If you’re a metal worker, professional or casual, you may know how important a great plasma cutter can be. Choosing a new one can be tough given the number of models available. With quality models starting at around $500 and higher-end models costing well over $1000, a new plasma cutter is definitely something to be seen as an investment. Understanding what separates good from not-so-good models, including why models that seem more expensive might actually be cheaper in the long run, can help you keep your cool during the shopping process.
Power input and output are the first things to consider. Many models are designed to work with standard 120-volt, 15-amp outlets. Some require 20 amps with 120 volts. Others will require 240 volts and 50 amps or more. If you determine that you need one of the most powerful models, make sure that your shop is equipped to handle the extra voltage and amperage or that you factor in the cost of hiring an electrician to make necessary upgrades. How much power you need depends on the type of work you intend to do. If your cutting will be limited to 1/4-inch or less thicknesses, you’ll probably be okay with models that draw 15 to 25 amps. You’ll need 40 amps for cuts up to 1/2 inch thick. For cuts of 1-inch or more, you’ll need a unit with at least 80 amps.
The next factor to understand is the duty cycle. Duty cycle refers to how much per-hour running time a cutter can handle and is usually expressed as a percentage. For example, a duty cycle of 50% means that the unit can run continuously for 30 minutes before needing cool-down time. The duty cycle is related to power and workload, so models will have different duty cycles based on the work you’re doing–longer duty cycles for less power-intensive projects, shorter duty cycles for bigger jobs. More casual/hobby-driven users typically find less powerful models perfectly capable of meeting their needs, whereas professional users have to look for the most powerful units available.
A plasma cutter consumables are another huge consideration when choosing the model for you. Consumables include the electrode, which carries the current from the torch to the plate; the nozzle, which funnels gas flow and focuses the arc; the swirl ring, which channels the gas; the retaining cap, which hold the consumable stack together; and the shield, which protects the consumables from sparks and molten metal. All five of these parts will wear out over time. How long they last depends on initial quality and usage. Some cutters cost less up front, but require more frequent replacement of consumables or more expensive consumables, meaning that the initial cost savings can be offset by recurring expenses. When looking at models, make sure you understand the cost of replacing these parts and the recommended change frequency. You could well find that a more expensive purchase price makes more financial sense in the long run.
In order to use your plasma cutter, you’ll need compressed air. Strong, clean airflow is critical to the efficient running of any cutter and affects cutting accuracy and can extend the life of your consumables. Some cutters do come with their own air compressor, but many of the more powerful models assume that you already have an air source in your shop. Make sure you factor in your air source when shopping.
Another feature to look for that will help keep your model running at its best and extend the life cycle of consumables is an air-filtration or air-drying (desiccant) system. A filtration system removes any stray dust particles from your airflow stream, which keeps the whole system (especially consumables) cleaner and can improve the accuracy of your cuts. A desiccant filtration system also removes any moisture from the air, further improving airflow quality. Adding a filtration system won’t be cheap, but can improve the life of your cutter and consumables and make your work even cleaner.
Knowing what to look for in a new plasma cutter can help you make the right investment to serve your needs for a long time to come. After you’ve learned steel crafting steps or any other task that requires the use of a cutter, it’s time to research on the best plasma cutter brand.