Complete Guide to Buying the Best Industrial Air Compressor

Mar 23, 2021 by Brad Taylor

Table of contents

Complete Guide to Buying the Best Industrial Air Compressor

Compressed air is a key power source extensively used across diverse industrial sectors. Its safety, flexibility and convenience have set it apart from other power resources. Compressed air ensures seamless transitions while delivering a consistently uniform force. Moreover, it boasts a superior power-to-weight ratio to alternative power sources, achieving higher pressures with minimal air volumes.

Using air-powered tools requires fewer components, incurring lower maintenance costs, reducing downtime and streamlining installation procedures.

Air compressors assume roles in nuclear power generation, chemical companies, food and beverage manufacturing, pharmaceutical production and more. The advancement of air compressor technology has revolutionized these industries, propelling them toward heightened speed, enhanced safety and improved efficiency.

Nevertheless, not all industries employ the same type of air compressors. Each sector has unique requirements and specifications, demanding air compressors tailored to their specific needs. Let's explore those options further in this guide to buying an air compressor.

In This Article

Applications for Industrial Air Compressors 

Compressed air finds extensive use in various industrial and commercial applications, showcasing its versatility. Some of the most prevalent uses are:

Applications for Industrial Air Compressors

  • Powering pneumatic tools: Pneumatic tools, such as drills, impact wrenches and pneumatic cylinders, require compressed air. An air compressor supplies the necessary pressurized air, enabling these tools to perform various tasks efficiently and with consistent power.
  • Automation and control systems: Air compressors power automated systems and provide the necessary compressed air to operate pneumatic actuators, valves and cylinders, which are integral components of automatic machinery and production lines.
  • Conveyor systems: Compressed air is commonly used to power conveyor systems in manufacturing facilities. It enables the movement of materials, components and finished products along the production line, facilitating smooth and efficient workflow.
  • Pneumatic actuation: Pneumatic actuators, such as air cylinders, are essential for precise movement and control in manufacturing processes. An air compressor supplies the air required to actuate these devices, allowing for accurate and repeatable motion in assembly lines, sorting systems and other industrial applications.
  • Cleaning and blow-off operations: Compressed air used for cleaning purposes, such as removing debris, dust or contaminants from parts, machinery or work surfaces. Air compressors power air blow guns or jets, providing a directed stream of compressed air for efficient cleaning and blow-off operations.
  • Pressurized systems and equipment: Certain manufacturing processes require pressurized air systems for specific applications. For example, pneumatic presses, clamps and control systems rely on compressed air from an air compressor to generate the necessary force or pressure for accurate and controlled operations.

Types of Air Compressors 

The most prevalent type of air compressor relies on positive displacement mechanisms to generate pressure. Two commonly used variations are reciprocating piston air compressors and rotary screw air compressors.

Reciprocating Compressor

Reciprocating compressors use cylinders or pistons to compress air. They have a smaller capacity and are designed for intermittent usage. These compressors can operate as either low-pressure or high-pressure machines and find frequent application in garages, workshops and construction sites.

There are two configurations for reciprocating compressors:

Reciprocating Compressor

  • Single-stage compressors: These compressors draw air from the atmosphere and compress it to the final pressure in a single stroke. Single-stage compressors are typically employed for pressures ranging from 70 to 135 pounds per square inch (PSI). They usually offer higher cubic feet per minute (CFM) rates than two-stage compressors.
  • Two-stage compressors: Two-stage compressors involve a two-step process, compressing air to an intermediate pressure and then to a final pressure of up to 200 PSI. Two-stage compressors exhibit greater efficiency at higher pressures due to compressed air cooling between stages. While most two-stage reciprocating compressors are oil-lubricated, oil-less versions are also available.

The choice between oil-less and oil-lubricated reciprocating compressors depends on specific industry requirements. Oil-less models are more suitable for lighter usage, as they may wear out faster, while oil-lubricated versions are more durable and appropriate for frequent, heavy-duty applications. 

Typical uses of oil-less and oil-lubricated reciprocating compressors include:

  • Handheld pneumatic tools: Reciprocating compressors are used for powering a range of handheld pneumatic tools. Their versatility and ability to deliver compressed air at varying pressure levels suit these tools' intermittent and diverse air requirements.
  • Small workshops and garages: Due to their compact size and lower capacity, reciprocating compressors are well-suited for small workshops and garages. They provide sufficient power for tasks like inflating tires, operating small air tools and powering pneumatic systems.
  • Construction sites: Reciprocating compressors find utility in construction sites where intermittent air supply are prioritized. They can power pneumatic tools, such as jackhammers, impact wrenches and paint sprayers, enabling efficient construction, renovation and repair work.
  • Manufacturing and industrial applications: They can be employed in pneumatic manufacturing lines. Additionally, reciprocating compressors are utilized in metalworking machines like CNC machines, laser cutting equipment and blow guns.
  • Spray painting: In automotive, industrial or artistic applications, reciprocating compressors are used to power airbrushes and spray guns for painting. They deliver the air pressure and volume required to achieve consistent and precise spray patterns.

Rotary Screw Compressor 

Rotary screw compressors utilize two screws rotating in opposite directions to compress air. They are characterized by their high capacity and low-pressure operation, designed for continuous use that can extend up to 24 hours daily. These compressors are typically large-scale industrial machines, ranging from 10 horsepower (hp) to 1,000 hp.

Rotary Screw Compressor

Note that screw compressors offer a maximum pressure of 215 PSI and are not primarily intended for high-pressure requirements like reciprocating compressors. Extended periods of inactivity for rotary screw compressors should be avoided, as they can lead to rust formation. 

Rotary screw compressors are used in various industrial and commercial applications where a continuous and reliable compressed air source is required. Here are some typical uses of rotary screw compressors:

  • Manufacturing facilities: They can power pneumatic machinery, such as automated assembly lines, conveyor systems and robotic equipment, providing a consistent compressed air supply for smooth and efficient operations.
  • Construction and contractors: They can power air tools and equipment, such as jackhammers, impact wrenches, pneumatic drills and sandblasters, enabling heavy-duty tasks and continuous operation without interruption.
  • Automotive industry: In the automotive sector, rotary screw compressors are used to power air tools, such as pneumatic wrenches, air-powered paint sprayers and tire inflation systems, providing the necessary compressed air for automotive repair, painting and assembly operations.
  • Manufacturing processes: Rotary screw compressors are used in manufacturing processes that require compressed air for operating machinery and equipment. They can power air-operated control systems, pneumatic actuators and cylinders, facilitating precise movement, control and automation in production lines.
  • HVAC systems: They provide compressed air for cooling, air circulation and pneumatic controls in large-scale HVAC applications, ensuring efficient and reliable operation of the systems.
  • Food and beverage industry: In the food and beverage industry, rotary screw compressors are used for packaging, bottling and processing applications. They provide clean, oil-free compressed air, adhering to the strict hygiene standards required in food and beverage production.
  • Energy and mining: They can power drilling equipment, pneumatic tools and control systems, enabling efficient exploration, extraction and processing of natural resources.

Reciprocating vs. Rotary Screw Technology

A reciprocating air compressor is often the most suitable solution for smaller businesses that infrequently use air tools or require horsepower below 10 hp. Typically, rotary screw air compressors or vane compressors are employed in cases demanding higher horsepower. Systems with a constant load exceeding 350 horsepower may opt for centrifugal compressors.

Common Air Compressor Features 

When selecting a suitable air compressor for your company, you require more comprehensive information. In addition to the available types, you need to be aware of the features and options associated with each.

Pressure, Capacity and Flow Rate

Pressure, Capacity and Flow Rate

Air pressure is measured in pounds per square inch and represents the air pressure the compressor delivers. Higher PSI indicates a larger volume of air compressed per minute. Most compressors offer pressures ranging from 100 to 175 PSI, but the required air pressure depends on the typical air consumption of the tools used at the same time.

Maximum CFM Usage

Cubic feet per minute (CFM) measures the volume flow rate, indicating how much air a compressor can pump in one minute. Larger applications require higher CFM units. 

Compare compressors using Standard Cubic Feet per Minute (SCFM), which standardizes the measured flow of air to a set of reference conditions: 14.5 PSIA, 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 0% relative humidity. Calculating the total CFM of all the tools used simultaneously and adding a 30% safety buffer helps determine the required CFM. However, consider that totaling the air tools' usage throughout the day may result in an inflated CFM value.


Horsepower is the unit of measurement for the power a compressor motor produces. Higher hp engines generate greater PSI and can handle heavier workloads. The typical range of hp for air compressors falls between 1.5 hp and 6.5 hp. 

Contrary to popular belief, models with higher hp are not superior to those with lower hp. A 5-hp compressor does not necessarily outperform a 3-hp model and may consume more power if the extra horsepower is unnecessary. As horsepower increases, so does CFM, which represents the volumetric flow rate of the compressed air output.

Drive System

An electric motor-driven compressor is preferable if electrical power is consistently available. Electric drive systems are cost-effective and require less maintenance. On the other hand, if electrical power is not always accessible, a gasoline engine-driven compressor offers flexibility in the work area.

Tank Size

Tank Size

Choosing the appropriate tank size depends on the intended usage. Smaller tanks are suitable for quick, concentrated bursts, while larger tanks are necessary for continuous operation. Units with larger tanks and powerful motors can sustain higher levels of PSI for longer durations. An oversized six-gallon tank can store more air, reducing the frequency of pump cycles.

Cooling System

A compressor should feature an internal cooling system to maintain optimal temperature for the pumping mechanism and motor, thus extending their life span. 

Cooling systems to choose from include: 

  • Air-cool system: The air-cooling system utilizes a fan to cool the pump and vents excess heat into the ambient air.
  • Closed-loop dry cooling system: This system operates similarly to a car radiator or air conditioner coils. A coolant, usually glycol, circulates through closed coils, carrying heat away from the compressor pump and motor. Excess heat dissipates from the coils, re-cooling the liquid for the next cycle. 
  • Open-loop evaporative cooling system: This system is different as it relies on fresh water and moving air to cool the compressor. A fan blows air across the water, cooling the compressor motor naturally.

Thermal Overload Switch

Due to the heat generated during air compression, an industrial air compressor should include a thermal overload switch. This safety feature shuts off the motor if the compressor overheats, reducing the risk of motor burnout.

Standard vs. Oil-Free Pumps

Choosing between a standard pump and an oil-free pump depends on the specific requirements of your application. An oil-free pump will be preferred if your processes demand clean, oil-free air. However, a standard pump can provide reliable performance at a lower cost for general-purpose applications where oil contamination is not a concern. Consider these additional comparisons to help you decide:

  • Standard oil-lubricated pumps: Standard pumps require oil for lubrication to reduce friction and wear between moving components. The oil also helps dissipate heat generated during compression, leading to smoother operation and extended pump life. As the oil circulates in the pump, it can introduce small amounts of oil vapor or particles into the compressed air stream. While these contaminants may not be an issue for many applications, they can impact sensitive equipment or processes that require clean, oil-free air.

Oil-free pumps

  • Oil-free pumps: Oil-free pumps utilize alternative mechanisms to achieve lubrication without needing oil. Oil-free pumps provide a cleaner compressed air output, eliminating the risk of oil contamination. An oil-free operation makes them suitable for applications that demand oil-free air, such as in the food and beverage industry, electronics manufacturing, medical environments, and specific painting or finishing processes.

Single-Stage vs. Multi-Stage

Reciprocating air compressors come in single-stage and dual- or multi-stage versions. Single-stage compressors draw air from the atmosphere to the final pressure in a single stroke. They are commonly used for pressures ranging from 70 to 135 PSI and are suitable for lighter applications. Dual-stage compressors compress air to an intermediate pressure and then to a final pressure of up to 200 PSI. They are more efficient at higher pressures for continuous operation, facilities with multiple air-powered tools, machines and applications requiring pressures above 100 PSI.

What to Look for When Buying an Air Compressor

After determining the type of air compressor and horsepower best for your application, you can decide how to buy an air compressor. By understanding what to look for, you can select an air compressor that will provide reliable performance and meet your requirements.

Purpose and Intended Use

Determine the air compressor's primary purpose and intended use. Consider the applications you will be using it for, whether it's powering pneumatic tools, operating machinery or running a production line. Create a list of your requirements for your air compressor to help you identify the appropriate specifications and decide how to choose the right air compressor.

Operating Pressure

Assess your applications' maximum required operating pressure. Consider the air pressure needed by your tools or equipment and choose an air compressor that consistently delivers the required pressure. 

 Oil-free pumps

While tools typically operate at a maximum of 90 PSI, choosing a compressor with a higher PSI rating is wise. As air pressure decreases during usage, having at least 35% above the required 90 PSI (around 120 PSI) ensures consistent pressure for optimal performance.

Air Flow

Evaluate the volume of airflow you will need. Determine the total CFM required by considering the air consumption of all the tools or equipment used simultaneously. Add a safety buffer around 30% to ensure sufficient airflow. Remember that excessive CFM requirements can lead to an unnecessarily large and costly air compressor.

Power Source

Consider the available power sources at your location. Electric motors and gasoline engines are the two primary power sources for air compressors:

  • Electric motors: They are commonly used for smaller compressors intended for indoor or stationary applications. They offer the advantage of being more cost-effective, requiring less maintenance and producing less noise and emissions. Electric-powered compressors are ideal for workshops, garages and other settings where electricity is readily available.
  • Gasoline engines: Gas or diesel engines are employed in larger, more powerful compressors that require mobility and operation in outdoor or remote locations. These compressors offer greater flexibility but are noisier and emit exhaust fumes. Gasoline-powered compressors are commonly used in construction sites, outdoor events and other environments without access to electrical power.

Noise Level

Evaluate the noise level of the air compressor, especially if you will be using it in a noise-sensitive environment. Look for compressors with lower decibel (dB) ratings or models with noise-reducing features such as insulated enclosures or vibration dampening.

Durability and Build Quality

Examine the build quality and durability of the air compressor. Consider factors such as materials, construction design and overall reliability. A sturdy and well-built compressor will provide long-lasting performance and require fewer repairs or maintenance.

Additional Features and Accessories

Take note of any additional features and accessories that may enhance the usability and convenience of the air compressor. Other features could include automatic shut-off, adjustable pressure settings, integrated air filtration systems or built-in air dryers. Consider whether these features align with your specific requirements and provide added value.

Brand Reputation and Customer Support

Research the reputation of the brand and the customer support they offer. Look for well-established, reputable manufacturers that produce reliable, high-quality air compressors. 

Budget Considerations

Set a budget for your air compressor purchase and ensure you find a model that fits your financial constraints. While it is essential to consider cost, prioritize finding a compressor that meets your specific requirements and offers good value for its features and performance.

How to Choose the Right Air Compressor 

By carefully considering factors and aligning them with your specific application, you can choose an air compressor that meets your needs, provides optimal performance and offers long-term reliability. Here is a list of factors to consider:

How to Choose the Right Air Compressor

  • Required operating pressure: Determine the maximum pressure needed for your application. Consider the PSI requirements of the tools or equipment you will use with the compressor.
  • Duty cycle: Determine the expected duty cycle of your application. Some applications require continuous operation, while others have irregular usage patterns. Choose a compressor that can handle the duty cycle effectively.
  • Maintenance requirements: Evaluate the maintenance needs of the compressor. Consider factors such as oil changes, filter replacements and overall upkeep. Determine if the maintenance schedule aligns with your resources and capabilities.
  • Compressor type: Choose between different compressors, such as reciprocating (piston), rotary screw or rotary vane, based on your specific requirements and budget.
  • Additional features: Consider other features that enhance usability and performance. These may include automatic start/stop, pressure regulators, built-in air dryers, thermal overload protection, digital controls or integrated air filtration systems.
  • Safety considerations: Prioritize safety features such as pressure relief valves, proper grounding and adherence to safety standards.
  • Future expansion: Consider potential future growth or changes in your air requirements. If development is anticipated, ensure the compressor can meet future demands.

How to Choose the Right Air Compressor

Find the Right Air Compressor With Fluid-Aire Dynamics 

Fluid-Aire Dynamics offers an extensive range of air compressors tailored to meet diverse needs. We exclusively provide equipment and products manufactured by reputable companies that have earned our trust. 

Our commitment extends beyond product sales. With years of experience, we possess expertise in installing and repairing these products. Our services encompass a wide range, including repair, maintenance, installation and emergency support. By providing prompt assistance, we aim to minimize downtime for our customers, leading to increased profitability.

Explore our air compressors today, and feel free to contact us anytime for additional information or a free estimate. 

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