Air compressors come in all different sizes and configurations to support a wide range of potential applications. You can find them everywhere from power and manufacturing plants to the garages of avid DIY enthusiasts.
As a result, the cost of an air compressor can vary widely. Compressor machines may range from portable consumer units to large-scale industrial installations. When shopping for a new air compressor, it’s important both to budget accordingly and understand exactly what you’ll receive.
Air Compressor Types
Knowing the various types of compressors and how they work is essential to understanding why certain models cost more than others. Rotary screw compressors are the most popular type, particularly for heavy-duty applications. As the name suggests, they feature a large screw that, as it turns, forces air into a cylinder where it is compressed.
Reciprocating/piston compressors, the other major type, use a series of cylinder/valve mechanisms to achieve the same result. Most reciprocating air compressors cost less than comparable rotary screw models, particularly for light- and medium-duty applications.
Another important distinction among compressors is between lubricated and oil-free units. Most compressors are lubricated to reduce wear. For use in sensitive environments where managing potential sources of contamination is a key concern, oil-free compressors are available.
Understanding Air Compressor Ratings
The cost of an air compressor is directly related to the amount of work it can perform and the efficiency with which it can perform it. This is expressed in several different numbers:
- Pressure: The job of a compressor is to produce air at a given pressure level. We express this in pounds per square inch grade, or PSIG. Most pneumatic tools require 90 PSIG to function properly. For other operations, more or less pressure may be required.
- Capacity: Capacity is the rate at which a compressor can produce air at a given pressure level. Greater capacity means you can run more tools or other devices at once. Capacity is expressed in cubic feet per minute, or CFM.
- Horsepower: Either an electric or gas motor drives compressors. We express the power of this motor in horsepower. An efficient motor should produce around 4 CFM at 100 PSIG for every HP. Less efficient air compressors cost more to run but often have a lower purchase price.
- Tank size: Most compressors have a storage tank for holding compressed air, measured in gallons. Larger storage tanks add to the cost of an air compressor but increase the amount of time required between compression cycles, saving you on fuel and reducing wear on sensitive components.
Warranty is another important factor to consider when shopping for a compressor. As with any major purchase, it’s important to choose a manufacturer that stands behind their work. Extended warranty coverage, if available, may add to the cost of an air compressor up front, but it’s an investment that can give you peace of mind for the long term.
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