How to Use an Air Compressor

An air compressor can power your regular tools to make the job go much faster in your home, garage, or workshop. You can attach a blowgun and clean an area of sawdust in your shop, or use the compressor to paint or stain a brick wall.

But first, you obviously have to learn how to use an air compressor. Start by preparing the compressor and checking the oil levels, then, attach the hose, test the safety valve, ready the air tank, set the PSI, and connect your tool.

There are a few considerations to keep in mind to properly operate the compressor, as well as some maintenance tips to keep it in shape. So, let’s get started!

Safety First!

How to Use an Air Compressor

Air compressor negligence can be dangerous and costly. For this reason, it’s important that you know how to protect yourself from injury.

Put on a pair of polycarbonate safety goggles and some good closed-toed shoes to protect your toes from any dropped tools or pieces of material. Consider wearing ear muffs as well because some tanks can be pretty noisy.

Depending on the tool you’re going to attach to the air compressor, you might need to wear extra safety equipment such as work gloves or a dust mask.

How Does an Air Compressor Work

In general, air compressors work by forcing air into a storage tank and pressurizing it. The motor on the compressor drives a pump that forces the air through an opening and into the tank.

There are many types of air compressors, but the most commonly used nowadays are Piston air compressors and Rotary Screw air compressors.

Piston air compressors have a pump piston that rotates and pulls in the air on the downstroke to then force it into the storage tank on the upstroke through a one-way valve. Rotary Screw air compressors, on the other hand, have two helical screws that rotate to force the air down into the tank

Once in the tank, pressure builds up. As the air is released, it can be used as energy to power a variety of tools such as nailers, angle grinders,  impact wrenches, paint sprayers, and more.

How to Use an Air Compressor Step-by-Step

1.   Prepare the air compressor

There are a few things you need to check before you can start using your air compressor.

Begin by making sure that the machine has enough oil. Locate the pump oil level and pull it out, it should be somewhere around the bottom of one of the compressor’s ends. The oil level should reach about ⅔ of the way up the stick.

If it doesn’t, you need to remove the oil cap and pour some compressor oil into the tank until it reaches the specified mark. You can find it online or at most home improvement, hardware, and auto parts stores.

Small compressors are usually oil-free, which means that you won’t find an oil tank or dipstick. If you’re not sure whether yours uses oil, check the user guide.

2.   Position the air compressor

Place the air compressor on a sturdy, flat area that won’t break down under the weight of the machine. Connect the power cord of the compressor to a nearby grounded electrical outlet with the power turned off. Avoid using an extension cord, if possible, and never connect the machine to an outlet that isn’t grounded.

3.   Attach the hose

Next, attach the hose to the regulator valve. The valve is a round, copper-coloured metal plug that should be next to the smaller pressure gauge on one of the compressor’s ends.  Attach the hose by pushing the pointed end of the hose into the valve.

4.   Test the safety valve

safety valve

Pull the safety valve to test it. You should look for a copper-coloured plug near the hose line. Tug it towards you, and if you hear air hissing, then everything’s good. Push the valve back in place before starting the compressor.

Even if you don’t hear the hissing of air escaping, try to put the valve back in securely. If you can, then you’re fine.

5.   Prepare the air tank

Flip the power switch on and let the machine run for a minute or so. The compressor will start pressurizing, and it will switch off when it reaches maximum pressure. You need to watch the larger pressure gauge on the tank’s side and wait for it to stop moving.

6.   Set the PSI

Find out how much pressure your tool needs by checking the information printed on a sticker or on the tool’s underside. Alternatively, consult the user guide for more information.

Use the air control valve to adjust the PSI of your air compressor. Every tool has a different rating, so you need to adjust the PSI each and every time you switch tools to prevent any damage. Moreover, try to keep the pressure rate slightly below what the tool indicates. For example, if the tool functions with a maximum of 90 PSI, keep the pressure below 85 PSI.

7.   Connect your tool

Finally, connect your power tool to the hose. Slide the plug on your tool into the free end of the hose. Twist them together until the power tool locks in place.

Air Compressor Maintenance

Air Compressor Maintenance

Remove excess moisture

It’s essential to periodically remove condensation from your air compressor after you finish using it. You should check the user guide to ensure you do it properly, but most compressor models require you to use a wrench to remove the drain valve on the bottom of the tank.

Twist the drain valve counterclockwise to let the pressurized air blow out any moisture. After a minute or so, put the valve back in place. Twist it clockwise until you can no longer hear the air hissing.

Remove the hose and store the compressor

Twist the pressure regulator knob, turn off the compressor, and drain the pressure from it.  The hose should slide right out when you try to remove it.

Store both the compressor and the hose in a cool, dry place, such as a closet.

Replace the oil

If you have an oil-powered air compressor, it’s recommended that you replace the oil every year, as clean oil is integral for operation. To replace the oil from an air compressor, you should typically use a socket wrench to remove the plugs on the tank. We recommend keeping a container close to catch the old oil. Finally, use a funnel to pour the new oil.

Tools That Can Be Powered by an Air Compressor

Air Compressor

There’s a wide variety of tools that can be powered by an air compressor. Pneumatic tools are notoriously powerful, allowing you to complete your work easier and faster. Here are some of the most popular tools that can be powered by an air compressor, along with their average CFM and PSI requirements.

NOTE: For those who aren’t familiar with these terms, CFM means “cubic feet per minute”, and describes the amount of air that an air compressor can produce at a certain pressure level. PSI, on the other hand, means “pounds per square inch”, and measures the amount of pressure that a compressor can deliver.

Nail gun

Nail guns allow you to drive nails much faster than you’d be able to if you were using a regular hammer. Check that there isn’t anything on the other side of the material you’re nailing that you can damage, and make sure the gun is flat against the surface being nailed.

Two of the most popular types of nail guns are the brad nailer and the finish nailer. The former is used for detail work with thin materials, while the latter is optimal for proper and long-lasting bonding of thicker lumber.

Requires: an average of 0.3 CFM at 90 PSI.

Angle Grinder

An angle grinder powered by an air compressor can chew even the toughest metal, and even cut rock and stone. This is a must-have tool for metalworking and construction, but it can also be used for a wide variety of purposes.

Requires: an average of 5-8 CFM at 90 PSI.

Impact Wrench


With an air-powered impact wrench, no nut will be able to stand in your way, no matter how old and rusted it is. This is the perfect tool for car maintenance.

Requires: an average of 2.5-3.5 (3/8″), 4-5 (1/2″), 10 (1″) CFM at 90 PSI.

Socket Wrench

In metalwork, auto maintenance, and construction, the socket wrench saves you the effort of turning tough bolts and eases the pressure on your arm and wrist. The pneumatic socket wrench goes a step further by allowing you to work faster and more efficiently.

Requires: an average of 2.5-3.5 (1/4″), 4-4.5 (3/8″) CFM at 90 PSI.

Reciprocating Saw

The reciprocating saw is the king of demolition work, being able to cut and rip out many materials. Moreover, it’s a compact tool with a small-diameter body that fits into extremely tight spaces.

Requires: an average of 6 CFM at 90 PSI.

Paint Sprayer

A good pneumatic paint sprayer can make your paint job go much faster and yield smoother results. You can get perfect coats that are free of brush strokes in half the time it would take you to do it by hand.

Requires: it varies depending on the model of the paint sprayer.


It’s important that you’re thorough and don’t skip any of the steps we’ve mentioned in this guide, so you don’t damage the compressor or the tool you’ve attached to it. Proper maintenance is just as important if you want your machine to last.

Learning how to use an air compressor is not easy if you try to do it by yourself, but if you follow our guide, you’ll be an expert in no time!

Liam Weissman

Hello and welcome to PowerToolGenius! My name is Liam and for the last 9 years, I have worked extensively with various power tools and accessories. I have tested hundreds of different brands and models and understand the industry extensively and have been working with tools my entire life!

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