Keeping your tires in check is car maintenance 101. Making sure your tires are properly inflated will improve longevity, fuel economy and safety. Whether you’re just doing routine checkups, trying to replace a flat tire, or venturing out for an overland adventure, here are the best portable tire inflators.
Why buy a portable tire inflator?
Routine checks and emergencies
While we should all know how to change a tire, there is some maintenance you need to perform to ensure longevity and reliability. Modern cars have tire pressure indicators, making the checking step easy, so you want to make sure your tires stay at the manufacturer’s recommended PSI. Low tire pressure is not necessarily a bad sign, it could simply be an indication that it is cold outside and that the temperature is affecting the air density inside the tire.
Driving off road
When preparing your equipment for off-road riding, airing your tires becomes essential. While your tire pressure sensors can illuminate your dash, airing it gives the rubber more traction in challenging terrain by increasing the surface area in contact with the ground at all times. It also reduces the chances of a tire blowing up when navigating rocky trails. While airing improves your off-road performance, riding on the pavement is of course a different story. Once the adventure is over, inflate your tires to their recommended PSI to get back to the highway safely and avoid damaging your car. While you can go to a gas station and use their air, it’s not a very smart or reliable solution, especially in the event of a tire emergency.
What should you pay attention to with a tire inflator?
Tire size and inflation time are the factors to consider when looking for a portable inflator. For example, you have already decided that you will never upgrade your tires larger than 33 inches. Then you can get away with a smaller and more budget-friendly device.
What do the specifications mean?
Pounds per square inch (PSI) is the number you are probably most familiar with. In the case of an air compressor, it is the amount of pressure it delivers.
Maximum airflow is measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM) and sometimes you will also see liters per minute (l/min). It measures the volume of air that a compressor can generate in a given time. For example, 3 CFM means that there are 3 cubic feet of air flowing per minute. 1 CFM = 28.31 l/min, so the difference between the two is a matter of conversion. These numbers ultimately determine how quickly you can inflate your tires. If you don’t have patience, upgrading in this category may be your best option.
The duty cycle can be a bit of a confusing figure as it is often stated as a percentage. The percentage is the number of hours you can run the compressor. For example, if a duty cycle is 25%, it can run for 15 minutes. When you reach the top of the duty cycle, pause the inflation, let the motor cool down, and finish the job later. Some brands will do the calculation for you and list the time of their duty cycle with the conditions under which it is measured (PSI, temperature etc).
The more robust inflators will use alligator clips that you simply attach to your car battery, but small ones will use a DC plug in cigarette lighter. For consistency of this guide, these are all 12V models, but it’s worth noting that companies also produce 24V options.
Air on board vs portable air
Air on board is very specific to the off-road community, as having your compressor under the hood is an extravagant setup that has some benefits, but isn’t entirely necessary. These setups are especially common on the Jeep Wranglers, as their cabin space is particularly limited. They also require a switch panel to be installed before use. Although serious off-roaders do this to drive additional light bars and other modifications.
In addition to your normal tire pressure, you can also install air lockers with air on board. Air boxes lock the differential on all four tires, providing serious traction on extreme terrain. This upgrade is pretty neat, but requires a lot of dedication and maybe a bit of overkill for what you’re doing.
With portable air, there isn’t as much commitment as there is no need for additional installation or wiring. You can easily move it from car to car and throw it in the back seat when you’re done. It’s also nice to be able to move the compressor while you work or help a buddy in need. This option is best for a casual driver and can be budget-friendly.