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How to Use Your Air Compressor: Everything You Need to Know

Once found only in the workshops of die-hard, dedicated crafters and mechanics, air compressors are fast becoming a household staple for the average DIY enthusiast or handyman.

An air compressor is a machine that provides power to an extensive range of pneumatic tool types, which are generally used in garages and workshops, as well as on building sites. Some of the types of tools that are often run with air compressors are wrenches, grinders, nail guns, sanders, and paint sprayers.

An air compressor functions by releasing stored compressed air in a controlled manner, to cause the connected tool to operate. Air compressors are known to generate more power than the average handheld electric tool, and rather than needing to own an entire arsenal of tools, each with its motor, you only need one large machine, and your choice of its various, lower-priced attachments.

Fast becoming a must-have for the day-to-day crafter, air compressors come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and strengths. Knowing how to use your air compressor correctly is essential to its lifespan, as well as the quality of its output. We are here to ensure that you understand how to use yours.

How to Use Your Air Compressor

1. Find the Ideal Spot in Your Work Area

You must be sure to place your air compressor on a flat and stable surface and avoid any surfaces that feel flimsy or uneven. Usually, the floor is the best place to put your compressor while working, and you will want to have the machine close to a grounded electrical outlet.

2. Check the Oil Level

oil level gauge on air compressor
Check the oil level.

This step is only for piston-type air compressors, so be sure you know which type of compressor you have before proceeding. If you have a piston-type air compressor, this step is essential to ensure the top performance of the machine. Many compressors have oil gauges, in the form of a window, on the side of the oil compartment. If not, use the dipstick to check the level of oil in your machine. If necessary, top the oil up to the indicated level – be sure to check your owner’s manual if you are unsure of how to do this.

3. Check the Drain Valve

drain valve on air compressor
The drain valve.

The drain valve is usually located at the bottom of the air tank and is where excess moisture will be drained from after each use. Before starting work, ensure that this valve was tightened correctly after the last use, as this is essential for the proper operation of the compressor. Use an adjustable wrench to tighten the valve until it is fully closed.

4. Prepare the Air Tank

Connect the machine’s power cable to the nearest grounded electrical outlet. Turn it on, and allow it to run for about a minute, so the air tank can fill up. Keep an eye on the pressure gauge, and make sure the machine switches off when the pressure reaches that specific model’s capacity. It is usually between 100 and 115 pounds per square inch.

5. Set the PSI

PSI gauge on air compressor

We measure air pressure in “per square inch” (PSI) pressure units. On your machine, use the air control valve to adjust the maximum PSI, based on the specific tool you will be using. Each tool has its requirements for pressure input, and this information may be found on the underside of the tool, or in its user manual.

PSI is not the only concern at this point. You will also need to check the SCFM requirements of the tool, which is the airflow it requires to function. Some tools will need short bursts of air at the specified pressure output, while others may need a continuous flow at high pressure. Adjust your machine’s airflow to suit the tool you will be using.

6. Connect the Air Hose

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If you are unsure of how to do this, check your owner’s manual. Ensure that you have enough hose to reach your work area with some slack. If the power outlet is a fair distance away, and your hose is long, use a hose reel to keep things neat. Wrap the threaded end of the hose with thread seal tape if needed (this won’t be necessary for quick connect fittings), and use an adjustable wrench to tighten the hose in place.

7. Test the Safety Valve

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The safety valve is usually located near the hose line. When you pull the valve, you should hear hissing air. If not, it is usually not a cause for concern, unless you are unable to push the valve back into place.

8. Connect the Tool, and Get to Work

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Connect the desired tool to the loose end of the hose. To do so, pull back the protective collar on the hose, and attach it to the air intake valve on the tool. Release the collar to secure the connection. Once your work is done, or you need to change tools, disconnect the tool by pulling back on the safety collar again.

9. Remove Excess Moisture

When you’re done working, and before your store your air compressor, remove any excess moisture from the air tank. This should be done after every use to prevent rust from building up inside the tank. Check your user manual to find out how to do this for your model, but usually, you just remove the drain valve from the bottom of the tank with a wrench, and the air will push the moisture out. Once the water has drained completely, replace the drain valve before storing the machine.

How to Maintain Your Air Compressor

Now you know how to use your air compressor, there is just one more thing you need to know, and that is how to care for it properly so that it lasts you a good, long time.

  • Store your air compressor on the floor, in a low cabinet, or on a low shelf, and ensure the area is free of moisture.
  • Reference your user manual often, as each type of air compressor has its own care needs. Be sure you know the requirements of your device well.
  • Check the fasteners regularly, as loose fasteners will mean your air compressor will be less effective.
  • Keep the intake vents clean to prevent clogged vents from lowering the performance of your compressor.
  • Replace the oil in your air compressor on an annual basis.
  • Inspect the hoses often, as holes and tears in the hoses will result in bad performance of the machine.
  • Check when the air tank will need to be replaced. The air tanks on these compressors have a limited lifespan, as even with the best care, they will eventually wear out, and can be dangerous if not replaced on time.
  • Always wear appropriate safety equipment for the individual tools you are using. Portable air compressors have vastly improved the safety and efficiency of working with these sorts of tools, but basic safety precautions must always be followed.

Know Your Air Compressor

Air compressors are sold by many manufacturers, and there are several design styles. The two most common types of air compressors are the piston style and the diaphragm style.

  • The piston-type air compressor requires oil to operate, usually has a higher power output, and can run larger tools.
  • The diaphragm type is more commonly found in the home tool shed and seals with a rubber diaphragm. These require no oil and are most often used for smaller tools, like nail guns and paint sprayers.

It is important before you get started, to know the duty cycle rating of your particular model of air compressor. This is the ability of your machine to run for a length of time without becoming damaged.

The duty cycle rating is written in percentages, and a machine with a 100% rating can be run all day without any negative effects. A machine with a rating of 50% will require the same amount of time off as it has run for, so check the machine itself, or the owner’s manual, to find out the duty cycle rating of your air compressor.

Most machines with a rating of under 100% will tell you specifically how long the machine can run for before it must be turned off, and rested.

Is Your Machine Gas or Electric Powered?

Find out by inspecting the machine, or reading the user manual. If you own a gas-powered air compressor, be sure to use ethanol-free gasoline, as this will preserve the lifespan of your machine. If that is impossible, use a stabilizer in your fuel. For gas-powered machines, there may be a necessary break-in period – often, the machine will need to be run for 30 minutes before use.

If your machine is electric-powered, avoid using any extension cords to power the compressor. This may cause the machine to overheat, and could cause damage. If you have to plug your compressor in far away from your work area, rather utilize longer air hoses to reach the workspace.