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Types of Air Compressors and Their Uses

Types of Air Compressors and Their Uses

Types of Air Compressors and Their Uses

Reading time: 6.5 min

Air compressors are invaluable machines that provide quick, safe and efficient power on construction sites. They work by converting the power from a gasoline, diesel or electric motor into compressed air, which gets stored in a storage tank.

Air compressors are used to power a wide range of pneumatic (air-powered) tools such as demo hammers, drills, nail guns, jack hammers and impact wrenches.

Before choosing the right air compressor for your job, it’s important to understand the various types of air compressors and their uses.

Air Compressors for Construction

Although air compressors are used in a variety of applications, they’re used most heavily in the construction industry.

What is an Air Compressor Used For in Construction?

In construction, air compressors are used to provide pressurized airflow to pneumatic (air-powered) equipment and hand tools. Pneumatic tools provide a number of advantages over electric or gas-powered tools, such as being lighter, easier to maintain and safer to use.

Since pneumatic equipment and tools don’t have engines, motors or batteries, they are simpler in design and break down less frequently.

A single air compressor can be used to provide airflow to any number of pneumatic tools, allowing all the tools used by your team to be powered with a single device. This cuts down on the hassles associated with battery or fuel-powered devices.

Air compressors come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including many that are highly portable. This makes them an efficient and mobile way to power your tools and equipment on the jobsite.

How Do Air Compressors Work?

Air compressors work by using an electric motor or diesel/gasoline-powered engine to force air into an air chamber where the volume is decreased to compress the air. The compressed air is then forced out through an output valve and into a hose which connects to your tools.

As the pressurized air is channeled from your air compressor into your pneumatic tool, it exerts pressure on pistons in the tool that move up and down to generate mechanical power. The power provided by air compressors is powerful, efficient and safer than gasoline, diesel or electric power.

Operating an Air Compressor

Operating an air compressor is simple and doesn’t require special training. To operate an air compressor, you’ll typically need to follow these steps:

  1. Make sure the air compressor is on a sturdy, level surface.
  2. If applicable, make sure the oil and fuel levels are sufficient.
  3. Make sure the air release valve on the air tank is closed.
  4. Turn on the air compressor.
  5. Adjust the pressure regulator to the desired level.
  6. Connect the air hose to the compressor and to the tool you’ll be using.
  7. Begin working.

Make sure to keep the air compressor away from any flammable materials. Do not exceed the maximum pressure rating of the air compressor or of any tools connected to it.

If you’re using a gasoline- or diesel-powered air compressor, make sure it is in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling harmful fumes.

Types of Air Compressors Used in Construction

There are many types and sizes of air compressors used in construction today. Air compressors can be differentiated by the mechanism they use to compress air and their form factor. The two methods for achieving air compression are positive displacement and dynamic displacement.

Positive Displacement

Positive displacement air compressors compress air by forcing the air into chambers where the volume is decreased to compress the air.

Dynamic Displacement

Dynamic displacement air compressors use a rotating blade that constantly turns, forcing air out of a restricted output valve to achieve constant air pressure.

Nearly all air compressors used for construction utilize positive displacement to achieve air compression. Dynamic air compressors mainly have applications in industry and manufacturing. Positive displacement air compressors can be further broken down into three categories:

  • Rotary Screw: Rotary screw compressors feature rotating screws that trap air as they spin around each other. As air travels down the rotating screws, it is compressed in spaces that shrink as the air gets closer to the output valve. This type of compressor is frequently used on large construction sites and can handle continuous use.
  • Rotary Vane: These compressors feature an off-center rotor that spins a vane inside of a casing. As the air rotates inside the vane, it is compressed by the shrinking action of the vane’s arms. Rotary vane compressors are simple and easy to use, making them ideal for residential use.
  • Reciprocating (Piston): A piston compressor, also called a reciprocating compressor, uses pistons to achieve air compression. This type of air compressor is typically used for small jobs and home renovations. It’s not ideal for continuous-use applications.

For most large scale construction applications, rotary screw compressors are the best solution. These compressors are powerful and best equipped to handle continuous use.

Choosing an Air Compressor

In addition to the compression method, you’ll also need to consider the best form factor for your air compressor. Some common form factors for construction air compressors include:

  • Towable: Towable compressors are one of the most commonly-encountered types of air compressors on construction sites. They are compact, durable and can be towed around the jobsite by a truck or work vehicle.
  • Portable/Mobile: Portable air compressors have a compact form factor and can be transported in a work vehicle or truck. Some portable compressors are light enough to be carried up stairs and scaffolding, making them a good solution for hard to reach work areas.
  • Vehicle Mounted: Vehicle mounted air compressors are a type of heavy duty air compressor that can be mounted to the work deck of a truck. These air compressors are convenient to use as they’re always with the vehicle they’re mounted on.

Your needs will determine which form factor you choose. For powering heavy equipment, towable and vehicle mounted air compressors are good options. They deliver the most power and are highly reliable. For work in small areas where mobility is a concern, portable air compressors are an ideal solution.

Other things to consider when choosing an air compressor include:
  • CFM Rating: CFM, which stands for cubic feet per minute, is a measure of the rate at which an air compressor can force air into a pneumatic tool. Certain tools require a certain CFM to function, so make sure your air compressor will provide sufficient CFM for the tools you’ll be using.
  • Noise: Air compressors can be very noisy, which may be a problem if you are working in commercial or residential spaces. If noise is a concern for you, then make sure the compressor you choose is on the quieter side.
  • Fuel Type: Most compressors are powered by diesel, gasoline or electricity. Diesel and gasoline compressors are highly portable, but electric compressors are the best choice if you plan on working indoors where fumes are a concern.

Air Compressor Maintenance

Regular maintenance is important to keep your air compressor in good working condition and prevent down time.

Here are some key areas of regular air compressor maintenance to include in your maintenance program:

  • Check and change the oil.
  • Check and change the air filter (new filters are available from the EquipmentShare shop).
  • Check and tighten belts.
  • Drain the tank regularly to prevent rust.
  • Inspect and clean the compressor regularly.

A major advantage of air compressors is they are relatively easy to maintain. Problems with air compressors are uncommon, but can include oil leaks, failing electrical components, hose leaks and broken valves. The best way to avoid these problems is through the implementation of a preventative maintenance program.


Air compressors are vital equipment for construction crews. They provide safe, clean and efficient power to your team’s pneumatic tools and equipment.

At EquipmentShare, we’re here to help you keep the air flowing. Check out our online parts catalog to find quality OEM and aftermarket parts for your air compressor. Still can’t find what you need? Contact one of our parts experts for personalized assistance.

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