Our compressor test has finally come to a close, and here are the results. We looked at all manner of compressor tools and tests and found what we consider to be some truths and untruths about what’s handy and what is scrap. To be honest, we didn’t find any flaming bags of poo in our test, just some compressors built for different kinds of jobs and a few we didn’t really get along with for one reason or another.
As you might expect, performance testing was largely a matter of looking at the numbers. The more CFM the tool required, the more challenging it was to keep up using low CFM compressors. So an 18-gauge brad nailer might go 50 brads before it needs to cut in on a 4.2 CFM compressor, where something like the CH got somewhere around 12 brads. Did both do the job? In a word, yes.
However, there was a large difference in how fast the tank refilled and how quiet it was while doing so. Compressors like the Bosch and Makita would only kick in for a few seconds — the DeWalt and Hitachi for around 20 seconds and something like the CH would go chugging on for a full minute or so.
There was also the matter of what you were going to be doing with the compressor. For instance, intermittent or continuous tools will make a large difference in what compressor you use and how well it works. Intermittent tools like 18 gauge nailers running at 90 psi (or even framing guns) might be fine for lower CFM rigs or compressors that have a cut out of 130 or 165. This is because you aren’t using it all at once and the motor can catch up to your use by replacing pressure when you’re lining up the next shots.
But when we hooked up an air-powered drill (continuous) with a CFM rating of around 6.5, the results were, well, not good. A few seconds of pulling the trigger and every one of the tested machines was pedaling at top speed to keep up. Eventually they all spun down into gasping out whatever the pump would push. The lesson: Don’t use continuous tools higher than the CFM rating of the compressor, or they won’t perform like they should.
So to better understand where machines that seem similar on the outside really start to differ, we put up a few baseline numbers.
- Price: You get what you pay for. Try as we might to exclude it, cost is still a heavy factor in our tool purchase decisions.
- Noise: We threw a decibel meter onto this task. We tested each unit in our show at a distance of 5 feet in the same spot for each and reported the reading. Your shop will most likely produce a different reading since all shops are constructed differently and are of different size.
- Weight: How much dead weight you’ll have to schlep around if you carry it.
- Fill Time: From 0 psi to the machine’s cutoff, timed by a stopwatch. Basically, for how long is this thing going to wake the dead before it’s ready to go in the morning.
- Oil/Oil Free: Oil is often a hassle. It’s also required for most of the compressors on the shelves today. If you’re one of those folks who just don’t want to deal with oil, we have a few oil-free compressors on the list as well.
- Tank Material: Most of the field is good old-fashioned steel. Okay, everything but the Ridgid. However, when you look at what some other brands did with steel, you begin to see how much difference proper application of construction and design can do in the ole’ weight department.
With that in mind, let’s get on with it.
Despite being a little awkward, weighing in at 72 lbs., and the vertical tank arrangement which proved not as comfortable to lug around as other setups, the Bosch had just about everything else going for it. The control strip located between the tanks was both convenient and easy to use. The drain lever was located at the front (which is the only one in the test with that feature) and generally didn’t have an issue. It filled 18 seconds faster than the next best compressor in the field, and its adjustment knob was extremely easy to dial in and operate.
One of 3 oil-free compressors in the test, the 6.0 gallon Bostitch had the largest tank of the bunch. Though it’s got a good setup and a solid set of standard controls, the Bostitch proved that volume isn’t quite everything. The 2.7 CFM airflow was good but didn’t have the overall power of operation the others had. Sporting the second-highest noise rating @ 95 dB made for a loud reset when the pressure had to be brought back up to the cutout level. It did prove to be relatively easy to carry about, though, with its pancake form factor that everyone remarked was better for transport.
If you only look at the performance numbers, the CH is outclassed in almost every way. It’s not really fair to pit the little CH against a field of pros, but we did it anyway — and here’s why. It’s a cheap way to get compressor power without spending $200-300. The CH will get the job done: It’s not pretty and there are better tools for anything heavier than sports equipment duty, but you can flip the switch and make it happen with this. Say what you wish, but that’s worthy of note.
We received a lot of email and comments about the DeWalt when it wasn’t included in the original test, so much in fact that we halted the test and got one to compete at our own expense. What’s interesting is the DeWalt runs in the middle of the pack all the way across the board. Our biggest complaint with the DeWalt was that the screw valve drains and the single hose coupler put it behind the other more modern contenders as far as features go.
Our tester got so fed up with the screw valve that he ripped it off and installed an extension piece and a lever valve so he wouldn’t have to “…fiddle with that damned screw valve tucked under the bottom of the world.” Overall it was solid and performed well, but there are much better models out there — quieter, too.
The Hitachi was almost identical to the DeWalt in most ways. The same setup, same feel, same performance specs, and it costs about as much. It did have one flaw we weren’t fond of — the oil. The EC 89 takes SAE 5w-50 synthetic motor oil, which sells for $8 at the local auto parts store I had to visit before we cranked it for the first time. I understand why they did it of course — better coating and longer wear — but in my humblest of opinions they ought to tell you that in big letters on the box before you cart the thing home or to the job site.
About the only other functional differences between the DeWalt and Hitachi was the Hitachi has a lever drain valve on each of the twin tanks at the bottom, and the gauges are in one spot near the hose fitting instead of one on the tank and the other on the regulator. It felt very much like the difference between Ford and Chevy trucks in the 90’s. Pick which ever one you like for its style: The power and features are about the same.
The Makita was the surprise of the test. Not only did it rock the house on performance, beating all before it except the Bosch with the speed of fill from a dead start, it was only 3 dB louder than the much-smaller CH. The air filter on the Makita also reminded us of a 68 Mustang (which helped) and the lock on the pressure regulator (just push and turn slightly to lock) was about as sure-fire as controls get on a portable compressor. The form factor was also familiar and gauges were easy to read. Try as we might, we just couldn’t come up with much to nit-pick with the MAC2400.
The Porter Cable was almost shocking when compared to others in its class. It’s oil-free, which is a big plus to begin with. It was also maintenance-free as far as we could tell, because nothing came off the motor and there were no filters to be seen. The 4-gallon pancake and small footprint are unmatched even when compared to the smaller CH. The controls are easy to operate and located centrally on a pod, but the same pod also has two hose fittings.
The 2.6 CFM easily powers two 18 ga. nail guns but its tendency to dance (mostly due to lack of heft at just 33 lbs.) when the compressor was active was, in truth, a little annoying. However, that was the only real strike against the Porter Cable. In everything else when brad nailers or finish guns were hooked to it the c2004 was poetry in motion due mostly to the 165 psi cut-out. The mid-range CFM, cut in/out, form factor/weight, and double hose fitting seems purpose-built for light gun work.
Our beloved Ridgid proved to be loud (116 dB, the loudest of the test) and expensive ($350) compared to all the other competitors, which sold for at least $30 (and sometimes hundreds) less. Plus, once we had heard the soft hum of the Makita, saw the jaw-dropping speed of the Bosch, and witnessed the sheer sweetness of the Porter Cable, the Ridgid just seemed old and slow. To be fair, it IS old and slow; however, one could almost buy two Porter Cables for the price of one Ridgid. We like the Ridgid but not as much as some of the others sitting next to it in our test. The Ridgid’s crown has been stolen and its place of glory toppled.
Awards and Accolades
Though absolutely all the compressors in the test performed well and did their jobs, four machines stood out to us when all marks were tallied.
Best Value: Campbell Hausfeld FP2602
We keep saying it and will continue to say it: There’s something to be said for sheer cheap function. The CH just makes the most sense if you’re going to tackle a trim project once every two years and air up the household basketball or the little one’s bicycle tires. At $60 the FP2602 is just about unbeatable.
Best Portable: Porter Cable c2004
The c2004 was the delight of the trim carpenters. If you are looking to power trim guns (even two trim guns at once) and aren’t packing this little pancake compressor, you might want to consider trading up next time you go to replace a rig. It doesn’t have wheels because it doesn’t need them. It’s small, packs enough CFM to power any trim gun(s) all day without issue, and because of the 165 psi, cut out doesn’t kick in very much. Great little unit.
Most Power: Bosch CET4-20
The sheer huff-and-puff power of this motor gets the tanks filled quicker than any other unit in our test. It’s perhaps not the most elegant, like the Makita,, and doesn’t have the charm of the Porter Cable but for raw lung power and speed, the Bosch is just better than the rest of the field, hands down.
Best Overall: Makita MAC2400
I don’t think any of our testers (including me) were ready for the Makita. It’s heavy and light blue, but once you get past that it’s just the sweetest compressor taken as a whole. If the air filter and the lack of bleeding ears when it hums to life doesn’t get you, the 4.2 CFM (same CFM as the Bosch if not quite as quick on the startup fill time for some reason) makes you forget any features you weren’t fond of. Plus the baja grill, lever bleed valve, pressure lock and fat handle are welcome features in an already-impressive stable of race winners. For those folks looking for the best without compromise — this is it.
Cet4-20 Compressor [Bosch]
FP2602 Compressor [Campbell Hausfeld]
EC 89 Compressor [Hitachi]
d55151 4 Gallon Twin [DeWalt]
d55151 Street Pricing [Google Products]
CAP2060P 6g Pancake Compressor [Bostitch]
CAP2060P Street Pricing [Google Products]
c2004 Pancake Compressor [Porter Cable]
c2004 Street Pricing [Google Products]