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I carry a little compressor, like the ones pictured above, behind the seat in my truck, and my girlfriend carries one in the trunk of her car. And you’d be surprised at how much crap I catch for it. “Why do you bother with that thing?” they ask. “I’ve got a great [insert whatever compressor they bought here] back at the shop.” That’s the trick, though, isn’t it? It’s back at the shop. Incredibly, I have most of my tire leaks away from home. I can’t tell you how many times the one I carry has saved my ass.

I’ve used it numerous times to pump up slow leaks, adding a little air to buy me another day to make arrangements to drop by my local tire shop. Hell, I even used one of these and some coffee to re-set a tire that came slightly loose from the rim — just enough that it wouldn’t hold air without re-seating. Years ago when I was more active, I used it to pump up basketballs and so on, too.

The one I carry cost less than either of the ones you see pictured at the top of the article. I inherited it from my dad (“Put this in your car, son.”) at least 20 years ago, and I’m pretty sure he snagged four or five of ’em on sale somewhere, probably Harbor Freight or some dime store. I expect it to quit any time now, but it just keeps chuggin’ away.

I primarily recommend just picking up the cheapest one you can find. I mean, really, it’s not like you’re going to stand around in a parking lot with the trunk open comparing these with your buddies. If it moves air, you’re good. If you have a choice, though, I suggest nabbing one of those that’s permanently mounted in a relatively square plastic box that also holds the hose and cord. This doesn’t affect performance at all, but it does make the thing easier to stow behind or under a seat.

AAA 12V Compressor Via Amazon (Pictured) [What’s This?]
12V 150 PSI High Volume Air Compressor (Pictured) [Harbor Freight]
Zillions of ‘Em [Google]


15 Responses to Put a 12V Air Compressor in Your Car

  1. Angelbane says:

    test it once in a while … the last one i had didnt work when i needed it 🙁

  2. Chris Ball says:

    I have a couple of the electric ones and the super cheap ones are completely worthless, sure they will probably work the first couple times, maybe, but a floor standing bike pump will definitely work, be no more expensive, and in my testing, quite a bit faster. Now once you get to the $100-120 dollar level, the electric plugin ones start being worthwhile, of course they don’t plug into the cigarette lighter anymore, you have to clip them straight to the battery because they will draw some serious power.

    In short, an air pump yes, the one on the left in the picture, no, the one on the right, sure, a decent bike pump, perfect for emergency use.

  3. Brau says:

    The 12V compressor has been a staple in my trunk all my life and has saved my bacon a few times while being very helpful to inflate beach toys *without* hyperventilating. (I make sure to add at least 15 feet of wire to reach all four wheels or another vehicle.) IE: On one occasion I was about 60 highway miles away from the nearest service service station when I got a flat at 11PM. My (old) spare had a slow leak around the rim. I had to stop every 5 minutes to re-inflate my tire but the compressor got me into town.

    Further note: I bought the Craftsman 19.2V C3 compressor/inflator a few years ago. It’s better than I imagined, and I love it! I can set then pressure (digitally) and it inflates the tire then shuts off. It’s far easier than dragging out air lines or cables. The portability makes it my first choice for most small tasks around the house. It will easily fill 4 very soft tires in one battery charge.

    • browndog77 says:

      I have most of the tools in the c3 line-up, and the inflator is one of the best. One cool use: the tool came w/ a few attachments, one being a small venturi sprayer. It was perfect for dusting the plants in the garden!
      ps: I wish the l-ion batteries would come down in price, my 6 ni-cads are all about beat.

      • Brau says:

        I’ll have to try that venturi thingy!

        Agree about the expense of L-ion batteries. I really love the half sized ones for the minimal weight and smaller size.

    • Chuck Cage says:

      I really need to look into that. Even though I generally use whatever cordless drill we have in for test at the moment, the last drill I bought for myself (about 5 years ago) was a C3. It was a great drill, given the limitations of NiCd, of course. I still have it — it’s in great shape. If the batteries are still decent, I might just look into buying one of these.

  4. Techmonkey says:

    I’ve had a small, $25 Home Depot Husky brand compressor in my commuter trunk for about 4 years. I use it a lot and it has stood up pretty well. I did add velcro to it so I could stick it to the side carpet of my trunk. I bought a Slime brand compressor from Wally World for my wife’s car for about $15. It fits in the little under floor compartment of her car, but you can really only inflate 2 tires before it starts to overheat. I bought a $10 one once, but it didn’t even work the first time (of course when I actually needed it). Test it out first thing when you get home and plug it in at least every time you change your oil just to see if it works.

  5. Wheels17 says:

    I laughed when I saw the “I inherited it from my dad” comment. I have a Black and Decker in a blow molded case that I inherited from my father-in-law who passed away in 1986. Still chugging along after bouncing around in the back of various cars and trucks for the last 25 years. There is room in the case for a good tire gauge, which is also important, as the gauges on the cheap compressors show approximate pressures…

  6. RipRip says:

    My new Hyundai didn’t come with a spare tire came with one of these in the trunk!!

  7. Chris says:

    I have one of the Meijer/Target/Walmart $10 specials in my car, and my parents have had a matching one in their minivan for about a decade. No, it’s not going to pump up all four tires on a 4×4 after going off-roading in sand at 8 PSI, but it’ll top up a slow leak or just a low tire, and if “the shop” isn’t an option, it sure beats paying 75 cents or a buck for air at the local “service” station.


  8. craig says:

    the cheapest maybe not. but my kit has a “heavy duty” pump, a can of fix-a-flat, and a tire plugging kit. i haven’t changed a tire in 25 years.

    the event that prompted this level of prep was a nail from chicago’s mean streets in rush hour. never again.

  9. Dave D says:

    I’ve carried a 12 volt air pump and plug kit for almost as many years as I’ve worked on residential construction sites Honestly, some of the guys I’ve worked around must think their chances of getting into heaven are proportional to the number of nails they’ve dropped.

  10. Robert says:

    I have the 100psi HF model, used it about a half dozen times so far and it appears to be well built and priced right at $20. Used to have a crapsman one, it kinda worked until the hose rotted off and the connector melted, thought about refurbing it but the HF one was too tempting.

  11. waffle says:

    i have SUVs with oversized tires so a same sized spare does not fit where the stock location is a and i haven’t spent the money to build/buy a tire carrier. the few times that i have had flats the tire repair kit, slime and this little compressor works awesome. i would like to get a better one. airing up a 35 or 40 inch tire takes a while and the thing overheats.

  12. Maryt whie says:

    Have to agree with other commentators: some of the cheap ones just don’t last. I’ve seen some where the hose developed holes or came completely off. And the motors seem to burn out pretty quick, too.

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