There’s a huge number of small compressors on the market. That’s because portable air compressors are used for everything from running jackhammers and sand blasters to air wrenches and paint guns. They’re used by nearly every industrial trade, as well as by homeowners. However, in our industry — residential construction — most compressors are enlisted into active duty for running nail guns on site. With this in mind, I will focus here on directing builders and remodelers towards the features and specifications to look for on smaller hand-carry models (those with 11/2- to 4-gallon tanks and electric motors in the 3/4- to 2-hp range), and on typical wheelbarrow models (those with 8-gallon tanks and 11/2- to 5-hp electric motors or 4- to 8-hp gas-powered engines).

A compressor is a very simple machine. It’s essentially a piston under power that pushes air into a tank. Simple valves — no more than flaps that open or close in one direction — allow air into the cylinder on the piston’s downstroke. As the piston returns on the upstroke, this trapped air is forced into a storage tank. Each piston stroke sends...

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