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Construction Air Compressors Buying Guide: Costs, Uses, and Sizing

One of the reasons you find air tools on construction sites is the fact that they don't require electricity, a handy feature when working a remote job or one without a ready power source. Instead, air compressors provide the necessary power for your air tools.

There are three basic types of air compressors, each with its own benefits, depending on your needs. Three is the magic number for power sources, as well.

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Read on to learn what to look for in an air compressor to suit your requirements, as well as an idea about what you can expect to pay.

Types of Construction Air Compressors

Air compressors come in three main types: centrifugal, reciprocating, and rotary screw.

Starting with the largest type, centrifugal air compressors are amazingly powerful, putting out up to 500 horsepower and 15,000 CFM (cubic feet per minute), with 125 psig. Obviously, these are mostly used in industrial manufacturing. A centrifugal compressor is the costliest option, in terms of both initial price and maintenance.

At the smaller end is the reciprocating air compressor. Air enters and leaves the compressor at the same volume, aiding heat dispersal and avoiding water buildup. The max horsepower of a reciprocating compressor is 50, with up to 12,000 CFM and 125 psig. The system may be lubricated or non-lubricated. Oil lubrication typically requires less maintenance, but if the filtration system isn't properly maintained, oil buildup corrupts airflow. The life expectancy of a reciprocating compressor is between 10 and 15 years.

Another positive displacement type, rotary screw air compressors offer up to 100 horsepower and 2,500 CFM and 125 psig. They come in two types, flooded and oil-free. Flooded systems require regular maintenance to protect against oil buildup. Oil-free systems ensure a clean airflow, but are more prone to overheating. The life expectancy of a rotary compressor is 20 to 30 years.

How do Construction Air Compressors get their Power?

The three main power sources for air compressors are electric, gas, and diesel. If you operate in an enclosed area, you need to go with electric, as the two fuel options produce too much exhaust for indoor use. Of the three, though, diesel fuels the units with the greatest horsepower.

The one difference is found in centrifugal air compressors, which may also run on steam turbines.

Electric models are more environmentally friendly and safe for indoor use. Portable and compact models simply plug into a standard wall socket, while larger models may require a high voltage option. On a remote jobsite, though, an electric model may not work.

Gas and diesel models are highly portable (just make sure you have a supply of fuel at the job site). They're typically noisier than their electric counterparts, as well as heavier, but they offer a great deal of power without the inconvenience of requiring access to a power grid.

What does a Construction Air Compressor Cost?

Obviously, price varies widely depending on power needs, CFM, psi, and more. Organized from least to most expensive, we provide price estimates below.

Reciprocating:

  • A portable unit, 3-5 horsepower, with a CFM between 10.3 and 15.5, and 135 psi averages between $800 and $1,400
  • A portable unit, 7.5 horsepower, with a CFM of 24, and 175 psi averages between $1,900 and $2,200

Rotary Screw:

  • A portable unit, 10 horsepower, with a CFM of 34, and 175 psi averages between $2,700 and $5,200
  • A portable unit, 15 horsepower, with a CFM of 46, and 175 psi averages between $2,900 and $7,500
  • A stationary unit, 80 horsepower, with a CFM of 185, and 75-150 psi averages between $12,000 and $17,500

Centrifugal

  • A stationary unit, 20-200 horsepower, with a CFM between 14.3 and 998, and 75-150 psi averages between $17,000 and $24,000
  • A stationary unit, 250-500 horsepower, with a CFM between 1466 and 2444, and psi 109-125, averages between $35,000 and $90,000

Additional Considerations

Figure CFM needs by multiplying the CFM of the tool by 1.5, using the tool with the highest CFM rating. If you run multiple tools at the same time, add the CFM of each, and then multiply the total by 1.5 to ensure you purchase a compressor capable of handling your needs.

Most air compressors include a warranty, but protections vary by manufacturer, such as length of warranty and parts covered. Typically, coverage includes parts most likely to require repair or replacement, including rings and gaskets, drive motors, variable speed drives, and air/fluid receivers.

Service level agreements are not part of the warranty and usually include a fee paid either annually or monthly.

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