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Power Tool Face-Off: Air Tools vs. Electric

4/14/22
Grainger Editorial Staff

Which type of power tool reigns supreme? Air tools (also called pneumatic tools) and electric tools each have their advantages and disadvantages, and each type can be better suited to different situations. To help illustrate the pros and cons, let's take a look at three of the chief differences between the two kinds of tools.  

Punch

One of the most important things to consider when choosing a tool is whether it can deliver enough force or torque. If you need to cut through steel or machine-tighten a bolt, you'll need a certain amount of torque to get the job done.

Pneumatics are notoriously strong. The amount of punch they offer can be adjusted up or down by allowing the air compressor to deliver more or less power. This has made them the tool of choice in places like machine shops and auto shops.

But electrics are catching up. Today, technical advances are enabling electric tools that rival air tools when it comes to power. The advances have been especially noteworthy with cordless tools, which have benefitted enormously from the latest generation of cordless tool batteries.

Cost

Tools pay for themselves with the work they do for you—but you have to look at the price tag, too.  When evaluating cost, you're balancing considerations like convenience and service life against the dollar amount on the price tag. And when comparing air tools with electric, it gets even more complicated. 

Pneumatic tools have larger upfront costs but lower back-end costs. The tools themselves tend to be less expensive than their electric counterparts, and they tend to last longer—but they also require air compressors, which add significantly to the cost. 

Electric tools require less initial investment, because you don’t need to invest in a separate power source. An electric tool will usually be a little more expensive than an air tool that performs the same task, but an inexpensive air tool is useless without that compressor.

Feel

How much time do you spend each day with a power tool in your hands? And how mobile do you need to be with your tools? Don't forget to think about how it feels to use the type of tool when considering the differences between them.

Either kind of tool can fit comfortably your hand—that's just a matter of finding a model that feels good to you. But air tools are lighter than electric tools, which can affect how it feels to wield the tool over the course of a day. It's not just a matter of comfort—fatigue can be a negative influence on your work.

On the other hand, when using an air tool you'll always need to be connected to the compressor, which limits your mobility. Meanwhile, cordless electric tools make for easy movement, and there's nothing to trip over or get tangled in. And while electric tools have always been heavier, they're becoming more lightweight as technology advances. Even industries that traditionally use pneumatic tools are beginning to make the switch for these conveniences.

Evolution of Tools

The advantages of each type of tool used to be more cut and dried. Pneumatics were lighter and stronger, and electrics were more versatile. But technological advances have led to changes in the design, weight and even capabilities of both tools. It's worth taking a fresh look at the advantages and disadvantages as you decide which type of tool is a better fit for your job.

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.

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