More often than not, air compressors require lubrication systems to operate sufficiently and avoid mass amounts of maintenance. Oil tends to be used as lubrication, and it primarily helps to reduce the friction between the components in the motor of the air compressor. This in turn will produce less heat from the friction, consume less energy and provide a longer machine cycle life.

It must be noted, that air compressors are also available oilless… (or Oil-Free) this does not imply that they don’t require lubrication, but instead, they are pre-lubricated and do not need user maintenance to sustain and change the oil inside the compressor.

If you’re wondering how to choose the right kind of compressor oil for your air compressor, which is the best compressor oil, or any other frequently asked questions about air compressor oil – then this ultimate guide to air compressor oil has you covered!

Table of Contents

What Kind of Oil Goes in an Air Compressor?

A very common mistake made by a lot of people is that all oils are the same. There is an oil specifically made for air compressors, and it is a certain type that is referred to quite simply as, air compressor oil. They are dubbed ideal, due to being formulated for industrial uses and not have any significant differences in the cost compared to regular motor oil.

It’s very important to follow any guidelines relating to using air compressor oil provided by the manufacturer of your air compressor.

What is Air Compressor Oil?

Air compressor oil has specific additives to make it perfect for the duty cycle it see’s inside your air compressor. In contrast to conventional motor oil, which is more commonplace, air compressor oil doesn’t contain a detergent and typically has lower levels of sulfur (sulphur) and carbon.

Carbon and sulphur content are ultimately measured as a percentage by weight – but can also sometimes be referred to as a ratio on the bottle. Air compressor oils can also sometimes be labelled as “low sulfur” or “low sulphur” depending on which part of the world you’re in.

How to Choose an Air Compressor Oil?

This rule to follow about what compressor oil to use is simple. If your air compressor is under warranty, then you should use the oil that is recommended by the manufacturer and usually noted in the compressor manual/guidebook. If the warranty period for the air compressor has ended, then you could buy suitable compressor lubricating oil from a hardware store to use in your compressor.

Note, this rule should only apply to home DIY compressors. Some of the more sophisticated and larger compressors – rotary screw, reciprocating, etc. – that are used by industry, have very specific requirements for oil. You must use the oil recommended by that compressor manufacturer or you void the warranty or can even cause oil-related issues. These issues will result in significant maintenance costs which are completely avoidable.

Which is Better, Synthetic or Mineral Oil?

When it comes to synthetic vs standard mineral air compressor oil, the choice is very much driven by your duty cycle – how frequently and continuously you use your air compressor.

Air compressor oil lubrication can be made using either synthetic or mineral oil bases. Mineral oil-based tends to be the standard oil for air compressors. Synthetic oil undergoes a significant amount of processing.

When making a decision on which one to use, it can take some careful consideration. Both mineral and synthetic oil are both very suitable for air compressors so the type of work you intend to do with your air compressor and the amount of use must be analyzed.

It can be recommended that if you do not continuously use your air compressor then a standard mineral oil lubricant can be best suited to you. This is because they’re perfect for light to medium-duty air compressor operations. Most importantly, these oils are cheaper than synthetic blends.

If you’re continuously using your air compressor in an industrial setting, synthetic blends can be the better choice due to the more regular use. It is said by multiple users that air compressors run a lot smoother and quieter on synthetic oil lubrication. Not only this, but synthetic oil has an overall greater temperature range and stronger protection against the air compressor overheating.

Summary: Synthetic Oil vs Standard Compressor Oil

Duty CycleMineral OilSynthetic Oil
Light Duty / Infrequent UseBestok
Heavy Duty / Continuous UseokBest

Alternative Oils For Air Compressors (Using a Substitute Oil)

Potential alternative compresor oils include:

  • ATF – Transmission Fluid
  • Engine / Motor Oil
  • Hydraulic Oil / Hydraulic Fluid

Does Every Air Compressor Need Oil?

All air compressors are mechanical machines that need oil at some point.

“What about oil-less air compressors?” I hear you say…

Oilless air compressors aren’t actually completely oil-free or devoid of oil. Essentially the term oilless refers to the fact that the compressor doesn’t need to have it’s oil changed or topped up. In fact, oilless air compressors come “factory sealed” so that the original lubrication cannot be replenished.

Over time, oilless air compressors lose their lubrication through degredation of their oil coatings and will eventually run out of lubrication, running under high wear – and eventually seizing up.

This is typical of DIY or home-use air compressors which have a light duty cycle or a highly infrequent duty cycle – such as a car tyre compressor that gets pulled out maybe once every 3 months over the course of it’s life.

So if you have an air compressor at home and you’re wondering whether you should be topping it up with oil, check the user manual! It may well be a factory sealed unit that doesn’t require you to change or top up the oil.

Most reasonably duty cycle compressors (including many DIY home-use air compressors) do require you as a compressor owner to monitor oil levels and top up the oil based on a usage cycle.

Best Oils for Air Compressors

Numerous oils compete at the top for some of the best on the market, here we will look at a few of those best. To give you a better idea of what you’re looking for. It is, however, recommended to follow your air compressor manufacturer’s guidelines.

Mineral Oil

Mobil 101016 Rarus 427 Compressor Oil, 1 Gallon is a mineral base oil and one of the best available. It is suitable for reciprocating and rotary-type machines which have lower viscosity grades. This oil can significantly help to reduce the noise of the air compressor and the running temperature during operation.

This oil is formulated with high-quality mineral base oils and a very high-performance additive system, that is designed to provide the best of the best equipment protection. This also provides reliability for compressors that are operating under anything from mild to severe conditions. They provide excellent wear protection and have the ability to reduce maintenance costs by minimizing any potential problems with equipment.

They have very high FZG ratings which make them excellent lubricants for any compressor systems that use gears and bearings. This makes them an excellent selection for crankcases.

Synthetic Oil

Powermate PX PO18-0084SP 100% full synthetic air compressor oil is one of the best available. It starts 10 degrees colder than other synthetic blend compressor oils and performs 50% better at O degree Fahrenheit than standard mineral air compressor oil. It offers a high viscosity index providing it with better performance in a wide pump operating temperature range. This oil also works well in warmer temperatures.

One thing to note is that if your compressor is more than eight years old and the building pressure within it struggles, then it is certainly suggested against using this particular oil and instead of looking for an alternative.

The oil can make old air compressors effective again, help eliminate the start-up sound of the system, and do not get affected by cold weather on startup. On the contrary, the oil forms sludge and has a strong smell that can last for a long time.

Campbell Hausfeld MP12

Campbell Hausfeld is one of the most reputable pneumatic brands active in today’s market, you really can’t go wrong with their oil. This oil can add to the pump life of the air compressor by reducing the carbon build-up on the valves thanks to its singular viscosity.

Unlike most oils, this oil does not provide an unpleasant smell. It again can prevent noise from the air compressor and stop overheating of the system when it operates for a long time. The oil enhances the durability of the part by preventing corrosion, which tends to be the most common reason for parts wearing out and requiring maintenance or replacement. A few negatives, but potentially not seen as that negative at all, are that the oil pours really quickly and due to its transparency, close attention must be paid when filing your air compressor.

AMSOIL Synthetic Compressor Oil

Air Compressor Oil Properties & Characteristics

There are a whole range of properties of compressor oil that we could go into, but I’ll cover off the 3 that are of main concern when selecting a compressor oil:

  • Operating Temperature Range
  • Additives
  • Viscosity

Operating Temperature Range

Oils, of any kind, not just compressor oils suffer from oxidation and denaturing due to heat. As heat increases, so does the rate of oxidation and the oil loses it’s intended lubricating and protecting properties.

Extreme temperatures such as below freezing or above 100-120 Degrees Farenheit will often require specialist oils. Equally, your compressor manufacture will have advised the normal operating temperature of the surroundings for your compressor in the user manual.

Obviously, your compressor also generates heat, so the temperature range for the operation of the air compressor stated by the manufacturer won’t also be applicable to the oil itself – which will have to endure much hotter temperatures inside your compressor than the ambient surroundings.

It’s best to consult your user manual – however, you may not find a specific compressor oil temperature range stated. In the event you’re left scratching your head, wondering whether the compressor oil you have will do the job – don’t panic.

The majority of Air Compressor Oils are designed to work well within typical operating temperature ranges for oiled air compressors. If in doubt, consult your local workshop equipment dealer for reassurance on a specific oil.

Additives

Oil additives are sacrificial chemical elements that impart properties onto the oil that the underlying oil simply doesn’t have the capability to deliver.

For example, motor oils tend to have a detergent content which helps to prevent build up of carbon deposits – and prevent the carburized oil from being deposited in the first place!

Air Compressor Oils tend to have more concentration of additives which act as preservatives to prevent corrosion and rusting inside the compressor. Additional lubrication, or “anti-wear additives” can be present in a range of air compressor oils, even some mid-range compressor oil.

Anti-oxidation additives are some of the most important, especially with compressor oil seeing reasonably high temperatures under continuous use. This anti-oxidation additive helps to slow the rate of oxidation and denaturing of the oil.

All of these additives are sacrificial. So over time, these additives lose their potency within the oil and essentially the oil returns to it’s “pre-additve” state, but also with a bunch of oxidation thrown in! This is why it’s REALLY important to change oils, even when oil levels “look ok”.

It’s also another reason why completely CHANGING the oil is important, rather than just continuously topping up the compressor oil – leaving the aged, degraded oil to mix with the fresh – additve rich compressor oil.

Viscosity

With the advent of modern oils, viscosity levels have tended both towards the nominal SAE 20 -30 range, meanwhile the more extreme viscosity level oils are still available, they’re less commonly used in machinery in general.

It’s no different with air compressor oil. An SAE20 or SAE30 oil is perfectly suited for use in an air compressor.

There isn’t actually a huge difference between SAE20 or SAE30 for air compressors – certainly not one that would mean you MUST use one or the other.

Fundamentally, SAE20 is slightly less viscous, meaning at colder temperatures the oil will cause less drag on the compressor and it’ll run slightly more efficiently.

With SAE30 air compressor oil, the viscosity (thickness) is a little higher (more viscous) so at colder temperatures the viscosity might be a little higher than desired – meaning the compressor would run slightly less efficiently using SAE30 at colder ambient temperatures.

It’s worth bearing in mind that as the compressor runs, the heat generated in operation will reduce the viscosity of both SAE20 and SAE30 compressor oils. Under sustained use in a lower temperature environment, SAE 20 oil will outperform SAE 30 in terms of efficiency.

Under sustained use, in a higher or moderate temperature environment, SAE 30 oil will retain more of it’s lubricating properties than SAE 20 compressor oil. Meaning the SAE 20 compressor oil will have sub-optimal viscosity (it will go thinner) at a lower operating temperature than SAE 30 compressor oil.

This is an important distinction, but probably only one that will make a significant (noticable) difference to compressor users who are operating their compressor daily or continously.

Where Can I Buy Air Compressor Oil?

You can find and buy air compressor oil at almost any of the very well-known online stores like Amazon. If you don’t quite fancy ordering online, an auto-parts shop is a great place to look. It is advised however to ensure your oil is available at your chosen store to save you time.

How Often Should you Change Air Compressor Oil?

The answer to this question is unfortunately not as straightforward as you may wish. The answer will vary depending on the size of the air compressor in use or even the type. The time after which the oil needs to be changed will vary significantly from air compressor to air compressor. The best place to gain an understanding of this regularity will be inside your air compressor manual provided by the manufacturer.

Though this is generally recommended, a few little tips can be provided to give you a better scope:

  • Change the oil every 3 months on a reciprocating air compressor
  • Change the oil between every 1000 to 2000 service/operating hours on a rotary screw compressor

If you’re wondering how to change your compressor oil then please visit this page. Some of the questions you will want to have answers to before you open the compressor oil sump are covered on this page. A basic few steps to follow for changing the oil in your compressor are:

How to change air compressor oil:

  1. Switch off your air compressor and unplug it
  2. Let the air compressor cool down
  3. Drain the air compressor of any oil that remains inside
  4. Refill with the required amount of oil

How To Check Oil Level on an Air Compressor?

Much like a car engine, some air compressors provide a dip-stick that has oil level marker / indications on the stick to help you check whether the compressor oil is running low.

However, it’s quite common to find a clear portion or “sight glass” on the side of the oil reservoir or motor mechanism. Some compressors even have a completely clear reservoir for high visibility from a distance.

Once again, markings and indicators are typically provided on these sight glasses. At a minimum, some user manuals might simply say that the oil level must be visible in the small sight glass “port hole”.

It’s important to remember than oil expands under heat! So if the user manual indicates that the oil levels should be measured when the compressor is cold / before operation – make sure to follow these guidelines! Your compressor could be showing a perfect oil level when hot, but as the whole system cools you could find the oil level is actually below the desired level.

FAQs About Air Compressor Oils

What is the Difference between Air Compressor Oil and Motor Oil?

Well, it’s sort of in the name, compressor oil is specifically created for air compressors and motor oil is specifically created for motors. Compressor oil is a non-detergent oil. It’s important to use a compressor oil to comply with the guidelines provided by your air compressor manufacturer.

Motor oil most commonly contains all sorts of detergents, which as you may know, are very beneficial for the internal combustion engine. It, however, can be very harmful to the air compressor though, causing a greater amount of carbon build-up in a shorter time.

If you were to use a different oil like motor oil, this may change your warranty void as mentioned, taking away any advantages of the warranty.

What Viscosity Air Compressor Oil Should I Use?

Viscosity refers to the texture and/or consistency of the air compressor oil. Most manufacturers will tend to recommend SAE20 or SAE30. SAE20 is more suited to colder areas, and SAE30 being more suited to warmer temperatures due to its greater viscosity.

Viscosity is a very important characteristic to analyze. Damage to your air compressor may occur if the consistency of your oil is either too thick or thin. Not only damage, but work will be delayed.

Can You Put Motor Oil in Air Compressors?

This isn’t advisable. Neither should you mix synthetic oils with mineral oils. In desperation, motor oil may be a short term substitute, but it’s likely to have a long term impact on the efficiency and life of your compressor.

What’s the best oil to use in air compressors?

This completely depends on your duty cycle, but ultimately we’d advise a high quality synthetic oil will a high density of preservative, anti-corrosion additives.

How much oil does an air compressor need?

Typically a couple of fluid ounces of compressor oil will do the trick. If you find yourself emptying an entire bottle of compressor oil, you may well have a leak! That being said, the amount of oil that goes in your compressor is highly dependent on the compressor size. Larger compressors typically take more oil as their mechanical pumps are greater in size and ultimately volume.

What oil should I use in my air compressor?

You may use a synthetic or mineral oil in your air compressor and have it operate perfectly. You should avoid oils with a detergent additive, these are common in motor oils. So specify a non-detergent oil. In terms of viscosity, you’ll want an SAE 30 or SAE 20 air compressor oil. An ISO 100 oil like this one from AMSOIL is typical.

Can I use 10w30 Oil in my air compressor?

10w30 oil has a viscosity of SAE10 at lower temperatures (w standing for “winter”) and SAE30 at normal / higher temperatures. It’s not advised to use an oil with a variable viscosity profile like this in your air compressor typically. That being said, consult your air compressor user manual as each air compressor manufacturer might have their own specific advice around these types of oils.

Can I use 5w30 Oil in my air compressor?

5w30 oil has a viscosity of SAE5 oil at lower temperatures (w standing for “winter”) and SAE30 at normal / higher temperatures. It’s not advised to use an oil with a variable viscosity profile like this in your air compressor typically. That being said, consult your air compressor user manual as each air compressor manufacturer might have their own specific advice around these types of oils.

How do I top up the oil in my air compressor?

To change the oil in your air compressor follow these steps:

  1. Switch off the air compressor

    Ensure the air compressor is switched off, disconnected from the elecrtical supply and cool

  2. Empty the oil

    Undo the drain plug (sump plug) and let the oil drain into an empty container

  3. Refill with fresh ooil

    Replace the drain plug and top up with your fresh compressor oil

What is an oil air compressor?

Like a reciprocating engine, an air compressor uses a moving piston inside a cylinder to draw in air and then compress it. Instead of igniting the air with fuel and spark, the compressed air is sent into your air tank, where it’s held at high pressure.

All that moving around of the piston inside the cylinder causes a lot of heat and friction. That leads to wear and tear on the item, which isn’t good. Eventually, the piston seals will wear down, and the cylinder will make less air pressure than it was designed to do.

The best way to solve the problem is with lubricating oil. This is precisely like having oil in your car, and for the same reason. It reduces heat and friction. When heat is built up, the oil wicks away from the pump case and the cylinder.

Only by ensuring that the proper amount of oil gets into the cylinder and piston will the pump operate the way it should. The main difference between oilless and oil air compressor units is this oil lubrication and the need to make sure that it is there. It also means that the operator will need to change it occasionally, which means more maintenance.