22 June 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: Zefal Air Control CO2 inflator

One of the most respected and often ignored engineering is captured by the mnemonic device KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. During the development process, there are usually engineering, design and marketing pressures that cause designs to drift from this principle- often with little real benefit to the user. Its exciting for me, then, to find a product that adheres to the KISS principle, doing everything it needs to and nothing it doesn't.

Because packing and unpacking packs and saddle bags is a great way to ensure that you won't have everything you need in an emergency, I try to keep a saddle bag on each of my road bikes and each a small and large backpack packed with a handful of essential tools, tubes, and emergency inflation. Because I tend to grab my single speed when I only have a short amount of time to squeeze a ride into, I thought that I'd be fine without a pack and should assemble a saddle bag for that bike too. I had Allen keys, tire irons and tubes but for the first time in a long time needed to buy a CO2 inflator. Looking at what was available in local shops, I quickly became frustrated. There were quite a few overly-complex inflators whose only real function is to get air from a CO2 cartridge to a valve. That's it. Still, there were neon enclosures, springs, chucks and triggers- and not a simple device to be found. Amazingly able to recall that my 15 year old inflators were from French inflationists Zefal, I took my search to the Interweb.

The simplest inflator that I could find for sale was this little jobbie. Also made by Zefal, it consists of a pair of aluminum tubes that thread together with a sharp tube for puncturing the CO2 on one end, a needle valve in the center and Presta and Schraeder threads at the other end. That's it. Threading the adapter on to the CO2 punctures the cartridge (this should be done last), turning the ends toward one another reduces the flow of CO2 and threading it on to the valve stem gives the CO2 someplace useful to go (probably the first step).

Now, I'm not a big fan of the regular use of CO2 cartridges to fix flats. Given the price per inflation, the fact that they can't be used to top off tires and fact that they create waste (granted, the cartridges are generally recyclable), they're had to defend for day-to-day use. That said, while racing, being attacked by horse flies, bonking or crouched beside a busy road at dusk, they can be a godsend. They are also useful when a mini pump fails or a UST tire plain won't seat. For these reasons, it makes sense to carry a cartridge or two along with a small pump on most rides.

Threaded on to a spare tube (its not a great idea to thread it- even partially- on to the CO2 cartridge), the Air Control takes up almost no space at all and will keep the end of a Presta valve stem from puncturing the tube. The instructions claim that one can inflate multiple tires by closing off the needle valve, but as both the needle and seat are aluminum, I can't see a partial cartridge lasting long, making this feature good for double-flats and that's about it. Besides, I find that a 16g CO2 cartridge is about right to fully inflate a road tire or seat & inflate a tubeless mountain tire. These are available in bulk for about $1 apiece online or $2-3 apiece if bought individually. The aluminum construction gets cold when used, but as most people ride with gloves its not a big deal- let it do its thing and warm up a bit while reinstalling the wheel on the bike, then remove the empty cartridge and inflator. They'll be a bit chilly in a jersey pocket but warm pretty quickly.

$10-15 (plus cartridges) seems like a lot to pay for a couple of little pieces of aluminum. Then again, I couldn't make one myself for less. The company also makes the Air Adaptor (which turns out to be the model I've been carrying for 15 years), which forgoes the needle valve and comes in for a few bucks less. Zefal's Air Control and Air Adaptor keep it simple. Each have all I need in an inflator and little (or nothing, in the case of the Air Adaptor) more- for that they get a bikefix Pick.


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