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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BY Brian Smyth / LAST UPDATED 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
- 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.