The Basics for Choosing the Right Air Compressor

Published: 10th August 2005
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There is a lot of confusion out there about selecting the right size air compressor to run your air tools. Basically, there are several factors to look at when choosing the proper air compressor for your shop or garage.

The first criteria is horse power rating. Most people assume the higher the horsepower rating on the box, the better the air compressor. However, all horse power ratings are not created equal and can easily be misrepresented. What I mean is, you go to your local giant hardware retailer to pick out a new air compressor to run your impact wrench. They have a 5 hp unit that is priced really cheap. Why is that 5 hp industrial unit cost so much more? 5 hp is 5 hp, right? Not necessarily. Let me explain. Look at how much power the hardware store unit draws. It probably needs around 15 amps from a normal 110 volt circuit. At this rating, you are really getting only 2 hp. The 5hp rating on the box is inflated. To really produce true 5 hp you need at least 24 amps from 220 volt circuit to get it. If you are looking for 5 hp electric compressor, buy the industrial unit and stay away from the cheaper unit at your local hardware store. I am not saying that every air compressor at your local hardware is junk. A lot of times one of those units is all you need. Just be aware of the true horsepower rating.

The next consideration when purchasing a new air compressor is, "How much PSI will I need?" For the newbies, PSI is short for "pounds per square inch" and this is how most compressors in the US are rated. In Europe, you will see them measured in bars. PSI is all you need to worry about on this side of the Atlantic. Most of the commonly used air tools require about 90 PSI to operate correctly. However, you will still need a compressor with a higher shut-off pressure. Most air compressors that you find at the local hardware giant are "single-stage" and shut off at 125 - 135 PSI. Don't let that fool you. You might think all you need is 90 psi, so that should work just fine. Generally, these light duty compressors shut off at 100 psi and don't forget about pressure loss in the line. The little light duty compressor will barely run an impact wrench. It might be fine for light duty garage use, but if you really intend use your air tool, more is definitely better. Many industrial compressors are "two-stage," which means they build up to shut-off pressure in two stages. The first stage builds to about 90 PSI and the second stage builds to 175 PSI.

The next rating criteria for air compressors is CFM. CFM stands for "cubic feet per minute". It is a measurement of volume. Basically it is how much air is being moved. Air tools require a certain amount of air volume to run on. PSI is just part of equation. Don't be confused by different CFM ratings at different pressures. Every manufacturer is trying to make their product look better by giving higher CFM ratings at different pressures. The only real concern is how much CFM you will get at 90 PSI. Remember 90 PSI is what most air tools require to operate. To find out what your air tool needs to run, just look on the box for the manufacturer's specs. Generally, air tools require 4 - 6 CFM. A good rule of thumb on air compressors is you should get 3 -4 CFM per real HP at 90 PSI.

The final factor to consider is tank size. Tank sizes are generally stated in US gallons. For example, 30 gallon is a common tank size. So the question remains, how large a tank do I need? First of all, don't confuse a large tank with more run time for your air tools. If you use your impact intermittently, a large tank is fine. However if you have need for continuous use, you will need a small tank with big enough pump and motor. If the pump and motor are powerful enough, you shouldn't run out of air. You can save some dollars by purchasing an air compressor with a large tank and smaller motor for intermittent use. If you need to run a 1" impact wrench (about 20 CFM) intermittently, and have a small compressor with a large tank, you might have enough air stored in the tank to do the job. However, if you are constantly running your air tool, you will need to invest in a more powerful air compressor to do the job.

You should be able to select the air compressor armed with this information. Basically, you need to decide ultimately what you going to use the unit for and pick the appropriate model.


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