In The Shop: Battery-Powered...Everything

January 2, 2016 02:10 AM
In The Shop: Battery-Powered...Everything

Two decades ago, battery-powered tools first appeared on farms. As battery technology evolved, farmers gained power and run-time by upgrading from 8 volts to 12, then 18, and now 24 volts, with Nickle-Cadmium (Ni-Cad) to Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) to Lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries.

Ni-Cad batteries are reasonably priced and offer more than 1,000 re-charging cycles before they fail, but they’re prone to self-discharge during periods of non-use. 

NiMH batteries are mid-range in price, mid-range in weight, around 1,000 re-charge cycles and are less prone to self-discharge when stored.

Li-Ion batteries are the lightest of the three and resist self-discharge during non-use, but are the most expensive and offer the fewest re-charge cycles (500 to 1,000 re-charges).

Cool Tool
Choose your cordless weapon wisely. If most of the work has 3⁄8" (10 mm) diameter or smaller fasteners, a 3⁄8"-drive impact wrench is lightweight and handy. If it involves 3⁄8" or larger fasteners, a ½" impact wrench will be better suited to the job. A farm-duty 1⁄2" impact wrench with 500 lb.-ft. of torque, two batteries and charger retails for $500 to $700.

With so many options available for cordless tools, many farmers own a hodgepodge of battery-powered tools and chargers. To reduce clutter, many farmers are retiring their first-generation tools and buying cordless tools that all use the same batteries and battery chargers.

Here’s a sample of what’s now available:

  • Battery-powered drills include ½"-drive powerhouses that offer high/low speed, hammer-drill and screw-gun settings all on the same unit. 
  • Cordless impact wrenches now advertise more than 600 lb.-ft. of loosening torque and more than 400 lb.-ft. of tightening torque. That might be “optimistic” in the real world, but modern models have significantly more power than models from five years ago. Battery design is an issue with ½"-drive impact wrenches because those units are inherently heavy. Li-Ion batteries pare ounces from the ultimate weight, but add dozens of dollars to the cost.
  • Cordless circular saws are now so durable even carpenters use them for framing and finish work. The downside is maximum battery life demands sharp blades—and farmers are notorious for using saw blades until their edges turn blue. Thank goodness for carbide-tipped blades.
  • Battery-powered reciprocating saws make crude cuts, but with the right blade, they can cut wood, steel, brick and just about anything a farmer needs to hack off. Again, sharp blades are the key to performance and optimum battery life.
  • Cordless grease guns are basically the norm. Newer units are nearly bulletproof and can handle thick grease on cool mornings. The downside is farmers no longer have crushing handshakes due to all the hand and forearm exercise they used to get from pumping grease guns.
  • Battery-powered angle-head grinders aren’t designed for long projects, but they’re perfect for grinding off a bolt head or smoothing a ragged weld. “Price buys quality” is the rule when buying any cordless tool, but that’s especially valid for grinders. 

In tool terminology, know what to look for. In general, cordless tools labeled “consumer grade” are designed for suburbanites repairing their kids’ bicycles. In the merciless world of farm maintenance, the words to look for are “professional-,” “industrial-” or “commercial-grade.” The price tag might be just this side of breathtaking, but when you’re under a combine, in the dark, racing a sleet storm, you’ll be glad you paid the price.  


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