October 25, 2020

Electric vs Air Impact Wrench: Let’s Find Out What You Need

When dealing with stuck nuts, having an impact wrench is crucial. It will save you a lot of effort and time. But if you take a quick look at the available models, you’ll find out that there’s a variety of versions available. It might be quite confusing at first glance.

In this article, we are gonna decide whether you should get an electric or an air impact wrench. As you will learn, it comes down to the application and the frequency of use. For intensive usage, a pneumatic impact wrench is definitely better; if you are going to use it every once in a while for small jobs, then a corded or cordless electric wrench is probably better.

Now let’s talk briefly about what this tool is about before getting into the differences between pneumatic and electric models.

Impact Wrench Description and Applications

Impact wrenches are powerful tools that perform the same job a handheld ratchet would do but sparing you a lot of fatigue. Relying on different power sources, an impact wrench delivers great torque with minimal effort from the operator.

They are involved in heavy-duty jobs, mainly loosening and fastening nuts. You can see them in use in places like body shops, assembly lines, and plants for maintenance on heavy machinery.

The hammering action comes handy when dealing with frozen nuts. The impact wrench gives concussive blows that will break a stuck nut loose without difficulty. The great thing is that this mechanism activates only when needed, avoiding the operator a lot of useless vibrations.

What are the Main Differences Between an Electric and an Air Impact Wrench?

electric vs air impact wrench

After introducing the tool, let’s get down to what makes these versions different.

Power Source and Output

That’s the main difference between these two versions. Pneumatic impact wrenches are powered with air, while corded and cordless models are electrically powered.

Air models are definitely more powerful than electric ones. This comes with some downsides:

  • You need to have an air compressor for air models; it also needs to be big enough for the wrench to have adequate performances. How much air do you need to run an impact wrench? This will depend on the tool: on average, we are talking about 90 to 120 PSI, if not more. The longer the hose, the more pressure needed to compensate for the losses.
  • The more powerful the compressor, the more torque delivered. This will also make the tool less controllable. The trigger will act almost like an on/off switch, delivering all the power at once.

On the other hand, electric tools are more controllable but way less powerful. For example, the Aircat 1150 air impact wrench delivers almost 1,300 ft-lbs, while the Porter-Cable PCE211 electric corded wrench only delivers 450 feet pounds of torque.

Cordless models are even less powerful: the Porter-Cable PCC740LA produces only 260 ft-lbs of torque. That’s less than 4 times the power of a pneumatic wrench.

Another downside of having a not so powerful impact wrench is the additional operator fatigue it causes. That’s why electric impact wrenches are better suited for sporadic usage.

Comfort of Use

Impact wrenches can get quite uncomfortable if used for a long period of time. They are bulky and heavy to support all the power they deliver: on average, they weigh around 7-9 lbs. On top of that, they also vibrate a lot when in use. These two things combined might result in a tiring experience. This is true for both air and electric models. Typically, cordless models are lighter: we are talking about a 2-3 lbs difference.

Let’s compare the different models now. In this case, the cordless impact wrench wins hands down. You won’t have to move your air compressor around when working on your car, or getting out an extension cord. On top of that, the absence of any type of cord or hose is very convenient when working in tight spaces. You don’t have to worry about bending the cord/hose at extreme angles to reach a certain spot.

If you are frequently on the go, a cordless model might be the right fit for you. Make sure that it’s powerful enough for the job you have to do, though.

Price

Let’s talk about prices. Generally speaking, a quality pneumatic impact wrench tends to be more expensive than an electric corded wrench. The additional power isn’t cheap. On top of that, you will need to get an air compressor if you don’t have one, and a long hose to connect them.

On the other hand, cordless impact wrenches are similar in price to pneumatic models, even if they are less powerful. That’s a common trait of cordless tools: in this case, it’s the portability that makes them more expensive. On the other hand, they are good to go as they come out of the box.

These are just general considerations: if you look carefully, you might find inexpensive pneumatic or cordless models available. The question here is: are they good enough? In my opinion, you can’t afford to be cheap when buying tools that are expected to be used for heavy-duty applications. It’s better to spend a bit more money now than regretting not doing it when they fail you in the middle of a job later.

End-User

As you might expect, different models attract different buyers. Pneumatic impact wrenches are better suited for a professional that needs a reliable tool that can easily deal with stuck and rusty bolts on a regular basis. The additional power is a must when you have to get the job done as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, an electric impact wrench (either corded or cordless) might be enough for the ordinary Joe. On average, electric models are smaller and easier to use; they don’t require a big air compressor; they are also cheaper. If you need an impact wrench for smaller jobs, and you don’t plan to use it every day, then an electric wrench is probably a good choice.

Safety Tips

cordless impact wrench
Photo Credit: hiconsumption.com

When working with powerful tools like impact wrenches, safety can’t be taken lightly. That’s why I wanna give you some tips for a safer and better working experience.

  • First, wear the appropriate safety gear. We are talking about safety glasses and hearing protection (impact wrenches get quite noisy when in use). Furthermore, don’t wear loose clothes when operating with an impact wrench. Close your jacket (or take it off) and roll up your sleeves. You don’t want them to get caught by the tool.
  • Before using the tool, always inspect it to make sure it’s not damaged. Make sure the air hose is tightened up appropriately.
  • Make sure that you are using the appropriate sockets for your impact wrench. Do not use standard sockets on an impact wrench. Inspect them to see if there are any cracks.
  • Impact wrenches vibrate a lot. On top of that, you have to hold the tool tightly when using them. This can result in painful sensations and numbing in your hands. If that happens, take a break.
  • If you have a pneumatic model, make sure that the air compressor is delivering the appropriate pressure required by the tool.
  • Unplug the power source when changing sockets or while doing tool maintenance to prevent injuries.
  • Do not carry the impact wrench by the electric cord (or the air hose if you have a pneumatic model).

What do Users Say?

When buying something, I always found useful to look at reviews before making a decision. However, these reviews are not always neutral, and more often than not the author has literally no idea what he’s talking about because he doesn’t even own the product in the first place! So these days I prefer to look at comments on Amazon: at least these people own the tools they are talking about. Here’s what I found about air and electric impact wrenches.

  • A lot of users love the cordless impact wrench dimensions and portability. They love to keep this guy on their truck or camper while going abroad. It fits easily under a seat and it makes them save a lot of time and effort when dealing with lug nuts.
  • Batteries influences performances a lot. Always use fully charged batteries and make sure they are big enough for better performances;
  • As expected, cordless models are not as powerful as air ones, but you don’t have to drag a hose or cord around with you;
  • The best combination of durability and power is achieved by pneumatic impact wrenches without any doubts.
  • It’s important to set up air wrenches properly for better performances. This includes having a hose that isn’t too long to avoid pressure loss. Carefully check the instruction before operating. Maintenance is also important.

Are Air Tools Better Than Electric?

electric vs air impact wrench
Photo Credit: airtoolsguy.com

It’s a difficult task to give an ultimate answer to this question. Both air and electric tools have pros and cons. We already touched on some of them during the article, let’s try to expand the matter some more.

Air tools are better than the electric counterpart for the following reasons:

  • If you already have an air compressor, there’s no reason to prefer a corded model to a pneumatic one. The latter is more powerful and it’s cheaper. The amount of torque is related to how much air flows toward the tool.
  • Filling a compressor requires electric power too. However, in the long run, the power demand of an electric tool is going to cost you more than what you would pay to fill an air compressor to do the same amount of operations.
  • Air tools don’t heat up during usage like the electric counterpart.
  • There’s no risk of electric shocks for the user.

On the other hand, electric tools are preferable to air models for the following reasons:

  • They are less complicated to set up. You don’t have to worry about hooking them up to an air compressor, and you don’t have to check if the latter is full enough to get to work.
  • Air compressors are quite noisy themselves, and they are quite heavy to move. Smaller models are more portable, but they usually don’t provide enough pressure for an impact wrench to be used accordingly.
  • They don’t require as much maintenance as their air counterpart.

Final Thoughts

It should be clear by now that going for either an electric or an air impact wrench really comes down to the application and the end user.

If you are a professional, a body shop owner, a mechanic, or someone that is going to use this tool on a daily basis, then a pneumatic model is probably better for you. You will probably make good use of the additional power and safety (there are no risks of fire hazard or electric shocks with air models).

If you don’t have an air compressor, and you are planning to use it every once in a while, then a corded model might suit your needs. Get a cordless model if you feel like you need the additional portability.