Tips for Operating a Tow-Behind Air Compressor and a Variety of Pneumatic Tools (Breaker, Paint System and Beyond)

There’s a direct connection between the air you need to run a standard paving breaker and the air flow of most small air compressors. Most paving breakers (and many other common pneumatic tools) require 90 cu ft of air per minute (cfm) to operate. Because of this, all leading manufacturers offer a portable air compressor that produces air at 185 cfm. The cfm of air is usually right in the product name. For example, my company, Doosan Portable Power, offers 185-cfm air compressors named the C185, P185 and XP185. With 185 cfm, you can run two tools that require 90 cfm. This brings me to my first tip when operating air compressors.

Know Where You’ll Park the Compressor

You need to have an idea of where your compressor will be stationed while you work and how far away you’ll be when operating your pneumatic tool. Determine the approximate distance. When you rent the compressor, this will be important information to know. You’ll lose pressure the further your tool is from the compressor. If it is too far, you may need to move up to a larger size class of air compressor. For example, if you’re operating two 90-cfm paving breakers 150 ft from a 185-cfm air compressor, you’re likely not getting air to the tools at the optimal pressure. The diameter of the hoses you’re using also affects air pressure. Your dealer or rental house can help you determine the size of compressor you’ll need based on the requirements of the tools you’re using and the length and diameter of your hoses. It’s better to use one longer hose than two shorter hoses because every fitting and connection can also reduce air pressure.

First Steps Before Operation

When you pick up the compressor, give it a quick look to make sure everything is in good condition, including the running gear. Check that your filters are present and fluids are filled up. Inspect the hoses for leaks. Gather all the personal protective equipment you need for the job. Air hose safety cables, commonly called whip checks, are another kind of safety equipment that you will need for operating an air compressor by OSHA guidelines. Whip checks secure hoses, so that if a hose were to become detached, it would not whip around and potentially hurt someone.
Attach a whip check at each hose connection, including the connections from the air compressor to the hose and the hose to the tool.

How to Operate a Portable Air Compressor

Before starting the air compressor, make sure all the hatches are securely shut. After that, check connecting hoses, the tool and whip checks. Then, it’s time to start the compressor. The startup procedures for the air compressor are generally listed near the control panel. Follow the instructions for starting the engine. After the engine starts, your pressure gauge will indicate the machine is producing 50 to 70 psi of air pressure. Ideally, let the compressor warm up before putting a full load on the engine.

Then use the control panel to load the compressor. Check your air psi to make sure it is right for your application. Then, slowly open the discharge valve to pressurize the hoses and your tool. Doing this slowly helps prevent unnecessary wear to your hoses and your tool. At the end of the day, fill the air compressor with diesel fuel to help prevent condensation buildup that can lead to water droplets forming in the fuel line. In addition to refilling the fuel tank, empty the water trap daily.

Tips for Pneumatic Tools

All the standard safety measures apply when operating pneumatic tools, such as wearing protective gear and performing regular maintenance and visual inspections, but it’s also very important to consider the safety guidelines specific to each tool and the manufacturer recommendations for properly operating the air compressor that powers it.


Whether using a 60-lb breaker or a 30-lb chipper, it’s important to use an air compressor that delivers the proper pressure. Using incorrect pressure can damage equipment — both the air tool and the air compressor. And although an incorrect airflow setting may not damage an air tool, it will prevent the tool from operating correctly. Breakers and chippers are common on construction sites where multiple tools may be connected to the same air compressor. It’s important to properly size the air compressor to the needs of the tools being powered. A 185-cfm air compressor can typically operate two pneumatic tools, such as a breaker and clay spade, but larger air tools may require a higher volume of air or greater pressure to perform correctly.

90 cfm breaker + 44 cfm rivet buster = 134 cfm required
90 cfm breaker + 44 cfm rivet buster + 90 cfm chipper = 224 cfm required

Paint System

While painting systems come in a variety of styles and sizes, one thing they have in common is the need for quality air. When moisture, oil and dirt accumulate in the lines of an air compressor, these contaminants can lead to a poor-quality finish and spoiled paint surfaces — not to mention decrease the lifespan of the air tools. Using an air compressor with specialized features that eliminate contaminants is an important consideration for painting applications.

Directional Boring Tool

Directional boring tools are frequently used in heavily traveled areas, so an air compressor model with curbside controls and service valves keeps operators from entering the roadway and increases safety. Air compressors should always be parked on a level surface and operated with closed doors and chocked wheels. Not only does this ensure all internal moving parts of the machine are secured from access, but also it’s important for machine cooling. Many people falsely think opening the doors will cool the machine down on a hot day, but open doors actually disrupt the machine’s designed airflow.

Air Drill

Air hammer drilling, sometimes referred to as wellbore or down hole drilling, consists of a pneumatic hammer positioned at the end of a drill stem. Compressed air operates a piston that repeatedly strikes the top of the bit at a rapid rate. Safe air drilling operations can be achieved only with extensive operator and safety training. This training needs to include environmental regulations regarding air compressor operation, such as 110 percent fluid containment requirements. Air compressors used for air drilling operations should be capable of delivering optimal performance despite harsh jobsite conditions — preventing disruptions and distractions that increase safety risks and lower productivity.

Cody Blythe is a product manager for Doosan Portable Power.

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