An Honest Review after Running Both Air Systems – Air Compressors Vs. CO2 Tanks for Airing Up Tires
One of the most common practices when off-roading; airing down your tires for the trail, and airing them back up when you hit the pavement. Releasing air pressure in your tires before hitting the dirt will provide improved traction, and increased ride comfort. So what do you when you get back to the pavement.. you guessed it, put that air back in your tires.
What did you do on your first trip out?
Borrow a friend’s compressor? Maybe you hit the gas station? Although they both work, it’s not always the best option and after a while – it starts to get old. Having something on or in your truck makes airing back up a whole lot easier.
When you first start your search for a quality air system the choices typically come down to portable air compressors, on-board air compressors, or CO2.
The prices can range anywhere from $20 for your basic portable air compressor at Harbor Freight to well over $1,000 for a high-end CO2 tank such as the Power Tank. Somewhere in between these price ranges, you have high-quality portable air compressors and on-board air compressors. Depending on your type of off-roading or overlanding will depend on the best air system for you.
Where to start?
If you are the type of traveler who wants the most affordable air system then look at some of the smaller portable air compressors around $100 to $150. For the off-roader who likes convenience first and foremost with a bit more speed then take a look at onboard air systems. If you want the fastest solution possible and see yourself needing to run air tools, then look at CO2.
I’ll speak for the majority of folks out there, onboard air compressors and CO2 tanks are the two most desired systems available. In this detailed overview, we are going to explain which of these options might be best for you and why. But before we do that, let’s look at the different types of systems available.
We are going to start with an overview on portable air compressors, then move to onboard air systems and finally look at CO2.
Portable Air Compressors
Overview & Pros:
These units are powered directly from your 12-volt starter battery and most often include two alligator clips for the positive and negative leads. Attach the leads to your battery terminals, turn on the unit, and air up your tires. Portable air compressors are great for the person who off roads occasionally or just wants a portable unit. You can take these units out when you don’t need them and tuck them away in the back of your 4Runner when you do. They are incredibly popular for most of the off-roaders and Overlanders out there and generally speaking they often come with everything you need to get started; compressor, air hose, additional accessories, and sometimes gauges.
For the most part, any portable air compressor under $40 from Harbor Freight is not going to perform well if you have 33-inch tires to 35-inch tires. These smaller more affordable portable air compressors are typically designed for bicycle tires and motorcycle tires. If you can afford an air compressor around the $100 to $200 range you were going to see a lot more bang for your buck, not to mention the performance life cycle of the product.
I would recommend that most guys allocate at least $100 – $200 for a decent compressor such as the Viar 88p, Viar 300p, Viar 400p, or Smittybilt 2780 or Smittybilt 2781. Most of these prices come down to size, psi ratings, and duty cycle. These compressors aren’t going to allow you to run air tools but it sure as hell will beat a cheap $40 compressor from Harbor Freight.
Portable compressors probably lead the race when it comes to off-road and overland air systems. Their convenience, ease of use, portability, and price point make the barrier to entry incredibly universal for many first-timers and seasoned vets alike.
The downside of a portable compressor is is that you need to take them in and out of your rig, spend time setting the system up connecting the alligator clips, and you can possibly forget them. And depending on how you look at it, they can take up precious cargo space in the cabin or rear cargo area.
On-Board Air Compressors
Overview & Pros:
An onboard air compressor is essentially a portable air compressor that is hard mounted to your vehicle. These units are typically bolted into place within your engine bay. For most vehicles like our 4Runners, these units will stay mounted in the same spot throughout the life of your truck. To some, onboard air systems are even more convenient than portable air compressors. You don’t need to pack them up for every trip because they live on your vehicle and depending on the brand, they don’t take up too much of a footprint.
Like portable compressors, onboard air systems run directly to your vehicle’s 12-volt starter battery but can be wired to a secondary accessory battery as well. The only difference is that you don’t need to unpack the unit and connect a set of alligator clips every time you want to air up your tires. Because these systems are hardwired to your battery means they’re ready at the push of a button anytime you want, incredibly convenient.
Over the years onboard air systems have grown in popularity simply for their convenience. When you don’t need them they are tucked away, out of sight out of mind. When you do need them, just pop your hood, turn on a switch and they are ready to go.
If you find yourself off-roading a lot or like to randomly take road trips off the beaten path, hard-mounted onboard air systems are great “spur of the moment” companions. As long as you have an onboard air compressor, and a box of recovery gear you are most likely good to go. One of the most common options is the onboard ARB Twin Compressor.
Although the ARB is the most common, we have seen a few guys mount other compressors such as the Smitty Bilt 2781 on their truck as a permanent solution.
The downside of on-board air compressors is that they are expensive upfront and they are not portable. Additionally, wherever you have them permanently mounted they can take up that footprint. Some might argue the point that they are slow, depending on the size of the compressor or CO2 tank you’re comparing it against.
Overview & Pros:
CO2 tanks are pretty damn impressive. From airing up four 35-inch tires in 40 seconds to running air tools and resetting a beadlock tire/wheel, CO2 tanks are pretty bitchin. For most guys that are looking at CO2 tanks your goal should primarily be those items; speed with the additional usage air tools or resetting a bead.
In their highest demand, you will find just about every Ultra 4 racing truck and buggy race team running them for these reasons. Being able to do this with no power in remote locations is incredibly impressive. To sum it up, CO2 is lightning fast and offers what no run of the mill portable or hard-mounted air compressors can; speed.
We own a 10-pound power tank with an XP 400 regulator and it’s one of the most impressive pieces of equipment I have in my garage. I can air up four 35 inch tires with the MORRFlate from 15 psi to 35 PSI in under or around 40 seconds. This is almost jaw-dropping when you are used to traditional portable compressors. We also built our own DIY version of a Power Tank – and although it works, we don’t use it or the Power Tank all that often.
For many of us in the off-road and Overland Community, speed it’s not typically the most important item on the agenda. Power Tanks are fast but they can also be awkward to store and move around, especially if you don’t have a permanent mounting bracket. Finally, I find myself rarely using the Power Tank because of the constant need to refill it with CO2 at around $25 per fill. Basically, I don’t like driving 20 miles to go fill up a tank and paying $25 to do so. Additionally, I don’t want to forget to fill up my tank before I head out.
What’s for You?
If you are reading this then you are likely here because the choice is between an onboard air compressor or CO2.
What’s it going to be?
Although portable compressors are nice, they take up space in the rear cargo area or on your floorboard depending on where you store them. And, as we previously mentioned onboard air compressors are much more convenient as you don’t need to remember to pack them for every trip.
To me and many other guys, the decision comes down to the most commonly run air systems on the market; the power tank or the ARB twin. Of these two products let’s look at some of the most commonly addressed items in order to determine which unit is better for your needs.
On-Board ARB Twin Compressor
The ARB twin starts out at around $500 and requires no further ongoing investment. Other costs for setting up an ARB twin may include a bracket, wiring, and the necessary tools to wire up a switch if you decide to go that direction. All in you can typically install an ARB onboard compressor for under $600.
Onboard compressors in general are very convenient. Being that the units are always mounted, you don’t need to pack them up each time you go out. There is no dismounting and remounting involved. They are always on your truck ready to go at a moment’s notice. To top it off, at the flick of a switch, your compressor turns on and is ready to air up your tires. This is the biggest selling point for me. It’s always ready to go!
The ARB twin is incredibly capable of not only airing up tires but other tasks as well. At 4.68 CFM flow rate at 29 psi with a max pressure output of 150 psi, it is possible to run air tools although I wouldn’t necessarily describe this as “best practice” as a twin compressor alone wasn’t rated for use with air tools. If you are planning on running air tools, you can opt for a secondary 1-gallon tank on the ARB twin. At the end of the day, the ARB twin should primarily be used to air up your tires, airing up lockers, using an air blow gun for blowing out the cab, and other small air demands.
With the ability to take up unused space in your engine bay or hard mounted to a designated surface, the footprint of the ARB twin is definitely ideal. Out of sight out of mind. You can mount the ARB twin in your engine bay, under your seat, or any other suitable area. The fact of the ARB twin is completely out of the way from almost every other modification on my truck is a huge Plus. There is also a wide variety of companies that manufacture brackets on both the driver and passenger side so you have plenty of configurable options. On top of this, you can mount an ARB single compressor, this is literally half the size of the ARB twin that can provide an even smaller footprint.
The ARB twin is not necessarily going to be your best option for portability. This is where portable air compressors and CO2 tanks shine. An onboard air system is not designed to be transferred from truck to truck, although you can always air up a buddy using the MORRFlate or any other 4-way inflation system. Once an onboard air system has found its home that’s where it should live. ARB does offer the twin compressor in a portable package that may suit your needs better than the hard-mounted option.
Power Tank – CO2 Tank
Power Tanks can start out at $500 and set you back well over $1,000 depending on the options you choose. With the wide range of tank sizes, mounting brackets, and high-end regulators, I would say your average cost of a power tank is somewhere around $800. You will have the ongoing costs of a power tank as well and that will vary depending on how much you wheel your rig. Let’s say for example you head out once a month with a 10 lb tank. A 10 lb tank is going to last about four uses airing up 35″ tires from 18 psi to 35 psi. The cost to fill up a 10 lb tank with CO2 is around $25 to $30. So if you head out once a month you are looking at an extra hundred dollars ($100) every year to fill your tank.
Portable CO2 tanks for airing up your tires are not very convenient. If you are not using the tanks then they take up extra space either in your rig or in your garage. When using the tanks off-road they are heavy and can get dirty when dragging them around or moving them from tire to tire. Sometimes sand, snow, mud, or gravel can oftentimes come back into your rig. Probably the biggest downside of running a portable CO2 tank is having to refill it. This to me, is incredibly inconvenient. Having to remember to refill your CO2 tank just before leaving for a trip only adds to the number of things that are typically on the list before heading out.
There is no doubt about it, Power Tanks and CO2 tanks will outperform any compressor on the market in terms of speed. The difference is night and day. The XP400 is their top-of-the-line regulator and has some staggering numbers. It features 48 CFM (cubic feet per minute) flow rate at a maximum outlet pressure of 400 psi which is light years beyond an ARB Twin. CO2 tanks can air up four 35-inch tires in around 40 seconds and the ARB twin, for example, you can expect around 5 to 6 minutes. This is all being calculated with a 4-way tire inflation system.
You need to find a designated spot in the cargo area, trunk, or bed of your rig which will take up space. Power Tanks take up quite a bit of space. They are large and can be awkward to move around if you don’t have a designated bracket that holds them into place. It’s highly recommended to run a permanent bracket with a portable CO2 tank for airing up your tires so the tank doesn’t roll around when you are off-road. My biggest challenge with the 10 lb power tank in the last 5 months has been where to put it. Even with the M.O.R.E off-road bracket, the power tank takes up a ton of space in the cargo area with the 5th Gen 4Runner. I’m already lacking space how it is in the rear area so adding a 10 lb CO2 tank in the back of the cargo area is not ideal. Also, running a drawer system with the M.O.R.E. bracket is not an option with most drawer systems. From my personal experience, I feel like large tanks are better suited for truck beds and Jeep cages where more space is offered. I could see myself running one on my 2nd Gen Tacoma – mounted to a GFC or bed rack or something. I really like the Power Tank, it just takes up a lot of space in the cargo area in our 4Runner.
CO2 tanks definitely win the portability race. You can transport these tanks from rig to rig super fast in terms of both airing up a series of trucks and even letting your friend borrow a tank for the weekend. But, keep in mind portability is only relevant if and when you have a bracket that is specifically designed for that rig. So even though CO2 tanks may seem portable, you need to be ready and have a plan for where you want that tank mounted.
Pictured: ARB Single On-Board Air Compressor
Who wins: ARB Twin Vs. Power Tank?
- Price: ARB Twin
- Convenience: ARB Twin
- Performance: Power Tank
- Footprint: ARB Twin
- Portability: Power Tank
So who wins?
It really depends on your specific needs and budget. If you are the type of person that wants to air up your tires as fast as possible, look at the power tank. There is no portable compressor or onboard air compressor that can compete with the speed of CO2.
If on the other hand convenience is of the utmost importance, then look at an onboard ARB twin or even a portable air compressor. As mentioned above, the hard-mounted air compressors are incredibly convenient and somewhat affordable in the long run. Hard mounted ARB twins fit the 5th Gen 4Runner perfectly. They are designed for someone who wheels every weekend or even just once a quarter.
I rarely say the word “best”, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a better solution for many guys. The ARB twin is downright practical compared to CO2 tanks and just makes sense for the everyday driver and weekend warrior.
The biggest difference between the Power Tank and the ARB twin compressor comes down to speed vs convenience.
What’s more important to you… speed or convenience?