A power tool, loosely defined, is anything used as a means of accomplishing a task using mechanical energy.
All power tools use mechanical energy to accomplish tasks that would otherwise be difficult – or even impossible – to accomplish by hand.
Now think about all the jobs that we are able to accomplish with power tools.
There are fun ones like being able to change a tire on a race car in 4.3 seconds. Try that with a tire iron and see how it works out for you. How about loosening head bolts on a Cat D9? Let’s see, if you use a one-inch breaker bar with a 10-foot long piece of pipe on it with two BIG guys you should be able to break those loose in nothing flat. How about porting and polishing a Harley-Davidson racing motor to increase horsepower? Sounds like a great job for a mini die grinder with ultra-fine carbide burrs.
There are also less “fun” jobs that we need to be able to do every day that power tools make easier. Cutting, grinding, drilling, tightening, loosening, screwing, sawing, chipping, bending, flaring, polishing, buffing, the list goes on and on. The point is, life as a technician would be a whole lot more difficult without the power tools that have become such a large part of day-to-day life in the shop.
Power tools come in lots of different flavors, colors, shapes and sizes. The trick is deciding how to pick the right tool for the right job. As much as some folks would like you to believe it, there is no such thing as “one size fits all.” What I mean by this is that there are reasons to choose certain kinds of tools, all are dependent on the type of work you need the tool to help you do.
In addition to suggestions on how to pick a power tool, I will share with you some of the new developments in power tools. There are lots of new products and some new technologies as well.
So where to start? Well as a wise, albeit bald-headed, guru said: “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So…let’s take that first step. What kind of tool are you looking for? How do you decide the best tool for the application? This type of decision is usually a result of answering several different questions. In this case, in no particular order.
What kind of work? How long do you want to be able to do the job? What kind of power do you have to work with (electric, air, none)? And, always last in my mind, is how much can you spend on the tool? I always list cost last because I think it is the least important question of all.
Please note, I don’t think cost is unimportant, only that it is the least important of the factors to decide. So many times we as consumers shop with our wallets first instead of making sure the tool or item we are buying will do the job well. I have a couple more comments about cost, but let me come back to those in a minute.
What do you need the tool to do? This is a simple one, if you need to drill holes, you’re not going to buy a saw, and if you need to rivet body panels, you won’t be buying a sander. These are pretty silly examples I know, but there is a point to this. Some jobs use a much larger amount of energy than others. For instance, think about an orbital sander and the motion or energy that it uses vs. a screw gun. The first one runs at incredibly fast speeds and you tend to operate it for long periods of time. The screw gun runs in short bursts. So it’s easy to see which one uses a lot more energy.
Let’s look at another pair of tools – the first being an impact wrench and the second a die grinder. Simple, right? The impact provides a large amount of power, but only runs for a short time, while the die grinder may need to run at very high rpm for longer periods of time. Anyway, you get the point. You need to consider whether the tool is a low or high-energy user, and how long you will operate the tool for any given job.
Next, what kind of power do you have to work with? In most shops you will have electric or compressed air or both. The only question in this case might have to do with the quantity and quality of the air supply. The two factors to consider are pressure and volume.
Pressure is only half of the equation when considering if you have enough air to operate a certain tool. Most air tools like to run at a pressure of 90 psi at the tool. “Is that all?” you ask. After all, 90 psi is hardly anything at all! Well, you are right and wrong.
A great example of this is those small 12-volt compressors you can buy to pump up inflatable toys and tires on the road. They are usually rated anywhere from 120 to 200 psi. Have you ever tried to use one of those to fill up a car tire? Did you finally give up and call AAA? The problem was not the pressure of that little compressor, it was the volume or cfm (cubic feet per minute) of air that it could provide.
The question for you to consider is will the compressor in your shop be able to sustain 90 psi for the length of time needed to operate the tool you wish to use and to complete the job you need to do? In order to be able to answer this second question, you need to know about the volume requirement of the tool and the volume of the compressor in your shop. Back to my silly examples above about different kinds of tools: High-energy users are really high volume tools. Rotary tools tend to be the worst, followed by oscillating tools and then fastening tools, which are usually the lowest consumers of air volume.
So, what does all this mean? You need to decide what kind of tool you are going to buy based on how you need it to perform. To restate where we started, you have three basic choices to make as far as how the tool you use will be powered – Air, which we have discussed above, Electric, and Cordless or Battery.
Electric tools sometimes may be the best choice. These tools are quiet relative to air tools, they are sometimes easier to move around than a tool with an air hose attached and, in some cases, they may be lighter than the comparable air tool.
The negatives to electric tools are they can only be used where there is a good source of electricity, so either in a shop or where there is a generator. Electric tools will load down sooner than some air tools will. And they can be dangerous to use in certain environments since electric tools tend to have more components including electronic controls. This can lead to the potential for more failures and/or be more expensive to fix when they do fail.
Cordless or battery-powered tools are the third choice for power supply. These tools are the newest of all the types of tools. As the name implies, they have no cord, which makes them the most flexible in terms of portability, convenience and ease of handling. In addition, these tools are usable in environments where there is no other source of power, such as on the road, in junkyards, on the service line or in the parking lot. Cordless tools are also a great choice for wet environments like marine applications.
The down side to cordless can be lack of power, battery life and limited tool selection. All three of these issues are changing quickly. I will talk about that later in this article.
There are some really cool developments happening in power tools. I’m going to talk about specific types of tools and the changes we are seeing relative to those tools. Some of the changes may be happening to more than one of the types of tools.
• Air Tools: This group is probably the largest in terms of number of tools in use daily by professional technicians. The biggest development we are seeing in these tools is materials used to build the tools.
Most of the major manufacturers have begun to incorporate some exotic materials in the tool bodies and mechanisms. These materials range from ultra-light weight metals such as titanium, to ballistic-strength nylon-impregnated plastics. These plastics are the same materials that are used to make bullet-proof vests and body armor for the military. In both cases the number one goal is weight reduction.
In speaking with a product manager for one air tool manufacturer, I learned the number one complaint from professional technicians about air tools is how heavy they are. Yet, I learned something very interesting – the only thing stopping manufacturers from reducing weight even more than they have is the perception of the users. I thought this was pretty funny. We are our own worst enemy sometimes! We complain about the tools being too heavy, but if the tool gets too light, we start thinking the tool must be cheap and poor quality. The good news here is that the only thing stopping the suppliers from giving you what you asked for is you. Wow! Talk about the dog biting its own tail!
• Electric Tools: This group has enjoyed the rewards of materials development as well with the primary improvement being the same plastics we talked about above. The tools are lasting a lot longer and are getting lighter as well.
Microprocessor controls are being used more and more to control functions like speed and direction, as well as quick shut down for safety.
• Cordless Tools: This group has seen some of the most exciting developments in recent times. Cordless tools for years have been modified and adapted for use in the automotive channel. Many times tools that were originally designed for use by homeowners and home construction tradesmen have been shoved into this channel without much thought of the technician’s needs. For that reason, we as a trade have begrudgingly used cordless tools while always thinking in many cases they were not “real” tools.
The biggest problem with cordless tools has been tool availability and power supply. These two problems are interrelated. Manufacturers have not been able to offer a complete line of tools to the automotive trade because of the power supply problems. Until the last few years, the battery technology available has limited the types and quality of cordless tools for this channel.
There have been incremental improvements since the first battery-powered tools were introduced. The early batteries had short run times, were quick to discharge and could not provide the torque and speeds that we demanded of our tools. For these reasons the only tools we used consistently were drill-type tools for fastening and assembly jobs. Cordless tools worked relatively well for these types of jobs.
In the last few years, several events have occurred which have driven tool manufacturers to introduce more and better cordless tool options.
The developments in materials and technology are the first part. The second, and perhaps the most exciting development, is the advent of vastly improved battery technology. The newest and most powerful batteries in use today are providing substantially better power and run time than any battery used in cordless tools before. Li-ion or lithium ion batteries are truly amazing.
The best example of their power I can give is to compare them to turbocharging a small four-cylinder engine. Speaking of horsepower produced in a small motor is just as incredible to me as the power-to-weight ratio of these new batteries. This has allowed the tool manufacturers to offer tools that were unavailable just a few years ago.
Another really exciting development is that traditional air tool manufacturers are now entering the cordless tool market. While this might seem strange, it makes perfect sense. These companies, which are already experts at making power tools, are now just using the same expertise to make tools that run on a different “fuel” – as opposed to air, these tools use electricity from batteries to run. Cool, huh?
So, as you can see, there are lots of things happening in power tools. You have more choices than you ever have had when choosing a power tool. You just need to ask a lot of questions before you make a decision. Ask yourself some of the above questions and then ask your tool distributor a lot of questions. If you listen to the answers, you’re bound to get the right tool for the job that will last you a long time and give you great service.