What Size Air Compressor Do I Need For Air Tools?

May 29, 2023

Air compressors come in many sizes, but size doesn’t determine whether an air compressor is powerful enough for your air tools. Instead, you should assess your tools’ air requirements and find an air compressor size that meets those requirements.

Why Bigger Isn’t Always Better

We all know bigger isn’t always better, which is exceptionally true when it comes to air compressors. For example, some large-looking air compressors have low air output, while some compact air compressors produce high air output.

Specific manufacturers like VMAC have put significant research and development time into creating air compressors that are as small and lightweight as possible without compromising power. But not all manufacturers focus on minimizing size, so it’s impossible to assess an air compressor’s capability by size.

How To Determine Your Air Compressor Size

Instead of assessing an air compressor’s capability by physical size, operators should look at how much air it delivers, measured in Cubic Feet Per Minute (CFM). As a guideline, most air compressors for powering tools fall in the 10 to 110 CFM range.

Air compressors with lower CFM ratings work well for passenger tire inflation and small tools, such as chippers, grinders, and sanders. Higher CFM air compressors are designed for industrial applications, OTR tire inflation, and larger tools, including 1” impact wrenches and 90 lb jackhammers.

To narrow down your specific requirements:

  1. Look at the CFM requirements for the most demanding air tool you use.
  2. Note whether the CFM rating is for 100% duty cycle, as many continuous-use tools are still rated as if you’re only using them 50 to 60%—you will need a higher CFM rating if you don’t want to stop regularly.
  3. If you use multiple tools simultaneously, combine their CFM rating to determine your need.

Once you learn how much CFM your most demanding air tools require, you’ll know how powerful your air compressor needs to be. Try to find an air compressor sized to meet your air output needs without going too far over.

Air Receiver Tanks

Air receiver tanks are a great way to increase the amount of air available over the short term. Air receiver tanks are required for reciprocating air compressors, while rotary screw compressors often don’t need tanks due to their 100% duty cycle capability.

However, in some cases, operators can choose a lower CFM rotary screw air compressor if they have an air receiver tank. For example, suppose you need 45 CFM of compressor air, and you’re deciding between a 40 CFM air compressor and a 60 CFM air compressor. In that case, the 40 CFM air compressor with an additional air receiver tank may be the most cost-effective option.

You can learn more about air receiver tanks, including sizing information, in our How To Size An Air Receiver Tank article.

Air Tool Consumption Chart

The best way to get an accurate measure of your air power needs is to look up the requirement of your specific tools. However, if you don’t want to look up your tools’ CFM ratings, you can use VMAC’s Air Tool Consumption Guide to quickly get a rough estimate of your air needs. This guide breaks down the typical CFM required for most tools and makes it easy for operators to guesstimate their CFM requirements.

30-40 CFM Air Compressor
@100% Duty Cycle, 90 psi
60-70 CFM Air Compressor
@100% Duty Cycle, 90 psi
90-100 CFM Air Compressor
@100% Duty Cycle, 90 psi
¾” impact wrench 1” impact wrench #5 spline impact wrench
Air hammers Sanders Pneumatic saws
Die grinders Vertical & angle grinders 90 lb pavement breaker
Ratchets 60 lb pavement breaker  

To view the rest of the info, download our air tool consumption chart here!

Finding The Right Air Compressor

Once you know your CFM requirements, it’s time to start narrowing down air compressors. There is a lot to consider:

  • Rotary screw vs. Reciprocating
  • Portable vs. Stationary
    • Tow-behind, Handheld, Wheeled
    • Utility mounted, Vehicle integrated
  • Fuel/Power Sources
  • Multi-power Systems

Fortunately, a bit of research will help you make quick decisions about the right type of air compressor for you. Learn more about air compressors with the resources below:

VMAC Product Finder Quiz
How To Choose A Mobile Air Compressor For Your Work
Performance Differences of Rotary Screw & Reciprocating Air Compressors
The Top 9 FAQs About Compressed Air