Powering Up

With almost every tool being reincarnated into a cordless version, manufacturers are focusing on battery technology to provide increased run times, lighter tools and more power.

Many basic cordless tools such as drill/drivers have been on the market for many years, and the biggest complaints about these tools were that they didn’t hold a charge or they just weren’t as powerful as their corded counterparts. With this in mind, companies conducted extensive user research and used it as a springboard to develop tools that satisfied professional users.

The first cordless drill appeared in 1961, manufactured by the Black & Decker Company. This 4.8-volt drill produced between 10 to 20 watts — hardly enough to complete most remodeling projects.

Almost half a century later, a range of technological advances have allowed cordless tools to gain an increasing share of the tool market. Stocking the shelves is everything from a basic 9.4-volt up to the newest revelation, the 36-volt.

After years of research, manufacturers are providing remodelers with a full range of powerful yet durable cordless power tools.

The Latest Craze
Power tool batteries are made up by taking several lower voltage cells and hooking them together in series. Each cell has the same rating in amp hours (a measure of how much electricity flows through a circuit in one hour with a flow rate of 1 ampere). So an 18-volt tool might have 12 cells at rated at 1.5 volts and 2.4 amp hours (ah), which would produce an 2.4 ah 18-volt battery.

As tool companies continue to develop different cordless products, almost all use one of the following battery technologies: Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cad), Nickel-Metal-Hydride (Ni-MH) and Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) — of which each has its own unique characteristics.

The latest breakthrough in batteries has come in the form of Lithion-Ion technology. Because of the advancements in this category over the past several years, consumers have seen improvements in cell phones, laptops and cameras. “Since Lithium-Ion was made for smaller applications, this technology did not have enough power for tools,” explains Christine Potter, cordless product manager, DeWalt. “We were also concerned with the extra weight of a higher-powered battery.” So, the search for a Li-Ion battery, with more power and less weight, began.

Shopping the Market
After researching thousands of different Li-Ion batteries, DeWalt found nothing that met its standard or that fit the needs of its professional users. With that, DeWalt partnered with A123Systems, a Watertown, Mass., start-up that has licensed patents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to develop an exclusive battery that delivered more power, runtime and durability.

With this new technology onboard, DeWalt enlisted an independent third party to test and evaluate the speed and run time of the DC900KL (hammer drill/drill/driver) compared to other corded and cordless hammer drills. According to DeWalt, the DC900KL was tested against other corded hammer drills by drilling a 1 3/8-in. hole saw into 20-gauge steel. On average, the DC900KL was able to drill through this material in 3.87 seconds, 22 percent faster than the other corded hammer drills.

Introducing its latest Li-Ion technology was Makita with the new LXT Series of tools. “Makita did not just design a longer run time battery; we designed a complete tool solution to redefine the way pro users work,” says Ken Hefley, senior vice president of marketing for Makita U.S.A. “LXT allows the pro user to work longer with a better engineered tool solution.”

The LXT Series, designed specifically to handle Li-Ion technology, produces 280 percent more lifetime work with two-times more battery cycles than the traditional Ni-Cad batteries, according to the company. Other features include a five-times lower self-discharge and built-in memory chip to communicate with the Optimum Charger and built-in shock absorbing features to protect the battery.

After nine years of research, Milwaukee Electric Tool has introduced its Li-Ion batteries. “For years professional tradespeople have demanded cordless power that performed like a corded product. Until now, the technology hasn’t existed to make that possible,” notes Joseph Smith, vice president of marketing at Milwaukee Electric Tool. “With V28 battery technology, we feel confident in saying that nearly 40 years after the initial development of cordless tools, cordless power is finally beginning to fulfill its original promise.”

To make this technology capable of powering high current draw applications, Milwaukee’s researchers turned to lithium manganese and optimized a cell to deliver high power and longer run times.

Providing users with the benefits of Li-Ion, Bosch has taken one step further with five-times more cycle-life than similar Li-ion technologies with the Litheon battery.

Available in both 10.8 volts and 36 volts, Litheon follows through on the industry promise of corded power in a cordless package, with little more weight than the weight of an 18-volt Ni-Cad battery. Simultaneously, Litheon also makes previously impossible ultra-compact 10.8-volt tools, nearly half the size of small drill/driver, powerful and capable to accomplish a majority of professional drill/driving tasks.

Oldies, But Goodies
Long before Lithium-Ion entered the cordless tool arena, Ni-Cad and Ni-MH dominated much of the cordless tool battery market. “Traditional Ni-Cad is not going to go away anytime soon — it’s a great battery for the certain applications,” says Potter.

Ryobi’s One+ System allows users to use one 18-volt battery on every Ryobi cordless tool — past, present or future. The system allows users to choose from 22 tools and accessories, with one standard 18-volt power source

Makita and Panasonic offer the Ni-MH battery technology in its range of cordless tools. According to Panasonic, the batteries do not use cadmium, making them more environmentally friendly than standard Ni-Cad batteries. Also, more electrical elements can be packed into Ni-MH batteries, giving them a larger power source.

“In particular, Ni-MH batteries offer the balance of longer run time with 2.6Ah at a reasonable price compared to Ni-Cad. Ni-Cad is the entry-level battery format,” says Stacy Dill, marketing communications manager for Makita USA. According to Dill, further advantages of Ni-MH are as follows:
1. Longer run time
2. Environmentally friendly
3. No memory

Taking Charge
Whether it is Ni-Cad, Ni-MH or Li-Ion that you choose, the charger plays a highly important role in the function of a battery. A charge can take hours with the “trickle” chargers or as fast as 30 minutes with newer versions.

Bosch’s two new 30-minute chargers not only speed up the charging process for the full range of Bosch batteries, but also allow users to better understand each battery’s status. Two LED light indicators constantly report on the status of each battery charging.

Ridgid’s Max 2.5 Ah 18-volt battery is designed for quick refreshing on the provided charger. The charger is designed specifically for these batteries and brings them to full charge, in approximately 20 minutes. A series of lights on its face indicates charging progress. The instructions even include recommendations for charging excessively hot or cold batteries, something that can be important when working outdoors or in unfinished spaces.