Going Head to Head: Pneumatic vs Electric

Pneumatics are used in 70% of US manufacturing facilities, but are they the right choice for you? Let's ask pneumatics expert Mark Mlyniec.


For those trying to decide on a new tool inventory, the choice can be a difficult one: upgrade to pneumatic tools or replace old electric stock, stick with what I know


So, to help you make your decision, here are seven advantages of air tools over electric tools, according to expert Mark.  


1. More powerful

Air tools have a higher power-to-weight ratio; for heavy-duty applications, this extra power can make all the difference over a long period.     

Mark says: “Pound for pound, they're more powerful than electric tools in that they use 100% of compressor power output, where electric tools utilize 50-60% of the available output.”

2. Cheaper

At a brief glance through the selection of air drills and electric drills available on our site, you'll find that air drills rated for a higher maximum RPM can be found at a lower price than their electrical counterparts.

The obvious counter-argument here is that, while the electrical drill usually includes its own power supply in the price; the air drill does not. An air compressor must be purchased separately to power the air tool, and the compressor can outstrip the tool on price by a factor of ten, even a hundred 


So, it's really a question of how much you're going to use your tools, how many you're thinking of buying, and what you're planning to use them for. If you're an individual looking for a single tool to be used infrequently, then electric is probably the way to go if cost is your main factor for consideration. But, if you're looking to purchase a complete inventory of tools to be used in a professional context, to be used for heavy applications, and for long to constant periods of operation – then air tools will be cheaper in the long run.


Compressors typically last for a long time (see link), and you can use the same compressor to power all your air tools. In other words, the short run fixed cost is higher but variable costs (maintenance, replacing battery packs, replacing tools) are lower, resulting in long run cost reductions. And the more you use the tools, the more pronounced this effect will be.    


3. Safer


There are various dangers associated with electric tools, specifically related to the power-supply. There is the possibility of electric shock, the possibility of a short-circuit – which could damage other appliances, and in some cases, with portable battery supplies improperly stored and maintained, for example, the possibility of explosion. These dangers are diminished or non-existent with air tools. Air tools do not rely on portable batteries, and the operator of the tool itself does not come into contact with the electrical supply, which powers the compressor. There are still some electrical-related dangers, but in many   installations, the compressor is in a fixed position, which typically limits its exposure to elements that may cause a hazard, e.g. water.


Mark says: “Air tools are safer than electrical tools because they can be used in environments with moisture, conductive materials, and even flammable substances.”


Further: Mark says he would put air tools in the category of ‘extremely safe’ You are more likely to find examples of customer misuse than component malfunction, and this can be true of anything. Mark says, you have to respect the tool. So make sure you research the tool carefully — there are other articles in this series — consult an expert, read instruction manuals closely, and arrange the proper training. Once you fully understand each tool’s capabilities, in terms of sheer power and the upper limits of what it can be used for; alongside the types of tasks it is designed to handle and the modes of proper application, then you’ll surely be in a better position to determine which one is right for you.


4. Lighter

In general, air tools are lighter than their electrical counterparts; one of the main reasons being that they do not carry a heavy battery pack built into the tool itself. An Ingersoll Rand air drill, for example, rated for 2000 RPM – which is more RPM than most electrical drills – weighs 2.9 lbs.


This might not seem so important, but if you're planning to be holding one at shoulder height for hours at a time, then the weight can be the difference between a good time and a repetitive strain injury.


5. More compact

With smaller handles and fewer moving parts, air tools are typically more ergonomic. However an important factor to consider is that air tools are connected to the compressor by hoses or pipes. So if you like your tools cordless, then power tools may be the way to go.


6. Consistent output

Voltage fluctuation varies with location but it is assumed; household appliances are designed to tolerate +/- 5%. This is not such a big deal if you're operating a standard appliance; you might  see your lights flicker once in a while and that'll be the end of it. But if you are in the middle of a delicate task which requires an instrument carefully calibrated to the task, then voltage fluctuation could do more than just throw you off.


7. More robust

Air tools have fewer moving parts, which means less component on component contact; less wear and deterioration over time.

Mark says: “Air tools can withstand more abuse because they have fewer working parts and internal metal components.”


Are pneumatics the right choice for you? Whatever you decide, remember, as Mark always says, “Respect the tool.”


The information contained in this article is for informational, educational, and promotional purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. It is the reader’s responsibility to ensure compliance with all applicable laws, rules, codes and regulations. If there is any question or doubt in regard to any element contained in this article, please consult a licensed professional.  Under no circumstances will Global Industrial® be liable for any loss or damage caused by your reliance on this article.


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