How Do Air Compressors Work? A Comprehensive Guide

Air compressors are an essential tool in many industries, from manufacturing to construction, providing the power needed for a variety of applications, but understanding how an air compressor works is crucial to maximising efficiency and productivity.

With that in mind, this guide will take an in-depth look at the inner workings of air compressors, as well as covering the different types available, key components of an air compressor, and practical applications.

Components of an Air Compressor System

Prior to delving into the functionalities of air compressors, it is crucial to understand its various components. This foundational knowledge will not only facilitate proper operation but also enable effective troubleshooting during usage. Key elements of an air compressor encompass:

Tank: The compressed air is stored here and subsequently discharged through the outlet valve.

Pump: The pump functions to compress air and subsequently fills the tank.

Pressure switch: Regulates the internal air pressure of the tank by automatically activating or deactivating the motor as required.

Motor: The motor drives the pump which compresses air into the tank, and also operates additional components of the air compressor, including the fan and gauge.

Pressure Gauges: They display the pressure levels within the tank and at the outlet, enabling precise monitoring and adjustment.

How Does an Air Compressor Work?

  1. An electric motor or engine powers a pump, which draws air from the atmosphere through an intake valve.
  2. A pump compresses the air and forces it into a storage tank where it is pressurised.
  3. When the pressure inside the tank reaches a certain level, the pressure switch automatically turns off the compressor to prevent over-pressure.
  4. The compressed air in the tank can be used to power tools and equipment, inflate tires, or perform a variety of other tasks.
  5. When the air in the tank runs out, the compressor will restart to replenish more compressed air into the tank.

Types of Air Compressors

There are many types of air compressors, each suitable for specific tasks:

Portable Air Compressor: Compact and mobile, ideal for home use or mobile operations such as roadside tire inflation.

Electric air compressor: Uses an electric motor to drive the compressor, which is quiet and generally requires less maintenance. They are ideal for indoor operations.

Industrial Air Compressors: Used in factories and industrial environments, these units can deliver high power for large-scale applications.

Gas Air Compressor: These machines are powered by gasoline and are generally very rugged, making them ideal for projects where electricity may not be readily available.

Mechanical principles of air compressor

An air compressor functions by drawing air into a chamber and subsequently compressing it, after which the pressurised air is then channeled through an outlet in the tank, accumulating pressure. This mechanism can be likened to releasing air from an inflated balloon, the compressed air, upon release, is harnessed as energy.

They operate using engines that transform electrical energy into kinetic energy, which is akin to that of an internal combustion engine, employing components such as a crankshaft, pistons, valves, cylinder heads, and connecting rods to facilitate this conversion.

Compressed air serves as a versatile resource, capable of powering an array of tools, with the popular choices being nail guns, impact wrenches, sanders, and paint sprayers.

How does an air compressor regulator work?

The regulator is affixed to the outlet of the compressor reservoir and is equipped with an adjustable knob and a pressure gauge. Rotating the knob counterclockwise exerts pressure against the spring that constrains the valve, subsequently decreasing airflow to the regulator and lowering pressure. Conversely, turning the knob clockwise relaxes both spring and valve, facilitating an increased flow of high-pressure air through the output.

When the pressure needed to operate a tool is below the level present in the air tank, the regulator automatically modifies this pressure, and although a regulator is unable to increase the pressure beyond what is contained within the tank, it does guarantee that your tools receive steady airflow at the proper pressure.

The regulator is designed to cease the operation of the pump when it detects that a predetermined pressure threshold has been met, so the action may halt the piston’s movement mid-stroke, resulting in the accumulation of compressed air within the chamber.

The presence of this compressed air can exert excessive strain on the starting circuit, necessitating increased power for motor initiation. To mitigate this issue, a safety valve can be installed as an auxiliary component, which cam release any trapped air, thereby preserving the integrity and efficiency of the starting mechanism.

Common Applications of Air Compressors

Industrial Applications

Air compressors are commonly used in industries for various applications such as powering pneumatic tools, operating machinery, and controlling processes like spray painting and sandblasting.


Air compressors are essential in the construction industry for powering tools like jackhammers, nail guns, and paint sprayers, but are also used for handling materials like concrete and sand.


Air compressors are used in automotive applications for inflating tires, operating pneumatic tools, and powering air suspension systems, and can be used in car wash facilities for cleaning and drying vehicles.

HVAC Systems

Air compressors are used in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems for providing compressed air to equipment like pneumatic controls and valves.


Air compressors play a crucial role in refrigeration systems by compressing refrigerant gases to create the cooling effect needed for appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners.


Air compressors are used in the aerospace industry for various applications like powering hydraulic systems, operating aircraft landing gears, and pressurising cabin air.


Air compressors are used in medical applications for powering respiratory equipment, operating dental tools, and providing compressed air for medical instruments.

Food and Beverage Industry

Air compressors are used in the food and beverage industry for applications like packaging, bottling, and conveying materials, while also being used for operating pneumatic machinery and equipment.


Air compressors are used for cleaning applications in various settings such as industrial facilities, automotive shops, and commercial buildings, in which they are used for powering air tools like blowguns and pressure washers.


A diverse array of pneumatic tools and machinery, including air drills, braking systems, and HVAC units, play a crucial role in enhancing safety, efficiency, and comfort in daily life. Globally, compressed air is instrumental in workshops for tasks such as applying paint and eliminating dust and debris. A thorough comprehension of the mechanics behind air compressors is pivotal for optimising their performance and efficiency.

For more information about our air compressors, click on the respective link below.

To speak with a member of our sales team, use the details below and a member of our team will get back to you soon.


Contact Number: +44 1977 689100


Speak To A

Member Of Our Team

Whether you’re a distributor looking to bulk buy, or a contractor for project based units, or an end user – we may be able to help!

Get in touch with our team to find out more.