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Air Compressor Sizes

Air Compressors Buyers' Guide

Getting the right size of air compressor requires some research. Make a note of all the tools the air compressor will drive and any other functions you want it to perform. Then compare the power these tools and functions need to the air compressor’s specifications.

Specifications: CFM and PSI

The measurement of air flow is in cubic feet per minute (CFM). The measurement of air pressure is in pounds per square inch (PSI). All air compressor tools need a certain CFM at a certain PSI to work properly. A standard air nailer, for example, requires 2 – 5 CFM at 70 – 90 PSI.

If you don’t have your tools’ CFM and PSI figures, give the manufacturer and model details of the tools to your air compressor dealer. The dealer will know where to locate the figures you need.

It’s possible that compressed air may leak from some tools so it’s wise to allow for seepage and avoid damage to the compressor. Therefore, when you’ve established the maximum CFM you’ll likely to want, multiply this figure by 1.5.

You don’t need to multiply your maximum PSI figure by 1.5, but you should nonetheless increase it slightly to ensure your air pressure is always more than adequate. If your maximum required PSI is 110, for example, choose an air compressor with a PSI rating of 120. But if you go for a compressor with a significantly higher PSI rating than you need, you’ll squander electricity, petrol or diesel.

Only when you’ve arrived at your CFM and PSI figures can you choose the most power efficient air compressor for your intended applications. But do bear in mind that the air compressor must meet both figures, no matter what a dealer may say. An air compressor with ratings of 7.5 CFM and 116 PSI may well have the capacity to deliver up to 160 PSI, but at this level of air pressure, the quality of air flow will suffer.

Also ensure that if you’re going to run a number of tools from your air compressor at the same time, you add the CFM for each and multiply the total by 1.5.

Reciprocating air compressors make up the majority of models at the lower end of the market. The largest of these compressors are two stage and can generate up to 100 CFM.

Rotary screw
Top of the range rotary screw compressors can be far more powerful than reciprocating compressors. A single stage model can produce 1,500 CFM; a two stage can produce as much as 2,500 CFM.

When it comes to CFM and PSI ratings, centrifugal air compressors are in a different league. Dealers can offer centrifugal machines for major industrial work that provide 60 – 15,000 CFM at 30 – 320 PSI.

Other specification details

As well as CFM and PSI ratings, some dealers give you specifications that include

  • the air compressor tank capacity in litres
  • the noise level in decibels
  • the horsepower

Among portable models, tank capacity varies from 50 – 200 litres. Bear in mind that the tanks are often built from cast iron, so a 200 litre model isn’t easy to move.

To assess the noise level of an air compressor, compare its rating to the decibel level of normal conversation: 65 dB.

Don’t spend time comparing the horsepower (HP) of one model against another. The results are inaccurate because manufacturers have their own ways of arriving at the HP figure, and some compressors are engineered to give you a higher CFM with less HP. The best approach is to use the CFM and PSI ratings.

Planning Ahead

A well maintained air compressor will give you 10 -15 years service. So it’s worthwhile ensuring you buy a machine that meets both your immediate needs and any increased use in the future. You may, for instance, decide to buy more powerful air compressor tools in a year or so’s time.

It’s also useful to ask your dealer about any compressed air applications that might be relevant to your business but that you haven’t thought about. You can then get the best from your air compressor by ensuring it has the capacity and features to let you expand its use as necessary.

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