The Difference Between Pneumatics and Hydraulics

From the lifting systems on aircraft carriers to the tools our dentists use, pneumatic and hydraulic mechanical systems are part of our everyday lives whether we know it or not. It is not a surprise that very few people would actually understand the difference between the two, as most would become stumped when they hear the term pneumatics, but possibly be familiar with the word hydraulics while not sure how they know it—“did I hear the word hydraulics in that car movie?” Probably! Since pneumatic systems and hydraulic systems each possess their own benefits and limitations, let’s take a look at what each one brings to the table.


Hydraulic systems use hydraulic oil to operate and this can pose limitations to where and how they can be used. Due to the viscosity, or thickness, of the oil, these systems can run into resistance—especially where it comes to quick directional changes. That being said, these systems excel when it comes to lifting and moving very heavy loads. The same oil that makes using hydraulic components in arenas like food processing a non-starter, cannot be compressed and allows for smooth, fluid operations.


What pneumatic systems lack in brute strength, the clean, air-powered devices can be employed in a number of scenarios where a hydraulic system cannot. Without the danger of oil leaks, pneumatic components in Minnesota can be used in food preparation and manufacturing, and the oil-free systems can quickly change directions. If put to work in moving a heavy load, the compressible air—or other gas—can result in a jerky and uneven movement. In addition, pneumatics systems require larger cylinders to achieve the same force as you might with hydraulic components.

For the same reason gas-driven equipment is not ideal for lifting heavy loads, it is also less susceptible to damage caused by excessive force or impacts. The compressible gases that power the equipment means a certain amount of “give” during operation.

Sizing up the two

While both have their obvious applications, the air-driven devices can be made very small. A dentist’s drill is the perfect example of a small, pneumatic mechanical system. Without hydraulic oil to reroute through the system, air can quickly power the drill, exhaust and be reused. In terms of operating costs, hydraulic equipment is generally more costly—up to twice the price of pneumatic equipment. However, when it comes to operating costs, hydraulic equipment is more efficient, which is primarily due to the amount of energy lost during the compression of gas.

Even though your head is now filled with some basic knowledge of the differences between pneumatic systems and hydraulic systems, you are probably still a little unsure and want to talk to an expert about your specific system’s needs. If you have questions about hydraulics or pneumatic components in Minnesota, the team of experienced professionals at M&M Hydraulic Company is here to help!

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