler off the beaten path, it’s essential that you’re able to adjust tire pressure to suit changing track conditions.


But there’s also a good reason why you might decide you don’t need an air compressor:

  • You can pump up your tires elsewhere. If you don’t regularly head off-road and you don’t mind the hassle of inflating tires at a gas station, a portable air compressor may be an unnecessary purchase for you.

How to compare portable 12-volt air compressors

Before you start shopping around for a portable air compressor, take a moment to think about how often you plan on using it. If you head out on a four-wheeling adventure every other weekend with a camper trailer in tow, for example, you’ll want a compressor capable of fast inflation and long running time.

Once you know exactly what you need from a portable compressor, you can start comparing the features of different products. Below are the key factors you’ll want to consider when comparing portable 12-volt air compressors:

  • Connections. Check to see how the motor in your compressor is powered. The most common option is to attach it to your car battery using alligator clips, but some compressors can be plugged into your car’s cigarette lighter — these tend to have less power and will take longer to finish the job. There are also cordless compressors that use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.
  • Flow rate. Flow rate, also known as Free Air Delivery (FAD), is expressed in liters per minute or cubic feet per minute and refers to the volume of air a compressor can produce. If you want maximum inflation speed, you’ll want to opt for a twin-piston compressor over a single-piston model.
  • Duty cycle. Duty cycle refers to the time for which a compressor can run before overheating or needing to take a break. This is commonly given as a percentage of how long a compressor can run in a specified time period.For example, a 50% duty cycle means that if you run your compressor for 20 minutes, it will then need to rest for 20 minutes. Other manufacturers will list the duty cycle in terms of minutes.
  • Price. As a general rule, the more inflation power you want, the more you’ll pay. Most portable 12-volt compressors are priced between $50 and $500, but there are a few more powerful units that exceed the $500 limit.
  • Hose length. Air compressor hoses generally range anywhere from six to 35 feet, so check that the supplied hose is adequate for your needs. Look for a hose that is long enough for what you need, but not so long that you can’t move or store it easily.
  • Portability. If choosing a portable compressor to take with you on the go, check its weight and size to determine how much trunk space it’ll take up and how easy it will be to maneuver.

Additional factors to consider

  • Pressure gauge. This displays the level of pressure in pounds per square inch and needs to be both easy to read and accurate.
  • Accessories. Does the compressor come with multiple inflation nozzles so you can easily use it to inflate a wide range of items other than tires?
  • Tank. Some of the larger, more expensive models come with a tank for storing compressed air. This provides you with increased inflation time even while you’re allowing the compressor to rest.
  • Storage. Does the compressor come with a durable carry case so you can quickly toss it in the back of your car or ATV? Some units come with brackets so they can be mounted in your vehicle.
  • Thermal cut-out protection. This feature is designed to shut off power to the unit when it’s in danger of overheating.
  • Deflating. Some models allow you to take air out of your tires hands-free, but most require you to push a button.
  • Warranty. Check the length of the manufacturer’s warranty and what sort of protection it provides. Most models come with a warranty of between one and five years.

Bottom line

Having a portable air compressor around is handy for a lot of reasons, but you’ll want to do some research before jumping right into your purchase. Get started comparing today to ensure you get the best deal for what you need.

How did we choose these products?

To choose our list of the best portable air compressors, we conducted online research to determine some of the most popular models currently available. We compared the size, hose length, maximum pounds per square inch, price and extra features, also taking into consideration third-party product reviews.

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