How To Choose A Gas Powered Air Compressor For Your Service Truck

CFM Ranges & Requirements

Determining your CFM requirements is the very first step in choosing the right gas-powered air compressor for your service truck. Once you narrow down your air needs, you can identify air compressors that meet those needs.

There is a big range in CFM produced by gas powered air compressors. Service truck models tend to start around 10 CFM and can reach as high as 80 CFM. But it’s important to note that CFM also correlates to price; the higher the CFM, the higher the price tag. For this reason, you want to choose an air compressor that will meet your demands without being too overpowered.

To determine your CFM requirements, you first need to determine the CFM requirements of the individual pneumatic tools you plan to use with the air compressor. If you run more than one tool at a time, take the individual CFM requirement of each tool that runs simultaneously and add the CFM together.

You can read more about CFM here: How many CFM do I need to run my air tools?

When PSI Requirements Matter

Most air tools operate at 90 PSI and, conveniently, most gas-powered air compressors run at 90 to 125 PSI. If you’re running fairly small, standard pneumatic tools, you probably don’t need to put too much stock in PSI when considering your compressor, as long as your CFM needs are met.

However, if you have tools that you need (or want) to run above 90 PSI, you’ll need to confirm the air compressor can handle it. Tools that require above 90 PSI will likely need a two- or three-stage reciprocating air compressor or a rotary screw air compressor.

When you’re reviewing your tools for CFM, take note of the PSI as well to determine your air compressor requirements.

If you’re interested in learning more about PSI, check out our post titled “Air Tool Pressure + 5 Reasons To Use The Right PSI For Air Tools”.

Deciding Your Budget & ROI

After you know your technical needs, the next most important factors to consider are your budget and ROI.

Gas driven air compressors range significantly in price, but that price is often tied to the air compressor’s expected lifespan. Better quality air compressors often come with a higher price tag. It’s important to consider your available budget, but don’t forget to calculate ROI as well.

Let’s take a look at two example scenarios:

Example AExample B
Reciprocating Air CompressorRotary Screw Air Compressors
$2300$4300
3 Year WarrantyLifetime Warranty

On first glance, Example A is the less expensive option, but is this really the case? (Spoiler alert: no!) There’s more to this equation than upfront costs. The warranty is good indicator of how long the air compressor is expected to last. If you divide the upfront cost by the years the air compressor is under warranty, the dollars tell a different story:

Example A – 3 Years = $766 per year
Example B – 6+ Years = $716 per year

A $2300 air compressor that lasts three years costs roughly $766 per year that it’s in use. By contrast, a $4300 air compressor that’s under a lifetime warranty only needs to last 6 years to cost less per year. The longer it lasts, the better the savings get. In this scenario, if you plan to be in business for at least six years, Example B is the clear winner.

Basically, if an air compressor costs twice as much but is built to last three times as long, it’s usually a worthy investment. Now, that’s a general rule but there are always going to be exceptions. Operators who only plan to be in the business for a couple years or who know their equipment will be upgraded soon are likely to find better value in Example A.

Before you go out and decide on an air compressor, think about how much you’re able to spend and how long you plan to use the system you purchase.

Reciprocating vs. Rotary Screw Designs

There are two types of gas power air compressors made for service trucks: reciprocating, also called piston, and rotary screw.

Rotary screw air compressors come at a higher cost than their reciprocating counterparts in exchange for big benefits: smaller size, lighter weight, and an air end that outlives service trucks. Reciprocating air compressors require an air receiver tank to build up a store of compressed air and this tank roughly doubles the size and weight of the air compressor system.

It’s easier to understand the true difference when you see it first hand, so let’s do some side-by-side comparison. Here are two gas-powered service truck air compressors that use the exact same Honda GX390 engine:

Reciprocating vs. Rotary Screw Air Compressors

On the left of the above image, you can see the NorthStar model 459382, a decent quality reciprocating air compressor. The Honda GX390 engine is at the top left of the system. The pistons are located at the top right, in the two-prong antennae-shaped casing, with a cast iron pump and crankshaft located directly below. At the bottom of the entire system is the mandatory air receiver tank, which is a 30-gallon unit in this particular case.

To the right of the image is VMAC’s G30 rotary screw air compressor. You can see the same red GX390 engine, but that’s where the similarities end. The rotary screw air end is located in the silver cast-aluminum casing beside the engine’s fuel tank, while the other visible components are part of the oil separator and filtration systems. Note there is no air receiver tank, which saves a significant amount of space and weight.

Comparison Stats

 Reciprocating (NorthStar 459382)Rotary Screw (VMAC G30)
Weight 492 lbs (dry)205 lbs (wet)
Height40”23.9”
Width19”21.4”
Length41”33.5”
Air Output24.4 CFM @ 90 PSI30 CFM @ 100 PSI
Price$$$$$$

Now, these are obviously two very specific systems, but they are both good representations of typical reciprocating and rotary screw air compressor types. They demonstrate the notable difference in size and weight, and also show how rotary screws offer more power despite their compact size.

If you want to learn more about the difference between rotary screw and recip air compressors, check out these resources:

Easy Guide To Rotary Screw Air Compressors (2019 Edition)
Performance Differences of Rotary Screw vs. Reciprocating Air Compressors

Common Gas Engine Types

Honda EngineYou may have noticed Honda engines mentioned a few times in this article and that’s not really a coincidence. Honda has become the most ubiquitous supplier of gas engines for air compressors, and they’re everywhere for good reason. Honda engines are hard-working powerhouses that provide optimal results in trying conditions.

However, Honda isn’t the only gas engine out there. There are several gas engine options for service truck air compressors, including:

  • Honda
  • Kohler
  • Briggs & Stratton
  • Subaru

Ultimately, the air compressor manufacturer will source and choose the gas engine that’s used in their system. While the engine will have an impact on the performance and capabilities of an air compressor, you’ll see it reflected in the specs.

However, there are a few things you can look at when considering engines:

  1. Warranty
  2. Dealer Support Network
  3. Tech Support

If the CFM and other specs meet your needs, the engine can be a secondary consideration. However, if you’re still in doubt and want the confidence of owning a high-quality engine, pick an air compressor that uses a Honda GX series engine.

Gas Air Compressor Warranties

VMAC Lifetime Warranty LogoA good quality gas power air compressor is built to last several years and should survive in outdoor work conditions. For this reason, many manufacturers will back their air compressors with warranties.

We recommended choosing an air compressor under warranty for two reasons:

  1. Warranties protect your investment, which can provide peace of mind and save you thousands of dollars in the event of a malfunction
  2. Better-than-average warranties can be an indicator of a high-quality air compressor

Of course, not all warranties are the same. Any air compressor with a Honda GX390 engine will have a 3-year warranty on the engine component, which makes it a standard offer across the board. But what about the air compressor itself? That’s where you’ll see a massive range in warranty.

You’ll need to check individual compressors to confirm details, but it’s fairly common for reciprocating air ends to come with 1- or 2-year warranties, if they have a warranty at all, while some rotary screw manufacturers back their air ends with lifetime warranties. For example, VMAC offers a lifetime warranty on the air end component of the G30 gas air compressor.

Reputable manufacturers will stand behind their product and provide assurance that the air compressor will not fail.

Connect With Your Local Upfitter

Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for—CFM, PSI, rotary or recip, and warranty expectations—it’s time to get hands on! We recommend talking to a local service truck upfitter or equipment dealer to learn more about available gas air compressor models in person.

Connect with a trusted VMAC dealer here!

Now, keep in mind that not all dealers will keep all their available gas powered air compressors in stock. But they will be able to speak knowledgeably on the gas driven products they provide and ensure the air compressor you ultimately choose will be the perfect fit for your needs.

A Word of Caution About Online Reviews

Before we wrap this up, let’s also take a quick moment to talk about affiliate links in reviews, which are becoming a problem for buyers in the air compressor industry.

If you do a quick search for “best gas air compressor,” you’ll quickly notice a few top contenders that are repeated on several sites—but you’ll also notice that each of these “best of” sites contain Amazon links. That’s because the authors get paid each time you buy a compressor through one of those links.

Affiliate linking is a problem because it encourages authors to promote the products that pay them the most, versus the products that will serve you best. These lists of the “best gas air compressors” are actually the “best paying gas air compressors”, which adds a significant amount of bias to the articles.

That’s not to say these articles don’t include valuable information but take the positivity with a grain of salt and don’t make a decision until you talk to a reputable service truck upfitter.

Summary of Choosing Your Air Compressor

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be a huge hassle to choose an air compressor for your service truck. Follow the steps below and you’ll be in a solid position to make your final decision:

  1. Determine your CFM requirements
  2. Determine whether you need more than 90 PSI
  3. Figure out your budget
  4. Choose reciprocating vs. rotary screw
  5. Review warranty options
  6. Talk to your local service truck upfitter

VMAC Gas Drive Air Compressor

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