Inflating with a Pump

Inflating balloons by mouth is classic but there are advantages to using a pump. There are two basic categories, powered pumps and hand and foot pumps.

Both have some things in common. Typically balloon pumps put the emphasis on volume instead of pressure. Little pressure is needed though it is possible to find a pump so limited in pressure output that it cannot start the inflation of a strong commercial balloon. The various inflators for large camping items which use D-cell batteries are an example of this. These often cannot start the inflation of certain balloons though they can inflate one further once it is started. This is because it takes considerably more pressure to begin the inflation of a balloon and overcome its initial resistance to stretching that to continue inflating it once it has started. Also as a balloon inflates the pressure required to continue to inflate it goes down until the latex starts to run out of stretch and become more resistive to getting larger and then the pressure goes back up.

Classic Hand Ball pump 2

Small Hand Pump

Balloon pumps tend to be large. The exception is the ones used exclusively for the twisting balloons which are very long and thin. These need little volume and a fair amount of starting pressure. Here a simple hand pump can work well.

This is a variation of a pump used to inflate basketballs and similar sports items but fitted with a small outlet that is perfect for the neck size of balloons used for balloon modeling. Very special pumps are made for people who specialize in balloon modeling which are built into belt packs or shoulder packs and very specific to this purpose.

Another common trait is that pumps which move a lot of air which are powered tend to make a lot of noise. Usually irritating noise while a whine or a combination of a whoose and a whine. And really carry on. There seems to be no way to create lots of air flow without a noisy pump. You can of course used compressed air tanks with an appropriate pressure step down regulator but even there the nozzle on the pump tends to make a fair amount of noise. It is pretty much in the nature of moving lots of air through a small area.

There are a number of especially designed balloon pumps. I was surprised the first time I tried one at what a screamer it was. Such pumps consume a fair amount of power and get rather hot rather fast as well. So attempts to quiet them down by encasing them in sound proofing is a bad idea as it traps the heat in a way that can get dangerous. Now if you are inflating hundreds of balloons to exactly 9 inches there are very special pumps designed just for this and nothing beats a specialized professional tool. But I am more interested here in less industrial applications.

So some of the best solutions are found in air pumps which are not specifically for inflating balloons.

Powered Pumps

Orange Pump 2

Small double ended vacuum cleaner.

In the powered category there are various vacuum cleaners which are double ended and can have a hose attached to the outlet side. One very promising area to examine are small hand held vacuum cleaners which also serve as blowers used for cleaning equipment like computer keyboards and vents on instruments and computers. This orange pump still makes a fair amount of noise when in operations, certainly not a stealth device, but it outputs a LOT of air at adequate pressure on its output side. These are often supplied with a number of adapters which cover the range of sizes similar to the necks on most balloons. The most useful is a long gently tapered one that ends in about a 1/2 inch hole. As I said these powerful pumps have motors that heat up and rely on the air flow to keep them cool. If you start restricting the airflow with necked down outputs you will cause them to heat up very fast. OK for brief use but not for any extended use and they will need to cool between uses.

Black Duster 2

Duster style hand blower.

I have seen a very old vacuum cleaner of the torpedo or tube type sawed in half rather crudely to retain just the motor and the outlet end. A rather dangerous looking contraption, being used at a state fair booth to inflate large balloons for sale. Not recommended. However there is a kind of the above pump class that is just for "dusting" by blowing. It is basically half of the above pump. Already chopped down and fitted with a nice end plate by the manufacturer. This I find an almost ideal pump for inflating really large balloons as well as medium size balloons. It is very fast and powerful. So powerful that when turned on you can feel it try to twist in your hand the opposite direction to the rotation of the motor. Here you also see the rather typical long taper adapter which is extremely useful and does not restrict the air flow enough to seriously increase the problem of the pump overheating. So far nothing I have found in the way of a powered pump can compete with this kind of solution. The second image shows the pump on a 1 inch grid to give an idea of its size. The carry handle also indicates it size.
Black Duster 3
This one is 9.5 inches long and a bit less than 4 inches in diameter. The nozzle is 5 inches long and has an outlet diameter of 5/8 inch. The push button is in a handy position for your thumb when holding the pump. I did invest in a fancy commercial pump designed just for balloon decorators. It was BIG and red and it SCREAMED more than I expected. It could get hot and wanted to be sitting on something while it worked. Eventually I just gave it away. And went back to using the black pump above which was more convenient for me personally.

I am not recommending any specific brand though the brand labels are visible in the photos. Just the concepts. There are a number of places that make these things which are not to be confused with the tiny little dusters for keyboards that are a lot smaller. Power just needs a large package. This is about as small as anything I have found that is rugged and a real workhorse.

Hand and Foot Pumps

Intex 12inch Bellows a

Often inflatables come with a really marginal foot bellows pump. This is so bad and its valves so leaky that it can turn you off to the entire idea of a foot bellows pump. Well surprise size matters. This is a recent experiment and it works extremely well. I was surprised at how well made this is. In this case I include the brand name. It is rugged and has two places to install the hose adapter, one for deflation and one for inflation.

It is BIG! The 12 inch designation does not quite cover it. It seems even larger in person. And what a spring! This comes with a special clamp that is well thought out to keep it closed for storage and transport. You need some effort to get this thing closed back up and apply the clamp and be ready when you take the clamp off because it is REALLY going to want to open up.

Intex 12inch Bellows b

The ruler in this photograph is 18 inches long. You can see the special clamp and the suppled hose. It is one of those corrugated kinds but less flimsy than the cheap ones. It has several adapters and is a rather large diameter.

The bellows is a canvas like material. And it outputs quite a bit of air on each step. I had never considered a bellows type foot pump before until I saw this one and decided to give it a try. The special clip to allow it to be stored easily is quite a bonus and once you get used to applying it the thing works quite well.

Intex 12inch Box

The big advantage of such a pump is the much lower noise factor vs. a powered pump. A foot pump scores over a handle pump in one way. It is a different kind of movement. A floor pump with a handled involves bobbing up and down bending at the waist. Which can be a problem if overdone. Of course any repetitive motion can be a problem if overdone.

This pump is also made in a smaller size but this large version seems more flexible in its applications.

Classic Metal Floor Pump

Metal Floor Pump 3

Metal Floor Model Balloon Pump

Metal Floor Pump 1

I used to have a classic metal hand pump. It was a monster. It was made for commercial use and was a serious balloon pump. It was a floor pump and inside it had a classic leather gasket that served both as the seal on the plunger and the valve. I used a garden hose on it for an output and it was incredible. But quite large and hard to store. It also needed to be lubricated with graphite which was messy.

On the other hand this was incredible to use. If it had a disadvantage it was that it only inflated on the down stroke. Bit it had quite a stroke.

The use of the leather gasket to also be the intake valve meant that it was not very good at avoiding back leakage also. The body of this pump was 20 inches tall and it was on the order of 8 inches in diameter. The handle made it close to 26 inches tall overall.

This was meant to be a workhorse machine for inflating balloons by hand rapidly though you got a lot of exercise if you tried to inflate hundreds of balloons with it on a decorating job. It did have the advantage that if used correctly it would with two quick pumps inflate smaller balloons to a consistent size.

Modern Balloon Floor Pump (adaptation)


I was reluctant to give up on the metal floor pump but it just took up a lot of room and was not getting much use. However the manual pump has advantages primarily in the noise it makes during inflation. At least the "duster" type pump shown above is not a screamer. Some pumps are so high pitched they are like a powered set of metal fingernails on a blackboard.

An advance is the double acting pump. It pumps both ways. On the intake and output phases. This is done by a tricky set of internal valves. This red one is kind of half hand pump and half floor pump. It is double acting and a bit strange in that you move the body and stand on the handle. It works well but I never warmed up to it. Just a personal reaction to its design. As a hand pump it is kind of like one of those old bust enlarger exercisers they used to sell in the romance magazine.

AirHead Floor Pump

This is a recent find. It is a great pump. It is plastic but well built. It is a floor pump, no confusion there. And it is an interesting variation on double acting. It has a knob which controls one set of valves. Turn it one way and it defeats the valve that allows it to pump on the up stroke as well as the down stroke. This makes it easier to pump but cuts the output on the pump about in half for each pump. Turn it the other way and it gives a solid ouput in both directions.

Again the 18 inch ruler gives you an idea of its size. It also has a twist lock arrangement on the supplied hose that is very nice. One feature that is ho-hum is the fact the hose bobs up and down as you pump since it attaches to the pump handle and not the body. But it comes with a nice range of adapters and the hose is good quality for a corrugated plastic type.

If you pull up a bit slowly on the up stroke and push down harder on the down stroke while in double acting mode you can also standardize to an extent the amount of air it delivers on each up down cycle. I like this pump a lot and it is an excellent upgrade for the old metal monster. It is efficient and much smaller though still moves a lot of air on each cycle of the handle.

Testing showed it can inflate a 24 inch TufTex balloon to rated size in about 35 pump handle cycles. It can inflate one of these balloons to 20 inches in about 22 pump handle cycles. It seems to move on the average about 195 cubic inches of air into a balloon on each cycle of the handle up and down. Or about 3.2 liters if I get my math right. Given the speed with which you can cycle the handle it makes rather short work of inflating fairly large balloons but on the other hand that is a lot of pumping per balloon if you are inflating a lot of them.

Silent Inflation

Aquarium Mod 2

So is it possible to make a silent balloon inflation pump? Well almost. But it will be slow. I tried to adapt a large aquarium pump since they are well noted for their low noise levels. I selected a rather large diaphragm pump and modified its small outputs and did other optimizations on it. It does work rather well with a low level of hum but it is quite slow, though relentless. Such pumps also are designed to run all the time and not overheat. So it was an interesting experiment. It did however prove that inflating a balloon seems to either involve a pump that makes a lot of noise and is fast or one that is quieter but a lot slower.

I did also try one of those pumps which has appeared for hydro gardens and to aerate outdoor pools. It was a lot faster and generated a fair amount of pressure. But it buzzes violently! I mean it sounds like a 600 pound enraged bumblebee. I certainly does work but most definitely NOT silently.

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