Air When You Need It: Portable and Handy 12-Volt Air Compressors
These 12-volt air compressors will be a go-to accessory in your car or workshop.
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BY Lisa Conant / LAST UPDATED ON June 16, 2021
Depending on your chosen vocation or favorite hobbies, a reliable 12-volt air compressor may very well be one of your key pieces of equipment. It’s a versatile tool that can come in handy for so much more than just inflating car and bike tires. Kept in your garage, workshop, or in the back of your car, SUV, or pickup truck, you can use a 12-volt air compressor to run small pneumatic tools, boost air suspension systems, blow off dirty filters, power air horns, and much more. For larger power tools and more extensive automotive and workshop power supplies, you might need something stronger than a 12-volt air compressor.
If you are in the market for a reliable and tough 12-volt air compressor, The Drive has got you covered with our informative buying guide that will help you familiarize yourself with the various options. A quick read through and you’ll be ready to make a confident purchase of the perfect 12-volt compressor to suit your needs.
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Benefits of 12-Volt Air Compressors
- Portability. Probably one of the top key benefits of a 12-volt air compressor is how compact and portable they are. Many can be kept in your car or truck all the time for whenever the need arises.
- Multifunctional. Most 12-volt air compressors can do much more than just inflate car and bicycle tires. They can be used to inflate sporting equipment and some more powerful models can be used to run smaller pneumatic tools.
- Economical. Twelve-volt air compressors are an inexpensive source of compressed air. If you have tools that you need to use briefly or need to top up your car or bike tires, the right 12-volt air compressor can do the job without costing you as much as a larger, more heavy-duty model.
- Time-saving. Having the ability to quickly plug in your 12-volt air compressor to any 12-volt power supply can save you from having to drive all the way to the shop or the gas station, and can get the job done in a quick and easy manner.
- Emergency preparedness. One of the primary reasons for owning a 12-volt air compressor is to be able to keep it in your vehicle in the event of a slow leak or unplanned flat tire. It can often top you up enough to get you to the nearest garage.
Types of 12-Volt Air Compressors
As the name implies, this type of compressor has a box-like shape to it. These are generally very compact and easy to stow and transport. They come in a range of PSI capacities, depending on what you need it for. They’re quite inexpensive compared to some other models on the market, but also not as durably built.
This type of air compressor, as you can probably imagine, resembles the size and shape of a handheld drill. It’s super lightweight and easy to use, with a very short hose and a trigger-like application. This is a great option to fit in the smallest of spaces, like your glove compartment. The drawback is that these are also the least powerful option and, depending on the size of your tires, they may not be powerful enough. This is also a common design for tire pressure gauges, so don't get confused between the two.
A pancake compressor has a tank that looks like a round, flat donut, or one that is also known as a hotdog compressor, in which the tank looks, well, you can probably guess. These are the more rugged and durable of the 12-volt air compressors and usually get the most PSIs. Some of them are even powerful enough to run some light-duty pneumatic tools. They’re also pricier than most of our other options.
12-Volt Air Compressor Pricing
- Under $50: In this price range, you’ll find the most basic 12-volt air compressors. Really, they’re more likely to be just tire inflators. Compact, usually with plastic housings, they’re just strong enough to inflate your car’s tires.
- $50-$150: This is the price range in which you’ll find the majority of decent air compressors that are powerful enough to inflate almost any car tire, or even some that will be strong enough to run small pneumatic tools.
- $150 and up: This is where the high-end, stronger, and larger 12-volt air compressors will be found. Many of them will be constructed with heavy-duty metal tanks and will be on the heavier side, making them the better choice for job sites and workshops.
"Pounds per Square Inch" is the number one feature to pay attention to. Most decent 12-volt air compressors will have a PSI rating of 100, which is just enough to inflate most regular-sized car tires. For truck or SUV tires, you might need something stronger, in the range of 120 to 150 PSI. For small power tools, you’ll likely want to look for a 12-volt compressor with a PSI above 150.
If you’re planning on keeping your compressor in your trunk or the bed of your truck, you’ll want something highly portable, with a durable body or case that won’t rust or crack easily if it rolls around. If you’re looking for a compressor for your workshop or to take between job sites, you’ll want something rugged with a higher power capacity that might be somewhat less portable than just an air compressor that’s used for tire management.
Since you’re likely using your car’s battery to run your 12-volt air compressor, you’ll need to be mindful of how much power it draws. You don’t want to over-tax or damage your battery, so look for an air compressor that pulls about 120 watts or less.
- Single-Stage vs. Two-Stage Compressors. This refers to how many times the air in the unit is compressed. In a single-stage air compressor, the air is compressed once, but in a two-stage compressor, it’s compressed twice, giving you double the pressure. This is key in running larger tools and installations, but not such a big concern if you’re just inflating car or bike tires.
- Display. A large, backlit display will be easier to read from a distance than a smaller, unlit display. Also check to see if the compressor you’re buying displays only PSI, or if you get other information from it, like BAR and KPA.
- Warranty. Consider buying a 12-volt air compressor that’s backed by a solid warranty. The best companies will offer at least a one-year warranty, but some will offer even a two- or three-year protection plan against manufacturer’s defects.
12-Volt Air Compressors Reviews & Recommendations 2021
- With so many 12-volt air compressors on the market, choose one that has a solid brand recognition, a great return policy, plenty of positive online reviews from multiple sources, and perhaps even a manufacturer’s warranty.
- Know your required PSI before you buy. It’s frustrating when you have an underpowered air compressor that won’t be able to successfully inflate your vehicle’s specific tires.
- Store your air compressor in a protective bag or case. If you’re keeping it in your car at all times, consider securing it so it doesn’t get tossed around while you’re driving. This will prevent it from being damaged, or getting dirt, dust, and debris in the motor and fan components.
- Consider a compressor with an auto shut-off feature for added ease of use. That way, if you get distracted and aren’t monitoring the unit constantly, you won’t be in danger of over-filling your tires.
Q: How does a 12-volt air compressor work?
A 12-volt air compressor uses your vehicle’s battery, or any 12-volt battery, to power a motor which directly forces air into an object to inflate it to a certain pressure. Because they don’t store compressed air in the tank, they have less power and capacity to fill larger objects, but are usually fine for small automobile tires, bicycle tires, and sporting equipment.
Q: How do I maintain my 12-volt air compressor?
To properly maintain your 12-volt air compressor, be sure to read the user’s manual that comes with the unit. Be sure to store your compressor in a protective bag or carrying case when not in use to keep it from getting scratched or damaged, or allowing dust and dirt to clog the motor and its components. Regularly inspect the hoses, valves, and power cords for any damage and replace them at the earliest sign of wear.
Q: Who makes the best 12-volt air compressor?
If you’re looking for a 12-volt air compressor for general use in your car, truck, SUV, or for your bike, we like the versatility of the Kensun Portable 12V Air Compressor. That said, there really isn’t one brand that can be considered the best. Just be sure to get one that suits your pressure needs and comes backed by a good warranty.
Q: How many amps does a 12-volt air compressor draw?
If you have a 12-volt air compressor that plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter, the typical power draw will be between 10 and 15 amps. For a 12-volt air compressor that clips directly to a 12-volt battery, the power draw can be between 20 and 40 amps.
If you’re looking for a reliable and rugged 12-volt air compressor that’s strong enough to inflate your car tires, bike tires, or sporting equipment, our top pick is the Kensun Portable 12V Air Compressor. It’s dual AC/DC power supply, compact size, and large, easy-to-read display make it a great overall accessory for your car or garage.
For a stronger, more powerful option that can also run light-duty pneumatic tools and inflate larger truck and RV tires, consider the Viair 10000 Onboard Air System. One thing is certain: Whatever your power needs, there is a 12-volt compressor out there that can most likely meet them efficiently and affordably.