The Humble Mechanic: Air Tools vs. Electric/Cordless Tools

The Humble Mechanic: Air Tools vs. Electric/Cordless Tools

We are going to look at air tools versus cordless tools. Each type has a place in the tool wars, but it’s up to you to decide what’s the best fit for you.
ratchet, cordless tools, air tools, pneumatic tools
My air-powered ratchet (right) is quite a bit smaller than the cordless version.

I LOVE buying tools. Thankfully, I have a job that allows me to buy the tools I need, and the tools I want.

Today, we are going to look at air tools versus electric/cordless tools. We’ll specifically talk about battery-powered tools. Power tools in general are an essential part of being a professional technician. Each type has a place where they win the tool wars, but of course, when it all boils down to it, it’s up to you to decide what’s the best fit for you.


Pros & Cons of Air-Powered Tools

Air tools are kind of the older school way of doing things. They usually provide more power and more speed than a cordless tool. The air-powered tool is significantly faster. It also has more hits per revolution than the electric one does. The rpm difference is considerably more noticeable on air ratchets as well.

Air tools are generally rebuildable. You can get various parts for them. They are also noticeably lighter.

Some impact guns have a port for oiling the tool’s hammer.

There’s a lot to love about the air-powered guns, but there are a few negatives. The biggest one being that you’re tethered. If you want to use the pneumatic wrench, you have to have shop air hooked up to it the entire time. If you’re working at a shop with a big compressor tank with two big compressor motors, it’s not that big of a deal – you have a consistent supply of air.

There’s also more maintenance. Now, that can be a good thing or a bad thing. Generally air tools should be oiled every day or every other day. There’s a little port in most impact guns for you to oil the hammer as well. It’s a good thing because it requires you to take better care of your tools, but some may think it’s just another maintenance step you don’t have to worry about with battery-powered tools.


Pros & Cons of Electric/Battery Tools

I know there are a lot of plug-in tools that have the same restrictions as air-powered tools, but I’m focusing on the battery-operated variety.

They are highly portable. You can throw them in your car, bring it with you when you go to the junkyard … The go-anywhere option of these is really one of the greatest features of having battery-powered tools.

Also, there are options, like lighting and compact sizes. I use the smaller versions for interior work because I can turn down the torque and use it for small dash screws, which is something I really can’t do with the larger versions or anything air-powered. (Some air-powered tools do have a setting where you can turn them down, but it also reduces the speed of the rotation of the head, whereas the electric ones generally don’t do that.)

Battery life is getting considerably better than it was 10 years ago. You used to have to charge that battery every day or two, now I can go a week to a week and a half before having to recharge the battery in my impact wrench.

What’s cool too, is that many of them have indicators to tell you how much charge the batteries do have.

The drawback to these really nice battery-powered tools is they are generally expensive (more so than their air-powered counterpart). You also need a place to charge the battery since we’re not quite at a point in the future where we have unlimited power sources. The good news is, most of the tools come with a battery and a charger.

Battery-powered tools also tend to weigh more. Using throughout the day in the shop, they can get pretty heavy.

So that begs the question, Who wins? Air or Electric? Well, neither one is actually better than the other – they both have their place in the world and really shine in different areas.

For me, when I’m at the shop with an unlimited supply of shop air, I almost always go for my air-powered impact gun (or my air-powered ratchet, because it is quite a bit smaller in size than my battery-powered ratchet. I have a swivel on the end of it, which makes it even more agile).

But at the house, or if I have to go out on the lot to do something, I grab my electric tools every time.

It really comes down to, do you have a constant supply of shop air?

So what do you prefer? Air powered or battery powered? Share your thoughts at



This article is based on Podcast Episode 106.


See more Humble Mechanic videos, including tool reviews, at



Follow Charles:

Twitter & Instragram: @HumbleMechanic



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