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Published Aug. 26, 2021

That low-tire-pressure indicator is always unnerving. But having a tire inflator in your trunk as part of a vehicle emergency kit provides all the assurance you need. In minutes—sometimes seconds—the best tire inflator lets you add air to your wheels without finding a gas station and rooting around for quarters in your center console. You’ll get back on the road with safer tires, and improve your gas mileage as well.

What to consider when shopping for the best tire inflator

Inflator types and capabilities vary, from cordless inflators with their own batteries to corded heavy-duty inflators, and inflate at different rates. Prices vary too. Here are the factors to consider when shopping for the best tire inflator. 

Where’s the power coming from?

Tire inflators require power to pump air into your tires. Cordless tire inflators use rechargeable batteries, much like battery-operated tools. Corded inflators pull power from your vehicle’s battery—either by connecting to the vehicle’s battery via alligator clamps (think jumper cables) or by plugging into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter receptacle. Battery-powered inflators are generally easier to use, but the battery has to be charged, meaning you can’t just leave it in your trunk and pull it out only during rare emergencies. Corded inflators are always ready to serve, but take more time to set up.

How high is the PSI?

Most car and truck tire pressures are between 30 and 40 PSI, and the best tire inflators are capable of delivering more than three times that amount. That means you shouldn’t have trouble finding an inflator that will refill your tires with ease, but some models will take longer than others, depending on the level of airflow your inflator supports. Look for PSI counts above 100. Many will list how long it’ll take to go from 0 to ~40 PSI, with times ranging from less than 90 seconds to more than 5 minutes. 

Note that protective shutoff systems will turn tire inflators off if they get too hot, which adds to the time. Generally, the more powerful the compressor, the longer it can run without shutting off.

Do you want a digital display? 

A digital tire inflator, also called an automatic tire inflator, lets you set your desired PSI level on an LCD display, and will shut off when the pressure reaches that number. Digital displays are fairly user-friendly and should prevent you from over-inflating your tires. But some drivers find an analog gauge, which has a needle that moves along a dial as the pressure changes, more accurate.

How big is the inflator and how far will it reach? 

Some are small enough to mount to a bicycle. Others are not, but all will easily fit into a car trunk. They can weigh less than a pound or as much as 10 pounds. When considering dimensions, you should also pay attention to the length of the power cord and air hose. Power cord length will determine how far you can get your inflator away from your vehicle (unless it has its own battery). While the air hose length will determine how far you can get the chuck (the part that attaches to the tire valve) from the pump. Those lengths may be a consideration if you’ll use the compressor to inflate tires on other vehicles or other objects such as rafts.

Do you need to inflate light truck tires?

If you’ll need to inflate LT-class tires that have very little air, and/or don’t want to spend a lot of time waiting for a small tire inflator to do the job, go for a large tire inflator that runs directly off your vehicle’s battery via alligator clamps. That will generate enough compression to fill truck tires, and can run a long time without the need to shut down in order to protect components. (Some can run nearly indefinitely if the ambient temperature is cool enough.) There are some downsides: They’re heavier than less expensive, less powerful inflators, and you need to open your vehicle’s hood and keep it open to access the battery. But these heavy-duty portables typically come with hoses long enough to reach all four tires on large, long vehicles, come with built-in PSI gauges, and will get the job done quickly and efficiently. If you own a truck and need to air down often to drive on sand or rocky terrain, this is the best choice.

The best tire inflators

Whether you have a big rig or a small car, are looking for a cordless inflator or a digital inflator, one of these models should be right for you.

Best Tire Inflator for Most Vehicles: Viair 88P Portable Air Compressor

Easy to Gauge

A powerful, portable tire inflator that provides a pinpoint PSI count. VIAIR

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The Viair 12V tire inflator is a popular model that suits a lot of drivers’ needs. At 4.5 pounds and less than $70, it’s light and affordable, and the pump’s 16-foot hose is sturdy. An analog gauge on the pump goes up to 120 PSI. Open the hood of your car, attach the alligator clamps to your vehicle’s battery, start your vehicle’s engine, and the air compressor will draw up to 20 amps. An included zippered carrying case adds to the convenience. Users say it’ll fill most totally flat tires in five minutes or less.

Best Tire Inflator for Large Vehicles: GSPSCN Tire Inflator 

Powerful Pump

Get many tires from flat to filled in 90 seconds flat. GSPSCN

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This 12V tire inflator draws up to 25 amps, boosting the potential PSI power to 150. It promises to inflate most flat tires to about 40 PSI in less than 90 seconds. In addition to connecting to the battery via alligator clips, the pump also provides the option of plugging into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter. And at about the same size as a 15-pound dumbbell, the portable inflator comes with a carry case and weighs less than 7 pounds. It also includes a coiled air hose that stretches to nearly 12 feet. 

Best Tire Inflator for Light Trucks: VIAIR 400P Portable Compressor

LT Tire Inflator

Fills one tire after another without stopping. VIAIR

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The Viair 400P generates 150 PSI and will run at that level for up to 15 continuous minutes without shutting down. That makes it ideal for inflating pickup truck or SUV tires—especially if you need to air down your tires to drive offroad, and want to fill them back up before hitting the pavement. It attaches directly to your vehicle’s battery via alligator clamps.

Best Cordless Tire Inflator: Black and Decker 20V Max Cordless Tire Inflator

Cut the Cord

This portable tire inflator can run on a 20V battery. BLACK+DECKER

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This digital Black + Decker tire inflator can connect to your car’s battery, plug into an outlet, or run cordless on a 20V battery (sold separately). It features an automatic shutoff, meaning it stops filling the moment the desired pressure is reached. You set the pressure on an easy-to-read screen. It’s good for inflating low car tires as well as balls and other inflatables.

Best Small-Car Tire Inflator: Cycplus Portable Tire Inflator

Lightweight Air, Plus Light

Air supply that weighs less than a pound and supplies up to 80 lumens. CYCPLUS

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Similar in size and shape to a hot dog and weighing less than a pound, this battery-powered car tire inflator can supply up to 150 PSI. The four lithium-ion batteries recharge in 2.5 hours via a micro-USB connection. The digital inflator, with an LCD display, also can supply up to 80 lumens of light for up to 7 hours. 

Best Cheap Tire Inflator: TUGOKU 12V Tire Inflator 

Compressed Price

An adequate tire inflator for less than $20. TUGOKU

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This portable tire inflator weighs less than 2 pounds and can inflate to 150 PSI. Of course, going from 0 to 35 PSI will take several minutes—more than twice as long as more powerful tire inflators—which may not be a factor for you. The 12V inflator plugs into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter, while the digital screen lets you select your desired pressure level. LED lights are helpful if you have to add air at night. 

FAQs

What people are asking about tire inflators.

Q: What is the difference between an inflator and a compressor? 

A tire inflator is a compressor, but generally, a very small compressor is referred to as a tire inflator. The smaller the compressor, the longer it takes to fill a tire. Note that gas station compressors and some large commercial compressors have big tanks where compressed air is stored, which allow you to fill tires very quickly. 

Q: What should I look for in a tire inflator?

That depends on what’s important to you, but always consider the power supply and the power of the compressor, which dictates inflation time. Smaller models run on their own batteries. Larger ones connect to your vehicle’s battery via the cigarette lighter, or, for the most power, directly to the vehicle’s battery via alligator clamps. Some models can also plug into wall outlets. Inflation times range from seconds to minutes, depending on the size of the tire and how much air it needs. Also, the less powerful the compressor, the more it may shut down to protect against overheating.

Q: How does a portable tire inflator work? 

A portable tire inflator works by powering a crankshaft that drives pistons to compress air. That compressed air then travels through a hose to a chuck that you attach to your tire valve.

A Final Tip About the Best Tire Inflators 

Remember that the larger the compressor, the more powerful it is, which translates to quicker inflation times. Smaller compressors will overheat faster and shut off, which adds to the inflation time. If you want the best tire inflator to top off tires occasionally at home, a small compressor will do. If you need to fill large tires often, go with a more powerful model.

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