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Whether you’re setting out in an RV or just want an easier alternative to pumping your car and bike tyres by hand, a portable air compressor can make your road trip safer and more fuel-efficient. It will also come in handy when you get a flat tyre. Likewise, a compact air compressor can help you get out on your bike quicker, set up inflatables, or top up a football.

Portable air compressors come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, not to mention their input and output capabilities. Working out the best portable air compressor for your vehicle can be a real headache. That’s why we’ve done the work for you. Take a look at our buyer’s guide to the best portable air compressors for cars and RV’s in 2021.

Types of portable air compressors

Air compressors can be categorized by their air tanks, power source, or pressurizing mechanism. In fact, the different types of air compressors are often defined by the shape of their tank. This includes:

  • Pancake Air Compressors. Easy to spot due to their pancake-like tanks, most have an air capacity of between one and six gallons.
  • Hot Dog Air Compressors. These oblong-shaped tanks may be slightly larger, up to eight gallons although most portable hot dog air compressors have two to five-gallon tanks.
  • Twin Stacks Air compressors. These are less compact but are better for continuous use. Two oblong tanks are stacked alongside so one can fill while the other is in use.
  • Tankless Air Compressors. Tankless models are more lightweight and compact. They work by continuously sucking air in and releasing it at the desired pressure, instead of storing pressurized air in a tank. Tankless portable air compressors are often referred to as air inflators or tyre inflators.

We can also divide types of portable air compressors by their power source:

  • Electric Portable Air Compressors. Most modern portable air compressors are electric-powered. Many portable air compressors run on 12 V DC power supply, suitable for charging in the car. Some can also be charged by mains socket.
  • Gas Portable Air Compressors. Powered by gasoline and often more powerful than electric air compressors. For this reason, they are best for heavy-duty or industrial use. They operate with a pilot flame and there’s no power cable. However, you should only use gas-powered air compressors outside or in well-ventilated spaces.

In this review, we will cover the most compact and portable type of air compressors. All the items in our top five are electric-powered and tankless air compressions that are best suited to tyre inflating purposes.

Top 5 best portable air compressors

Made by a trusted brand, the 88P Portable Air Compressor from Viair is one of the most powerful compact air compressors available. It can inflate tyres up to 33-inches which, combined with a maximum 120 PSI working pressure, a 10-foot power cord, and a 16-foot air hose, makes it suitable for most trucks, cars, SUV’s, and RV’s.

A built-in cooling system lets you use this air compressor continuously for 25 minutes at 30 PSI. According to the manufacturer, it takes just under a minute to inflate regular car tyres from 20-30 PSI and under six minutes to inflate 33 x 12.5-inch tyres from 0-30 PSI. You can check the pressure using the built-in analogue power gauge.

One disadvantage is that you’ll have to connect the Viair 88P directly to the car battery using the included crocodile clips. However, this also makes it suitable for vehicles with a low-output cigarette charger.

pros
  • High powered
  • Suitable for most vehicles
  • Good continuous usage time
  • Great value considering the quality
cons
  • The power cord connects directly to a car battery
  • No auto shut-off feature

Despite its budget price tag and compact size, this portable air compressor from Astro AI has a great range of features. For one, it features a large LED digital pressure gauge. This lets you switch between four pressure units and pre-set the pressure you want. Additionally, it will shut-off automatically when it reaches the desired pressure.

Furthermore, the nine-foot power cord and 31-inch hose make it easier to reach all four tyres on your vehicle. Plus, there’s a built-in flashlight and the air compressor comes with three nozzles, allowing you to inflate anything from cars and bikes to basketballs or air mattresses.

Of course, this cheap air compressor does have some restrictions. Firstly, it should only be used continuously for 10-15 minutes and you’ll need to let the Astro AI cool down between uses. As this air compressor can inflate a tyre from 0 to 35 PSI in four to six minutes, it will take quite some time to inflate all four tyres, particularly on large RVs.

pros
  • Affordable
  • Auto shut-off feature
  • Compact size
  • Long power cord
cons
  • Only 10-15 minutes duty cycle

The Ryobi P737D ONE+, an updated version of the Ryobi P737 ONE+, is a high-powered air compressor with the appearance and portability of a power tool. Its pistol handle grip makes this air compressor comfortable to hold and it should feel secure in the hand.

The Ryobi P737D ONE+ runs on an 18V rechargeable lithium battery and can inflate up to 150 PSI. As this model has a two-inch digital pressure gauge, you can easily read the pressure as you inflate.

Along with the main tool, you also get two high-pressure nozzles and an adapter for inflating balls. Conveniently, you can store these extra parts in the base of the inflator. Likewise, the 20-inch hose clips on top of the tool so it shouldn’t get in the way while travelling.

One thing to bear in mind is that, although this air compressor is competitively priced, you need to purchase the battery and charger separately.

pros
  • Ergonomic handle
  • Large digital pressure gauge
  • Reasonable price
  • Three-year warranty
cons
  • Battery and charger are not included

When you need a portable air compressor that inflates fast at home or on the go, the Portable AC/DC Tyre Inflator from Kensun is a smart choice. It features two power full metal motors that can run continuously for up to 30 minutes at 35 PSI, making it one most compact heavy-duty portable air compressors on the market.

This model has two power inputs for versatility: a 12V cigarette plug for use on the road and a 110V mains plug for use at home. This portable air compressor has an analog gauge which is easy to read and accurate to +/- 3 PSI. Although this model doesn’t shut-off automatically, Kensun has a digital version of this portable air compressor with an auto-shutoff feature.

Additionally, the casing has separate storage compartments on the back of the compressor for both of the power adapters, the hose and the extra nozzles so you don’t have any wires to untangle. It also comes with a protective carry bag and fits neatly under a car seat.

pros
  • Fast-inflation
  • 30-minute duty cycle
  • Neat storage
  • Suitable for AC and DC power sources
cons
  • No auto shut-off feature

If you’re looking for a mini portable air compressor, the Oasser P1S is our top choice. Measuring under 10 inches long, it’s small enough to hold in your hand while using and compact enough to store in a glove box or a motorbike top case. At 600 g, it’s also just about light enough to take on a cycle tour if you want to avoid pumping up tyres manually.

Furthermore, the Oasser P1S has two power sources, a built-in rechargeable battery and a 12V power cable. This model can inflate up to 120 PSI and, according to the manufacturer, one charge is enough to inflate three car tyres. It also comes with a cigarette charger and a home charger as well as nozzle adapters for cars, bikes, and balls.

We like that the digital LED screen makes it quick and easy to pre-set the correct pressure. For convenience, there’s also a built-in LED flashlight. The main drawback is that you can’t use this pump continuously as it gets very hot.

pros
  • Compact and lightweight
  • Suitable for small/medium cars, bikes, and balls
  • Can pre-set pressure
  • Built-in flashlight
  • Automatic shut-off
cons
  • Needs to cool between uses
  • Not the best quality battery

What to look for when buying a portable air compressor

Now you know our top picks, but there are still a few more things to know before buying a portable air compressor. Below are some key features to look for the best portable air compressors.

#1 – Power Cord and Hose Length

The longer the power cord and hose are, the easier it will be to reach all four tyres on your vehicle and the further you can go from a power source if you’re using tools. Most portable electric air compressors have a power cord at least 10-feet long which is fine for standard cars but you’ll need something longer or an extension cable if you own a larger vehicle.

#2 – Duty Cycle/Continuous Run Time

Compact air compressors tend to heat up and will need time to cool down. The duty cycle or continuous run time refers to the length of time you can expect to use an air compressor before it needs to cool off. The duty time will be affected by the PSI.

#3 – Performance Rating (PSI/CMF)

Air compressors come with a PSI (pounds per square inch) and a CMF (cubic feet per minute) rating which indicates the pressure capabilities and speed of inflation. The PSI rating on the air compressor should be at least a high as the PSI rating on your tyres (or any pneumatic tool). Meanwhile, the CMF rating tells you the speed at which the air compressor delivers air. The higher the number the more powerful it is.

#4 – Portability

As a portable air compressor, size and weight are important but you’ll also want to consider how easy it is to handle. The best portable air compressors have durable carry handles, storage compartments or clips for cables and accessories, and come with storage bags.

Frequently Asked Questions

WHAT SIZE AIR COMPRESSOR SHOULD YOU BUY?

That depends on what you will be inflating. If you’re going to inflate large truck tyres, you’ll want an air compressor with a larger output. That either means a larger tank or, for tankless air compressors, a stronger motor and longer continuous run time.

HOW DOES A PORTABLE AIR COMPRESSOR WORK?

Portable air compressors work by forcing air into a tank. Once full, the air is then pressurized and stored in the tank. When you turn it on, the air is forced out through the hose. With tankless air compressors, the air is pumped continually, meaning that air is drawn into the machine, pressurized and directly forced out through the hose.

DO AIR COMPRESSORS EXPLODE?

There are some examples of air compressor tanks that have exploded but this is usually due to rust or corrosion in the tanks. Keeping your air compressor well maintained will prevent damage to the tank.

Moreover, as the air compressors in our top five are tankless, they are not at risk of exploding. However, they can overheat if used for too long or at too high pressure.

HOW LONG DO AIR COMPRESSORS LAST?

Assuming that you buy a good quality air compressor from a reputable brand and that you care for it properly, an air compressor can last for many years. Compact portable air compressors, like those in this article, don’t require much maintenance as there are fewer parts.

However, you can extend your air compressor’s life by keeping it clean, replacing the air filter, removing dust from air vents, and replacing old batteries as recommended by the manufacturer. Additionally, the manufacturer warranty can give you an indication of the minimum life expectancy of an air compressor.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Portable air compressors are simple but surprisingly useful and affordable machines. Considering that a portable air compressor won’t cost a fortune, nor will it take up much space, it’s definitely worth adding to your kit list.