Starting Up An Old Compressor

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Starting up an old compressor need not be scary or complex. Lots of folks end up with an old air compressor… found in a garage sale, or Uncle Freddie left you his tools along with his vintage air compressor, and so on.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to acquire one, here are the steps we recommend for starting up an old compressor.

Clean the Compressor

Starting up an old compressor - Dusty air compressor -

While some folks consider a thick layer of dust to be sort of a protective coating, don’t believe it when it comes to starting up an old compressor. Air compressors run hot, and need to have heat-dissipating surfaces clear of dust to ensure heat transfer to the atmosphere from the pump head, and motor cooling fan

A good cleaning will result in a pretty close inspection of all of the air compressor too.

You are looking for obvious flaws, leaks, broken components etc. If parts are clearly missing or broken, you will need to replace them before firing up the old beast.

Drain the Compressor Tank

It is unusual for an old air compressor to have air pressure trapped in the tank, but just in case, open the tank drain valve slowly and carefully, all the way to full open.

Even if there is no air in the tank, if there has been water sitting in the tank for a long time, it is possible tank-wall corrosion has begun.

If water and debris dribble out of the tank drain when you open it, note if the water is reddish, which would suggest that it’s got rust in it. A dribble of rusty water is not great, but don’t panic yet. Some rust does not mean that the tank is unsafe, but it is a benchmark.

We sure recommend the modification of the tank drain that you can see below.

Starting up an old compressor -

About the Compressor Tank

Is the tank OK? Does it need testing? Tough to be sure, and testing an older compressor tank is easier said than done.

Hydro-static tank testing is the sure way to certify that the air tank is sound, yet that is expensive and requires transporting the tank (and compressor pump attached to it) to the test facility.

Another way to test the integrity of a compressor tank is to fill the tank with water, and then, using a hand hydraulic/air pump, force air into the full tank so that increasing air pressure is forced against the water and the tank wall. If a part of the tank wall lets go due to it being weakened by corrosion – and this typically happens along a corroded weld seam – the result is water leaking as opposed to an exploding tank, or so it is noted by those that have used this method.

You might take a less complex approach. Using a rubber mallet, tap over the whole tank, focusing in particular on weldments, to see if the tank metal deforms under the rubber mallet blows. If the tank deforms easily, that suggests a real weak spot, and a replacement air tank is indicated.

When you get the old compressor running, let it build pressure in the tank in increments of 10 PSI, shutting the compressor off at each increment, and inspecting the tank looking and hearing for leaks.

Compressor Power Cord

Make sure that the compressor power cord is free of nicks or cuts.

Ensure that the plug on the end of the power cord is in good shape, and is one suited to a typical 120 VAC wall socket. If the plug looks unusual that may indicate that the power supply is not 120 VAC and you want to investigate the information on the motor plate for details about the power supply for that compressor motor.

Compressor Oil

While old compressor oil is not good oil, and we certainly recommend that old oil be changed for new fresh compressor oil right away, when you are starting up an old compressor, you want to make sure it works.

Make sure – using the dipstick or sight glass – that the compressor has the right level of oil. If not, add some.

Once you’ve got enough oil in the sump, that should be good enough to check the compressor but you do not want to run the compressor for any length of time without changing the oil completely.

If the compressor starts and runs and starts to build air, you now know it works. Shut it down and change the oil.

Intake Filter Clean

If a single cylinder compressor, there should be an intake filter installed near the top of the pump. If a twin cylinder compressor, there will likely be two intake filters, one for each cylinder.

If your air compressor is a fractional HP compressor, a really small one, there may not be an intake filter at all.

If your compressor has an intake filter, remove it from the intake, determine how to remove the filter cover, and check the cleanliness of the filter media. If it’s really dirty, leave the intake filter off while testing the compressor.

Before you run the compressor for any length of time, replace the filter element and reinstall the filter housing on the pump head.

Start the Air Compressor

Plug the compressor cord right into a wall socket. Do not use a power bar or extension cord.

With no air in the tank and the compressor powered up, it should start. Unless, of course, there is an On/Off switch. If there is one of those, turn it to ON.

Compressor started?

Good stuff.

Monitor to tank gauge and when the compressor tank pressure gets to 10 PSI, shut the compressor off. Listen and look. Any leaks? No? All right, fire it up again and let the pressure build to 20 PSI. Stop it and check again. If no leaks then repeat the process.

If you have any issues developing while starting up an old compressor, see the troubleshooting pages on this site for advice.

By Ashley Pearce

As a passionate manufacturing and mechanical engineer, I've had my fair share of run ins with air compressors and compressed air systems. With over a decade of experience in the industry, I have both a fresh perspective and time-served hands and mind to help you with your compressor problems (along with our able community!)

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Amy Saunders
Amy Saunders
January 25, 2022 10:27 am

Phew! It was such a relief when you mentioned that. changing compressor oil on a regular basis would prolong its lifespan in the long run. My cousin just got herself an air compressor for her workshop recently. I’ll pass this info to her when she sends it for a maintenance afterwards.

Randy Garrity
Randy Garrity
September 10, 2021 5:22 pm

Every area coverd in this article makes good clean safe sense..

January 8, 2020 5:22 am

Thank you for a very descriptive article on this topic.

Fix My Compressor Moderator
Fix My Compressor Moderator
January 8, 2020 12:38 pm

You are welcome. There were many contributors, and I’ll accept your comment on their behalf.

December 26, 2019 3:29 pm

I have a late 1940’s era Xymas Compressor. This is a Japanese manufactured compressor, stamped Made in Occupied Japan. The compressor is belt driven with a 1/3 electric motor.
I’m looking to rebuild the compressor and need information on where I can get it rebuilt and or the parts to rebuild it.
Any help or advice is appreciated.

Cal Brown
Cal Brown
November 13, 2019 8:10 pm

I have a 70’s era Sears, Campbell Hausfeld 1 hp compressor that the regulator failed on several years ago. I replaced the regulator but now when I power it up it builds pressure in the compressor unit very quickly and trips the circuit breaker. I purchased a newer model, particularly because it was much quieter running but would like this one to work again. Any suggestions appreciated.

Fix My Compressor Moderator
Fix My Compressor Moderator
Reply to  Cal Brown
November 13, 2019 8:41 pm

Hi Cal. When you say “regulator”, might I take that to mean “pressure switch”? If so, supply voltage the same, wiring correct?

David Lewis
David Lewis
October 13, 2019 8:38 am

What is the make and model of the compressor in the picture above? I believe I have the exact same compressor-I could not find a nameplate on it. I would like to know the rpm of the pump as I have recently installed a newer motor.

David Lewis
David Lewis
Reply to  David Lewis
December 10, 2019 9:04 am

I went to a local air compressor supplier and showed them a picture of my machine and they thought it might be a Quincy. I googled them and sure enough there was my compressor. Mystery solved. Thanks

Here is a link to a picture of a similar compressor.

Cal Brown
Cal Brown
Reply to  David Lewis
November 13, 2019 8:02 pm

Looks like a 60’s model Sears Craftsman, made by Campbell Hausfield. I worked for Sears in the late 60’s and have a very similar one purchased in the 70’s. Same color a,d style on a 20 gallon tank.

Fix My Compressor Moderator
Fix My Compressor Moderator
Reply to  David Lewis
October 14, 2019 10:10 am

Unfortunately this image came from someone who was also trying to identify it. Haven’t had any luck so far. Sorry.

Christopher Aslett
Christopher Aslett
May 12, 2019 5:48 am

Isn’t there a procedure for turning over an old compressor by hand but first allowing some oil to sit in the bore on top of the pistons? This prevents any oil rings scoring the bore on start-up. You’d do this with an old car… The only problem I can see is that the air will have atomised oil in it for a while after. This might not be ideal for some and isn’t ideal for me or else I’d be using this technique.

Joe Gromada
Joe Gromada
June 21, 2017 10:03 am

Finding your web site was very timely! I just purchased a used Emglo compressor 1.5HP, 8G, 125PSI, 6 CFM pictured below. It was owned by a neighbor who was a carpenter and he used it for 2 framing nailers. Probably early 2000s vintage. He said he had it serviced recently but I will go and change the oil first before starting up. I can’t tell where the drain is to see if there is any residual water in the tank. Could you point me in the right direction?

I am looking for a manual on this too, I get the impression that while Black & Decker now sells this brand but with Mexican made compressors but the original Emglo line is now built by a company called Jenny Compressors (also in Pa).

But I am gathering the startup is as simple as turning it on and waiting for pressure to build up. I assume I can dial the pressure down to 90 PSI to run air wrench. But another question I have is what steps do I have to take after compressor turn off, I assume just dump all the tank pressure and drain water? Sorry for the newbie Basic Operations questions here, but I don’t want to take anything for granted.

Anyway thanks for the great web site.

Fix My Compressor Moderator
Fix My Compressor Moderator
Reply to  Joe Gromada
June 21, 2017 9:17 pm

Hi Joe. The tank drain will almost always, with the exception of a couple of brands, be located at the lowest point of the tank bottom. Changing the oil if a good bet! Check the Emglo page for manual info, and if not, Google your model number. They are out there. I recommend after using the compressor, and particularly if you aren’t needing it again for some time, open the tank drain to blow out any water.

Roger Scow
Roger Scow
December 30, 2015 11:50 am

I have a question about wiring/rewiring my compressor.

Sanborn/BlackMax 6HP 220VAC Single phase 25 gallon tank. Has cord set up for a three wire house. My house’s 220 VAC outlet (for dryer) is 30 A and is a 4 wire setup.

The plug is not compatible with the house.

What are my options? Replace plug? Replace cable/cord (how do I wire?) Adaptor?

I don’t want to burn down the house. Or blow myself up. This compressor hasn’t run in about ten years, I estimate.

Fix My Compressor Moderator
Fix My Compressor Moderator
Reply to  Roger Scow
December 30, 2015 12:13 pm

What we would do in this case is Roger would be to run a new 220 VAC feed to where the compressor will be plugged in and install the correct plug for the power cord of the compressor. Recognizing that this has cost ramifications, it’s that or confer with an electrician. We would not just change the plug on the power cord if it was our compressor, as the right plug is currently on the compressor power cord and simply changing it may result in unwanted developments. We are not qualified to offer electrical advisc, though it would appear as though these folks can: . Recognize that advice on line comes with no guarantees of safety or success. Good luck.