Electric vs Air Impact Wrench: What’s the Difference

An impact wrench can be a handy tool for many people. Whether you’re doing light home renovation projects or attempting to tear apart a truck, you might find the need to use an impact wrench to make the jobs go by much quicker. If you’ve already searched online, you may have come across electric and air-powered impact wrenches. It can be confusing choosing between the two, especially if you don’t know what each of them is capable of doing.

In this article, we’re going to explain what the main differences are between electric and air impact wrenches and help you determine which one you’ll need. We’ll also give you a few tips on how to your impact wrench safely.



What is an Impact Wrench?

Let’s just get the basics out of the way right now. An impact wrench is a handheld power tool that’s designed to break and release/tighten nuts. The magic behind an impact wrench compared to a regular socket wrench is that the tool delivers a ton of torque – up to and even beyond 1,200 foot-pounds depending on the model – to break even the tightest, rustiest, most stubborn lug nuts imaginable. There are also more “delicate” impact wrenches that deliver “only” around 200 foot-pounds of torque for basic home and woodworking purposes.

Types of Impact Wrenches

Impact wrenches can be divided into three categories based on what source they draw power from. The three types are electric, pneumatic (air-driven), and hydraulic. The third type is hardly sought after since electricity, and air compressors are much more accessible, so we’ll just focus on the first two types for the remainder of this article.

Electric Impact Wrenches

An electric impact wrench is one that runs off of electricity (obviously). Electric impact wrenches fall into two categories – corded-electric and cordless (battery-powered).

The obvious benefit of corded models over cordless is that there’s virtually no downtime. You don’t need to rely on batteries for power; just a regular power outlet. As long your utility company is doing its job, your corded impact wrench can continue doing what it does.

When looking at cordless models, you need to understand that their batteries allow them to be used anywhere on the planet. If you’re working under your vehicle, there’s no risk of getting tangled up in the power cord. However, because the source of power is attached to the unit, they’re a bit bulkier than corded models, therefore slightly more difficult to maneuver in tight spaces.

What’s surprising is that some of the best cordless impact wrenches are significantly more powerful than their corded counterparts. Just take note that more power means the tool uses up more battery power, and you may need to wait around forever for the battery to fully charge before getting back to work.

Pneumatic Impact Wrenches

Pneumatic tools, or air-powered tools, are typically way, WAY more powerful than the electric version of the same tool. For instance, pneumatic brad nailers deliver much more nail-driving power than a cordless one. The same rule applies to impact wrenches.

A pneumatic impact wrench is one that is powered by an air compressor. High bursts of air activate the tool, giving it tremendous twisting ability release lug nuts in a jiffy. They are more often used by professional mechanics who deal with rusted nuts and bolts on a daily basis.

The main benefit that a pneumatic impact wrench has over its electric buddies is the outstanding amount of torque it delivers. Its torque can be considered a double-edged sword to some people since it’s much too powerful for everyday home renovation and woodworking jobs.

Electric vs. Pneumatic – Which to Get

Well, it ultimately comes down to what you’re doing.

If you’re a professional mechanic whose looking to replace his or her standard wrench, then a pneumatic impact wrench is the tool for you. Breaking rusted lug nuts and putting new ones on with enough force should be your main priority, and these are things where a pneumatic impact wrench excels. You may find an electric impact wrench to be underwhelming for heavy-duty nut-breaking jobs, and attempting to do so may end overheating the tool.

For the regular Joes out there looking to do some simple fastening tasks, then stick to a regular electric model. They’re weaker than pneumatic impact wrenches but more than sufficient for ordinary jobs. If you need something twist nuts to keep your wood- and metal-based furniture from collapsing, an electric impact wrench will do.

Safety Tips

As promised, the final section of this article will give you some safety pointers on using your impact wrench.

Burnout

We can often get carried away when using power tools. We don’t mean attempting to use a chainsaw to shave your legs, but rather disregarding how long we can pull the trigger before letting the tool rest.

Electric impact wrenches use a lot of power which produces heat in the motor. You need to let the heat dissipate thoroughly before getting back to work. We recommend working for 10 minutes and letting the tool rest for another 10. If possible, invest in a brushless impact wrench since they produce less heat, reducing the risk of destroying the motor.

Pneumatic impact wrenches, on the other hand, are virtually burnout-free. Compressed air is cold so the more you use the tool, the cooler it gets. It may seem odd, but that’s the truth. If you need to reduce downtime, then a pneumatic impact wrench can come in handy.

Get the Right Air Compressor

The good thing about pneumatic impact wrenches is that they’re not exactly air-hungry. This means you can use a regular compact air compressor that delivers at least 110 PSI. Some tools may call for 90 PSI, but to compensate for lost pressure when traveling through the air hose, give it a bit more airflow.

Proper PPE

Operating a pneumatic impact wrench and an air compressor simultaneously can be quite loud. This means you may experience temporary (or even permanent) hearing loss when using one without proper protection. We suggest wearing ear muffs or plugs at all times whenever the trigger is pulled. Other PPE, like safety goggles, is also necessary to prevent any flying pieces of debris from blinding you.