In this Guide
12V air compressors are an essential part of any motorist’s emergency toolkit. Along with your jack, tire patches, and other essentials, a 12V air compressor can help you get back on the road in case of a breakdown, and it makes getting your tire pressure adjusted a breeze. They’re also a very handy gadget for inflating bike tires, beach balls, and other inflatables when you’re on a road trip or family vacation!
However, as with so many gadgets on the market these days, there are 12V air compressors and there are 12V air compressors. At their best, these tools are compact, convenient, and reliable. They’ll help you inflate, adjust, and gauge tire pressure without needing a garage or power outlet. On the other hand, a lot of 12V compressors on the market are cheaply made, unreliable, and too weak to work properly when you need them!
There are a lot of options out there, and it can be confusing for those of us who aren’t mechanics to tell the difference between the real workhorses and the wimpy disposable models. To help you out, we’ve put our researchers to the task of finding the absolute best 12V air compressors on the market!
We did a comprehensive comparison of dozens of 12V devices, from $15 budget options to rugged, high-powered $100 models! We’ve narrowed the field down to three great compressors. We chose them for their convenience, efficiency, reliability and value. In this guide, we’ll run through all the things you should know about these compressors, and help you figure out which one is right for you.
To get you started, here’s a quick look at our top three recommendations.
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12v Compressor Reviews
1. AAA Lifeline
This Lifeline kit from AAA is one of the most popular roadside emergency tools ever. It’s cheap, convenient, and serviceable–even if it’s not the most powerful or fast compressor on the market.
If you’re looking for the least expensive solution for an unplanned breakdown, this is it! It’s designed for a convenient solution for roadside emergencies and for topping up tires. We recommend it to people looking for the least they can spend on an emergency tire inflator which won’t be used regularly.
It’s very compact. You can fit this compressors in most glove boxes or throw it in the trunk and forget about it. The compressor, cord, and plugs all fit in a small, convenient box. Unlike a lot of larger models, all the mechanical parts are enclosed in a slim plastic casing. There aren’t any parts exposed, so there’s no risk of anything breaking with the machine knocking around.
It’s very, very inexpensive. The AAA isn’t going to last forever, and we think you should expect it to have a relatively short lifespan, even if you only use it occasionally.
However, it’s priced close to the lowest of the budget options. We think if you’re going to go for a cheap compressor, you ought to go for the cheapest one that will still get job done, with the lowest replacement cost.
The AAA kit hits that balance just right for us. It works better than a disposable compressor, but it’s easy to replace if yours has a problem.
It has a surprisingly high rated PSI-at a max working level of 300 PSI. That’s a lot more powerful than other compressors at this price, and it’s more powerful than some $50 models, too. Previous buyers were very impressed by how well it worked, given how small and lightweight it is.
It comes with a kit to help you get the most out of the machine. In addition to the tire valve, there are two other nozzles which allows you to inflate balls, bike tires, and other inflatables.
Previous buyers said it was a very useful little tool for inflating beach balls once at the beach, or for inflating other toys or accessories at the playground. It’s especially handy because you run it from your vehicle, so there’s no need to find an outlet at your campsite or beachfront area.
It has a long power cord. The AAA kit has a 10-foot power cable which makes it easy to stretch from the console to whichever tire needs inflating. It also allows you to have some range of motion outside your vehicle for inflating other objects.
There’s a gauge built into the compressor. It allows you to keep a close eye on your tire pressure without having to stop compressing or let air escape. You can simply watch the gauge, and shut it off when everything’s shipshape. Previous buyers were surprised by how accurate this was in testing it against their standard gauges, especially given how inexpensive the machines is.
It comes with a quick-connect nozzle for attaching to your tires. It’s simple and effective to use, and previous buyers said they were pleasantly surprised by the build quality of the component compared to other models.
It’s loud. This is a lightweight plastic kit, and it makes one heck of a racket. However, if you’re using it on the highway in a pinch, you won’t care much about noise as long as it works. Previous buyers said it’s one of the loudest models they’d used, but not to the point of being deafening.
It shakes like crazy. Because the casing on the AAA is so light, and the internal pistons are working like crazy, the whole unit tends to vibrate fairly aggressively. We didn’t find any reports of it falling apart, but the racket can be somewhat alarming.
It’s slow. We’ve found that most reviewers were pleased with how much power it produced, but it’s still a lightweight 12V unit. It’s really meant for top-ups and adjustments, as opposed to filling things from flat. If you need to inflate a tire or ball quite a lot, it can take a few minutes. Plan on about twice the time it would take with a gas station machine. Most previous buyers were skeptical of the 300PSI rating in practice.
It’s only meant for occasional use. Don’t plan on pumping up all your tires at once. This one needs a lot of cool-down time. We also wouldn’t recommend it for pumping up a tire from flat. It’s better for getting you to a garage, or for adjusting pressure in smaller increments.
Previous buyers who tried to use it for all their tires or for larger van tires said their units started overheating, smoking, and/or melting. Make sure you pay attention to the manual on any unit like this, and make sure to give it as many breaks as it calls for.
It’s relatively unreliable, and quite a few buyers wrote reviews to say that they were disappointed in both the build quality of the AAA. The cigarette lighter plug was usually the culprit. The plastic and metal components have a tendency to separate, and some buyers said they had to tape the plugs together. Others said their compressors overheated, worked only intermittently, or failed.
Quality control isn’t great on this model, and it’s certainly not our idea of heavy duty. We’d recommend it only as a “just in case” backup.
2. Viair 70P
This Viair model is the best-selling 12V compressor on the market today. It’s our top midrange choice, thanks to its sturdy build quality, and its quiet, efficient compression function. It’s a more reliable, durable alternative to the AAA kit, while still maintaining a very reasonable price tag.
It’s our top choice for people who want more than an emergency backup, and are looking for a compressor they can use regularly for small adjustments and inflations as well as emergency pump-ups.
It might not be rated as powerful as the AAA, but the Viair is a much more consistent performer. This model has a 100 PSI top operating pressure, but realistically, that’s as much as the AAA can handle anyway. The Viair is simply a safer, more reliable choice at any pressure.
In terms of both the chassis and motor, it has an overall much higher build quality. That’s thanks to its magnetic motor and sturdy metal construction.
It’s rated for 30 minutes at 30 PSI, which is enough to inflate or adjust most tires–even on trucks or vans. This one can inflate average vehicle tires from 0-30PSI in about 5 minutes, as long as you give it a short break midway through.
Previous buyers were overwhelmingly impressed with how powerful and efficient this machine was compared to other inexpensive options. They used it for anything from lawn mower tires to beach balls, to larger truck tires. They said it was a much faster option than other units they’d used, and they also noted that it was much more reliable and long-lasting than cheap plastic models like the AAA kit.
Unlike the AAA kit, the Viair unit has built-in thermal protection. It’ll shut itself off if it’s been running too hard and needs a break, so the motor won’t burn out or have other problems. It’s a major advantage over the AAA, which has some serious overheating problems when it’s used for more than slight adjustments.
It has vibration insulators built in. They prevent the Viair from rattling around nearly as much as the AAA. They also cut down on the noise factor quite significantly. The lack of rattle makes the Viair a lot more reassuring to use.
It has a built-in gauge, like the AAA. This one allows you to get an accurate working reading simply by switching off the compressor. That allows you to get a more accurate reading than the AAA, which only measures pressure while it’s running (and fluctuating). Previous buyers said that while it’s not quite perfect, it’s very close to being accurate to a traditional gauge.
It has a longer working range than the AAA. The Viair has a 16 foot power cord, and an additional 4-feet of range from the compressor unit to the air nozzle. That’s a whole person’s length more than the AAA kit, and it’s ideal for larger vehicles with a longer chassis to reach along.
Instead of the plastic quick-connect attachment on the AAA, the Viair has a heavy-duty brass nozzle for attaching to tire valves. It’s nearly as quick to attach, and it’s miles better in terms of durability. Any plastic part will wear out eventually, but brass lasts indefinitely.
It comes with a ball needle and two extra nozzles in addition to the main brass tire attachments. As with the AAA kit, the Viair is perfect for inflating balls, bike tires, and other inflatable items from the convenience of your vehicle.
It’s covered by a 1-year warranty. The AAA kit, on the other hand, doesn’t come with any warranty. So, for a very small price increase, you get a lot more peace of mind.
It comes with a nice big carrying case to keep the compressor, cables, and attachments in. This one fits in the space of the average lunchbox in the car.
It’s not as powerful on paper as the AAA kit, which advertises a 300PSI rating. However, more reviewers of the Viair kit said their compressors actually performed up to the rating, compared to AAA buyers. Most people who bought the AAA kit were skeptical that it was actually working at 300PSI, and many said they machines overheated or failed in heavier jobs.
As with the AAA kit, the Viair’s 12V plug seems to be a weak spot in the design. Some previous buyers reported that they received kits with broken plugs right out of the box, and a few others reported than their plugs broke over time. Quality control definitely isn’t a high point of this model. Some buyers reported that after a year or two of use, the tire chuck separated from the air hose.
It’s not as compact as the AAA. This kit won’t fit in the glovebox, so you’ll have to set aside some space in the trunk. It’s also quite a bit heavier, at a total weight just over 5 pounds.
It’s about twice the price of the AAA kit. If you’re buying one of these units as a “just in case” purchase, and don’t plan on using it unless you’re stranded roadside, you might not want to spend more than the minimum. However, the Viair is much more sure to come through when you really need it to, with less hassle as you pump.
As with the AAA kit, you have to give it a fair amount of rest. This is a midrange compressor, but it’s still not meant to work on a full set of tires at once. If you’re looking to fill larger tires from flat, or pump up several tires at once, you’ll want to get something larger.
3. Viair 88P
Our top quality recommendation for a 12V air compressor is the Viair 88P. It’s a bigger, stronger, and more reliable unit than either of our other recommendations. We especially like the alligator clamp power supply, as well as the longer duty cycle on the 88P.
It’s our recommendation to anyone who drives frequently for work, or people who have several vehicles to keep properly maintained. This model is also the best choice for people who want to inflate tires from flat, as opposed to topping up tires.
It’s powered by alligator clamps, instead of a cigarette lighter. Cigarette lighter power adaptors are reliably the first part to go on any 12V accessory or appliance, so we love being able to skip the adaptor altogether.
The 88P comes with a set of clamps in the box, so you can just hitch it to your battery and get to work. There’s no risk of an adaptor coming apart in the socket, or blowing a fuse inside your car.
Instead, there’s an in-line fuse built into the power cable, so any power issues are directed to a separate fuse that’s easy to replace. Previous buyers loved the alligator clamps, and we couldn’t find any complaints about quality control with these hookups!
It’s more powerful than the 70P. With a top working load of 120PSI, the 88P is more than capable of inflating and adjusting larger tires up to 33”. Unlike either the 70P or the AAA, the 88P is also perfectly suitable for inflating tires from flat. It’ll take less than 5 minutes to get a flat 33” tire up to pressure! Previous buyers said it worked wonderfully quickly on cars, and could have bicycle tires pressurized from flat in just seconds.
It can also run much longer without a cool-down (5 minutes, as opposed to less than 2 for the 70P). While the 70P can also pump a tire from flat, it’ll need a lot more breaks. The 88P can get the whole tire pumped before it needs to cool down. That’s a lot more convenient, since you might need to use two duty cycles plus a break in between to inflate a tire with a smaller compressor. The 88P can halve the time it takes to complete your pit stop!
Since it works so quickly, this is one of the handiest tools to have in a breakdown. If you commute for work, you know that a deflated tire can come out of nowhere, and make you extremely late. With this kit, you’ll only need about 5 minutes of compression time to get back on the road with a spare.
The 88P’s extra speed factor also makes it the most efficient workhorse for people who need to switch tires frequently, or who have sports cars which need frequent tire adjustments to perform well. It’s also ideal for people who have very variable road conditions, or several ATVs or vehicles to maintain.
It has the longest reach of our recommendations. The 88P has a 10-foot power cord, like the 70P, but it also comes with a whopping 16-foot air hose. You’ll have no problems reaching around your vehicle with this one, even if you drive a pickup or a van.
It’s even more rugged than the 70P. As we’ve said, the alligator clamps are vastly more reliable and durable than the plastic adaptor in the 70P and most other 12V units.
The compressor unit itself is also more rugged, with a mostly-metal frame and heavy duty plastic casing around the handle and power end. It uses the same brass chuck for latching onto your tires, and the clamps are insulated metal as well.
It can run much longer without a cool-down (5 minutes, as opposed to less than 2 for the 70P). While the 70P can also pump a tire from flat, it’ll need a lot more breaks. The 88P can get the whole tire pumped before it needs to cool down.
It has extremely high ratings from previous buyers. While the 70P is a slightly bigger seller, reviewers who used both models said that the 88P was their overwhelming favorite. They said it was more powerful, more convenient, and much more reliably.
Previous buyers were very complimentary of the build quality of the compressor unit, air hose, and power clamps. Most reviewers also said that the 88P’s speed made it more than worth the extra cost. They said the Viair worked very well for pretty much any application, and felt like it would last for years.
It’s covered by the same 1-year warranty as the 70P.
It’s the largest of the three compressors. This is a fairly sizable machine, at almost a foot long, and 6 inches tall. You’ll need to devote a chunk of trunk space to this if you’re going to keep it in your car as a backup.
It’s fairly expensive. This model can cost close to $75, which is three times the price of the AAA kit. We’d recommend it to people who drive a lot, or motorists with nicer cars and an eye for tire tuneups.
It’s also a worthwhile investment for people who have several vehicles, ATVs, or a lawn tractor. If you’re simply looking for a once-in-a-blue-moon emergency kit, the 88P might be overkill.
It doesn’t come with a case. That’s disappointing, since the cables, clamps and nozzles can get messy when they’re not packed neatly. Plus, the cheaper 70P comes with a case, so we’re not sure why the 88P lacks one.
Even though this is the best-made 12V compressor we’ve seen, it still has some quality control issues. A few isolated buyers received machines that were DOA, with broken or badly-connected parts.
We also noticed a few cases where the compressors broke down after a few months, and buyers had to try to use the warranty. They were disappointed to find that they were responsible for the cost of shipping their units back to the company for repairs.
The alligator clips are a bit small. While most buyers didn’t report any issues, some worried that they might not be able to get enough purchase on the battery tips.
Which is the Best 12 Volt Air Compressor for You?
The AAA is the best choice for very casual drivers who want to spend the least amount possible for something that can handle the occasional tire adjustment and get you to a garage if you run into trouble on the highway.
It’s compact, inexpensive, and much more serviceable than other cheap 12V compressors. It also gives you pretty good value for money, since you can use it for toys, balls, and other inflatables.
However, it’s very lightly-built, unreliable, and prone to overheating. We wouldn’t recommend it to people who are going to use their compressor on a regular basis. On the upside, it has a very low replacement value.
Our top pick for the average buyer and motorist is the Viair 70P. It’s more reliable and more durable than the AAA, and it doesn’t have the risk of overheating or melting under a heavier pressure load. It’s even more convenient to use, since it has a longer run time and more of a range with the longer power cord.
With that said, it’s not quite as powerful or as durable as the 88P. We’d recommend the 70P as the best option for a roadside backup and occasional maintenance tool for the average driver who doesn’t want to spend more than $50. However, you shouldn’t expect it to pump up tires from flat without a cooling break. It’s better for top-ups and adjustments, as well as pumping up bike tires or balls.
If you’re a frequent commuter, the owner of a fancier car, or someone who simply likes to have the best of whichever tool they’re buying, the Viair 88P is our all-time favorite 12V air compressor. It’s the most reliable machine here, vastly more so than the AAA.
It also works much faster than the other two models, and it’s the only machine we’d recommend for inflating several tires from flat, or adjusting tires on larger vehicles like pickups or ATVs. The 88P has durable power clips, a quiet motor, and the longest running time of any of these models. We’d recommend to anyone who can afford it and get enough use out of it to make it worth the money.
How to Choose the Right Portable 12v Air Compressor
Think about what type of motorist you are.
If you’re the sort of driver who likes to stay on top of maintenance and only see the mechanic when necessary, you’ll probably want to get a 12V compressor on the nicer end of the spectrum. If you service your vehicle regularly, chances are you’re very aware of your tire pressure needs, and will find lots of use for a convenient 12V compressor. You’ll use your unit enough times for top-ups and adjustments to make it worth the cost of a more reliable, efficient unit.
If you’re the sort of “fix it and forget it” driver who doesn’t like to get involved with regular maintenance, you’ll probably want to opt for something cheap and serviceable that will do in a pinch, but probably isn’t the best performer for frequent use.
Are you an occasional driver, or a frequent commuter?
People who live close to work and stores and don’t make lots of longer trips in the car probably don’t drive enough to justify spending lots of money on a 12V compressor. You’ll want to spend the least amount of money possible for a cheap model you can keep in the trunk in case of an emergency, without spending so little that you take a chance your compressor won’t work when you need it to.
If you’re someone who commutes regularly to work and has a longer drive in, you should probably invest in a higher-end 12V compressor. You drive a lot, which means that all those occasional maintenance concerns (like tire pressure balance, or flat tires) become more frequent concerns for your vehicle. You want a machine that can help you tackle all your regular maintenance quickly and easily.
Likewise, if you make lots of road trips, you run a higher risk of a breakdown. You’ll want to be prepared with a good 12V compressor in the trunk which can get you back on the road without having to locate a shop wherever you break down.
Plus, frequent travelers will find that a nicer compressor has a lot of added value for road trips to the beach or to a campground, where inflatable items like balls, chairs, or floats will be important.
Decide on your budget:
12V air compressors are available from about $15 to $100. At the lowest end of the spectrum, you’ll find mainly disposable models which might get you out of a tight spot on the side of the road, but won’t be durable or reliable enough to use several times.
At the top end of the range, you’ll see 12V models which are rugged, durable, and efficient, which make them very reliable backups for a breakdown, and excellent for regular top-ups and adjustments.
A more expensive unit will be more durable, efficient, and reliable. Cheaper 12V units have light plastic parts which break easily and tend to have short working lives. They also have short duty cycles, so you’ll have to give them lots of breaks to cool down.
That means a lot of cheap models can’t fill up a tire from flat, and they can overheat easily if you’re trying to get running after a flat on the highway. It also means that any adjustment or fill-up will take much longer, because of all the breaks you’ll have to take.
More expensive machines will come with solid metal parts, and brass fittings which will last infinitely longer. Their motors have longer duty cycles, which means you can run them for longer periods without a break. They’ll also feature heat overload protection, to protect the motor from burnout, and alligator clamps for a power supply, which last much longer than 12V plugs.
We recommend that occasional drivers and casual motorists spend closer to the lower end of the spectrum. You’ll want something that’s inexpensive enough to afford easily, but not so inexpensive as to risk failing when you need it in an emergency.
We’d recommend that the casual to average driver spend somewhere between $25 and $50. $25 units are serviceable enough to get you through in a pinch. However, they tend to be painfully slow, and they wear out quickly. We’d recommend spending as much as you are able within the $25 to $50 range.
For people who drive frequently or are more maintenance-minded, we’d recommend spending between $50 and $75 for a durable, reliable 12V compressor. These units are rugged enough to handle regular, repeated use.
They also have longer duty cycles which make them more convenient to use. You’ll appreciate the increased speed and efficiency if you’re using your compressor for more than an emergency inflation.
We also recommend that people who have several vehicles, bikes, ATVs, or other tires to inflate on a regular basis spend in the $50 to $75 range. Because you have lots of tires to maintain, you’ll appreciate the reliability and efficiency of a nicer compressor, and be able to get a lot of value out of it.
Think about durability:
Aside from efficiency, the biggest difference between the cheapest 12V air compressors and the most expensive models is durability. Above $25, most models will work at least once, to get you out of a roadside breakdown, or to inflate a spare tire at home.
However, the cheap models tend to be a bit disposable. They have a lot of plastic parts, and a lot of inexpensive models don’t have any overheating protections, so they can melt or burn out if you’re not very careful when you use them. More expensive options will have metal parts which don’t break nearly as often, and their motors have features like replaceable fuses and overload protection which give them a much longer working life.
The big difference in durability with these devices is the reason we urge any buyer to spend as much as they are able on a 12V compressor. We always think it’s best to spend a bit more up front for a $50 unit, say, than to have to buy a $25 unit twice.
Get the most for your money:
Finally, while most people buy 12V compressors as a way to pump up and adjust tires on their vehicle, you should make your purchase count by trying to get the most value for your money. To that end, look for 12V air compressors that come with several extra nozzles. These will allow you to use your new gadget for pumping up bike tires, athletic balls, inflatable pool toys, and whatever other inflatable items you might need to blow up.