A Battery-Powered Air Compressor Saves The Day


The other night, I found a great use-case for the battery-powered air compressor Fanttik sent me. You can find the full review here, but in short it’s a small air compressor (roughly the size of a soda bottle) that’s powered by a lithium battery pack. The obvious use case for such a compressor is in micromobility — bikes (electric or not), scooters, and other things that ride on small tires. A larger vehicle like a car or truck can work with a small air compressor like this, but it could take up to five minutes per tire, so you’re probably better off to find a tire shop or gas station to top it off.

On the other hand, we have to ask, how often do we actually have a tire that’s completely flat? When that does happen, it’s usually because we’ve picked up a nail or something, and no compressor of any speed could possibly fill the tire. Most of the time, the real use case of a compressor is giving us a quick top-off, one in which we only add 5-10 pounds of pressure. For that kind of work, a relatively small and weak compressor is more than enough.

Getting a quick top-off is especially critical for EVs. If a gas car’s tire is a bit low, there’s a range of pressures where it’s entirely safe to drive on it, but with reduced fuel economy. As easy as it is to just buy more gas (sure, it’s very hard on the wallet right now, but it still only takes 5-10 minutes), and as plentiful as gas stations are, you could just wait to top that tire off until it’s more convenient. But with an EV, the loss of efficiency means a loss of range, so it could become a much bigger inconvenience. It could make the difference between making it there at all if there isn’t a charging station within your new reduced range.

This was the situation I found myself in the other night. On short notice, I needed to take a round trip that my LEAF could only barely do. Plus, it was all highway. I took a quick look at tire pressures, and they were all just a little low. Good for around town for a couple days until I happened to be near a place that could top me up fast? Sure. Good enough to make the round trip on what battery power I had available? Not so much. Plus, I didn’t really have spare time to run to a gas station and pay a stupid number of quarters (which I’d have to make change for) for air.

But then I remembered my little air compressor. My wife already had to run into a store before we took the drive, so I took the compressor along. While she grabbed the things she needed for the road, I brought each tire up from 32-33 pounds up to 40. Each one took between one and two minutes, and the pump automatically shut off. 12-volt compressors are common, but not having to snake a cord through different doors to reach the tires or connect anything to the car’s 12-volt battery made things a lot easier. After all four were filled, I put the little compressor back in the bag and we went.

Because I was on the limits of the LEAF’s range, I did have to do some mild hypermiling to reach my destination. Lowering my speed from a cruise-controlled 80 MPH to an average of between 65 and 70, allowing the speed to drop on uphill stretches, and allowing it to increase on downhill stretches, and otherwise doing things to keep consumption low all came together. Instead of getting the usual 3 miles/kWh, I upped that to around 4.2 while only losing maybe 5 minutes of travel time. This wouldn’t have been possible with tires at 32 pounds.

The Alternatives

To keep the family happy, taking the electric car on longer trips like this has to present minimum disruption. If there were a rapid charger along the route somewhere, none of this would have mattered much. But, along this particular route (like most in my area) there weren’t any CHAdeMO chargers. So, unless I can find a way to avoid an hours-long charging session before coming back home, my wife and kids generally insist that we take one of our gas-powered vehicles. It’s easy to say something like, “The environment and their future depends on not using gas-powered cars.” but they’ve also got schoolwork they need to do the next morning, so we couldn’t be out until 2 or 3 AM using Level 2 chargers just to avoid using a 3-4 gallons of gas.

There are many other families in the same position, with a budget-friendly but low range EV in the driveway next to a gas-powered car for those longer trips that aren’t practical. This is still better than a gas car because you’re still doing 90% of your driving on electric.

It’s better than most PHEVs because there’s enough range for all in-town driving, even on days when you need to run unexpected local errands. While there are a few PHEVs with decent electric range, many of them are just designed to take advantage of tax credits while only offering 10-20 miles of electric range. Or worse, many are designed to run on a mix of gas and electric even when you’ve charged up the battery. This helps fuel economy, but doesn’t give you any actual electric range at all.

Even though a 100-mile EV paired with a gas car is usually better than the alternatives in my price range, it’s still nice to get a little more use out of the EV in my driveway without causing the family major inconvenience. It would be nice to have more Level 3 stations, but with only a 40-50 mile driving radius (at highway speeds), it’s unlikely that all routes will be covered with fast charging for this car. The lack of future CHAdeMO stations, the lack of liquid cooling, and other things make it a tough situation.

Anything that can help it be just a little more useful is nice.


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