Air Pump vs Air Compressor

You might have used small air pumps to inflate air mattresses or balls and large air compressors to power pneumatic tools. Both electric air pumps and air compressors serve the same purpose: provide air to different devices. But how they do that is what makes them interesting. In this guide, we will take a closer look at both air pump and air compressors, understand how they work, find out the differences and applications and also draw a comparison table of Air Pump vs Air Compressor.

What is an Air Pump?

An Air Pump, as the name suggests, is an electrically operated device that takes atmospheric air and converts into slightly high-pressure air. We can use this high-pressure air to inflate tires, balls, balloons, pool beds, air mattresses etc. We also small air pumps in aquariums and ponds to aerate the water.


When you need high-pressure air, all you need to do is connect the air pump to a power supply, turn it on and start using the high-pressure air from its outlet. There is no storage system with air pumps as everything is instantaneous.

What is an Air Compressor?

Coming to air compressor, it is slightly powerful device that takes air/gas at low pressure and converts it into a very high-pressure air/gas and stores it in a tank/vessel.

Whenever you need this high-pressure air, you can use it from the storage tank. As you use up the pressurized air from the tank, you can once again start the compressor to fill up the tank with high-pressure air.


While you can use air compressors to inflate tires, balls and mattresses just like an air pump, you can actually do more than that due to its high pressure. One important application of air compressors is to power pneumatic tools such as wrenches and hammers.

Automobile industry is heavily reliant on air compressors and pneumatic tools (air tools). The compressed and high-pressure air will power the tools and you don’t need any electricity. You might have seen spray painting devices that also use air compressors.

What are the Differences Between Air Pump and Air Compressor?

From the above discussion, it is clear that even though both air pumps and compressors are quite different in terms of their basic operation and also their output pressure. But what are the actual difference between Air Pump vs Air Compressor. We will find out more in this section.

Internal Parts

An Air pump is a relatively simple device with minimal parts and construction. A typical electric air pump consists of a small electric motor, impeller, diaphragm, piston and a casing.

Air compressors are relatively complex devices. A typical electric air compressor consists of a large electric motor, a pump (to compress the air), a storage tank, drain system, pressure controls, inlet filters, valves, etc.

In case of a fuel operated air compressor, there will be an engine instead of the electric motor and also all the corresponding parts associated with the engine.


The working of air pumps and air compressors is very different. In an air pump, as the motor turns, a diaphragm rotates with the motor. The shape of the diaphragm is slightly odd and as it rotates, it creates a difference in pressure between the intake and output.

This will convert the low-pressure air from the surroundings into a slightly high-pressure air and delivers through a small hole or nozzle. You can use this high-pressure air to inflate or aerate things.

Air Compressors are completely different altogether. There are several types of air compressors and the working of each one of them is different. Keeping it abstract, a simple air compressor has an electric motor that operates a piston.

This piston reciprocates in a cylinder and reduces the volume of the air. As the volume reduces, the pressure increases. This high-pressure air is then stored in a tank for later use.


Air pumps are simple devices with small output pressure. Hence, we use them to inflate car/motorcycle tires, balloons, air mattresses/beds (for pool or camping). Another major application of air pumps is to aerate small ponds and aquariums to pump air into water.

Even though air pumps are primarily meant to produce high-pressure air, we can also use some pumps to push fluids such as water, soap, foam, sanitizer etc.

All the things an air pump can do such as inflating tires, mattresses etc., the air compressor can also do. But the benefit of having high-pressure air is that you can drive tools with it. Air tools (pneumatic tools) run on compressed air and hence wherever there are pneumatic tools (wrenches, nailers, hammers, etc.), there will be an air compressor.

We also use air compressors in large vehicles such as buses, trucks and trains to operate the air brakes. Spray paint guns also use compressed air to deliver high pressure paint.


There is no need for any maintenance in case of air pumps as they have small set of components with relatively simple operation.

In case of fuel operated air compressors, you need to take all the necessary maintenance step as you would take with an internal combustion engine. While electric motors are relatively maintenance free, you have to drain the tank that stores the high-pressure air every now and then. This is because with high-pressure air and moisture, water starts to form inside the tank and slowly fills it up. This can damage the tank in the longer run (rust is one of the main concerns).

Output Capacity

The output pressure of air pumps is very small. Tire inflating air pumps can deliver about 50psi while mattresses inflating air pumps deliver even less. But air compressors are on a different league.

Even the smallest air compressor can deliver 100 – 150 psi very easily. Slightly larger machines that drive power tools can deliver even higher pressures.


Air pumps are very cheap. You can get air pumps that inflates beds and mattresses for $20 – $25. Tire inflating air pumps are also relatively cheaper with a price range of $30 – $50.

Coming to the air compressor, small electric air compressors for home use cost about $110 – $150. Slightly larger air compressors with power rating of 1hp or more cost more than $250.

Air Pump vs Air Compressor: A Comparison Table

We have seen about air pumps and air compressors. We also saw the differences between them in terms of operation, cost and applications. Let us now tabulate the comparison of Air Pump vs Air Compressor for an easy understanding.

Air Pump Air Compressor
Delivers slightly pressurized air without actually storing. Stores high-pressure air/gas in a tank/vessel to deliver it later.
Almost all air pumps operate on electricity (either mains AC or DC). Even though electric air compressors are very popular and common, you can also find fuel-based air compressors with appropriate engines.
Air Pumps are very small devices. They are relatively large devices as the storage tank itself occupies a significant amount of space.
They deliver high-pressure air instantly. As there is no storage tank, you cannot use it when powered down. Air compressors store high-pressure air into a tank. We can use this air whenever we want, even when the compressor unit is turned off. As the amount of air reduces in the tank, you can turn on the compressor to refill the tank.
Main applications are inflating tires, balloons, beds, mattresses, aerating water and also delivering fluids at high pressure. While inflating is possible with air compressors (it is also a main application), the high-pressure air from them is more useful for driving pneumatic tools (air tools) such as wrenches, nail guns/staplers, hammers etc.
Air Pumps are very cheap. You can get good quality options in $20 – $50. Air Compressors are relatively expensive products. Starting price of small air compressors is around $110.

Which One to Buy: Air Pump vs Air Compressor?

The answer depends on your needs and requirements. For inflating car/motorcycle tires, birthday balloons, pool air beds, regular air mattresses, aerating aquariums etc., you don’t need very high-pressure air.

An air pump is more than enough for all these jobs. In fact, you can even fill up a bouncy house using a small air pump (it might take some time but it gets the job done). They are very cheap and have more or less no maintenance at all.

But if you have a garage/workshop, an automobile repair or body shop, then investing in a decent air compressor is probably beneficial. You can run power tools, use hydraulic lifts, spray paint and even inflate things.


Air Pumps and Air Compressors are two similar but different devices. They are similar in the sense that their job is to deliver high-pressure air and they are different in terms of how they operate, their cost and also suitable applications. We saw about air pumps and air compressors in this guide with respect to their working, differences, cost and applications. We also compared Air Pumps vs Air Compressors in a table format.

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