The Best Air Compressors for Cars: Keep Your Tires at Optimal Pressure
Never face a flat again with these top-rated air compressors for cars.
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BY Corrina Murdoch / LAST UPDATED ON May 15, 2021
Ever driven down the road, heard that harrowing pop, and felt your wheel tug at you? Flat tires are never fun, but, thankfully, you can avoid them by keeping your tires at the proper pressure, which is why air compressors for cars are so important. Sure, you can pull into a gas station and pay to inflate them, but what about the miles in between? If your car is going to get proper fuel efficiency and drive safely, you need to keep the tires at the correct PSI.
Air compressors for cars connect to a power source (usually your car’s 12-volt DC outlet) and force pressurized air into the tire via the valve. Simple to use and relatively compact, these devices are essential in any season — especially if you want to get triple-A off your speed dial. To help you track down the best air compressors for cars, we’ve broken down the top options, along with some tips on making the right pick.
Compatible with both AC and DC power, this air compressor uses an analog gauge to inflate tires up to 35 PSI in less than five minutes.
- Measures pressure in multiple metrics
- Simple-to-use controls
- Lightweight and compact
- Lacks any digital display
- May require adaptor for specialized devices
- Relatively short AC power cord
With a straightforward design and digital interface, this compressor inflates tires efficiently. It can reach a tire pressure of 150 PSI.
- Includes LED flashlight for dark conditions
- Measures in imperial and metric
- Simple on/off switch
- Can overheat if airflow openings are covered
- Digital display is vulnerable to scratches and cracks
Touting impressive power, this compressor can fill tires, jump start a car, and works as a 500-watt inverter. Compact and easy to control, it is ideal to keep in the event of an emergency.
- Performs multiple tasks
- Fairly compact design
- Inflates tires to 120 pounds per square inch
- Automatic shutoff features
- Comes at a higher price point
- Draws substantial power to inflate tires
- Isn’t waterproof and requires indoor storage
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Benefits of Air Compressors for Cars
- Improves fuel efficiency. Keeping your tires at the proper pressure can improve gas mileage by an average of over half a percent. In some cases, it saves up to three percent. That might sound small, but that reduces your carbon emissions by around 304 pounds every year.
- Safety benefits. All drivers know that if the car’s tires aren’t filled correctly, the vehicle doesn’t respond appropriately. This can impact everything from braking ability, likelihood to hydroplane to turning. An air compressor lets you adjust the pressure whenever you need to.
- Cost-effective. In addition to the savings on gas (or diesel) by having properly inflated tires, there are smaller savings. Once you factor in the time driving to an air compressor and the change it takes to run it, an upfront investment in a compressor can save you money down the line.
- Versatile and convenient. Just because air compressors for cars are primarily designed for cars doesn’t mean the utility ends there. You can use them to inflate a beach tube, bike tires, and air mattresses. Since they go in the vehicle and run off of its battery, you can always have it at your disposal.
- Portable and compact. When you add up all the necessary supplies to drive safely, it takes up a lot of space. Especially if you drive a vehicle without a truck bed, finding space can be a struggle. Air compressors for cars are built to take up very little space, so it’s easy to bring them along.
Types of Air Compressors for Cars
As the more traditional type of compressor for cars, these rely on the same motor as other types. Analog models use a pressure-controlled gauge to assess the pressure. This type is often harder than its counterparts since overheating can’t damage circuitry that isn’t there. Most feature a simple on/off switch, a pressure gauge, power cord, and air hose. So long as it’s compatible with your tires’ valves and it can reach a high enough pressure, analog is sufficient.
Modern, digital air compressors for cars use the same fundamental technology as an analog model, but it incorporates an LCD screen. The benefit of this approach is that you can easily switch metrics and pre-program the ideal pressure. Most include automatic shutoff features to prevent overheating. Usually, these are a bit bulkier than their analog counterparts. However, since there are more demands on the structure, they are less noisy since there is more of a barrier to that sound.
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Air Compressors for Cars Pricing
- Under $50: You can find many solid options in this category, with most ringing in at around $30. They will likely be a more basic model, but it will get the job done.
- Between $50 and $150: For air compressors for cars, you can get a high-quality model with several supplemental functions. Most are digital and incorporate all the necessary safeguards to extend the lifespan.
Your air compressor needs to be able to draw power from somewhere. Most air compressors plug directly into the 12-volt port in your vehicle, pulling from the car battery. Be sure that the cord is long enough to reach properly. Many also have an AC power cord to plug into any standard wall outlet. You can find some with rechargeable batteries that are entirely cordless. As long as you have the reach and battery life necessary, you’ll be set.
As perhaps the most critical feature of the compressor, the motor does all the legwork. Measured in watts, the more power it carries, the more efficiently it can pressurize your tires. It plays into the fill rate as well as the maximum pressure it can reach. Look for motors in the range of 120 to 180 watts to get the most power. These can handle the heaviest-duty tires, but for smaller cars, 100 watts is safe.
The air hose is the part that relays the compressed air into the tire through the valve. You connect it directly to the tire, holding a tight seal, and turn on the air compressor. Keep in mind that there are different types of valves, and the set requires compatible extensions to work. Most sets include more than one extension, so compatibility is not usually an issue.
Essential to assess the current pressure of your tire, the gauge can be either analog or digital. Analog models have a clear lens that covers a dial. Most gauges measure in more than one metric, with the most common in the industry being PSI (pounds per square inch). Digital interfaces give you a reading and let you change metrics with the push of a button. Analog is more traditional and hardier, while digital gauges are better in the dark.
- Calibration. Reading your tire pressure is essential to properly fill your tires, as long as it’s an accurate reading. While there are ANSI standards that require it to be accurate within two percent, some models are more precise. Digital interfaces usually have a smaller margin of error due to the sensitivity of the sensors.
- Maximum pressure. Finding an air compressor is a balancing act of size and power. Naturally, a bulkier compressor will fill to a higher pressure, but it’s also heavier and takes up a lot of space. Familiarize yourself with the optimal pressure of your tires and make sure the compressor exceeds those requirements.
- Extra features. Many air compressors for cars are pre-programmable. You input the optimum pressure for the tire and hit go. It fills the tire and shuts down automatically. Others incorporate an air compressor into another device like a power inverter or a jump starter. These other features give it added purpose and help save space in the trunk.
- Overheating. A lot of air compressors are prone to overheating. Sure, any machine that runs for too long will overheat and run into issues. You’ll always need to take a break every 15 minutes, but some heat up much quicker. Look for good airflow through vented openings on the structure to avoid this issue.
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- Let your car's air compressor cool down for a while after using it to prevent circuit damage from overheating.
- When using it, put the air compressor in an open place so it can breathe properly. It helps it perform more efficiently.
- Check the compatibility of the hose extensions and make sure it works with your tires before you make your pick.
- Aim to store it indoors in a place that won't get dusty, especially if you're in a humid environment.
- Keep the air compressor and the hoses or extensions needed in the car as a part of your emergency kit.
Q: What is the best car air compressor?
The best car air compressor is compact, powerful, and accurate. Models like the Prow Portable Air Compressor Tire Inflator are a good pick. It works on AC and DC power sources and has a long cord and an efficient motor.
Q: How much is an air compressor for a car?
A standard air compressor for cars will run between $30 and $50. The price is determined by materials, the motor's power, whether it's digital or analog, and its hose. The most important thing is that it's powerful enough to fill your tires since it won't be of use without that ability.
Q: What size air compressor do I need to inflate car tires?
Car tires don't usually go above 32 PSI. As long as the pressure can get up to 35 PSI, it will work for a car. Higher pressure abilities are ideal, so long as it doesn't add unnecessary bulk for power that you won't end up using.
Q: Is it OK to overinflate tires?
Your car’s performance relies on properly working tires. If you can avoid it, don't overfill them. That said, don’t worry too much since it takes 200 PSI to burst a car tire. Aim to fill them correctly, according to the weather. Heat adds pressure while the cold drops it, so keep that in mind when inflating your tires.
Q: Is an 80-gallon air compressor too big for a car?
The only time you need an 80-gallon air compressor is for commercial applications. You’ll find many of these in auto shops or contractors’ workshops. However, it’s definitely too big for a vehicle. Any fuel-saving benefits you get from properly inflated tires are lost by carrying that much weight. In this case, less is more, and opting for a smaller compressor is a far better approach for cars.
Now that you know the ins and outs of air compressors for cars, you can get that perfect pressure. We like the Prow Portable Air Compressor Tire Inflator for its quality motor, plus the AC and DC applications. If you're feeling budget-conscious, the Movsou Tire Inflator Air Compressor is affordable and convenient.