Without compressed air, snow making would be virtually impossible. Not every air compressor is suitable for snow making. This guide is to help you become familiar with the types of air compressors for the residential snow maker, including identifying one you may already own or suggestions on purchasing a new compressor. Air compressors can be used for countless ventures, and could be a great investment depending on needs other than snow making.
First you need to determine how your compressor will be powered, gas driven or electric. Gas powered air compressors can be used "off the grid" in remote locations but are far more expensive to run and require constant fueling. Since snow makers run for extended periods, electric compressors are the preferred choice given they have the power available.
Snow making requires a minimum volume of air. Air volume is measured in units called Cubic feet per minute or also known as "CFM". Compressor manufacturers are required to provide these measurements at given pressures. The bare minimum compressor must produce at the very least 4.3 Cfm @ 90 Psi. Even with such a small compressor it will be only capable to nucleate a small electric pressure washer 1.3-1.8 Gpm. For larger flow rates, we suggest a compressor thats at least 5.5 Cfm @ 90 Psi or higher. If you already have a compressor at home, check the specifications. If you can't find the volume of air it produces, look for the model number and try searching online for technical documentation. Most air compressors of these sizes won't operate on a standard 120 volt outlet. They consume much more power than your average house hold electronics. If you do decide to purchase a new compressor, be sure you have adequate power available. All electric upgrades must be performed by a certified electrician!
Beyond gasoline and electric, there are two general types of air compressors you'll find. Those compressors are oiled (belt driven) or oil-less. A belt driven compressor should always be considered and are designed to be run for long periods of time. Oil-less however are for short term uses, and replacement parts are impossible to find. I have heard stories of some snow makers running oil-less compressors for many years without issues, but there's far more stories of brand new oil-less compressors dying after a single 10 hour run. We prefer the fail safe method and avoid them all together. It's understandable that most novice snow makers are on a tight budget and forced to live with what they can afford. If your budget only allows an oil-less compressor, find a retailer that offers a warranty exchange program. I promise, you won't regret it!
Sometimes used equipment is a better choice for most. Try searching your local newspaper or Craigslist. Sometimes you can find killer deals on barely used units. Again note the power requirements of the compressor, and testing before purchasing is a must. Make sure the electric motor starts properly, and builds pressure. It should have a label of max pressure somewhere noted. All compressors have a drain plug on the bottom of the tank. Open the valve and see if any water seeps out of the valve. If you see a good bit of water then stay away from the compressor. The owner could have neglected simple maintenance, which includes periodically draining the tank. When water sits inside air tanks, rust starts to form, degrading the inside of the tank. This makes the tank extremely dangerous with the potential of exploding deadly shrapnel! If the tank has a plug you can remove with a wrench, take a look inside checking the integrity of the tank.
For those that are mechanically inclined and have the proper tools, building your own compressor could possibly save money but ultimately allows a build to suit your specific needs. First find a pump and figure out it's requirements which include maximum RPM and horsepower requirements. A tank is not needed for snow making but you will need safety devices such as a pressure switch, safety poppet valve, a method of cooling the air (tank or cooler), bleed/drain valve, and an air pressure regulator. Compressed air is extremely hot and must be plumbed with metal fittings from the pump to the cooler/tank using either metal pipe or copper tubing. A condenser from a small diesel engine or radiator is sufficient for the air cooler. As the air cools, moisture is easily condensed. An added Air/Water separator before the snowgun will remove any moisture lingering in the line during long runs. This is the reason why we suggest upgrading your 1/4" or 3/8" to at least 5/8" garden hose and doing away with the quick connect fittings. The moisture is inevitable and will surely freeze these connections shut that could result in damaging your compressor or worse, causing bodily harm. Some snow makers use 1-1/2" fire hose to prevent air line freezing.