The big news in power tools continues to be the steady advance of cordless options. Today’s lithium-ion batteries seem to get smaller and more powerful by the year. Meanwhile, a greater variety of tools have brushless motors that use power more efficiently (they’re around 80% efficient, compared to 50% for a typical brushed motor), put less drain on the battery, and offer more power and run time.
“In five years, only your table saw will need a cord,” remarked Dave Frane, editor of ProSales’ sister publication, Tools of the Trade, after months of reviewing all of the major manufacturers’ new motors and batteries. Contractors remain skeptical of that prediction, but before explaining why, let’s look at some of this year’s cutting-edge introductions.
The big tool companies all seem to be aiming at producing cordless circular saws with the power and runtime of corded. For instance, one item on nearly every list of the most innovative tools of 2014 is Makita’s 36-volt, 7 1/4-inch model (XSH01Z). Rather than a separate 36-volt battery, however, the saw runs on two batteries from the company’s flagship 18-volt LXT lithium-ion platform. Makita claims that the saw can make 205 crosscuts per charge through a piece of 2x12 framing lumber.
While the Makita saw uses a brushed motor, Milwaukee has made a big commitment to brushless technology with its M18 FUEL line of cordless tools. The company says that the line’s newest circular saw (2731-22) cuts faster than a corded saw and is 40% lighter, thanks in part to the fact that it only needs one 18-volt battery. “It was designed from the ground up to be a replacement for corded,” says a Milwaukee product manager.
At the this past March’s JLC Live show in Providence, R.I., Festool showed a dual-battery, 36-volt track saw (TSC 55) with a brushless motor. It will cut 150 feet of ¾-inch plywood on a single charge; that’s 18 rips or 37 crosscuts through a 4x8 sheet. It’s not yet available in the U.S., but is tentatively scheduled to hit shelves stateside in mid-2015.
Drills are a category where cordless arguably dominates, and manufacturers continue to raise the bar for speed and power. For instance, Fein’s new brushless drill/driver (ASCM18QX) boasts a maximum speed of 3,850 rpm, compared to 2,000 for most cordless drills, with the ability to drive as many as 1,800 screws per charge. It comes with a system of removable chucks and bit holders similar to those offered by Festool and Metabo.
Bosch has a new 18-volt cordless drywall screwdriver (SG182) aimed at commercial contractors who install drywall over metal stud work. It’s being promoted as “the first cordless screw gun to deliver the performance of a corded model without the limitations of a cord.”
Then there’s Milwaukee’s variable-speed cordless Hole Hawg right-angle drill (2707-22) for electrical work. It’s 30% lighter than the corded version (9 pounds versus) and will drill 150 7/8-inch holes per charge at the same speed as the corded version. According to one Milwaukee rep, an electrician can rough in a 2,500- to 3,000-square-foot house with two batteries. Next year, the company will roll out a dual-speed Super Hog for plumbers, who require bigger holes than electricians.
On the battery front, things seem to be moving quite fast. At the Specialty Tools and Fasteners Distributors Association show late in 2013, Metabo rolled out the first 5.2-amp-hour battery for use on its 18-volt lineup of cordless tools. It’s the same size and weight as the company’s 4-amp-hour battery but delivers more power and, according to Metabo, gets about 30% more runtime on a full charge.
Bosch nearly caught up in April with a 5.0 Ampere hour (Ah) battery, but beat itself five months later in September 2014 with the introduction of a 6.0 amp-hour, 18-volt battery. It has 20% more run time than the 5.0 Ah and 50% longer than the widely used 4.0 Ah battery.
With new technologies like these, the cordless jobsite should be just around the corner, right? Not so fast, say contractors. For one thing, there’s the inconvenience of having to change batteries, as well as the expense of replacements. Then there’s the question of when cordless does and doesn’t justify the extra cost. (How many jobs really need a cordless miter saw?)
But the biggest issue is power. Although everyone appreciates the portability of cordless for small jobs or when working on a ladder, when it comes to framing, most want AC power even after trying the most advanced cordless models.
“I love cordless tools and wouldn’t want to work without them, says John Spier, a builder on Block Island, R.I., who recently tested Makita’s 36-volt saw. “But I don’t see them replacing corded for production work anytime soon. It’s a matter of how fast you can push the blade through the wood.”
Some contractors have even stronger reservations. “I personally don’t think a cordless saw will ever replace a corded one,” says Paul Johnson, a carpenter and remodeler in Portland, Ore., who owns the Milwaukee cordless saw. “I use my cordless tools every chance I get, but when I need to rip a bunch of beveled 2xs for a sloped porch or cut a mess of stair stringers, there’s no way I can get the same power and control as with corded.”
What this means for dealers is obvious: Although tool technology continues to inch towards the ultimate goal of cutting the cord, contractor customers will make up their own minds about when they’re ready to take that step. Meanwhile, they continue to want a choice of cordless and cordless.