Most Common Air Compressor Types

Finding the right air compressor for your project can be difficult, especially with the number of compressor types you have to choose from.

Each of the various models operates differently and has its’ own pros and cons.  

Before deciding which compressor is right for you and your DIY projects, let’s take a look at the different types and how they work.  

most common types of air compressors
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How to Choose a Compressor 

There are definite factors that play a role in finding the right air compressor for your projects.  Make sure you check out this list below before deciding which air compressor type is right for you.

  • Power Source 
  • CFM (cubic feet or air per minute)
  • Pressure Requirement: Powerful enough PSI for all your air tools 
  • Features: portable, good warranty, included accessories 
  • Quiet Operation with low decibels
  • Easy Maintenance
  • Price

Power Source

Most compressors are either electric or gas powered. Electric powered tends to be the most common and is great for places where you will have access to an outlet. If you are traveling and need a compressor that can work even without electricity, then the gas model may work out better for you.  


You will want to pay attention to things like CFM rating, and HP. These all play a part in how well the unit works and should be tailored to your projects.  Make sure to focus in on CFM output to make sure the compressor deliver enough air to your tools to work continuously. 

Pressure Requirements

The reason you are getting this compressor is to power your air tools. Thinking about what tools you will use with the compressor can help drive your choice. You will need to know what your PSI requirements are for your tools, and then you will be able to find the right compressor for you. 


Having extra capabilities and enhanced systems can always be nice and will enhance the air compressors’ overall capability. You should be able to judge the unit easily by the features that it comes with. Some features to look for: 

  • Oil-less pump 
  • Belt drive system 
  • Thermal protection 
  • Adjustable exhaust 
  • Accessories  
  • Aux tank availability 
  • More couplers 

Quiet Operation 

Usually, the cheaper the compressor the louder it will be.  Check the decibel level rating before buying your air compressor especially if you’ll be using in indoors and/or in a small space. 

You might need to invest in ear protection, rubber grommets, a compressor exhaust intake silencer, or even build a box with foam on the inside to deaden the noise. 

Easy Maintenance

Choose a compressor that is easy to maintain and repair. Look for models with accessible oil and air filters. Or better yet, pick an oil-less model for super easy maintenance.


Compressors come in a range of prices, so choose one that fits your budget. Keep in mind that cheaper models may not last as long or perform as well as more expensive ones.

Overall, choosing a compressor requires careful consideration of your specific needs and the intended use of the compressor.

Compressor Types 

There are many types of compressors, and you need to keep in mind what type that will be the best for you and your projects. Here are a few examples that are available: 

  • Rotary screw 
  • Oil-less 
  • Reciprocating 
  • Tankless 
  • Centrifugal 
  • Two-stage 

Understanding what to look for when choosing the air compressor you will be relying on is essential, and can help make the process that much easier. Let’s take a quick look at how each compressor type works. 

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Compressor Types Discussion

How Do Rotary Screw Air Compressors Work? 

With this type of air compressor, the system is driven by two rotors that move in different directions within the housing. The air itself gets captured in the middle of these rotors, and then becomes compressed.  

These screw compressors are usually low-pressure and high-capacity and, are made to be used consistently. These compressors tend to be large with variable horsepower. 

The advantage of a rotary screw compressor is that it can produce high volumes of compressed air at relatively low pressures, making it ideal for applications such as pneumatic tools, spray painting, and sandblasting. They are also very reliable and efficient, with minimal maintenance requirements.

Rotary screw compressors are commonly used in industrial and commercial settings where a constant supply of compressed air is required. They are often used in manufacturing plants, refineries, and power generation facilities.

How Does an Oil-less Air Compressor Work? 

These compressor types operate by taking in air from the outside and pulling it through a valve and air filter. The valve then opens into the compressor pump in a chamber. In this chamber, the first element begins compressing the air.  

This also moves the air through the unit. Then the air is moved into another chamber for more compression. These units offer medium pressure and are available as both an industrial-style and a DIY shop compressor that offers more eco-friendly operation than other models. 

How Does a Reciprocating Air Compressor Work? 

Most of the best air compressors that you will see for your DIY shop or home use are reciprocating (and oil less).  This style of a compressor is run by a single or multiple pistons.

Moving up and down, these pistons are housed within cylinders that compress the air. Reciprocating compressors have models that range from low to high pressure and tend to be low capacity. This type of compressor is designed to be used occasionally 

Typically, these compressors are built with a small footprint and only operate at up to 10 horsepower.  

How Does a Tankless Air Compressor Work? 

This compressor type is a mix between an oil-less option and a reciprocating model. The unit uses pistons to drive air through and compress in cylinders; the only difference is that once the tank is full, the unit will not take in any more air.  

You will be able to use the compressor until the air pressure drops below what it needs to push out the air. Many units are operated by a foot pedal, which some feel gives you more control over your output. 

How Does a Centrifugal Air Compressor Work? 

This compressor type draws the air into the middle of an impeller that has rotating blades. The air is then pushed using centrifugal force into the center. This circular movement creates a rise in pressure and creates kinetic energy.  

This also turns into pressure before the air gets to the center of the unit. With each step through the system, the pressure rises and is pushed out the unit to drive your air tools. 

The advantage of a centrifugal compressor is that it can produce high volumes of compressed air at relatively low pressures, making it ideal for applications such as HVAC systems, pneumatic tools, and spray painting. They also have a compact design, making them easy to install and maintain.

Centrifugal compressors are commonly used in industrial and commercial settings where a constant supply of compressed air is required. They are often used in large manufacturing plants, refineries, and power generation facilities.

How Does a Two-Stage Air Compressor Work? 

Air compressors of this type use a system of cylinders that are each different sizes. As the air moves from cylinder to cylinder, it is driven through a heat exchanger where the air is cooled. This cooling helps make compression more efficient.

Once the air passes through two stages, it is pushed into an additional chamber where it is pressurized for the final time. 

The advantage of a two-stage air compressor is that it can produce more compressed air with less power than a single-stage compressor, making it more efficient. The intercooler also helps to reduce the temperature of the compressed air, which reduces the workload on the second stage compressor and prolongs its lifespan.

Two-stage compressors are often used in industrial applications, such as manufacturing plants, automotive repair shops, and construction sites, where high volumes of compressed air are required for power tools and other equipment.

Compressor Types Conclusion 

Understanding the technical specs and how each of the most common air compressor types works is essential when working with air tools. You will get the best results when your compressor is matched up with your air tools and projects demands. 

Compressor Types FAQs

Which Compressor should I use for spray painting?

Check out our detailed reviews and discussion post where we compare many air compressors HERE.