Air Compressors 101

Air Compressors 101: What Are They and How Do They Work?

For the avid DIYer, home woodworker, or car repair enthusiasts, they know all about essential air tools. Most of them also own air compressors to use those tools.

For anyone not invested in those lifestyles, though, the air compressor is often little more than a curiosity that they hear about. Ask them what air compressors are or how they work and you can expect a lot of blank looks.

If you’re curious about air compressors and how they work, keep reading for our quick guide that explains the basics.

What Are Air Compressors?

In essence, air compressors are machines that create pressurized air and store it. In most cases for residential compressors, the air goes into a steel tank. You can then use that pressurized air to drive a stunning array of tools for specialized purposes.

How Do They Work?

Different types of air compressors use slightly different methods or motor designs, but they all aim at a similar end goal. In essence, the motor of the compressor pulls in air. The available space for the air gets smaller the more air the motor pulls into the machine.

As the air compresses into less and less available space, the pressure builds and builds. Of course, you don’t want an endless buildup of pressure. The motor would fail or the tank would rupture.

That’s why most compressors work within a specific range of pressures measured in pounds per square inch. The most common range is 90PSI to 150PSI, but some home compressors go as high as 200PSI.

Types of Air Compressors

There are several types of air compressors, such as:

  • Piston
  • Helical
  • Diaphragm
  • Axial
  • Centrifugal
  • Rotary

For the home user, you will likely deal with a portable air compressor that uses a piston design, such as a pancake compressor or hotdog air compressor.

Commercial or industrial concerns will often use more robust equipment, such as diesel-driven Ingersoll Rand air compressors from Swift Equipment.

Air Compressor Uses

Air compressors see use in a very wide number of areas. Home users, auto shops, and construction companies use them to power air tools, such as:

  • Nailers
  • Sanders
  • Impact wrenches
  • Paint sprayers

Large-scale HVAC systems for schools or manufacturing facilities use them for air pumps, as well as for heat pumps. Food manufacturers use them for contaminant-free packaging. Other areas where you commonly find air compressors include agriculture, oil drilling, and even scuba diving.

Air Compressors and You

For most people, you’ll likely only run across a portable compressor that you use in your garage or workshop. These air compressors let you use pneumatic tools for DIY projects, auto repair, and woodworking. After all, why paint by hand when you can use a spray gun.

You’ll encounter the results of an air compressor any time you see a custom paint job, buy sealed food, or stay warm when you attend your kid’s winter play at their school.

Looking for more information on useful home tools and projects? Check the posts in our Home, Lifestyle, and How To sections.

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Christophe Rude

Christophe Rude

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