Air Compressor Vs Tire Inflator: Which One is Suitable?

Sometimes when you are shopping online the terms can get confusing. At DamnTools, we help straighten that out. For example, in our guide on the best tire inflators with gauges we cover both the tire inflator adapters that you use with an air compressor, as well as stand-alone tire inflators.

In this guide, we'll discuss tire inflators vs. air compressors, what marketing teams typically mean by both of those terms, and which one you need for your job type.

Technically they are both types of air compressors, with the tire inflators traditionally being a smaller unit. Here is more detail on their nuances:

Air Compressors

The traditional air compressor is going to be larger and will most likely have a built in tank. While this adds to their weight, making them harder to carry, it also makes them a much more efficient unit.

Sometimes these compressors are belt driven, and the high-end models use oil lubrication to extend their lifespan. The oil lubricated models are some of the quietest compressors on the market.

Air compressors come in all sizes. There are large industrial units like these on ToolTally that can be used to spray paint a car, and tiny pancake compressors that work great for running nail guns.

An air compressor will typically need to be plugged into a wall outlet, but the greater power means they can inflate vehicle tires in seconds where an air inflator may take minutes.

If you work in an automotive or tire shop, you probably want to invest in a compressor that is 30 gallons or larger so that you always have ample air reserves for the entire team.

Sixty-gallon compressors can be considered overkill as they require 220 volts of power, but they offer the most reliable high-volume airflow for rapid tire inflation.

Tire Inflators

Tire inflators are the next evolution in air compressor technology. The best example of these are the small 12 volt units that plug into a car's cigarette lighter outlet.

These compressors are all direct drive as opposed to being belt-driven. They also tend to be extremely loud unless you invest more money into a high-end model.

These smaller 12-volt compressors have been around for decades, but a newer model is gaining market share.

These new inflators fit in the palm of your hand and are frequently cordless. Being cordless allows you to move from one tire to the next and easily inflate them to the proper pressure.

Some of these inflators are combined with battery packs that can be used to jump a stranded vehicle. These combo units are perfect for people who frequently need to rescue stranded cars or need to inflate tires on junk cars before pulling them out of the backwoods.

Which One Is Better For Inflating Tires?

The garage air compressor will always offer more power. Garage compressors often provide higher PSI, which makes them uniquely suited for tasks such as inflating bicycle tires that require 90 to 120 psi.

A compressor with a tank will be able to inflate tires in a fraction of the time that a tire inflator requires. Additionally, these compressors can often be used to run air tools.

Tire inflators are better suited for maintaining tires when mobile. If you are off-roading on your ATV and get a thorn in your tire, the tire inflator can help you keep your pressure high enough to get home safely.

Tire inflators also work well for college students who don't have access to store their compressor. With an inflator you can quickly check and inflate your tires, decreasing the tire wear and improving fuel economy.

Plus, inflators are significantly cheaper.

The only downside with an inflator is that they take longer to bring a tire to the correct PSI, so you have to be patient with them.

Which One Should You Buy?

The Inflator is convenient to have. It allows you to top off your tires, air up a flat tire in an emergency, inflate pool toys and basketballs.

However, they lack the power needed to operate pneumatic tools.

How Do I Know The Proper PSI For My Tires?

On the sidewall of your tire, there should be raised lettering in the rubber. This lettering will describe the tire size and other specifications. One of those specifications is the recommended PSI.

Additionally, you can also find the PSI printed on a label that is on the frame inside the driver's door.

All tire inflators will have the ability to air up your car tires. However, in high-pressure situations such as bicycle tires, the compressors might be underpowered. You can read the pressure amount on the sidewall of your bicycle tires and then shop for a tire inflator with the correct capacity.

Your tires naturally lose pressure over time, so it is vital to check them monthly. For every 3 PSI under the recommended pressure, you can increase your tire wear from 1-10 percent.

One advantage of a tire inflator is that most of them have a built-in gauge. This enables you to easily check your tire pressure and monitor your progress. If you get a compressor with automatic-shutoff, airing up your tires becomes as easy as connecting your compressor and letting it top-off your tires to the pre-determined pressure while you do other things.

Automatic shut-off is not a feature that typically included with standard air compressors.

A good tip is to set a recurring calendar reminder on your phone to check your oil levels and tire pressure levels once a month.

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