In the past couple years, battery-powered tools for yardwork (also called Outdoor Power Equipment / OPE) have become increasingly popular. If you’ve been into a big box hardware store, you’ve probably seen a futuristic leaf blower or even a riding lawnmower and wondered to yourself whether it was worth the fuss. In short, the answer is “YES” – though what works best will depend on your unique situation. In an effort to help homeowners understand this, I’ve put together this primer for homeowners looking to incorporate battery-powered OPE.
The first clue that battery powered equipment like string trimmers, leaf blowers and the like were viable was when the professionals started using them. Think of it; if you’re running a lawn care business or maintaining large property, there’s a big risk in having downtime in the form of dead batteries. Gas is reilable for these pros because they aren’t dependent on available outlets to re-charge equipment. Down time is lost revenue, and whilIe that may not mean as much for DIY types, it does mean that by and large you can rely on the current equipment to meet your needs. If you’ve considered making the leap to battery powered yard work, look no further for your primer (though after this you may never need to prime a gas engine again)!
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
Most homeowners know that neighbor who fires up their lawnmower too early on a Saturday when you’re trying to get a little shut eye. But even for your personal benefit, have you considered what being behind a gas powered tool does to YOU? For example, a gas-powered lawnmower run for one hour, has the equivalent emissions of driving 11 new cars for one hour each. Every time you fire up a gas powered lawn mower or other gas lawn equipment, you expose yourself to harmful particulate matter and Volatile Organic Compunds (VOCs) such as benzene and formaldehyde.
Generally speaking, a healthy level of sound to our ears is considered to be 70 decibels or less. Your current gas powered lawn equipment is typically over that by a good amount:
- A lawnmower is usually about 90 db
- A gas powered leaf blower can be in excess of 90 decibels
- string trimmers measure in excess of 90 db
Compare decibel ratings of battery powered OPE and you can get even the noisiest leaf blower at a safe level (like this one rated at 60db). All things considered, it would appear to be a wise personal decision to cut the noise and personal pollution out of your yard work.
How to make the leap…
If you’re a recent homebuyer, you may not have all the equipment you need (or would like to have) to take care of your yard, and if you have owned for a while you might have an older piece of equipment that doesn’t meet your current needs, or is at the end of its lifespan. For either of these reasons, starting with one piece and potentially expanding in future seasons is a great strategy.
One consideration – the biggest names in the market typically have OTHER tools using the same battery pack across the range. This can make it ideal that you stay in a brand to maxmize your investment. As an example, if you have tools by Milwuakee already, you may consider checking out their line of tools because you can often invest without buying more batteries and chargers.
Things to consider before purchasing:
- How big is my yard? (Can the tool and battery complete the job on a single charge or will you need more batteries?)
- What is included with the purchase? (Most tools are available as a kit, or tool only; your first purchase should include charger and battery at minimum).
- Will this particular system grow with my needs?
- How should this be maintained? (Batteries do better when stored away from our Midwestern winters, so inside storage may be necessary in the off-season).
There are a number of reasons why batteries are the best choice for residential users, and they can be broken into two categories; convenience and environmental. On the convenience side, batteries mean no need to mix gas/oil as well as store it, it also means no need to winterize units out of season. While run times vary from tool to tool and one manufacturer to another, the typical home user can expect to finish the job on a single charge.
Batteries present their own unique capabilities and issues, though, so it is important to understand how they work and what that means for your daily use. Terms like voltage, amp hour, and more, are not as universal as they seem.
By far the most common voltage found in cordless tools is 18 volts, but even this is no standard; some manufacturers will advertise 20 volt line, so what’s the difference? Marketing speak for the most part. A tool with 18 or 20 volts is going to perform pretty similar (with only minor differences in run time) when comparing one brand to another of a given tool and battery capacity. Some companies sell products that are 40 and 60 amp powered. These ARE different than other battery platforms and generally meant for specific equipment with high power draw. Dewalt is primarily behind larger voltage units but others can have it as well. The next part of the equation is battery capacity, which is referred to as Amp Hours (AH).
Amp hours have a direct relationship with the voltage of a tool and how the power usage and battery capacity relate to run time. In simple terms the battery can only contain so much ‘juice’ – how effective a particular tool is at doing it’s job is going to determine how long that battery lasts. For a deep dive into this, I recommend this article on voltage and amp hours, but the average user need only remember that a larger amp hour battery is going to provide a longer run time.
PRactical POwer and RUn Time
Because manufacturers take different views on what’s valuable, it is hard to make direct comparisons between two or more tools. In general though, cordless OPE spins at high RPM as it’s job function, and that translates into a lot of power needed to do a job. Add in dense weeds and grass, and you are putting a good sized load on a motor. I’d be wary of an string trimmer that uses less than a 2Ah battery unless you have a VERY small yard. You’ll most likely find such a tool is not up to the job.
What is available?
This seems to grow every season, but currently you can get all the following in battery powered versions:
- String Trimmers
- Leaf Blower
- Hedge Trimmer
- Power broom
- Lawn mowers (including ride-on and robot mowers)
- Snow blowers
- Wheel barrows
There will certainly be more in coming years, but these can do the jobs most need done. In addition to the usual big-box home improvement stores like Home Depot, you will also find a lot of the brands in specialty tool retailers like Acme Tools, and it can pay to do your shopping – manufacturer specials in addition to other sales can bring big savings! Common brands include Dewalt, Ryobi, Makita, Milwuakee, Ego, and Stihl to name a few.
I found myself in the position of needing a new string trimmer last year. After replacing two carburetors in the ten years I owned a gas string trimmer I found the unit wouldn’t start. This was after diligent winterizing and service of the machine! Since I had easily doubled the unit cost in maintenance and repair, I took a look at a battery version. The cost came out very close with a sale promotion. Taking gas costs into account,I figured out I would be ahead within a year of use (cost-wise). I also happened to be able to buy the same brand of typical power tools I own. By staying in one brand, I am able to share batteries and make those last longer through regular use.
The real surprise came soon afterward – the battery powered system is more than adequate to trim the edges of gardens and lawn. The stock battery lasted 4 separate sessions of trimming before needing recharge on a yard of more than .5 acre.
While I am sure my neighbors love the 45 year old sit on top mower we use, that will be the next thing to go. Currently we could not mow our lawn without changing batteries at least once during the job. As this improves, we should see more mowers that can handle larger yards.
As I have noted above, a lot of the usability depends on your yard size and specific needs. A homeowner living in Minneapolis on a .14 acre lot can make use of any tool available. Most can do so on a single charge. Someone with more square footage/acreage, or specific landscaping needs may not be an ideal fit for EVERY tool available at this time.
It’s wise to consider the run time of a battery on each tool type, and know that variable speed options, brushless motors, and charge time for each brand can make a big difference in tools. Look to take advantage of manufactuer’s promotions during certain times of the year. Depending when you buy, you could score a “free” tool or battery as part of the deal.
If you already use and enjoy a brand of tools like Makita (I know I do), Milwaukee, or Dewalt, you could benefit of staying within the same system you have. If you don’t own anything yet, take your time to figure out what FEELS good to you and meets your unique needs. It’s easy to build on what you’ve got from there. If you take your time and buy what works best, you should enjoy the tools for a long time to come!