What is a Portable Tire Inflator?

Jeremy Laukkonen

A portable tire inflator is a compact air compressor that is generally small enough to be carried by hand. They are typically battery powered or run on 12-volts DC, in which case they can have alligator clips to connect to a car battery or a plug to connect to an auto's cigarette lighter. The main purpose of a portable tire inflator is to adjust the air pressure in car tires while out on the road. Some units are powerful enough to inflate a completely flat tire to the specified pressure, while others are only capable of inflating to a level where neither rim or tire will be damaged while seeking repairs.

Tire pressure should be checked regularly.
Tire pressure should be checked regularly.

Portable tire inflators come in a variety of configurations, sizes, and capacities. The simplest units typically contain only a compressor, a mechanical pressure gauge, and are powered by 12-volts. They will often only be able to run for a limited amount of time before the compressor must be allowed to cool off, and have an upper limit on what PSI (kPa) they can inflate a tire to. Smaller units will generally have a lower limit and overheat more quickly, while providing the benefit of being easier to stow away in a small trunk or under a seat.

A portable tire inflator may plug into a car's cigarette lighter.
A portable tire inflator may plug into a car's cigarette lighter.

Combination inflators may also be widely available. These units may combine a portable tire inflator with a number of other complimentary functions. They might have a bright lamp attached in case a tire goes flat at night, flashing red or orange lights to warn other vehicles of a breakdown, an emergency siren, or a variety of other options. Some units that are battery-powered may also include jumper cables. These often have a powerful gel-pack battery on board, and can be used to jump start cars with dead batteries.

Portable tire inflators typically contain a pressure gauge.
Portable tire inflators typically contain a pressure gauge.

Certain units will include other useful features, like an automatic shutoff. These inflators are typically able to run for a prolonged period without overheating and include a dial or other mechanism to set a desired air pressure. They can then be attached to the schrader valve on the tire, turned on, and will later turn off automatically when the correct pressure has been reached.

In addition to pumping up car tires, a portable tire inflator can often be used to inflate other things. Many of these portable compressors will either come with a variety of attachments or be compatible with attachments obtained separately. In these cases, a portable tire inflator may be used to inflate things like bicycle or lawn mower tires, sports balls, and even beach toys.

Car tires must be properly inflated to avoid damage to the wheel and loss of control while driving.
Car tires must be properly inflated to avoid damage to the wheel and loss of control while driving.

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Discussion Comments


My husband bought the new run flat tires for both of our vehicles and I feel so much safer with them. Getting out of the car at night in the middle of nowhere to change a tire can be a scary situation. The run-flat tires are more expensive but worth the price. They can run up to 50 miles with a puncture.

Hopefully with these I won't need any type of air pump, but if I didn't have the tires then I would definitely consider a portable tire inflator like the ones described in the article.


I would like to have one of these portable tire air compressors. I can't think of a time when I have needed one, but they are good because you never know when you might get a flat and not be anywhere near help. And if I got one that could jump my battery like the article refers to then I could justify the cost. There have been plenty of times when I have needed a battery boosted.


The portable air pump sounds like a good item to have in the truck of your car. However, if you're going to bother to purchase one then you should buy one capable of totally inflating a tire. If it can only help when your tire pressure is a little low that's not much help since you will be able to get to a service station and inflate them anyway.

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