How to Choose Cordless Power Tools

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Cut the Cord!
Be Jane's Guide to the Best New Power Tools on the Market

When it comes to putting power in our hands the cordless revolution is in full swing. Much like cell phones, the Internet, and a host of other wireless gadgets, cordless hand tools have never been cheaper, more powerful, or more widely available.

The catch is that there are so many makes and models on the market it can be downright confusing to figure out what you need. What follows is a basic guide to what tools should be a part of your essential kit, plus a few nice-to-haves thrown in for good measure.

By far the most popular cordless power tools are the drill and the impact driver, not far behind are light duty saws and sanders. For very involved jobs or those where a power source is close by, corded power tools still reign supreme in terms of speed and power. However, improvements in technology are making cordless power tools an increasingly viable option for many projects.

Read on to find the latest and greatest information on one of our favorite things about home improvement: cordless power tools.

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Power: Volts are most commonly used to compare power tools. But torque and motor size, and speed are an important part of the "How much can this tool really do?" equation.

Until recently, 9.4 volts was the industry standard for cordless power tools, with new products inching up to 14.4 voltage. Built with advanced technology and better batteries, most manufacturers are hyping their 18 to 24-volt tools.

Although voltage is important, it also adds weight. Determine the range of power from which you are really going to benefit. For example, a drill with more torque (turning power) than voltage can actually help you finish a tough job more easily than a higher voltage drill with less torque. (Scared of power tools? Join our forum.)

Weight: When deciding how much power you really need, don't forget to consider the weight. A 9.6-volt drill usually weighs less than 4 lbs, but each jump in voltage means a heavier tool. However, a 24-volt drill made by Milwaukee weighs in at 6.7 lbs, only 2 ounces heavier than the line's 18-volt drill.

More power at less weight is a trend we are confident will continue. We've been impressed with the 14.4-volt drill for the right balance of power and weight. As more lithium battery-powered tools become available expect it to be much easier to find the higher power at a more manageable weight.

Cost: Some of the things we love come at a price, and cordless power tools are no exception. Although they are getting more reasonable, cordless power tools can range from just under $100 to $1,000 and up for a combo kit (more on that later). However, more often the 14.4-volt tools are available for $70 to $100, with significant jumps in cost in the 18-and 24-volt range.

Jane Tip: Look for tools designed with balance in mind. A simple ergonomic feature (such as a T-handle) can greatly improve the ease of use. Better ergonomic features evolve with every new model, including adjustable grip for smaller hands and alternative placement of battery packs.

Kits and Combos

With prices ranging from $80 for a simple cordless tool to more than $250 for a 28-volt drill, price and a myriad of features can seem daunting when shopping around. (Find advice about specific power tools.)

There are two ways to get more bang for your buck when investing in cordless power tools.

First, if you are expecting a lot of use consider buying an impact driver tool instead of the traditional cordless drill. Because they are designed to automatically increase the torque upon encountering resistance, impact drivers eliminate extra hand and wrist work. However, impact drivers are much noisier and therefore require ear protection, but the added power and ease may more than make up for it.

Second, if you anticipate a wide scope of projects consider a cordless power tool kit that provides several tools with a shared battery pack and charger. Although they can initially cause a bit of sticker shock ($500 - $700), a quick breakdown in the cost per tool shows the value. A benefit of a kit is the shared use of the battery source and charger. And we couldn't resist mentioning that many kits even come with a carrying case and flashlight. Filling your tool box has never been easier.

Battery Life

Much to the joy of Janes far and wide, 2006 was the birth year of lithium-ion batteries. Hooray! So, what is all the fuss about? Longer battery life in a lighter package and faster recharge are among the primary benefits. Most of the popular tool makers have announced pending products with lithium batteries if they don't already have them available. Milwaukee and Makita were some of the first brands on the market but DeWalt and Bosch have quickly followed suit.

Lithium-ion batteries (we know them from cell phones and laptops) have improved the performance of nearly every cordless power tool in use. By packing more voltage into smaller cells, higher powered tools are much more manageable from a weight perspective.

In addition to releasing 24-and 36-volt tools, we are thrilled to see the 18-volt tools drop significantly in weight. You can replace the 9.6-volt tools with a twice as powerful 18-volt variety without having to wear a wrist brace. One cool benefit of the lithium battery packs is that they recharge quickly and lose power all at once rather slowly draining. Not to worry, most tools are conveniently equipped with a battery life indicator.

Where to Go

With new tools coming out all the time it makes sense to check out the latest reviews of available products. Sources such as the Taughton Tool Guide(TM), Fine Woodworking(TM), and Popular Science(TM) routinely publish detailed reviews and test results of the newest tools. On online sources such as BizRate.com can help you shop according to price.

Congrats! You Have Finished Tool School

As a final reminder, borrowing tools from neighbors or friends is a good way to give different models a trial run. (Click here for tips on sharing power tools with your mate.) Once you take the plunge, keep your receipts. If you can't stand your new drill or it's too heavy, etc., it can most likely be returned for store credit. Be a savvy shopper and familiarize yourself with the store's return policy before you plunk down your credit card.

Once you find a drill or saw you really love, we're pretty sure that you will start a collection. Let us know how it goes...

See Also:
Toolbox Essentials
Cool Tools: Paslode nailer
Be Jane Forum Discussion on Cordless Drills

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