Portable 12V air compressor buying guide: How to find the best air compressor
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A portable air compressor can help you quickly and easily ensure that your car tyres are inflated to the perfect pressure. Portable compressors are particularly handy for off-road enthusiasts who regularly need to adjust tyre pressure to suit different conditions.
When buying a portable air compressor, the most important factors you need to consider are how quickly it inflates tyres and how much money you're willing to spend. Prices typically range from less than $50 up to $500 or more. We'll help you compare the available options so you can choose the best air compressor for your needs.
Compare some of the best air compressors
What is an air compressor?
An air compressor uses an electric or petrol/diesel-powered motor to compress air. The energy stored in that air can then be used in a variety of ways.
Around the home, common uses for an air compressor include:
- Inflating car tyres.
- Inflating kids' toys, balls, sports equipment and other items.
- Powering various air tools, such as nail and spray guns, impact wrenches and sanders.
However, for the purposes of this guide, we're looking at portable 12V air compressors. Designed to be powered straight from your car's battery, these portable compressors are perfect for throwing in the back of your car so you can check your tyre pressure wherever you go, or inflating mattresses, toys, balls and other items around the home.
Popular with off-road enthusiasts, they usually attach to your car's battery using alligator clips. Some models can also be powered from your car's 12V sockets or cigarette lighter.
There are also some battery-powered or cordless air compressors that use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.
Pros and cons
Why get a portable air compressor? There are a few important reasons:
- They're handy. Whether you want to put air in your tyres before a long road trip or adjust tyre pressure to improve fuel economy, an air compressor is a useful tool to have at your disposal.
- They're versatile. As well as adjusting tyre pressure, you can use a portable air compressor to inflate pool toys, sports equipment and more.
- Essential for 4WDers. If you love taking your 4WD off the beaten track, it's essential that you're able to adjust tyre pressure to suit changing track conditions. As a result, a reliable 12V compressor is an important investment for any regular off-roader.
But there's also a good reason why you might decide you don't need an air compressor:
- You can pump up your tyres elsewhere. While portable air compressors are no doubt handy, you can fill up your tyres at your local servo and inflate other household items with a good old-fashioned pump. If you don't regularly head off-road and you don't mind the hassle of inflating tyres at a service station, a portable air compressor may be an unnecessary purchase.
How to compare portable 12V air compressors
Before you start shopping around for a portable air compressor, take a moment to think about how often you plan on using it. If you head out on a 4WD adventure every other weekend with a camper trailer in tow, you'll want a compressor capable of fast inflation and long running time.
This means you'll probably be willing to spend a little more than someone who is simply looking to get a small portable unit to use in case of emergency and just to pump up their tyres before a long road trip.
Once you know exactly what you need from a portable compressor, you can start comparing the features of different products. Below are the key factors you'll need to consider when comparing portable 12V air compressors:
Check exactly how the motor in your compressor is powered. The most common option is to attach it to your car battery using alligator clips, but there are also compressors that can be plugged into your car's cigarette lighter – these tend to have less power and will take longer to finish the job.
While less widely available, there are also cordless compressors that use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. If considering one of these, check the amount of power they can provide as well as battery run time and charging time before you buy.
Flow rate, also known as Free Air Delivery (FAD), is expressed in litres per minute or cubic feet per minute and refers to the volume of air a compressor can produce. For example, a compressor that releases air at 150L/min will get the job done 50% faster than a unit that pumps at 100L/min.
If you want maximum inflation speed, you'll want to opt for a twin-piston compressor over a single-piston model.
Duty cycle refers to the time for which a compressor can run before overheating or needing to take a break. This is commonly given as a percentage of how long a compressor can run in a specified time period. For example, a 50% duty cycle means that if you run your compressor for 20 minutes, it will then need to rest for 20 minutes.
Other manufacturers will list the duty cycle in terms of minutes. For example, if a duty cycle of 60 minutes is specified, this means the compressor will need 30 minutes of rest time.
As a general rule, the more inflation power you want, the more you'll have to pay. Most portable 12V compressors are priced between $50 and $500, but there are a few more powerful units that exceed this $500 limit.
How long is the inflation hose that comes with the compressor? These generally range anywhere from 2 to 10 metres, so check that the supplied hose is adequate for your needs. Look for a hose that is long enough for what you need, but not so long that you can't move or store it easily.
If choosing a portable compressor to take with you on the go, check its weight and size to determine how much boot space it will take up and how easy it will be to maneuver.
Additional factors to think about
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