Pneumatic Tools vs. Electric

What are the advantages and disadvantages of pneumatic tools vs. electric tools? Understand the key differences and how to choose what’s right for you.

August 08, 2019

Photo by: Derek R. Trimble

Derek R. Trimble

When it comes to electric versus pneumatic tools there are dramatic differences in strength, cost and conveniences. They both also have their own limitations; pneumatics require an air compressor to deliver power to the tool, and electrics need a cord or a battery. Choosing the best tool for the job will largely depend on your specific application, but here are the basics for making your choice.

Strength

One of the first considerations when trying to decide between electric and pneumatic tools is how much strength is needed to get the job done. If you’re punching a hole into a brick wall or cutting through a piece of steel, it’s important to have a tool that delivers plenty of torque and won’t bog down under a heavy load. Pneumatic tools are generally very strong and can routinely deliver a tremendous amount of torque when attached to an air compressor capable of keeping up. This is why it’s a popular choice in automotive shops for removing things like rusty bolts or lug nuts on tires. However, electric tools are gaining ground in the area of strength. With the vast improvements in cordless power packs and tool design, electric tools are, in many instances, able to keep up with pneumatic tools. Electric impact guns can deliver an incredible amount of torque that was nearly impossible a few years ago. The advances in electric technology will continue to allow electric tools to catch up with the power of pneumatics.

Cost

While it’s true that “you’ll get what you pay for” when buying any tool, it’s important to know exactly what your particular needs are. Overspending on any tool that will see a low amount of use or short duty-cycles is a waste of your hard-earned money. Here’s how to make a budget-balanced decision when it comes to pneumatic vs. electric tools. Pneumatic tools themselves are relatively inexpensive compared to their electric counterparts. However, all pneumatic tools require one major investment: a good air compressor. Air compressors can take up a large amount of space, they’re noisy and they’re the one expensive and unavoidable accessory for your tools. Along with the various hoses, fittings and regulators, setting your shop up for air tools can be pricey. The upside to this is that air tools generally have fewer moving parts, are easy to care for and tend to last a lifetime. Electric tools have the distinct advantage of having a built-in power supply. When coupled with a battery, the electric tool offers the most freedom to go anywhere around the house without the need for a cord or an air hose. Those conveniences and freedoms do come at a price, as electric tools tend to be more expensive than their air-driven siblings.

Convenience

The less practical aspect of pneumatic tools is the mandatory air compressor. For bigger jobs it’s tough to move it around, makes a ton of noise and still requires electricity to run. Thankfully, all pneumatic tools use the same style fittings, so you can buy different brands of tools without having to worry about it being compatible with your compressor. Air tools require occasional oiling to keep them from rusting inside, and your air compressor will require occasional draining and lubrication as well. Electric tools are super easy to maintain, extremely quiet, require little knowledge to operate and are highly portable. However, every manufacturer makes their own batteries, and it’s not possible to share one brand’s power packs with another. This forces you to buy tools in the same brand family or try to keep up with charging multiple types of batteries. Manufacturers also have a bad habit of discontinuing your style of battery, forcing you to replace the tool after a number of years.

The Verdict?

The jury will be out on this one for a long time. The constant technological improvements have made both types of tools more versatile and user-friendly. The cost of high-powered electronic tools continues to decrease, and more people are purchasing air compressors as they too become more affordable. Choosing the right tool simply boils down to the types of projects you enjoy, your budget and what you’re most comfortable with.

Next Up

What Are Pneumatic Tools?

When it comes to high-torque, high-volume, long duty-cycle tools, it’s hard to beat pneumatics. From paint sprayers to nail guns, here’s a breakdown of what pneumatic tools are and what they can do for you.

How Do Pneumatic Tools Work?

Pneumatic tools are powerful and efficient, making them a great choice for nearly any job, but they’re not quite like your electric tools. Here’s what you need to know about how pneumatic tools work and what it takes to keep them going.

How to Load a Nail Gun

Nail guns are one of the most efficient and satisfying tools to use, but they require some precautions and a little bit of care. Here’s our primer on how to safely load and unload your nail gun before your next project.

What Size Nails for a Framing Nail Gun?

Framing nailers come in a variety of capacities and nailing angles. Each has its own style of nail clip along with some advantages and disadvantages. Our expert breaks it all down for you.

Chainsaw Artist and Creative Genius: Meet Griffon Ramsey

You've gotta admit, woodcarving never looked so fun.

Brad Nail vs. Finish Nail

What’s the difference between brad nails and finish nails? Our expert lays out the differences and uses along with the pros and cons of each.

How to Use a Power Drill

Using a drill doesn't have to be intimidating — use this handy guide to learn about the different parts, how to use it and how to take care of it.

Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.