California Air Tools Compressor Review

Turn up the pressure, increase your productivity.

The 5510SE Air Compressor from California Air Tools leads the pack in both operating sound level and rated service life.Julia LaPalme

PRESSURIZED ATMOSPHERE is a mechanic's ally—whether it's inflating tires, sliding on a fresh set of grips, or purging clogged carburetor jets—but not many of us treat ourselves to an air compressor. That's too bad because a compressor is the kind of equipment that helps elevate your garage from a place where you simply park your motorcycle to a shop where you can maintain and repair it.

Air compressors come in all shapes and sizes, from budget-priced 2-gallon “pancake” compressors all the way up to big-buck 50-gallon industrial units. The average home mechanic’s needs call for something on the lower end of the spectrum, but pinching pennies on your compressor purchase may leave you with a slow-to-fill, painfully loud device with a short service life.

Comparing the volume, motor power, CFM (cubic feet per minute) rating, and maximum pressure of various compressors is a good idea, but two critical specs are often overlooked or downright difficult to find: operating sound level and rated service life.

Leading the pack in both regards is the $160 5510SE compressor from California Air Tools. The 5510SE's 5.5-gallon tank and 1-hp motor offer ample capacity and pumping power to run pneumatic tools, and its 3,000-hour service life is six to 10 times longer than that of comparable units. Part of that durability comes from the pump design, which uses two large, slow-moving pistons to achieve the desired displacement instead of the more common small single piston revving at 4,000 rpm.

Lower motor speed reduces wear and also lessens another key item: noise. The 5510SE is rated at just 60 decibels, which is about the intensity of conversation in a restaurant and some 15 to 50 decibels less than the din produced by other units. That makes the 5510SE one of the quietest compressors on the market, perfect for the home mechanic whose garage-turned-workshop shares a wall with family or neighbors.