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While plasma cutters offer a range of benefits regardless of build, the best plasma cutter offers an optimal combination of speed, efficiency, fuel frugality and safety that the user needs to achieve maximum productivity. The means to getting this perfect cutter are discussed in our guide.
Futuristic as the name may sound, plasma cutters have been around since the 1960s, and are today used to achieve the finest, least erroneous and fastest metal cuts. Indeed, such is their fame that they have almost completely swamped older metal-against-metal and oxy-torch cutting methods in most commercial establishments.
That said, it would be wrong to suggest that they make cutting metal – or any other hard and thick material – completely risk-free or extremely cheap. While risks and costs are reduced, making a mistake while choosing the best plasma cutter can lead to waste of money, metal and time even as unnecessary threats to your health arise on a regular basis.
The key then is to skip the endless advertorials and educate oneself so one has a great idea about what a plasma cutter truly is, what benefits it offers and finally how to choose a cutter that fits one’s needs.
However, we realize that even when armed with such information, going through endless product lists and user reviews can be a grueling task.
Hence, we decided to use our expertise (which we’ll of course share with you) and a careful study of the market to come up with the best products available in the market today.
5 Best Plasma Cutter Under $500 2019 Review
Here is a list of the best plasma cutter under 500 you should buy in 2019. While many of this cutters have too many good features to be covered here, it has been our endeavour to cover all of the features that would be useful to the average user who expects quality without emptying out his/her pocket:
Hobart Airforce 500i Super Cutter – Best For The Money
Lotos LTP5000D Pilot Arc Plasma Cutter
Ramsond CUT 50DY Super Cutter
LT5000D Lotos 50A Air Inverter Below 500
Hobart Airforce 500564 Super Plasma Cutter
Key Features of the Best Plasma Cutter Under 500
In many cases, only when people learn how to use a plasma cutter, do they realize that minor differences in the structure and/or the requirements of the machine can mean the difference between a good and fast cut and one that comes at the cost of significant effort and/or physical risk.
The latter may be acceptable for those who are professionals and need certain specific features (for which they are willing to sacrifice others) but if you’re a beginner and want a good cut at all times without experimenting with your finances and safety, it is better to keep a certain list of key features of the best plasma cutter under 500 in mind when making your choices.
Key Structural Features
The best plasma cutters under 500 may not look very different from mediocre ones, but there are huge differences when it comes to the internal pieces and circuitry.
While it is not always possible to take a unit apart, but you can always rely on plasma cutter reviews and the product’s specification sheet to know if the necessary features are available:
1. Good Amperage and Cutting Speed:
While it is impossible to outline a chart specifying the ideal relationship between metal thickness, amperage and cutting speed, one should keep in mind the following simplified table:
When you have found the correct amperage for the metal, you should expect a good cutting speed for your choice of metal.
If the speed mentioned by the company appears to be lower than this expected level or you find that the users have complained about a lower than average speed, you should realize that one of the key features of the best plasma cutter – the ability to achieve fast cuts – is missing from the unit you are considering.
2. HF and LA Starter Methods:
HF stands for high frequency starters and this is currently the standard for the industry. Unless the unit comes with a contact-start mechanism, you should be able to find a HF system.
However, as we mentioned while discussing the best plasma cutter under 500, the HF system can interfere with digital equipment and for this reason,some companies have started offering Lift Arc (LA) starter mechanisms.
While the LA system is somewhat more complex that the HF one, you should always consider the LA-enabled ones if you are going in for a higher priced unit as these tend to be more durable and dependable.
3. Cooling Systems:
One of the key features of the best plasma cutter is surely a good cooling system, as this enables the unit to work more efficiently when internal temperature begins to rise.
4. Air filters:
Air filters perform the vital task of keeping the compressed air free of oil. While good compressors will minimize oil presence anyhow, it is always ideal to have good air filters inside the machine so that even if one needs to use a poor compressor, the quality of the cut is not compromised.
We say so because the presence of oil leads to arcing (different from the pilot/cutting arc) during cutting and this reduces the ability of the arc to stay on the target.
- Number of consumable/disposable parts: Many of the manufacturers argue that multiple disposable parts should be included among the benefits of using a plasma cutter since each of the parts can be changed when they wear out. In reality, one needs to keep spare parts of each and every consumable or removable part, and this means thatlarger the number of removable parts, larger the number of spare parts you will have to keep. Further, many of the parts are made only by the manufacturer and shortage may make the entire unit useless. While the number of removable varies, ideally they should not include anything other than the pipes and wiring, nozzle and electrodes.
- Durability of Consumables: A nozzle’s durability should easily range between 6 months to a year, and for electrodes, the lifespan should be about 3-6 months. Wiring and pipes do not have a fixed durability, but going by industry standards, they should not require changing more than once a year.
- Interchangeability of consumables: While only a few companies offer consumables that can be replaced by non-company units, some do provide generic sockets that accept non-manufacturer units as well. Look out for such generic options as they may significantly reduce the costs associated with the question – “how to maintain a plasma cutter” in the long-run.
- Trigger guard: One of the most neglected yet key features of the plasma cutter, the trigger guard prevents the triggerfrom being accidentally depressed and thus ensures that the machine starts working only when the user is truly ready.
- Nozzle-in-place sensor: Many standard sensors can be tricked into thinking that the unit is ready for work. This may cause the nozzle to start the pilot arc without there being any metal to cut. Even with other safety mechanisms, this can lead to very dangerous situations. A nozzle-in-place sensor detects whether the nozzle is in correct position and because the nozzle is vital to the proper functioning of the unit, it can be safely assumed that this sensor will allow the unit to function only when the user is actually preparing to work.
- Nozzle Shield: A nozzle shield keeps the nozzle enclosed when the unit is not in operation, and keeps the arc focused while the unit is being operated.
- Adequate Grips: The cutter should come with adequate grips and handles so as to beeasy to carry around and further, easily manoeuvred when cutting difficult pieces. These grips and handles should not be made of a combustive material.
Conclusion On Features of the Best Plasma Cutter under $500
As the above list shows, the key features of the best plasma cutter are not set in stone – they vary according to the person’s budget and specific needs.
That said, some features such as number of consumable parts or those relating to safety, should be necessary considerations regardless of the price bracket and the conditions under which the user will work.
It is hoped that by combining one’s preferences with this list of ideal features, one will be able to obtain the best combination of performance, speed, cost-effectiveness and safety, both for himself and his family.
How to find the Best Plasma Cutter Under 500
While readers are often forced to glean the ideal features from plasma cutter under 500 reviews, we have decided to make life easier for you by sharing our expertise in this field through a short list of the points to keep in mind when going in for any of the above, or for that matter, any plasma cutter.
1. Duty Cycle:
The number of hours a plasma cutter is used at a stretch is called the product’s duty cycle. Generally, the higher the amperage, the higher will be the duty cycle of the unit, though this rule does not always hold true in the higher amperages. Such units would prove to be the best plasma cutter for the money for users who have marathon work sessions without pause.
For others, however, it is not always necessary to go in for the unit with the greatest duty cycle – if one is using a product infrequently, it is better to try out a product with an average duty cycle and a good set of features.
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2. Provision for an inverter:
An inverter generally takes the current from 10kHz to 200kHz. This high frequency switching allows the product to function with a smaller housing, thus improving the overall portability of the unit. Further, an inverter, as we saw in the above plasma cutter reviews, produces current more conducive to faster and precise cuts as well.
3. Cutting Speed and Cut Quality:
Unlike many other products, cutting speed and cut quality are not inversely proportional, instead following a complex graph that requires an advanced understanding of physics to comprehend.
The good news though is that manufacturers usually list the cutting speed (in parts per hour) on the machine, and by keeping this in the middling range (neither too low nor too high), it is possible to achieve sufficient quality as well.
Of course, those working with handicrafts and fine products would require still slower speeds and higher quality, but one should also ensure that the speed does not become a bottleneck when production has to be ramped up.
4. Input Power and Phase:
Most products these days support both 110-115V and 220-230V input and thus this is more of a checklist point than a choice. More importantly, while some units are only compatible with single phase current, others support three phase power.
While it is hard to say whether a single phase current is better or worse than the latter, support for three-phase current is always desirable since this would cover all bases.
5. Air/Fuel Supply:
In most cases involving factories and workshops, the fuel would be the surrounding air, and in these cases,special fuel containers and attachments are not needed. In case of mobile units that can be operated anywhere, the choice is generally between bottled air and bottled nitrogen.
Many prefer the latter because it is more cost effective and tends to be drier, causing less oxidation while cutting stainless steel. Some units, however, come with an air compressor that compresses ambient air and thus removes the need for special containers.
These apart, only occasionally would special “assist gases” be required in everyday cutting. These – ranging from oxygen to inert gases and even hydrogen – reduce mobility however, and should only be used where absolutely necessary.
Rollers attach to either side of the nozzle and provide uniform cuts by preventing the user from straying in line. Popular options include rollers from bevelled cuts, straight cuts and circular cuts.
7. Contact vs HF start:
A contact start will, as mentioned above, require the cutter to physically touch the metal. This process is a bit difficult to master but ensures that the entire process is free of electromagnetic fields. A HF start is contactless but might interfere with nearby communication devices.
Hence, if one is using the unit near TVs, radios, etc. one should opt for a contact start unit. Further, it is generally found that the cheap plasma cutters come with contact start, while slightly costlier models offer HF start.
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8. Dirty Areas:
If the user has to work in dirty areas, it is always advisable to ensure that the unit comes with special features such as Fan on Demand and Wind Tunnel Technology that keep the dirt out and prevent dirt that has already entered from causing any damage.
9. Cooling System:
It is difficult to grade cooling systems, but it is universally agreed that the unit should come with a cooling system that allows the product to maintain a steady temperature at peak performance. Temperature in this case implies body and nozzle temperature, with the latter obviously being higher.
Conclusion On Finding the Best Plasma Cutter Under 500
The goal of every person buying a plasma cutter is to obtain the best value for money proposition that does not force him/her to wonder how to maintain a plasma cutter too often. Value for money, as indicated above, contains several parts, and each of these has a different level of importance for each user.
Depending on such vitality gradients and one’s peculiar needs, one can make a choice from among the candidates upon whom we have carried out our plasma cutter reviews, in order to obtain a product that is efficient, cost-effective and also safe.
If these products are not available in one’s area for whatever reason, we sincerely hope that our guide has enough information for one to make a wise choice in the open market. Either way, we hope each and every person seeking to make use of the myriad benefits of this cutting tool can obtain a unit that enhances his/her productivity to the maximum.
What is a Plasma Cutter?
The name plasma cutter betrays the nature and primary function of the product. Plasma, in scientific parlance, while cutter simply means that the task of this product is cut through products that cannot be tackled using ordinary carpentry tools.
From a consumer’s perspective, they refer to a metal cutter that uses plasma to melt the metal at the point of contact, thereby achieving a cut that is smoother than the flaky process used by saws and drill-cutters and cleaner and less costly than that of an oxy-cutter. But how does it manage this?
If we look a little more closely at the parts and functioning of the product, we find that the cutter includes a nozzle through which air or some gas is passed, an electrode and a handle with which to guide the unit (unless the unit is mounted on a train or is guided using some other mechanism).
When the unit is supplied with electricity, the electrode forms an electric arc that moves towards the metal surface. Since the electrode wraps around the nozzle, air coming out of the nozzle is exposed to the high temperature of the arc.
This heat transforms the air/gas into plasma. When the plasma comes into contact with the metal, it melts the metal, causing the area meant to be cut to be weakened. Thereafter, depending on whether it is a high-end or a cheap plasma cutter, the nozzle will blow more or less air.
This excess air is used to blow away the metal form the cut, rendering it clean and removing possibility of liquid metal dripping onto the work area. As the user pushes the plasma cutter further, the plasma shifts and the already cut edges solidify again, making the cut permanent.
While this is the procedure at its simplest, commercial cutting often requires a number of additional components. While it is not possible to discuss all of these, mention may be made of the assist gas.
Some types of metal are especially hard to cut, and require an assist gas to work as a catalyst to ensure that the primary gas is successfully transformed into plasma. While not considered key features of plasma cutter, the assist gas nozzle and supply mechanism are potentially useful features that should not be ignored either.
Types of Plasma Cutters
Broadly speaking, the best plasma cutters are divided into a number of categories based on their start type and whether they are manual or mechanized in operation. While each of these impart different benefits of using a plasma cutter, it should be remembered that choosing a plasma cutter does not boil down simply to deciding how one can get the maximum number of benefits. The ways to choose one will be discussed in a later section.
1. Manual and Automatic Cutters
a. Manual Cutters
Probably the most common category of plasma cutters sold over the counter to customers, manual cutters are exactly what their name suggests – they require the user to guide the cutter by hand. Such cutters typically involve only the parts mentioned above, along with a power supply and on occasion, a separate nozzle and supply for the assist gas. These cutters will form the bulk of our plasma cutter reviews.
- Light and often the only type of cutter that can be transported.
- Good for scenarios where uneven or artistic cuts have to be made.
- Require no specialized training to operate.
- Achieves high speeds when thin metal is used.
- Does not require installation of a special circuit system or multiple personnel to operate.
- Much more affordable compare to mechanized cutters.
- Smoothness of cut dependent on user’s steadiness of hand.
- Cannot be operated for very long periods.
- Speeds fall when cutting thick pieces of metal.
b. Mechanized cutters
Mechanized cutters typically have pre-set cutting tables, water tables and a pre-programmed circuit system that drives the motor. They are usually required for industrial operations involving large and very thick pieces of metal. Since the unit has a complex circuit system, it is usually necessary for a trained operator to run the machine. However, with the rise of robotics, the operators are increasingly being replaced by robots programmed to make very specific cuts.
- Extremely fast when covering large pieces of metal.
- Cut is extremely uniform regardless of the skills of the operator.
- Works even with thick metals that manual units cannot handle.
- Can work as long as the power supply is constant.
- Much more costly compared to the average manual cutter.
- Operator requires special training.
- Takes up a large amount of space.
- Only professional companies know how to maintain a plasma cutter that is mechanized.
In general, manual cutters are ideal for small workshops, fabrication units and hobbyists, while mechanized units are necessary for large-scale operations. That said, it is always possible to install a small mechanized unit.
2. Start Type
- Touch start: Among the simplest if one wishes to learn how to use a plasma cutter, touch start cutters require the user to actually touch the cutter to the surface and then press the trigger to initiate the arc. The benefit of this mechanism is that it does not require consumables upfront and hence allows users to achieve better value for money.
- HF cutter: HF or high frequency cutters possess a special HF unit that starts the arc. The nozzle the blows out the arc. Since the arc stays in the air initially, it requires consumables to sustain itself. HF units typically eat a lot of upfront consumables like gas, starting rod, etc because they need such consumables to stay alight in the absence of a metal.
- Pilot Arc cutter: Instead of using a HF unit, a pilot arc creates a preliminary arc that travels to the surface that is waiting to be cut. In the best plasma cutters, the pilot arc is immediately followed by the coming out of the cutting arc from the nozzle due to the pressure of air from the nozzle. Since the pilot arc requires consumables, this procedure also depletes consumables.
- HF Pilot Arc Cutter: A hybrid of the two types, this product is capable of producing a pilot arc using a HF system, thus making the unit produce a pilot arc but with less use of consumables.