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Guidance on Buying a Compressor

4004 Views 19 Replies 15 Participants Last post by  Scottg
I'm finally biting the bullet and getting a compressor. I'm fairly handy, and do projects pretty regularly. On the other hand, I might use the compressor for one project, and not touch it again for a year.

My main interest is in using it for trim. Anything beyond that would be a plus.

I'm trying to trade off size vs. capability vs. price (to include things like nail guns and hoses). A 20 gallon compressor will undoubtedly meet most of my needs, but it'd be a bear to get up from the basement (although perhaps I could keep it in the basement and simply run a long hose).

Any suggestions, either spec-wise or a particular brand/kit? I've heard I should shoot for something with 4.5 cfm, but that seems to require something pretty large.

If it helps, I'm looking in particular at the Porter Cable 3 nail gun kit at Home Depot, which I can get on a special buy for $230 ( It's only 2.6 SCFM at 90 psi, however. Is this enough though for my purposes?

Thanks for your help,

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Get the big one and run a hose. Those pancake compressors are good for nailing, filling beach balls, and that's about it.
I've used pancake compressors for many many years.
We use them for roofing, trim, framing, flooring nailers with no issues.
There light enough to take right up on the roof with you.
Unless your planing on spray painting, using a jack hammer or some other high CFM tool it will work.
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2.5 cfm will be fine for trim---not good for larger guns like framing and roofing---that compressor is LOUD!
I have a 30 gallon upright from Sears, just your basic Craftsman model. It's held up great for me for many years and it's run a variety of tools from nail guns, air ratchets, impact guns, paint sprayers, and DA sanders. I would definitely suggest going for the bigger unit and getting a second hose. Unless you need a portable unit (something you're going to take away from your house), a big unit with long hose will suffice.
I've made do with a little pancake compressor. It's great for filling car and bike tires, inflating balls, cleaning small stuff like spark plug holes and cylinder head bolt holes, and from what I understand, small air tools like staplers and brad nailers. I haven't tried those, as I just got my first air tool not long ago: a palm nailer. However my poor little compressor couldn't keep up with me using it to repair siding and fascia. I could do a few nails, then had to wait for pressure to build back up. This is what happens if your tool requires more CFM than your compressor supplies. I.e., you can run a big CFM tool on a little CFM compressor, but only if you don't mind using your tool in bursts with breaks in between. Using a big air tank with a little compressor lets you work in longer bursts, but then of course requires more time to replenish the tank.

I added a separate 11g tank and if I let the compressor fill it before starting, things worked much better since the tank would let me finish a run and the compressor could mostly catch up before the next run as I was cutting and fitting and caulking etc. Of course then it has to run constantly which probably isn't good for it, but I guess when it dies I can get a slightly bigger one. Don't want a huge one though, too heavy to lug around.

The little guys are LOUD. Use a long air hose so you aren't deafened just by standing next to it. Or if it spends most of it's time in the garage, build an enclosure for it (allow baffles for cooling airflow though).
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I bought that 6-gal porter cable a couple months ago and I've been using it for framing and trim. I'm not a contractor though so I don't work very fast but the compressor has had no problems keeping up with me. I also like that it's small enough that I can take it wherever it needs to go without any effort.

It is LOUD when it kicks in though and it scares the bejeezus out of my girlfriend and our 2 cats.
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The biggest advantage of the little pancakes is they're portable.
A larger compressor is way more versatile.
What are your priorities?
I bought a 30 gal upright, built a shed around it. When my next-door neighbor needed air to build a shed, he bought me a long hose. Now I have enough hose to reach anywhere. It's great.
yet another opinion, I have same compressor.
I paid $159 at lowes, but did not come with the nail guns.

I am not 100% positive on this and would need to check ... I ask you to check.
There are many tools, I will pick on dewalt cordless drills. They make a home owners series and a contractor series, often only way to tell is the price and the handle is either black or yellow.
Last time I looked, is how dewalt did this.
I believe porter cable does same thing with their compressors.
The clue is the nail guns that come with it, you add the cost up individually and comes to more then what you are paying,

This all sounds good, but in contractor series, you not getting free nail guns.
The compressor sitting on shelf next to it, it is contractor series and cheaper, just saying. Is different quality tools available at the big box stores, check into the exact model number before making a purchase.
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First determine what you plan on doing with it if its just trim work and fairly small occasional stuff the pancake should work well. And if you want a little more there is one step up it has a handle on 1 end wheels on the other, and a larger motor and a bigger tank. Still mobile but not quite as much so. Due to the larger tank and all, this is probably the most a homeowner will need, but only you can determine this.
Wow, all great feedback.

Let's see if I can summarize ...

In general, bigger is better (20-30 gallon). To get around the portability issue, use a long hose.

Notwithstanding the above, a pancake probably will do fine, given my interest in using it for trim nailing. If I have heavier needs than trim nailing (e.g., framing), I might end up waiting for the pressure to build back up, but it'll still suffice to get the job done (albeit on an occasional basis; if I was using it day in, day out as in contracting work, it'd probably wear it out pretty quickly). If I don't want to keep interrupting my work, TylerNT suggested looking into buying a separate, larger tank so I could at least do a long run before having to stop.

ToolSeeker suggested looking at the mid-range. I did and I so thought about getting one of these -- particularly since you often can fill a provided smaller tank and take that with you (good for when you want to inflate a tire). Unfortunately, they're out of my price range.:mad:

FunFool pointed out that a manufacturer's offerings may look the same but not be in order to meet a price point. Very good point. Thanks for the heads up -- I'll check into it.

Finally, thanks for alerting me about the noise. Nice to know that whatever I get, it'll be as noisy as everything else, and I won't kick myself over getting something that causes such a racket!

Is the above about right? Any other thoughts?


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ToolSeeker said:
First determine what you plan on doing with it if its just trim work and fairly small occasional stuff the pancake should work well. And if you want a little more there is one step up it has a handle on 1 end wheels on the other, and a larger motor and a bigger tank. Still mobile but not quite as much so. Due to the larger tank and all, this is probably the most a homeowner will need, but only you can determine this.
Great advice! You won't truly hate a noisy compressor until you have a quiet one. If your not going to do much or use it often stick to a small oil less one. Just have enough hose so you can put it outside the work area. If your only going to use it once a year an have to store it the rest you'll like the small size of the pancake.

Not going to do well trying to blow out a sprinkler with it tho...
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Great timing on this thread. I'm in the same place.

Except for one thing: I'd love to be able to do my own winterization on our sprinkler system. There's just three zones and not more than 50' of run to any of the heads. This would save me a few $$ / year.

So... while it seems that I'd be fine with a little pancake with a couple gallons for a) bikes / auto tires, b) some finish nailing and occasional frame nailing, but only for small shed projects, etc. c) cleaning small parts and such...

I'm not at all sure it would work for winterizing the sprinkler system. That being said, if I have to go to 20 gal just for this one application, it's not worth it. Maybe 5? Would a 5 gal compressor do it? What HP?

Thanks for any suggestions.

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With my little 2g pancake and an add-on 5g tank, I could blow out my very very small sprinkler system no problem. Lonest run was maybe 35' long, though that run needed the whole tank.

So I tried doing a neighbors "real" sprinkler system... no go. Heads didn't even pop up. Utter failure.

Now I have an 11g add-on, which really helps extend working time on my palm nailer. Haven't had an opportunity to try sprinklers with it, though... perhaps others with more experience blowing sprinklers can advise you on the gallons required.
Hmmm... so it sounds like nothing less than 5g would work for 50' in any case. I'll have to consider how big I want to go. Really wanted to keep it to something easy to move around for my typical uses. Now I'm thinking 3g and separate tank for that one task. I'm pretty sure the irrigation company I use is $75 a pop for winterization. So in just four years, that's $300 which should cover cost of lower end gear. (Figure I don't need the best ever for my intermittent use. Then again... I prefer good stuff that lasts so call the payoff 6 years and we're up to $450.)
Now I'm thinking 3g and separate tank for that one task.
Yeah, my thinking exactly. I got my 11g tank from Harbor Freight for $35, and you can often find 20% off coupons in magazines.
What ever you buy if you don't use it every day don't store if with air in it open the drain and leave it open. I had a nice Cratsmam 30gal compressor. I drained the tank of water after heavy use. It lasted 30 years, then the tank rusted thru. The air in the tank will make condensation every time the temp changes around the out side of the tank.
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Big difference in noise of oil-less or not...weight a problem, get the twin-tank aluminum from Sears or HF, 20gal. 3.5 or 5hp will run a framing crew of 3... pancake will drive everyone nearby- crazy or deaf.. my 2 cents.

buy a ridgid Tri-stack. 4.9cfm @90psi
you can seperate the compressor for the small trim jobs.:)
Ended up getting the Porter Cable 6 gal on a Father's Day Home Depot sale for $199 with framing nailer and brad nailer. I got a crown stapler separately.

Love this thing. Should have done long ago. Already used it to chicken wire up some enclosed garden structures and attach some shelving.


Apparently, you're supposed to break it in for 15 minutes with the drain valve open. I didn't do that. I've only got a couple of hours on it now, but I'm not sure if it would help to do that at all, since I drained the air out of it after use. So any condensation should have gotten blown out then.

I'm a manual reader. And I did read the manual, but somehow missed this snippet and read about it online.
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