Whether you want to bring your portable air compressor inside for a specific project or you want to install a large stationary air compressor in your basement or workshop, it’s natural to wonder whether or not it’s safe to do so. And depending on the type of air compressor you have, a quick internet search will yield some mixed messages. So is it okay to operate an air compressor indoors?
You should never use a gas-powered air compressor indoors due to the carbon monoxide and toxic exhaust fumes that it produces. Electric air compressors do not produce exhaust and can be used indoors. However, even electric air compressors can carry some risks of their own when used indoors.
An air compressor can generally operate just fine indoors without any issues, provided that the indoor environment isn’t excessively hot, excessively cold, or moisture-rich. Instead, most of the problems with running an air compressor inside have to do with safety.
Is It Safe To Use an Air Compressor Indoors?
Fuel-burning air compressors are not safe for indoor use – these produce toxic fumes that can be deadly in enclosed spaces. It is generally safe to use an electric air compressor indoors. However, these can still pose dangers like excessive noise and blowing particulates that can be worse indoors.
Let’s look at some of the risks involved in using an air compressor indoors.
Airborne Particulate Matter
If you’re using your air compressor for painting, sanding, or any other task that releases a lot of pollutants into the air, you’ll want to protect your eyes and respiratory system. This is true in any setting, but even more so indoors, where it can accumulate and linger in the space. A pair of tight-fitting goggles and a heavy-duty mask or respirator should be adequate in most cases – here’s a good example.
In addition, all of that floating particulate matter will be drawn into the air compressor’s intake valve. This will cause the intake filter to get dirty and clogged very rapidly, which can strain the pump motor and cause performance issues. You’ll need to be vigilant about cleaning the filter to prevent this.
Excessive Noise Levels
Another hazard that many people tend to overlook is the tremendously loud noise an air compressor makes. Gas air compressors are notoriously loud, but even portable electric models can pack quite an auditory punch. And in general, using it indoors will make it significantly louder.
Exposure to high noise levels (especially prolonged exposure) can cause serious damage to your hearing. Even if it’s not noticeable at first, the damage may be cumulative – and irreversible.
So when operating your air compressor indoors (or any time you’re near it while it’s running), it’s vital to protect your hearing with a good set of earmuffs. If your kids or anyone else will be near the action, make sure they’re insulated from the noise as well.
If you’re using your air compressor in a hot space without much ventilation (such as a crawlspace or attic in summertime), you also run the risk of it overheating. Most air compressors have high-temperature shutoff mechanisms to protect the motor, but it’s still best to avoid this if possible to prevent undue wear.
Exhaust Fumes & Carbon Monoxide
As mentioned before, this is the number one reason not to use gas (or other fuel-burning) air compressors indoors. Carbon monoxide (CO), a product of combustion, can be toxic in small quantities and deadly in higher concentrations. It has no odor, color, or taste, so it may go undetected until it’s too late.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is less toxic than CO but can still be deadly. Most of today’s gas air compressors produce relatively little CO but do produce a fair amount of CO2, as well as other nasty exhaust fumes you don’t want to breathe in. In an enclosed space, these contaminants can build up to deadly levels of concentration.
That’s why it’s crucial to only operate gas-powered air compressors in well-ventilated areas such as an open-air garage or outside under a dedicated shelter.
Does an Electric Air Compressor Produce Carbon Monoxide?
In general, electric air compressors will not produce any carbon monoxide because they do not burn fuel. However, an electric oil-lubricated compressor may produce small amounts of CO if the oil becomes overheated. CO from other sources may also enter the intake and contaminate the compressed air.
While it is rare for an electric air compressor to contaminate the air with carbon monoxide, it’s not unheard of. It is most dangerous in instances where the air compressor is being used to provide breathable air, such as through a supplied-air respirator, whether directly connected to the compressor or a compressed air tank (commonly used by firefighters and scuba divers).
Let’s look at the two ways CO contamination can occur in an electric air compressor.
If an oil-lubricated air compressor gets too hot during operation, the high temperature can cause the lubricant to break down, producing carbon monoxide. The CO can get into the air chamber and, in turn, the compressed air.
Most compressors feature a temperature shutoff switch that will turn off the motor when the oil reaches a certain temperature, so this is typically only a concern if the switch is malfunctioning – but it’s worth being aware of.
As mentioned above, this is most dangerous when compressed air is being used as breathing air. But in an enclosed space, the CO can build up to extremely dangerous levels.
Intake from Nearby Sources
A somewhat more common cause of contamination is when the air compressor intake draws in pollutants from nearby sources. Possible sources include vehicle exhaust (or exhaust from other combustion engines), fumes from paint, varnishes, or stored fuel, smoke, etc.
So if you’re using an air compressor indoors, always make sure there are no potential sources of airborne pollutants around and that your compressor’s temperature limit switch is working properly. It’s also a good idea to keep a carbon monoxide detector in the space where you’ll be working, for extra safety.
When Not To Use an Air Compressor Indoors
Now that you understand the potential risks involved in using an air compressor indoors, here’s a brief rundown of when you should not do so.
You should not use an air compressor indoors if:
- Your air compressor is gas-powered (or burns a fuel source of any kind).
- You lack proper eye protection, ear protection, or respiratory protection.
- The workspace is excessively hot, excessively cold, or contains excess moisture.
- The workspace contains other potential sources of CO, CO2, or other toxins.
- Your compressor’s temperature shutoff switch hasn’t recently been tested and found functional.
- Your user manual warns against indoor use.
While a gas air compressor should never be used indoors (or any poorly ventilated area), you can use an electric air compressor indoors as long as you’re aware of the risks and implement certain safety measures.
If you need to use compressed air indoors but can’t safely bring your compressor inside, you can use a longer hose to get the job done – but try to avoid using an extension cord, as this can lead to unsafe motor/electrical issues and damage the compressor.
Thanks for reading!