This article reviews an essential piece of automotive and home kit, the portable air compressor. When it comes to air compressors, it’s not a question of if you need one, it’s a question of when. Everyone will encounter a situation at some point where an air compressor is either a necessity, like a flat tire in the middle of nowhere or needing to inflate a pool raft without experiencing that annoying light-headedness.
We’ve researched the different offerings available and reviewed five of the most popular. Just like any other tool, not all 12-volt air compressors are created equal. In fact, some are junk, not worth your money, and not something you ever want to have in your vehicle to help you out of that tight spot mentioned above.
It’s a bit daunting when looking at the portable air compressor market. There are models with tons of cool looking and sounding features and accessories. There are some with eye-catching designs and form factors. So, how do you sift through the hype? By reading this article, of course! We’ll run through the good and bad points of each, and at the end, give you enough information to decide which is the right compressor for your needs.
Have you ever heard of feature fatigue? That happens when people look at products with a bazillion (it’s in the dictionary) features. It leads to feeling overwhelmed and can cause the buyer to either make a poor decision or move on to something else. Why are we mentioning this? As we noted above, some of the models we review are loaded down with features. You may not need all of them. Some may have so many features, no one of them are executed well.
We recommend you eliminate feature fatigue by looking at a short list of essential criteria, which include:
Let’s get started, shall we?
|Viair 00088 88P 12V Portable Air Compressor|
|EPAuto 12V Portable Air Compressor Pump|
(Best for the Money)
|Helteko 150PSI 12 Volt Portable Compressor||3 lbs||4.60/5|
|TireTek TT-303 RX-i Digital Car Tire Inflator||6 lbs||4.30/5|
|AstroAI Portable Air Compressor Pump 100 PSI||4 lbs||4.05/5|
Why not start with the best of the bunch? Based on our research, Viair makes and sells the best 12-volt portable air compressor currently available. This is a rock-solid workhorse that will serve you reliably, no matter the situation. Viair is the real deal as a company. They are ISO 9001 certified (the only one in the list), have been in business for more than 20 years, and their only focus is, “fractional horsepower DC oil-less air compressors & air accessories for on-road, off-road, and industrial markets.”
Why is this focus important? They know air, air compression, and how to make a product that delivers it every time without fail. That’s precisely what you want in the trunk of your vehicle. They cost the most of any portable compressor we cover, and they are worth every penny. Here’s why:
What are the negatives or downsides to this 12-volt compressor? We list the “warts” below and offer this caveat, none of these should be considered a deal breaker except the price. If your budget can’t handle it, and we can relate to that, check out our next review.
If you can swing it financially, grab this jewel. When the chips are down, or the raft needs inflating, you’ll rest easy knowing your Viair 88P has your back.
Note: PSI is the most tempting criteria for choosing a portable air compressor. It is, however, a bit misleading. It is always the “maximum” rated capacity so, yes, more can be better. But it needs to be considered in combination with CFM. That represents how much air the tool can supply per minute, and it drops as the PSI increases. It’s better to have more CFM.
Okay, moving on, we come to our silver medalist, the EPAuto portable air compressor. The EPAuto grabbed second place by delivering excellent performance and value for the money. From a performance standpoint, the EPAuto compressor matches up well against the Viair, although the Viair is more powerful.
It offers a digital pressure gauge and features you might appreciate such as auto shut off when reaching the desired PSI setting.
This portable comes with a ding or two of its own. Below are the ones we think you need to consider.
We picked this as the best value and recommend it for your needs if the price for the Viair isn’t palatable. Reviews and other research show the EPAuto to be an excellent choice and well suited to automotive and other applications.
Note: Four of these 12 V portable air compressors offer an auto shut off feature that stops the motor when the set point PSI is reached. We recommend never leaving any air compressor unattended when it is running for safety reasons. You don’t want anything to explode from overpressure or to have your compressor burn out.
Sitting dead center in the pack is the Helteko 150PSI portable. As you might guess from the model number, this compressor provides up to 150 PSI, matching the Viair. However, it’s CFM is lower, a reflection of a less powerful tool. It offers reasonable performance for the price and has an attractive vertical case design. It comes with a storage bag, the same tips as the previous two compressors, and has a digital gauge with auto shut-off.
Unique among all the models in this article is the 90o connector. It slides over the valve stem, and the user closes a lever, much like bicycle pumps. This can be an advantage for individuals who have difficulty with a screw on connector. The positive aspects of this model are noted below.
On the debit side of the ledger, we found the following items.
If you like the design, this might be your compressor. Saying that, the better choice in the price range is the Helteko.
Hint: Reading through the operation instructions for these compressors, we noted to our satisfaction that they tell customers to keep their vehicle running while using the compressor. This is very important because these compressors put a massive drain on the battery and can run it down to the point it won’t start your car if the engine isn’t running.
Coming in at number four and out of the medal race is the TireTek TT-303 RX-i compressor. This unit is a significant step down from the Viair. On the surface, this compressor impresses. It has a hard plastic case that stores the compressor and all the accessories. It comes with the most extensive array of accessories of any in our review. However, this is a situation where the cover is much better than the book. The operative word here is cheap.
What were the positive aspects of this compressor?
On the flip side are the negatives of this tool. Based on our research, these issues were frequently noted.
The question you may have on our inclusion of this product is, “Why, if there are so many issues?” The reason is simple: it sells a lot, likely because of the accessories and the overall design. TireTek would serve its customers better by spending more on quality parts than on design. No offense to any product designers out there.
Hint: Keep a tire gauge with your compressor or in the glove box. There are enough reports of inaccurate PSI delivery that it makes sense to double check, especially when it comes to auto tires.
Bringing up the rear is the AstroAI. We don’t know what the AI stands for but are confident it isn’t artificial intelligence. Just joking. This is a compressor you should steer well clear of. That’s a shame too because the company that manufactures it makes several excellent automotive-related products. The appearance of the compressor is cool, and their use of a digital rendition of an analog gauge is clever. But beauty is skin deep for this tool.
What did we find that were good points? Not so many as you’ll see. We didn’t list price as a pro because you’re wasting your money no matter what they charge.
Below are several of the more common issues users experienced with this compressor. Caveat emptor must be their product tag line, or maybe it should be.
Because of its appearance and price, a lot of people buy this compressor. We include it for that reason to help our readers avoid a bad investment that might fail at an inopportune time.
Hint: Overfill the tire or other inflatables by .5 – 1.0 PSI. Why? To maintain your target pressure. When you take the compressor hose off, you’ll lose some air. Overfilling compensates for that.
We’ve presented a lot of data, and we hope it will be helpful when you venture out to buy your 12-V portable air compressor. To avoid information overload, we’ve inserted a table with certain key features you should keep in mind when shopping. All in the spirit of preventing feature fatigue.
Time to wrap up the reviews of five popular 12-V portable air compressors. As tool guys and gals, we know the value of a reliable air compressor, one that is easy to take or keep with you for emergency or convenience needs. The compressors we reviewed include the good, the bad, and the ugly (an homage to that famous Clint Eastwood movie).
If you have the budget, the Viair 88P is the best choice hands down. It doesn’t have a carrying bag, but that can be added later. What can’t be added later is quality and reliability to a substandard product. A carrying bag for a piece of junk is merely an easy way to take it to the recycler. For those who do not want to spend that much, you can’t go wrong with the EPAuto 12V. Affordable, capable, and of excellent quality.
Be cautious with the other three. They may or may not meet your needs. In this class of tool, if you rely on it for keeping your wheels on the road, it isn’t worth the risk. Happy shopping!