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What Is an Electric Compressor?

By Amy Rodriguez
Updated May 17, 2024
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An electric compressor is a machine that pressurizes and stores air within a tank for use in powering pneumatic tools, such as a nailer or impact wrench. This compressor type is extremely versatile as it has the ability to be used indoors and outdoors, as well as to power small and large tools. Consumers need to consider tank size and power specifications before purchasing an electric compressor, based on the intended use around the home.

Basic compressors use a motor to power an internal pump or piston to reduce the air's spatial volume inside the tank. As a result, the air becomes more densely compacted within the tank. When attached to an air tool, the electric compressor will force the pressurized air into the tool, creating mechanical movement. Each air-powered tool is light in weight since it does not need to house an individual motor, allowing the worker to use the tool longer with power provided from the electric compressor.

Unlike gas compressors, an electric compressor does not produce harmful fumes. The lack of fumes makes this compressor type compatible with indoor use, which is especially helpful if the user lives in a colder region and must use tools indoors more often. Many electric compressors run on basic wall outlet electricity, between 110 and 120 volts. The main drawback to a wall outlet powered compressor is the smaller power output; these compressors can only use a 2 horsepower (HP) motor or less. As a result, wall outlet powered compressors are less useful for tools needing more power, like a grinder.

Stronger electric compressor motors, ranging from 3 to 10HP, require a direct link to an electrical panel. These high-powered compressors use between 220 and 240 volts, producing enough mechanical strength to power heavy duty items, such as a sander. The main drawback to this compressor type is the physical electrical connection. Users will have limited movement of the compressor since it must remain hard wired to the panel, compared to simply unplugging the machine to transport it to another area. Another option is to install a 240 volt receptacle in the area or areas where the tool is most likely to be used.

If a user intends on using the compressor often, and for long durations, experts recommend purchasing a large tank size. The large tank will hold more air for the beginning stages of a project, continually refilling as the air is depleted. Smaller tanks will run out of air faster, requiring the user to wait until it refills. Tools requiring small forced air amounts will use less tank air overall, compared to high powered sanders and grinders that deplete air supplies quickly.

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