Tire Inflator or Air Compressor: Which Do You Need?

Understand the Two Main Types of Powered Machines That Can Be Used to Inflate Tires

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

Tire inflators vs. air compressors. What exactly are the differences? Do you need one machine more than the other, or are both handy to have around? Let’s dig into the key differences.

First, there are two main types of powered machines that can be used to inflate tires on cars, tractors, wagons, and more. We’ll refer to them as tire inflators and air compressors, though these names aren’t especially formalized—both machines compress air and can be used to inflate tires.

Tire inflator

For the purpose of this article, a tire inflator is a machine that inflates tires without using a tank to hold compressed air. The lack of this tank makes tire inflators lightweight and portable. Some tire inflators draw power from a regular wall outlet, but others can be powered by the 12-volt (cigarette) outlet in a car. That’s convenient if you want a tire inflator that can ride along in your car and, if necessary, inflate a tire when you’re traveling and away from other sources of power.

But tire inflators have disadvantages. In some cases they’re not as powerful as air compressors with tanks, so they can take longer to inflate tires. And they may be unable to fully inflate tires that require high pounds per square inch (PSI) of pressure. Check the recommended PSI range for the tires you’ll be filling and make sure the maximum PSI rating of your tire inflator is higher.

Air compressor

For the purpose of this article, an air compressor is a machine that holds compressed air in a storage tank. Many models are electric and plug into wall outlets, but gasoline air compressors are also available.

Strength is a primary benefit of an air compressor; they typically have high maximum PSI ratings and can be used to quickly inflate tires to high PSI levels. And while an air compressor (like a tire inflator) is bound to produce some noise while it fills its tank, once the tank is full you can inflate tires in silence using the stored air, at least until the pressure in the tank drops low enough for the air compressor to start up again.

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But there’s another big benefit offered by air compressors: they can do more than just inflate tires. Air compressors can be used with a wide variety of air-powered tools, such as nail guns and impact wrenches. You’ll just need to ensure you air compressor is big enough and strong enough to handle these jobs, which comes down to factors like the size of the holding tank (in gallons) and the volume of air (in cubic feet per minute, CFM) the air compressor can supply at any given PSI level.


If all you’re looking for is a machine to inflate tires to moderate PSI levels, opt for a tire inflator and appreciate its portability. But if you have heavy-duty tires to fill, or if you want to use air tools (like a nail gun) on farm construction projects, an air compressor is the way to go. Or best of all, get them both and use whichever is better suited to any given need that arises.

This article about tire inflator or air compressor was written for Hobby Farms magazine online. Click here to subscribe.

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