Rotary Screw vs. Reciprocating Air Compressors – Performance Comparison

October 25, 2016

The two most common mobile compressors are rotary screw air compressors and reciprocating (or piston) air compressors. But what’s the difference between them? In this article, we’ll compare the performance of rotary screw vs. reciprocating air compressors and help you choose the best solution for your work vehicle.

Reciprocating air compressors, which are also called “piston” or “recip” air compressors, are widely used throughout various service industries due to their price and availability. Many commercial vehicle operators request reciprocating air compressors because they don’t understand the difference between rotary screw and reciprocating air compressors and are only familiar with what they’ve traditionally used.

Meanwhile, rotary screw air compressors provide better performance and often require less space, which makes them an attractive alternate option. The image below shows two gas powered air compressors, with a reciprocating air compressor on the left and a rotary screw air compressor on the right:rotaryscrew-vs-recip-air-compressor

Comparing Rotary Screw vs. Reciprocating Air Compressors

The following charts allow you to compare the benefits and disadvantages of both rotary screw and reciprocating air compressors.


Rotary Screw Reciprocating
Continuous airflow Inexpensive
100% Duty Cycle Simple maintenance
Long lifespan Capable of high pressures
Better energy efficiency
Lifetime Warranty*
Large quantities of air
Higher CFM per hp
Air receiver tank is not required

*VMAC’s rotary screw air compressors include a VMAC Limited Lifetime Warranty.


Rotary Screw Reciprocating
More expensive upfront Interrupted flow rates
Requires skilled maintenance for rebuilds 20% to 30% duty cycle
Low life expectancy
Excessive heat
Maintenance costs
Requires air receiver tank

Key Advantages of Rotary Screw Air Compressors

Rotary screws have very distinct and important advantages over reciprocating air compressors:

Work Faster
Generally, rotary screw air compressors deliver more air compared to reciprocating compressors of the same size.  Reciprocating compressors require air reservoir tanks to handle larger air demands and reduce air pulses created in the compression process. Rotary screw compressors do not create the same type of air pulses and can deliver large amounts of air when required without the need of a reservoir tank. You won’t have to wait for your compressor to keep up with your work, which means you can get jobs faster and complete more jobs in a day!

Work Longer
Rotary screw air compressors operate at 100% duty cycle.  Duty cycle is the amount of time a compressor can continuously operate without stopping to prevent overheating in a given time. For example, if a compressor can run for 60 minutes in a 60-minute period without stopping, it is 100% duty cycle. If it can only run for 30 out of 60 minutes, it is 50% duty cycle. Most reciprocating compressors are only capable of 50% duty cycle, which means those compressors can only operate half the time, reducing your ability to get the job done. A rotary screw compressor runs 100% of the time, so you can get your job done without interruption.

Work Worry-Free
Rotary screw air compressors last longer than reciprocating air compressors. Like an engine, reciprocating compressors have piston rings and other components that contact each other and wear over time. With that wear comes a decrease in performance, oil carryover, and more heat generation. Oil-flooded rotary screw compressors use oil to seal the internal rotors, preventing parts from wearing out. Unlike a reciprocating compressor that loses performance with age, the rotary screw compressor maintains the same performance throughout its long life.

Work With More
Rotary screw air compressors are lighter and provide more capacity in a smaller package than reciprocating air compressors. As a result, vehicles can haul more equipment, tools, and materials and spend less time driving between shops and job sites. Not only can you haul more, but you can also do more. The rotary screw compressor will provide enough power to operate the most common hand-held pneumatic tools. From impact wrenches to deburring tools to grinders, you’ll have the air to power your tools when you need it.

Why People Prefer Rotary Screw Air Compressors

VMAC surveyed 340 industry professionals in 2021/2022 and discovered that 80% of people prefer rotary screw air compressors over reciprocating.

SOTI 2022_Chart 15

When asked why they prefer rotary screw air compressors, industry professionals said it was because of performance, quality/reliability, and size/weight. Meanwhile, the 20% who preferred reciprocating air compressors choose that option because of ease of service and repair, price, and availability.

SOTI 2022_Chart 16

Read the full survey results here.

Ultimately, if your primary concern is size and weight or job performance from a high-quality system that will last a vehicle’s lifetime, rotary screw air compressors are the way to go. By contrast, if upfront price, ease of repair, and widespread availability are your driving motivators, a reciprocating air compressor may be a better fit for your needs.

Learn More About Rotary Screw Air Compressors

Rotary screw compressors provide many advantages over their reciprocating compressor counterparts. Size, air delivery, duty cycle, and longevity are all factors that firmly land in favor of a rotary screw compressor. Learn more in VMAC’s Guide to Rotary Screw Air Compressors.