Car Tyre Air Compressors & Inflators: A Full Guide

Air Compressors for Cars

With some modern vehicles coming equipped with run-flat tires and tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS), a common misconception is that a portable tire inflator or air compressor is no longer a necessity.

But that’s not the case because tires can lose air over time even if you don’t have a puncture. Owning your own tire inflator means you can conveniently and routinely check your tire pressure, making sure they’re in an optimal range.

Underinflated or overinflated tires can have a myriad of adverse effects on your driving experience, potentially affecting your fuel economy and tire wear. Purchasing a tire inflator is a small investment in helping make sure your tires last as long as possible, saving you money in the long run.

Truth be told, there isn’t a whole lot differentiating the portable tire inflators or air compressors available on the market. But some are manufactured better than others, which makes them more reliable and likely to last a long time.

If time is important to you, you’ll want to see which products inflate a tire quicker, while others have a maximum pressure limit. Lastly, you’ll want to pay attention to whether the product uses a 12-volt car outlet or a standard power outlet. It’s more convenient to purchase a 12-volt air compressor, this way you can keep it in your car and use it on the go.

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But keep in mind some of today’s vehicles are equipped with a standard power outlet, so we include a few recommendations for those as well. Here are our picks for the best portable tire inflators.

air compressor for car

Types of Air Compressors for Cars

1. Analog

As the more traditional type of compressor for cars, these rely on the same motor as other types. Analog models use a pressure-controlled gauge to assess the pressure. This type is often harder than its counterparts since overheating can’t damage circuitry that isn’t there.

Most feature a simple on/off switch, a pressure gauge, power cord, and air hose. So long as it’s compatible with your tires’ valves and it can reach a high enough pressure, analog is sufficient.

2. Digital

Modern, digital air compressors for cars use the same fundamental technology as an analog model, but it incorporates an LCD screen. The benefit of this approach is that you can easily switch metrics and pre-program the ideal pressure.

Most include automatic shutoff features to prevent overheating. Usually, these are a bit bulkier than their analog counterparts. However, since there are more demands on the structure, they are less noisy since there is more of a barrier to that sound.

Key Features

  • Power Source: Your air compressor needs to be able to draw power from somewhere. Most air compressors plug directly into the 12-volt port in your vehicle, pulling from the car battery. Be sure that the cord is long enough to reach properly. Many also have an AC power cord to plug into any standard wall outlet. You can find some with rechargeable batteries that are entirely cordless. As long as you have the reach and battery life necessary, you’ll be set.
  • Motor: As perhaps the most critical feature of the compressor, the motor does all the legwork. Measured in watts, the more power it carries, the more efficiently it can pressurize your tires. It plays into the fill rate as well as the maximum pressure it can reach. Look for motors in the range of 120 to 180 watts to get the most power. These can handle the heaviest-duty tires, but for smaller cars, 100 watts is safe.
  • Air Hose: The air hose is the part that relays the compressed air into the tire through the valve. You connect it directly to the tire, holding a tight seal, and turn on the air compressor. Keep in mind that there are different types of valves, and the set requires compatible extensions to work. Most sets include more than one extension, so compatibility is not usually an issue.
  • Gauge: Essential to assess the current pressure of your tire, the gauge can be either analog or digital. Analog models have a clear lens that covers a dial. Most gauges measure in more than one metric, with the most common in the industry being PSI (pounds per square inch). Digital interfaces give you a reading and let you change metrics with the push of a button. Analog is more traditional and hardier, while digital gauges are better in the dark.

Other Considerations

  • Calibration. Reading your tire pressure is essential to properly fill your tires, as long as it’s an accurate reading. While there are ANSI standards that require it to be accurate within two percent, some models are more precise. Digital interfaces usually have a smaller margin of error due to the sensitivity of the sensors.
  • Maximum pressure. Finding an air compressor is a balancing act of size and power. Naturally, a bulkier compressor will fill to a higher pressure, but it’s also heavier and takes up a lot of space. Familiarize yourself with the optimal pressure of your tires and make sure the compressor exceeds those requirements.
  • Extra features. Many air compressors for cars are pre-programmable. You input the optimum pressure for the tire and hit go. It fills the tire and shuts down automatically.  Others incorporate an air compressor into another device like a power inverter or a jump starter. These other features give it added purpose and help save space in the trunk.
  • Overheating. A lot of air compressors are prone to overheating. Sure, any machine that runs for too long will overheat and run into issues. You’ll always need to take a break every 15 minutes, but some heat up much quicker. Look for good airflow through vented openings on the structure to avoid this issue.

Benefits of Air Compressors for Cars

  • Improves fuel efficiency. Keeping your tires at the proper pressure can improve gas mileage by an average of over half a percent. In some cases, it saves up to three percent. That might sound small, but that reduces your carbon emissions by around 304 pounds every year.
  • Safety benefits. All drivers know that if the car’s tires aren’t filled correctly, the vehicle doesn’t respond appropriately. This can impact everything from braking ability, likelihood to hydroplane to turning. An air compressor lets you adjust the pressure whenever you need to.
  • Cost-effective. In addition to the savings on gas (or diesel) by having properly inflated tires, there are smaller savings. Once you factor in the time driving to an air compressor and the change it takes to run it, an upfront investment in a compressor can save you money down the line.
  • Versatile and convenient. Just because air compressors for cars are primarily designed for cars doesn’t mean the utility ends there. You can use them to inflate a beach tube, bike tires, and air mattresses. Since they go in the vehicle and run off of its battery, you can always have it at your disposal. 
  • Portable and compact. When you add up all the necessary supplies to drive safely, it takes up a lot of space. Especially if you drive a vehicle without a truck bed, finding space can be a struggle. Air compressors for cars are built to take up very little space, so it’s easy to bring them along.

Air Compressors for Cars Pricing

Under $50: You can find many solid options in this category, with most ringing in at around $30. They will likely be a more basic model, but it will get the job done.

Between $50 and $150: For air compressors for cars, you can get a high-quality model with several supplemental functions. Most are digital and incorporate all the necessary safeguards to extend the lifespan.