Harbor Freight's Most Budget-Friendly Air Compressor To Have In Your Garage

Harbor Freight is a great place to look for a budget air compressor for your garage or small workshop, but the range of options they offer is a bit bewildering. Outside of a clearance Bauer model and a two-cylinder gas-powered $999.99 Central Pneumatic dinosaur, HF carries McGraw- and Fortress-branded products, and, at a glance, it appears that McGraw is the true bargain brand of the two. But it's not quite that simple. We looked for the ideal budget-friendly compressor from Harbor Freight and came up with two, both from McGraw: the 3-gallon, 1/3 horsepower, 110 PSI oil-free pancake air compressor and the 8-gallon, 1.5 HP, 150 PSI oil-free portable air compressor.

The minimum specs for an air compressor depend, of course, on what you do with it, and there's no savings to be found in buying a compressor that doesn't meet your needs. For a home workshop or garage, the key specs for an air compressor are probably the maximum PSI rating for the tool and tank size. The trouble with HF's McGraw and Fortress ranges is that these features don't neatly correspond to price points. That is, you can't automatically assume that a more expensive compressor will have a higher PSI rating or a larger tank. McGraw makes the two cheapest compressors at Harbor Freight, but McGraw compressors often outperform Fortress on key metrics like PSI, volume, and standard cubic feet per minute (SCFM).

Our budget light duty pick

The $59 McGraw pancake compressor is nearly identical to McGraw's $59 hot dog compressor ... same tank size, PSI rating, SCFM air flow rate (at both 90 and 40 PSI), decibel loudness rating, and horsepower. We chose the pancake version that's half a pound lighter and has a slightly lower amperage rating (3.2A versus 3.4A). It takes slightly longer (223 seconds versus 214 seconds) to fill from 0 psi. If space concerns make you prefer the hot dog compressor over the pancake, it would be 100% rational to choose it over the pancake model.

For the price — it's cheaper than the as-seen-on-TV Air Hawk Tire Inflator we tried — you get a very portable compressor with enough pressure and volume to run most brad nailers and some air tools, like the cheap nail gun from Lowes we tested. You can easily keep tires and toys inflated, run an air brush, or air-sweep your garage, and it's probably less trouble than using a trash bag to fill up an air mattress. It is oil-free and so has lower maintenance requirements. It's slow to refill, and the small tank means you're not going to run a cabinet shop with it or frame a house going full-bore with a framing nailer. But for most people with an occasional need, this one is perfectly sufficient.

Our budget medium-duty workshop pick

This was also a tough call, but for different reasons. The $159.99 McGraw rolling compressor and the $159.99 Fortress pancake's standout numbers, by comparison with the cheaper McGraw pancake, are the max PSI at 150 and 175 PSI and volume at 8 and 6 gallons. You might think the PSI rating qualifies the Fortress to run some heavy-duty grinder or air wrench, but what those numbers — and, perhaps more importantly, the McGraw's 4.1 SCFM rating (at 90 PSI) — mean for the average homeowner and DIYer is that you can power the usual tools longer, and use them faster. The SCFM flow rate is just enough to comfortably run an air-powered framing nailer, and a compressor with these specs should have no trouble keeping up with a handful of brads driven into a woodworking project or finish nails used to install trim in a living room.

The McGraw has a lower PSI rating than the $159.99 Fortress (150 versus 175), but it has a higher SCFM (4.1 versus 3) and a larger tank (8 gallons versus 6). Harbor Freight only sells a handful of compressors with higher SCFM ratings, and all of those cost $289.99 or more, making the 150 PSI McGraw a great deal if you can get by with 8 gallons, and you probably can. Professional workshops, or shops with more than one person at a time using air from the compressor, might need more, but this is more than sufficient for most home uses.