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Petrol, Diesel and Electric Air Compressors

Air Compressor Gauge

Petrol, diesel and electricity (via mains, generator or battery) are the three main ways of powering air compressors for domestic and industrial use. Each method of providing power has different implications for the size, power and durability of the resultant compressor and it's these factors which will determine which is most suitable for your particular needs.

Here we'll briefly run through each of the three power types citing the advantages and disadvantages of each to help you decide which type of air compressor is most appropriate for you.

Petrol Air Compressors

A petrol air compressor is simply an air compressor which is powered by a petrol engine. The engine is separate from the pump system so you will find many different types of compressors with petrol engines.

They are often more versatile than, for instance, electric powered machines and are especially useful for professionals working on a building site with no fixed electrical power system in place. With a petrol air compressor there is no need for an additional generator.

Other points to consider with petrol compressors include:

  • A petrol air compressor allows for fairly flexible control over its engine. If only a low output is required a petrol air compressor engine can be adjusted easily to run at a reduced rate enabling much closer management of fuel usage and less wastage, as well as providing the facility to monitor and adjust noise levels if needed.
  • They are relatively cheap to buy, and petrol is usually cheaper than diesel, although it is generally considered to be less economical.
  • They are easily portable and not as noisy but generally speaking they are not as capable of providing quite the amount of torque or power that a similarly rated diesel alternative may output.
  • A petrol air compressor will probably require more maintenance over its lifetime to keep it in good working order.

Diesel Air Compressors

As with petrol powered compressors, diesel air compressors benefit greatly from their portability: users of a diesel powered compressor do not have to worry about the electricity supply cutting out unexpectedly, a common problem on building sites and when working in adverse weather conditions.

Diesel compressors have other benefits:

  • They tend to be more powerful than similar sized petrol powered machines, providing higher torque, and are suited to heavy duty and more industrial applications.
  • Diesel as a fuel is generally more economical than petrol.
  • A diesel air compressor, although often slightly more expensive to purchase initially, will usually require less maintenance than a petrol engine, due to their simpler ignition system.

But there are downsides too:

  • Diesel air compressors can be bulkier and heavier and will also be noisier than a compressor using electricity or petrol for power.
  • Due to the toxicity of their exhaust fumes, they would not be suitable for use indoors or at home. However if the compressor is being used outside, this is not so much of a problem.

Another related issue to consider will be storing and transporting the diesel fuel in a suitably safe manner.

Electric Air Compressors

Electric air compressors are probably the most common and readily available type of compressor on the market today. Running on electric motors they are suitable for a wide range of uses and applications from small home workshops to large industrial set-ups.

The fact that they produce no dangerous exhaust fumes makes them ideal for home or small workshop use, where adequate ventilation would be an issue with a petrol or diesel compressor.

Other advantages include:

  • Electric air compressors can be portable and can be easily stored or moved without the associated dangers that come with a machine that uses flammable liquids as a power source.

But the following drawbacks exist:

  • Electric compressors tend to be less powerful than their counterparts and less robust.
  • Their usefulness can be limited in the outdoors - essentially by the length of their power cord and the available power supply at their destination. It is not advisable to use extension cables. An electric compressor should be plugged directly into the electricity supply.

In addition, there are technical considerations that apply with electric air compressors:

A lot of small to medium sized machines can be found which will run from a household 230V supply however generally compressors operating at 3 HP or greater will need more than 13 amps, which is a standard 3 pin household plug. To use a compressor working at over 3 HP, a 16, 18 or 32 amp plug will probably be needed.

Compressors primarily designed for use on a construction site will often be running from a 110V supply and may require an appropriate transformer or generator, Some larger industrial air compressors will need a 400V or 3 phase supply, which is entirely different to a normal household 230V electrical supply, which will be single phase.

Before the purchase of any air compressor, and before the purchase of any air tools for use with it, it is important to check the voltage of the machine and the amperage, and make sure that these correlate with the supply available on site.


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