LAST UPDATED: November 5, 2020
The Best Small Air Compressors (Review & Buying Guide) in 2021
Whether in the garage or on the road, a small air compressor can get the job done fast
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PUBLISHED ON November 5, 2020
Working men and women rely on pneumatic tools for all sorts of jobs. If your work comes to you, chances are you have a nice big air compressor somewhere in your shop to power these tools. But what if it doesn’t? Carpenters, roofers, and many other workers move from job site to job site, and their air compressors will need to follow.
Small air compressors make it possible for these folks to power their pneumatic tools no matter where they go. Hobbies and DIY projects may also rely on small air compressors to perform various projects and repairs. There are different types of small compressors on the market to service a range of needs. Be sure to find the right compressor to fit your specific needs.
This pancake-style air compressor features an oil-less motor that can generate 150 PSI of tank pressure and a flow rate of 2.6 SCFM.
- Generates a decent flow rate; extremely stable
- Includes a one-year limited warranty and a 13-piece set of accessories
- A considerable 78.5 decibels of noise while running
- Ideal for household use
This 3-gallon compressor is incredibly portable, and its 0.36 CFM flow rate is perfect for small projects around the house or in the workshop.
- Compact size and light weight
- More portable than most of its competitors
- Oil-less motor eliminates maintenance
- Motor and pump are loud, registering 93 decibels
- Low flow rate of 0.36 CFM
This mobile air compressor features an eight-gallon tank with a surprisingly portable design. The oil-less motor generates 2.2 CFM while operating at 1680 RPM.
- Extremely quiet, registering at 60 decibels
- Dual-stage motor
- Weighs just 37.25 pounds
- May be a bit large for household use
- Quite expensive
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Benefits of Small Air Compressors
- Increased productivity. As with larger units, small air compressors provide users with the ability to use pneumatic tools, which can significantly improve productivity in various contexts. With the ability to easily move these units around, users will also complete jobs in locations that might otherwise be inaccessible with pneumatic tools.
- Portability. Small air compressors provide users with a conveniently-sized motor that powers pneumatic tools while maintaining a small, relatively lightweight footprint. These portable compressors fit nicely into the back of any truck or car for easy transportation.
- Cost. Compared to larger units, small air compressors are a steal of a deal. Most air compressors with 5-gallon tanks will cost around $150 or less, lowering the cost of entry and providing plenty of power for most users.
Types of Small Air Compressors
Most small (and large) air compressors are powered via alternating current (AC) electricity. As such, these units require a standard 120-volt power outlet to operate. This makes them an excellent choice for garage and workshop use. Whether for light-duty jobs or hobby work, these units will accommodate just about every civilized setup.
While most small air compressors rely on AC power, a select few run off of battery power. While some are rechargeable, many of these units use car batteries to generate air pressure. While these units are intended primarily to help off-roaders inflate their tires on the trail, they can be adapted for other uses as well, albeit with a more limited capacity.
Originally known as the Boston Wire Stitch Company, Thomas Briggs founded Bostitch in 1896 to produce wire stitching machines used in making printed goods, hat boxes, and more. Today, Bostitch is headquartered in East Greenwich, R.I., and specializes in producing fasteners, office equipment, hand tools, automotive tools, power tools, and pneumatic tools and accessories.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. first launched the Craftsman brand in 1927 for a new line of hand tools. Today, the Chicago-based brand focuses on producing hand tools, automotive tools, power tools, pneumatic tools and accessories, outdoor equipment and tools, and garage and tool storage solutions.
In 1924, Raymond DeWalt launched the company that bears his name, specializing in electrically-powered woodworking machines. Today, DeWalt is based in Towson, Md. The company produces a wide variety of fasteners and tools, including hand and automotive tools, power tools, outdoor tools, and other job site-related items, such as air compressors, pressure washers, and generators.
Makita Corporation was founded in 1915 with a focus on electric motor sales and repair. Today, this Japanese company has its U.S. offices in La Mirada, Calif., and Buford, Ga. The company specializes in power tools, pneumatic tools, and powered outdoor tools.
Small Air Compressor Pricing
- Under $100: Units in this price range are battery-powered and are designed mainly for tire inflation.
- $100 and up: The vast majority of these units run off of AC power and are more powerful and versatile than their battery-powered brethren.
Power and Efficiency
Air compressor power and efficiency are measured in horsepower, PSI, and CFM. Horsepower measures motor power, indicating how quickly it will refill a tank or generate air pressure. PSI indicates the amount of pressure a full air tank will contain, and CFM means how much air in terms of volume can flow through the outlet nozzle and hose. For maximum capability and value, be sure to prioritize CFM first and horsepower last.
Air Tank Capacity
Most air compressors use an air tank to store compressed air. Once this store is depleted, the motor kicks on to begin restoring pressure. The air tank’s capacity, combined with its flow rate (CFM), allows users to gauge how long a single tank will last between refills. The larger the capacity (measured in gallons) and the lower the flow rate, the longer the tank will last. As a rule of thumb, larger tanks are better.
Before taking the air compressor plunge, buyers should understand the flow rate, which usually is measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM) or standard CFM (SCFM). CFM measures the amount of air that leaves a compressor in one minute when the air tank has a specified pressure, usually 90 PSI. SCFM measures CFM within certain environmental conditions. While similar, CFM and SCFM are not identical and should never be compared against each other.
- Maintenance Requirements. While air compressors are relatively straightforward in their design, some still require regular maintenance. The motors within these units require some level of lubrication. As the name implies, oil-lubricated compressors need oil to operate smoothly. While these units have their advantages, they are heavier and bulkier than oil-free alternatives, and they do require oil changes. On the flip side, oil-free units use chemical coatings and finishes to keep their moving parts.
- Noise. While small air compressors may take up limited amounts of space, they can still be quite loud. Before selecting a unit, consider where and when the unit will be used and how that will affect those nearby, such as the neighbors. Historically, oil-less air compressors tended to be much louder than their oil-lubed counterparts. Thankfully, this is not usually the case for modern units.
Best Small Air Compressor Reviews & Recommendations 2021
Looking to pick up a great small air compressor without any fuss and frustration? This American-made unit generates a maximum of 150 PSI and generates 2.6 SCFM at 90 PSI. Thanks to its durable, oil-free pump, this unit requires no maintenance while delivering long-term reliability. This small air compressor starts up easily in cold weather, and the dual couplers allow users to attach multiple hose and tool combinations for increased workspace efficiency. The 13-piece accessory kit also allows users to get up and running straight out of the box, and a one-year limited warranty helps create peace of mind. At just over 30 pounds, the Craftsman CMEC6150K 6-Gallon Air Compressor is easily portable.
This small compressor puts out a significant amount of noise, although not as much as some. Rated at 78.5 decibels, this unit is quieter than a lawnmower but can still present a challenge to normal conversation.
For many jobs, size and portability outweigh the demand for industrial-level performance. The Campbell Hausfeld FP209499AV Portable Air Compressor is perfect for tackling small tasks that are less demanding. The small, three-gallon tank makes it easy to transport around the house or shop. Rated at a maximum of 110 PSI, this tank is perfect for inflating tires or balls and running airbrushes or nail guns. This air compressor is an oil-less, maintenance-free unit, and when the job is finished, this unit’s small footprint ensures convenient storage in virtually any location. The compressor also comes with a 10-piece accessory kit, including a coiled hose, inflating needles, blowgun, and fittings.
It provides users with a low 0.36 CFM at 90 PSI and generates a loud 93 decibels of sound. While it is not the best choice for large or long-term jobs, it can be great for miscellaneous household and DIY tasks.
Noise is an issue with most air compressors, yet this model manages to bring things down to an impressive 60 decibels. This unit is extremely lightweight for its size, weighing in at only 37.25 pounds, and this wheeled unit includes built-in handles to make this an extremely portable compressor. This unit boasts an eight-gallon, vertically oriented air tank with a maximum pressure rating of 120 PSI. Thanks to its aluminum construction, the tank is entirely rust-resistant, and the low-RPM, dual-piston motor generates strong performance at low decibel levels, providing 2.2 CFM at 90 PSI. The California Air Tools 8010A Ultra Quiet & Oil-Free 1.0 HP Air Compressor’s efficient design reduces power consumption, wear, and maintenance.
Arguably, the biggest downsides to this compressor are its price and size. This unit may push the definition of “small” for some users, and its premium features come with a matching price tag.
The Makita Air Compressor is an impressive unit for its size, delivering significant capability. This air compressor features a 4.2-gallon twin-tank system capable of providing a consistent 130 PSI. The 2.5 horsepower engine helps deliver a whopping 4.2 CFM at 90 PSI but does so at lower RPMs to minimize noise, and its maximum PSI rating allows users to run two pneumatic tools at once. The compressor’s low-amp draw reduces the potential of tripping circuit breakers upon startup, and the cast iron, big bore cylinder offers fast recovery, improving durability and system performance. The Makita Air Compressor also features a protective roll cage that doubles as a carrying handle for easy portability.
The motor utilizes an automotive-style air filter and oil system, adding weight and maintenance to the equation. As with many air compressors, this one also generates a fair amount of noise at 79 decibels.
More PSI means more run time for tools between cycles. The DeWalt Air Compressor has a six-gallon tank with a 165-PSI max rating and combines fast recovery and extended run time for improved productivity. The high-flow regulator and dual couplers increase pneumatic tool combinations and efficiency, and with a 75.5-decibel sound rating, this oil-free compressor is a little easier on the ears. Thanks to its pancake-style design, this unit is very stable during use, and at just 30 pounds, it is exceptionally portable. The high-efficiency motor starts quickly and easily in cold weather, even when connected to an extension cord. The DeWalt Air Compressor generates 2.6 SCFM at 90 PSI, but at 40 PSI, it bumps things up to 3.7 SCFM.
While this unit is quieter than affordable options, it still generates as much ambient noise as a vacuum cleaner. Still, users will be quite pleased with its noise level.
The Senco PC1010 1-Gallon Compressor creates excellent power without destroying eardrums or back accounts. This offering from Senco provides users with a one-gallon air tank rated to contain a maximum pressure of 120 PSI, and the oil-less motor generates 1.4 SCFM, perfect for smaller jobs in the house or the workshop. The engine runs at 1/2 horsepower while capable of a full horsepower peak output, and during use, it creates low noise levels for a pleasant working environment. Weighing in at a featherweight 20 pounds and featuring a roll cage with a conveniently-located handle, this compressor is the epitome of AC-powered portability. A one-year warranty also backs this air compressor.
Due to its size and low CFM output, this unit is poorly suited to medium and large jobs, but for users running brad nailers and similar equipment, this compressor is more than equal to the task.
While one may be tempted to believe that power can’t come in small packages, the Bostitch Air Compressor quickly dispels such notions. This four-legged air compressor features a 1.2-gallon tank with a maximum PSI rating of 150 and generates 2.8 SCFM at 90 PSI. The powerful motor runs at 1.5 horsepower and draws 12 amps for effortless, no-hassle startups. The air tank, oil-less motor, and integrated control panel all reside inside the protective roll cage, and once turned on, the entire unit generates a reasonable 72 decibels of noise. The Bostitch Air Compressor also includes a convenient LED-lit power switch, making it easy to tell when it’s ready for work.
At 23.5 pounds, it is slightly heavy for its size, though still quite portable, and while 72 decibels is not ear-splitting by any means, it is still a little loud in the grand scheme of things.
Even when the closest AC outlet is miles away, this air compressor generates an impressive amount of air pressure. This tankless unit relies on 12-volt car batteries to power its 1/3-horsepower oil-less motor, and the 30-amp inline fuse protects the battery from surge-related damage. The direct drive motor creates a continuous duty cycle capable of generating 40 PSI for 40 minutes in 85-degree temperatures (Fahrenheit). This compressor generates a maximum airflow of 5.65 CFM, and the 24-foot coiled hose’s long reach guarantees easy tire inflation on any Jeep, truck, or ATV. The auto-shutoff feature protects the unit from overheating, giving users of the Smittybilt 2781 5.65 CFM Universal Air Compressor excellent peace of mind.
The cleanable air filter does require occasional maintenance, although no oil changes are necessary. This incredibly capable unit does come with a high price tag and couplers that require proprietary fittings.
This 12-volt compressor relies on automotive-style batteries to generate power via the attached alligator clamps. This free-flow air compressor draws 20 amps for startup and is capable of generating up to 120 PSI. With a CFM rating of 1.47 at 90 PSI, it is best suited for tire inflation on light-duty vehicles with up to 33-inch tires. Additionally, buyers will receive a 12-foot air hose, a solid brass twist-on tire chuck, and three adapter tips. It has an operating range of -4 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit.
This unit’s CFM translates to a meager 0.64 CFM at 90 PSI. While this is plenty of flow for tire care, it is too small to play with pneumatic tools. Also, the integrated pressure gauge requires the motor to stop before it can display an accurate reading.
In an emergency, the best air compressor is the one stowed in the trunk, and the Energizer Portable Air Compressor Tire Inflator is an excellent candidate to fill that role. This 12-volt compressor is ideal for roadside emergency kits as it is designed to draw power from the same auxiliary power outlets found in most vehicles. The 14-amp power draw protects the compact motor, and the pump can generate up to 120 PSI. The unit includes five built-in LED lights for use in low-visibility environments and a convenient carry handle and LCD screen for the pressure gauge. The air compressor is backed by a one-year hassle-free replacement warranty to provide you with assurance.
While this compressor does not list a CFM rating, it is safe to say that the number is quite low. That said, this unit can quickly get drivers back on the road in no time.
- First-time buyers should consider purchasing an air compressor that includes a set of accessories, such as fittings, nozzles, hoses, and thread seal tape.
- When comparing different units, compare CFM ratings with other CFM ratings but not SCFM ratings.
- When matching compressors with air tools, try to find a compressor that generates a higher flow rate (CFM or SCFM) than the tool requires.
- For particularly loud air compressors, consider building a sound-insulated box in which to keep it. Just make sure the compressor has enough airflow to let it “breathe” freely.
Q: What is the best air compressor for home use?
An oil-less compressor with a five-gallon air tank is often more than enough for most home-based users.
Q: What's better: oil or oil-less air compressors?
For most users, an oil-less air compressor will be an excellent choice. While these units generate lower CFM and PSI ratings than the oil-lubed counterparts, they are more efficient and require very little maintenance. However, for users seeking higher pressures and output, an oil compressor will be a better fit.
Q: What is a good size air compressor to run air tools?
Air compressors with larger tanks and higher CFM ratings work better as they require less frequent tank refills while delivering significant power. If possible, use a compressor that can generate more CFM/SCFM than the tool’s listed rating, keeping in mind that CFM and SCFM are not equivalent measurements.
Q: Which is better: V twin or inline air compressor?
The piston orientation within an air compressor's motor affects the unit's overall footprint but not its power. Instead, consider the number of the piston in a motor. Single-piston (or single-stage) motors are less energy-efficient than their two-piston counterparts, while dual-stage motors can produce somewhat higher pressures with greater efficiency.
Small air compressors are a compromise between size and capability. For most people, the Craftsman CMEC6150K 6-Gallon Air Compressor is an excellent option with its combination of power, stability, and reasonable noise output. When the price is a critical factor, buyers should consider the Campbell Hausfeld FP209499AV Portable Air Compressor instead.