January 13, 2021
So you've decided to add an air compressor to your toolbox for working on tubeless bicycle tires - great! Which one should you buy? There are many on the market from $100 - $1,000 and lots of choices.
This article assumes you've already selected the required inflator head, and just need a compressor to plug it into. Let's narrow down the list to some air compressors that work great specifically for working on bikes:
Home users should consider a small, compact, and inexpensive air compressor if they plan to work on bicycle tires. Many of even the smallest compressors have plenty of volume and pressure to get your tubeless tires seated and to handle your day-to-day inflation needs.
For home use, a "hot dog" or "pancake" compressor with a 2-8 gallon tank is great.
Kobalt 3 Gallon "hot dog" air compressor
This is the model I personally use. As of this writing it sells for $129.99. The 3 gallon tank is a great size for the home user. It's small enough to lift, alone, into the trunk of my car for events, and doesn't take up too much space in the corner of your workshop. It's even small enough to sit on top of a workbench.
Craftsman 6 gallon "pancake" air compressor
For a little more money ($169.99) you get a larger holding tank, so the motor runs less often. The other features are similar if not identical. This might be a nice choice if you work on many bikes at the same time, or if you plan to use the compressor for home improvement tasks, like powering air tools like a nail gun.
Can you go even cheaper? Yes.
Harbor Freight offers this 3 gallon hot dog model from McGraw for just $59.99. Note this model only goes up to 110 PSI (the Kobalt model is 150 PSI...) and represents the bare minimum that might do the job on a bicycle. Don't expect longevity, but it might be OK for occasional use.
Bicycle shops and teams who work on multiple bikes all day long will be better served by a larger volume compressor. Same applies to pro mechanics - time is money. While the fittings and capabilities will be the same, a larger tank means you can do more inflation between recharges. When an air compressor recharges, the motor runs to fill the tank, which is noisy. This is annoying in retail bike shops, so buying a compressor with a larger holding tank allows you to minimize that noise, charging it before or after hours when customers aren't around.
Kobalt 20 gallon vertical portable air compressor
A good choice for high-volume shops. In the $300 range you're getting a much larger tank than the consumer models designed for the home, and wheels with a handle so you can wheel it around the shop or take it to events. Shops may also consider wheeling the compressor into the "back alley" during the workday, then running pneumatic lines back into the shop, to help control noise.
DeWalt 30 gallon vertical portable air compressor
As of this writing, this air compressor sells for about $700 - a serious investment. What you get for your money is a massive 30 gallon tank (large enough for significant inflation before the motor needs to recharge), and construction intended to stand up to pro use at job sites. Like the Kobalt 20 gallon model, it's on wheels for easy transport. The big selling point here is the long-term ability to maintain and service the air compressor, instead of throwing it away as it wears.
A larger tank comes at the expense of portability. Smaller compressors, like the Lowes 3-gallon model mentioned above, can easily be lifted by one person into a truck or van to travel on-site to an event. Larger compressors are heavier and bulkier, and may require two people to lift.
I recommend staying away from compressors with these characteristics:
If you're decided to take the plunge and purchase a compressor, please see my article "How to setup a home air compressor for use with tubeless bicycle tires" to learn how to adapt the fittings for use on bicycle presta or schrader valves once you have the compressor, and make sure you've got a matching inflator head to plug into your new compressor.
May 07, 2021