Let’s face it. Air compressors are freaking awesome. They open up a whole new world of possibilities in terms of tools you can buy (always a plus) and projects you can complete at home. I recently started shopping for a motorcycle-specific air compressor myself, as I have run into more than a few situations on my current project where I needed one (stubborn bolts, brake caliper rebuild, etc).
Like most things, air compressors come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and varieties; and the needs of a motorcycle mechanic are going to be different than those of a home builder or general contractor. Therefore, I have been researching air compressors with the DIY motorcycle mechanic in mind and wanted to share my findings/recommendations with the community here. Based on my research, I ultimately provide my recommended air compressor below.
1) Stationary vs. Portable –> Portable: Stationary air compressors have larger storage tanks allowing for longer uninterrupted use. However, a portable compressor can provide enough storage capacity to serve a motorcycle mechanic well for what are generally quicker tasks.
2) Electric vs. Gas. –> Electric: Electric compressors can be used indoors and require less maintenance. Very suitable for a garage and higher-end models can generate the necessary PSI.
3) CFM & SCFM –> 6.5+ (at 90 psi): There are a lot of metrics that are advertised on air compressors, but the one you really need to pay attention to is cubic feet per minute (CFM) or standard cubic feet per minute (SCFM). This is the amount of air the compressor can deliver at specified PSI (note: SCFM goes down as PSI goes up). Higher CFMs allow you to operate tools such as ratchets, impact wrenches, and paint sprayers. For me, these tools were the most important and became my minimum threshold for a compressor purchase. RULE OF THUMB: Basically determine the tool you plan to use with the highest required CFM and add 30% to as a factor of safety. See my handy table below for a list of CFM requirements by tool for the more common tools used while motorcycle wrenching.
HAPPYWRENCH RECOMMENDED BUY: Makita MAC5200 Big Bore 3.0 HP
Dollar-for-dollar this air compressor provides the highest HP (3.0) and most CFM at 90psi (6.5) of any air compressor I could find. Makita is a good name in tools and reviews all seem to be favorable. The pump is oil-lubricated meaning it is not completely maintenance free, but I think this is a fair trade off for the higher HP and CFM. At 6.5CFM this meets my minimum requirements for 1/2-inch impact wrench (remember to add 30%).
P.S. Workbenches: In order for an impact wrench to be effective, the part you are working on needs to be completely immobile. This is easy when the part is still fastened to the motorcycle, because the weight of the motorcycle keeps it from going anywhere. When the part is off the bike, however, things get dicey – this is when you start wishing for that third set of hands. Stay tuned. I am working on a post about workbenches.
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