In this buying guide we help you choose the best portable air compressor for your home, workshop, or DIY project.
Many might view a portable air compressor as their second choice. Big powerful air compressors will provide more CFM and have bigger storage tanks. This makes them better right? Yes, if you have a large auto body shop or wood working shop with a lot of guys using powerful air tools. But for the home shop, a portable air compressor can be your best option. They take up less space, are easy to move around, and don’t use as much electricity. A portable air compressor will also cost less than a big machine of the same quality standard.
Table of Contents...
Intro | Best Portable Air Compressor
I’ve used every air tool known to man and done quite a bit of spray painting. So I’ll be sharing my experience with you as I review our selection of the best portable air compressors. I’ll offer my advice, for what it’s worth, and do my best to help you make the best decision.
In reviewing these products, my first question is who is most likely to be using a portable air compressor. I would think many will be guys like me, serious DIY enthusiasts. This would include those who enjoy restoring and repairing cars, as well home improvement guys. Naturally contractors are a big part of the equation.
What would a jobsite be without the hum of a compressor and the tack-tack of nail guns? Then there’s the occasional DIY guy who wants the tools for the job, but won’t necessarily be using them that often. These people don’t always need the best heavy-duty machinery that’s expected to work hard on a regular basis. So you’ll want something that’s perhaps more affordable, but does the same job as the more expensive portable air compressors.
Makita MAC700 Big Bore | 2.0 hp Portable Air Compressor
When we’re talking portable air compressors, there are a lot of different sizes that qualify. A portable air compressor need not be so small that you can carry it one hand. They can be quite large and heavy, but still able to move about. In this article, we’ll mostly be looking at the smaller portable air compressors. Only one model, the Makita MAC5200 Big Bore is powerful enough for spray painting a car properly. Even then, you’d probably want to connect a second tank for a slower pressure release. If you’d like to know more about making the best use of your portable air compressor, I’ll discuss this after reviewing the products.
This review isn’t a long list of products with similar specs. We’ve really looked at which are truly the best portable air compressors for the people who actually use these machines. So each of the models in this review falls into a particular category and we believe that they offer the best in terms of value and performance, not to mention quality.
So, this is how I would break down the portable air compressors that I’ll be reviewing here.
- Best Portable Air Compressor —> Cordless: DeWalt FLEXVOLT (DCC2560T1)
- Best Portable Air Compressor —> High-Capacity : Makita MAC5200 Big Bore
- Best Portable Air Compressor —> Small and Affordable : BOSTITCH CAP1512-OF
- Best Portable Air Compressor —> Mid-Sized : DeWalt D55154
As you can see, these are not Mickey Mouse brands. We’ve sought out the best, but not the most expensive either. Even the Bostitch, which is the cheapest of the lot, is a good quality machine. It’s almost in the same league as the DeWalt and Makita air compressors that we’ll be reviewing. If you’re looking for affordability without wasting your money on junk, the Bostitch is a great choice.
DeWalt FLEXVOLT (DCC2560T1)
Best cordless (battery-powered) portable air compressor.
- Up to 1,220 nails per charge (using 6Ah battery)
- Brushless motor paired with a heavy duty oil-free pump provides cordless convenience with the power of a corded tool
- OneTurn regulator for fast, accurate pressure adjustments
- Lightweight and portable at only 21.5 lbs
- Heavy duty roll cage for jobsite application
- Compressor Made in the USA with Global Materials
- 79 dBA operational noise level (tested per ISO 3477)
- 1.2 SCFM @ 90 PSI (tested per ISO 1217)
Includes: 1) Dcc2560 air compressor, 1) DCB606 flexvolt Lithium Ion battery, 1) fast charger.
✓ View or download the MANUAL for the DeWalt DCC2560T1 FlexVolt air compressor.
Not so long ago, we would have thought it impossible to find a cordless air compressor. Well, battery technology has come a long way in a short space of time. Probably the biggest revolution in battery technology has to be the DeWalt FlexVolt range. Since their launch in late 2016, the FlexVolt from DeWalt has changed the way we view battery tools. If you’re still not familiar with these extraordinary batteries, I suggest you give this article a read: DeWalt FlexVolt System │ Battery & Tool Review │ Flexible Power.
The growing range of FlexVolt tools are proving to be very popular, providing the power of a corded tool and the convenience of a cordless one.
VIDEO | Learn All About this Great Compact Portable Air Compressor
The DeWalt DCC2560T1 is truly a portable air compressor. It weighs only 21.5 LBS and measures 15.5” (height); 14” (length) and 12.5” (width). You can carry it in one hand (it has a very convenient carrying handle), place where you want it and set to work immediately. There are no extensions cords or anything else to worry about.
Despite its humble size, the DeWalt is more powerful than many of the small portable air compressors. The super-efficient brushless motor runs an oil-free compressor, so there’s no maintenance involved. This provides 0.4 HP and delivers 1.2 SCFM at 90 PSI (1.5 SCFM at 40 PSI) to a 2.5-gallon tank. So it’s obviously not designed for high volume pneumatic tools or serious spray painting.
DeWalt FlexVolt Small Compressor | DIY Home Projects or the Jobsite
This is a handy jobsite or DIY portable air compressor that will be used for nail guns and other smaller air tools or air brushing. For that, it’s perfect. It pressurizes the tank up to a maximum of 135 PSI, this gives the tank a bit more time before losing pressure, so it doesn’t need to recover as quickly as an air compressor that reaches the standard 120 PSI maximum pressure.
DeWalt supply a DCB606 (60V/6AH) FlexVolt battery with the compressor, as well as a fast charger. This battery, they say, will provide enough power for 1,220 nails on a single charge. If you upgrade to the DCB609 (60V/9AH) FlexVolt battery, you can improve your working time by 30%. That’s a lot of nails before you need to recharge the battery.
It’s also quiet enough that you can work with the air compressor in the same room – 79dBA is about as quiet as gets for these tools. This adds to the convenience of the DeWalt, you don’t have endless lengths of pipe running across your job site. It has a handy ball valve to drain the tank, so it’s super-easy to just turn the handle and drain the excess water.
The one-turn pressure regulator dial is another fantastic feature that makes things quicker and easier. It’s calibrated with markings up to the rated maximum of 135 PSI. You simply set it where you want it and that’s it. No turning back and forth to see where the pressure gauge ends up before you get the pressure that you need. Directly next the pressure dial, is a gauge so can see what pressure you have in the tank at any given time.
The DeWalt FlexVolt range is manufactured in the US. So, for those who have reservations about Chinese made products, there’s no need to for concern. The workmanship, is as to be expected, of the highest standard. As is the materials used and this is clearly evident in the high-quality brass quick couple hose fitting. The impact resistant roll cage that surrounds the air compressor is yet another example of DeWalt excellence and their intention of building tools that will work hard for many years.
Battery-powered tools are more expensive than their corded counterparts. Add to this, the fact that DeWalt is not a particularly cheap brand, and the DeWalt DCC2560T1 comes in at a quite hefty price for a small portable air compressor. Paying extra for the DeWalt brand is, to my mind, a no-brainer. These tools are built to last and you always get expert advice and service from their technicians. As far as paying extra for cordless convenience goes, that’s a matter of preference.
For some contractors, cordless tools are a massive improvement. You don’t need a generator on sites where there is no power and you’re not tripping over extension cords all the time. In general though, cordless tools are proving their worth in every application. As with all DeWalt tools, the DCC2560T1 comes with their fantastic 3-year warranty, 1-year free service plan, and a 90-day money back guarantee.
Learn more by reading our indepth review of the DeWalt FlexVolt DCC2560T1.
Makita MAC5200 Big Bore
High-Capacity — Best portable air compressor
- Cast iron pump with Big Bore cylinder and piston is engineered to provide faster recovery time for improved performance
- Powerful 3.0 HP motor produces 6.5 CFM at 90 PSI for increased productivity
- Pump is oil-lubricated for cooler running temperatures and reduced wear
- Durable cast iron cylinder reduces wear and increases pump life; removable for easy maintenance
- Folding handle with low profile design for easy storage with handle folded
- Rugged wheels for jobsite portability
- Built-in storage compartment conveniently stores air fittings and accessories
- Air hose wrap stores 50 ft. of 3/8″ air hose with handle folded or upright
- Copper finned discharge tubing for increased heat dissipation and reduced water in the tank
- Tool hangers store tools when not in use
- Large automotive style industrial air filter for increased air intake and greater efficiency
- Roll cage construction for extra protection to pump and motor assembly
- Oil sight glass for fast, easy and efficient maintenance
- Lever-handle ball valve tank drain improves upon standard petcock design for easier maintenance and air tank release
- Convenient oil drain at the front of the pump for easy access
- Built-in thermal overload for additional motor protection
- ✓ View or download the MANUAL
- ✓ View or download the QUICK START GUIDE
- ✓ View or download the PARTS diagram
I’m blown away by the Makita MAC5200 Big Bore. It’s a portable air compressor with the ability to match large machines. I know Makita tools to be of the highest industrial-grade standards and this air compressor certainly has all of these traits. The serious heavy-duty nature of the Makita MAC5200 makes it the ideal option for contractors who want a machine that’s going to handle tough working conditions and provide reliable service for a very long time.
You can accomplish a lot using this portable air compressor and, with an additional (auxiliary) air tank, it can compete with the big boys. A 3 HP electric motor, coupled to a virtually indestructible cast iron big bore pump, provides an unrivaled recovery rate for an air compressor of this size. You get 6.5 CFM at 90 PSI and 6.9 CFM at 40 PSI, up to a maximum pressure of 140 PSI – that’s very impressive. The 5.2-gallon tank allows you to maintain a constant pressure, for just about any application and you can use several air tools without waiting for long recovery times.
I know that oil-free pumps are all the rage these days. Sure, they’re much more convenient, you don’t need to check and top up the oil all the time. But oil lubrication increases the lifespan of the pump. I prefer this. Topping up the oil can be nuisance and sometimes messy, but it’s worth it if you want an air compressor that’s going outlast the others. A quality machine like this, isn’t cheap. So having one that’s going to provide you with great service for a long time is worth the extra effort. Anyway, that’s my opinion on the matter and others may disagree.
To make pump maintenance less of a hassle, it’s really easy to remove. The Makita MAC5200 is not designed as a throw away machine – it’s built to last and is totally serviceable and repairable. Naturally, only the best brass fittings have been used and the motor is protected by a thermal overload.
VIDEO | Learn More About the Big Bore Makita Series
More robust traits that prove the heavy-duty nature of the mighty Makita are the incredibly tough steel tubing frame and huge tractor-like wheels. There’s no doubt that this little air compressor is built to take on any environment with gusto. The frame forms an ultra-tough protective roll cage, preventing the vital parts from incurring damage during transportation, or on a busy site. All of this industrial build-quality makes the Makita a heavy beast. At a little over 100 LBS, it takes some lifting. But it has great soft-grip handles – one at the front and a fold-down long-reach handle at the back. The tall handle at the back has hangers for the hose (50’ of ⅜” air hose), and there’s a compartment on the machine to store all your fittings. Everything’s where you want it and things won’t go missing.
A metal dashboard has two brass quick-connect couplers for air hoses and two pressure gauges. A conventional turn dial allows you to set the maximum pressure. It has a sight glass on the pump to check the oil and the oil drain point is easily accessible from the front. It also has a ball valve to drain the water, making this a quick and effortless task.
I’m already sold on the Makita brand, this comes from many years of incredible use that I’ve had from a wide variety of Makita tools. This portable air compressor has exceeded my already high expectations from these guys. You can compare the Makita MAC5200 to any of the best portable air compressors and it will come up tops – no matter how you look at it. The 1-year warranty (30-day guarantee) may not be as impressive as that offered by DeWalt. But I see both these brands as being amongst the best. I don’t feel that this warranty is an indication that the Makita is in any way an inferior product. They offer excellent service and are represented throughout the US.
Small and Affordable — Best portable air compressor
- 1.5 max HP (running) motor draws only 12 amps for easy start up and extention cord application [14 GA or larger, 50 ft. (15.2 m) or less] without tripping circuit breakers
- 1.2 gallon compact design weighs 23.5 lbs. for easy portability
- Integrated control panel with roll cage protects gauges from jobsite damage
- LED ON/OFF switch lets you know when the compressor is on to eliminate low-pressure misfires
- Integrated cord wrap for improved portability
- Convenient on-board storage pocket for tools and cord wrap
- 150 max PSI 1.2 gallon tank (4.5 L) and 2.8 SCFM* delivered @ 90 PSI pump, enable long tool run time with quick recovery
✓ View or download the MANUAL for the BOSTITCH CAP1512-OF air compressor.
I know a lot of guys who have taken on a building extension project as a once-off. It’s a great sense of accomplishment to do this yourself, but you need a lot of tools that you may be using once now and it could be years before you need it again. This always brings up the question: Do I rent, or buy a cheap item that will hopefully last for the duration of the project?
In most cases, buying an inexpensive tool is the best option. If you’re looking at a portable air compressor, this is certainly worth it. You may not have seen the need for one before, but once you own one, it’s always going to come in handy. You never know when you may need to inflate a tire and a portable air compressor will make a lot of quick repair jobs and hobby projects around the house much easier. Though buying cheap tools can be a bit of a gamble. All too often, they last until just after the warranty has expired and can never be repaired. My advice is to look for something that’s reasonably priced, but not necessarily the absolute cheapest. It’s always great to find a respected brand at a really good discount, but this doesn’t happen too often.
Very Affordable Small Air Compressor
If you’re looking for an inexpensive portable air compressor that won’t end up disappointing you, I’d highly recommend the Bostitch CAP1512-OF. It’s not the most powerful, but for the homeowner who wants a reliable air compressor that isn’t intended for daily use over many years, this one is excellent value for money. It’s compact and relatively light, even though it has a steel frame and is built to last.
With its 1.2 HP output, it can’t really compare to the other corded portable air compressors that we’re reviewing here. None the less, it’s more than capable of supplying any nail gun, small pneumatic tools, or an air brush. The relatively small 1.2-gallon tank is will recover at good rate – 2.8 SCFM at 90 PSI and reach a maximum 150 PSI rated pressure. The pump is oil-free, so there’s no maintenance involved.
The steel frame and durable tank is illusive when you look at the very low weight of 23.5 LBS. So when it comes to convenient portability, this is a fantastic little air compressor. It has two solid steel handles that make it really easy to lift and carry. The two pressure gauges, pressure regulating control knob, solid brass hose connector, and on/off switch are all neatly clustered together in a steel panel. It rests on vibration-dampening rubber feet.
The Bostitch CAP1512-OF meets all the basic requirements that one would look for in a portable air compressor. There are no fancy extras to push the price up. You’re getting a solid piece of machinery that’s going to get the job done and keep doing so for much longer than any other in this price range. For that, it’s a wonderful, common sense little work horse. It deserves great respect as being the best budget portable air compressor and has a 1-year warranty.
Mid-Sized — Best portable air compressor
- 4.0 CFM delivered at 90 PSI pump provides rapid recovery
- Oil lubricated pump improves durability
- Cast iron cylinder enhances pump life
- 10″ pneumatic wheel and handle kit for ease of mobility
- Top load panel with positioning holes allows unit to transport loads up to 100 lbs
- High-flow regulator for increased performance
- Run multiple tools from dual universal quick couplers
- Ball valve drain allows for quick and thorough tank draining
- Convenient cord wrap for easy storage
- Dual soft start valves assist in cold weather start-up
✓ View or download the MANUAL for the DeWalt D55154.
The DeWalt D55154 is somewhere between the small Bostitch and the big bore Makita. Not as capable as the Makita in terms of CFM and tank size, but can handle quite a bit more than the Bostitch. The price also fits neatly between the two other corded portable air compressors. The DeWalt name kind of says it all and I don’t think I need emphasize the type of quality and service you’re getting.
Even though this model has a smaller motor than the Bostitch, the 1.1 HP DeWalt is able to deliver an impressive 4 CFM at 90 PSI to the dual air tanks with a combined capacity of 4-gallons. The vertical twin tank design makes this a very compact air compressor for its capabilities. The metal tubing frame is as tough as they come and protects the machinery perfectly. Enormous 10” pneumatic wheels help one to effortlessly move this 87-pound machine around.
When it comes to long term durability, the DeWalt D55154 can stand proudly alongside the tough Makita. It too has a cast iron piston pump which is oil lubricated. I’ve already expressed my opinions on the advantages of oil lubrication and this pump is certainly going to keep on chugging longer than oil-free equivalents.
It has a wonderful little dashboard that’s recessed between the two tanks and this helps protect the instruments and dials from damage. There are two pressure gauges, two high-quality brass universal quick couplers, and a pressure regulator knob. All perfectly accessible and easy to use. The ball valve drain is also a very convenient addition. Likewise, the drain plug for the oil and the filler are easily accessible, making the DeWalt a very easy machine to maintain.
While the DeWalt D55154 may not be as powerful as the Makita MAC5200 Big Bore, it compares favorably on every other level. This is a very durable industrial-grade portable air compressor. It’s user friendly and you have the assurance of the impeccable DeWalt service and support network, along with the 3-year warranty, 1-year service plan, and 90-day money back guarantee.
What size portable air compressor do you need?
Having looked a four of the best portable air compressors with distinctly different spec levels, you may wondering which is best for you. You’re comparing CFM, maximum pressure specs and tank sizes. This may all be a little bewildering if you don’t quite know how to assimilate this information.
In theory, any size air compressor can supply enough compressed air to run any pneumatic tool and even a spray gun which uses a high volume at a low pressure. It really boils down to practicality, if the air compressor that you’re using isn’t well-matched to the tools you’re using, you’ll be stopping frequently and waiting for the tank pressure to recover. To better understand this, I’m going give you a basic idea of how an air compressor works and how the specs will help you understand the workings of the machine in practice.
An air compressor works by storing pressurized air in a tank which is released at a rate determined by the tool or tools that are being used. To do this, an electric motor or gas engine rotates, moving a reciprocating piston in the process. This piston forces air into the tank. As more air is forced into the tank, pressure builds inside it. The pump will continue to push air into the tank until it reaches the maximum pressure set by the user. You use the pressure control or regulating knob to set this pressure. As air is released from the tank to supply the pneumatic tools, the pressure inside the tank drops. Once the pressure reaches a predetermined minimum pressure (approximately 10% less than the maximum), the pump will switch on in order to recover the loss in pressure. This cycle will continue for as long as you’re using the air compressor.
Portable & Quiet Air Compressor | California Air Tools 10020C
The rate at which the pressure in the tank is recovered is reliant on two factors: the rate at which air enters the tank and how fast it leaves the tank. If the air leaving the tank is greater than that entering the tank, the pressure will drop faster than the pump is able to recover it. So you’ll end up with an air pressure that is too low for the tool that you’re using. This is where your CFM rating for the pump becomes important.
As an example, let’s say you’re using a tool that requires 6 CFM to operate and your pump is only capable of producing 2 CFM. For this example the pressure requirement is 90 PSI. When you start the air compressor, you’ll adjust the tank pressure so that it’s at least 20% higher than that of the tool’s pressure rating. Each tool has a pressure regulator that allows you to adjust the air pressure at the tool, so your supply pressure from the tank can be set higher than required. Setting the pressure higher allows the tank to release more air before it needs to recover. For this example, we’ll set the tank pressure to 120 PSI. In this way, it compress the air in the tank until it reaches 120 PSI and it will then drop to about 105-110 PSI before the pump begins to recover the pressure. So the tank pressure never falls below that which is required by the tool.
In the beginning, things will be fine. You have excess pressure in the tank. Though when you reach the recovery pressure and the pump begins to refill the tank, things aren’t balanced. Your pump is replacing the air at a rate of 2 CFM, but it is being released to the tool at a rate of 6 CFM. More air is leaving the tank than entering it, you’re using three times more air than the pump can deliver. This means that the pressure in the tank will continue to drop, despite the fact that the pump is running.
It won’t take long before the pressure drops below the required 90 PSI for the air tool that you’re using. At this point, you’ll have to stop working until the tank reaches its maximum pressure again. You can then continue working until it drops too low. If you’re continuously waiting for the tank to recover, it becomes frustrating. In a case like this, where your pump CFM is vastly less than that of the required CFM for the tool, you’ll probably be spending more time waiting for the pressure to recover than you will be working. Not a good situation.
Tank Size — Air Compressors
In the example given, we haven’t looked at an important factor that can change the whole scenario, tank size. Our recovery rate is measured in cubic feet per minute and so is the volume of air that our tool is using. But what about the cubic feet of air inside the tank?
One gallon is equivalent to 0.13 cubic feet. This isn’t much when a tool requires 6 cubic feet per minute. It will only take few seconds and all the air in the tank would be discharged if your tank only holds a gallon of air. If you had a 10-gallon tank, you’ll have 13 cubic feet of air in the tank. This will give you a lot more to work with. Basically, you can work for longer using the large volume of compressed air inside the tank.
Oil-Filled Portable Gas Air Compressor | Hitachi EC2510E
So if you’re using a small portable air compressor with a small tank and a low recovery rate of about 2 CFM, you won’t be able to use much more than a single nail gun or low-power driver without running out of pressure in a short time. However, it’s very easy to run a hose to a second tank (or even more). You can, therefore, increase the capacity of your tanks to allow you more working time for higher volume tools before the tank reaches its minimum pressure. You’ll still have to wait for the tank to recover when the minimum pressure is reached, but you’ll be able to work for longer periods before this happens.
Striking A Balance
Obviously it’s ideal to have a large tank and a high CFM recovery rate, this will allow you to work continuously. But a large air compressor needs a lot of space and will need to be permanently installed. These are noisy machines and are generally installed outside the shop where they are being used. They’re also expensive.
If your main requirement is for a small portable air compressor and you only need a high volume of compressed air occasionally, using a small air compressor with a large auxiliary tank may be a reasonable compromise. You have the advantage of easy portability most of the time and can use the larger tank only when needed. Admittedly, you won’t be working continuously with the extra tank, like you would if you had a big air compressor. But if you size your auxiliary tank correctly, you could obtain a working time that’s satisfactory.
How long will you be using any high CFM tool continuously? If you’re using an impact wrench that requires a very high CFM rate, you’ll be using it for a few seconds at a time. Your total working time in a 5-minute period may only be about 2-minutes. It’s likely that the tank will recover as the tool stands unused and you won’t be waiting too often for the tank to re-pressurize. So there is room for compromise when using a small, low volume portable air compressor. Albeit not ideal.