February 4th, 2014
The Air Compressor Primer


By: Steve Esposito

One machine that improves the usefulness of any home or garden shop is the humble air compressor.  If you have only one vehicle with pneumatic tires, an air compressor’s value is returned in spades just keeping your tires properly inflated.  Especially these days, where finding a filling station that has an air hose at all, pay or free, is becoming an ever-greater chore.


Of course, one could have at hand one of those mini compressors that plugs into the 12v outlet in your vehicle and handle the tire inflation tasks, but a better solution comes in a larger package.  There is a whole world of pneumatic tools out there that are less expensive and more durable than their electric counterparts, and those need something beefier than a 12v hand-held compressor.  You homesteaders out there, the bigger compressors are something you will find useful, too.

Horsepower & Capacity

In the world of compressors, there are a couple of basic numbers you want to be concerned with: Horsepower and capacity.  A side issue is if you have electricity available near where you are using the machine.  If not, there are many gasoline-powered models to choose from, but they come with a higher sticker price.  The horsepower number is somewhat important, but when you stick with name brands, the horsepower should be enough for whatever size reserve tank is attached.  If you have a choice, I usually recommend taking the higher horsepower.

The capacity number, or the size of the reserve tank, is the important one for you.  While a 1.5 HP 20-gallon or smaller compressors can be had new from Sears for $200 or less, they are still limited as to what they can do.  For example, you would not want to paint a car using one of these.  For a job like that, where you are blowing air constantly, the motor will not be able to keep up with the work and your tank, essentially a buffer, does not hold enough air for enough of the job.  This holds true for other jobs, like using a pneumatic nailer if you are replacing your roof or building a shed, etc.

For all but the smallest workloads, you really need a 50 to 60 gallon tank at the smallest.  Good news, Craigslist usually has them barely used at reasonable prices.  If you want new, the Sears Craftsman brand comes in at about $500 for a 3.1 HP 60-gallon model.  There are other brands of course. A Google search for “air compressor” should give you what is available near you.

Water Traps

Something you need to do before you start using your new machine is add water traps (after you have read the instructions, of course).  When compressing and decompressing air, loads of water is accumulated in the system and it needs to be captured and removed.  Water is no good for your tools and it is the arch enemy of any paint job.  The tank should have a drain valve at the bottom, which you should open regularly.  Immediately before each use at a minimum.

If your machine did not come with another trap at the outlet where the hose attaches, add a clear one there, another one at the end of a 10’ section of hose, and one more to your spray gun (if you ever get one).  Whenever you see a water accumulation in any of the traps, before or after using a tool, empty it via the valve at the bottom.

When I began restoring my 1972 Dodge Charger, the manager at the Bolling Air Force Base auto hobby shop told me to go to Sears and get a “$25 spray gun.”  This was in 2007 and he was a bit older than me.  The “$25 gun” was then about $45, and I think I sprang for the next one up the price scale at about $55.

There is a rainbow of tools to choose from to attach to your new compressor.  Heavy-duty impact wrenches, drills, sanders, saws, earlier mentioned spray guns and nail-guns; the tool department is your oyster.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy Picking the Right Homesteading Truck.”

© Steve Esposito, 2014.

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