I was part of a volunteer building crew working on cabins and outbuildings at a kids’ summer camp in cottage country, and the experience reminded me just how much a good set of cordless tools can increase what you accomplish in a day.
I’d brought lots of cool new tools to share with the crew for the weekend, including three sets of cordless tool combo kits. These are tool collections offered by all manufacturers at special prices, but it wasn’t until I took a phone call the next week that I discovered just how valuable those combo kits were.
“When you left to go home with your tools on Sunday afternoon and we had to switch back to corded stuff for the rest of the day, productivity dropped right off,” lamented Bryan, the camp manager. “When are you coming back again?”
With good cordless tools always within reach in my workshop, I’d forgotten how valuable they are. But the fact is, cordless tools can more than double the amount of work you get done in a day, and combo kits consistently offer the most value for your cordless tool dollar.
The Ridgid 18-volt combo kit shown here is a typical case in point. This collection is slated to hit Canadian stores at the end of this month at $500 for all five tools plus the carrying bag. It wasn’t that long ago that you’d have to pay nearly that much money for a good 18-volt drill in a cardboard box.
Most tool manufacturers offer pretty decent cordless combo kits, but this doesn’t mean that you can buy blind. The first thing to consider is tool voltage. In the world of cordless tools, voltage roughly equates to tool power, and for general-purpose applications like finishing your basement, building a deck or adding an addition to your home or cottage, go for an 18-volt system. It’s got enough power to replace corded tools for most jobs, yet modern 18-volt systems are also light enough not to be a burden in your hand. The best even come with a 20-minute battery charger. If you’re only aiming at small jobs, then a 14.4 volt system might be good enough. Some professionals find 24- and even 36-volt combo kits worthwhile, but they’re probably overkill for most handy homeowners.
Another key cordless combo buying issue is the amp-hour capacity of the batteries. This is poorly understood by most people, but it’s enormously important because it determines how much work a tool does between charges.
If voltage translates the ‘horsepower’ of a cordless tool, then the amp-hour rating of the battery is the size of the gas tank. The smallest 18-volt cordless tool batteries these days carry a measly 1.3 amp-hour rating. The biggest batteries are whopping 3.0 amp-hour units. That means more than twice as many screws driven, boards cut and holes drilled between charges.
Mike was one of the guys on the kids’ camp building crew back in the spring, and after he borrowed one of my 3.0 amp-hour cordless impact drivers to work on a dock, he came back all smiles. “I took another battery with me because I’d be driving 4-inch deck screws,” explained Mike, “but that first battery never ran out. I can hardly believe how long that thing ran.” Like I said, amp-hours matter.
For years power tool companies didn’t advertise amp-hour battery ratings, but that’s starting to change. And as manufacturers begin playing one-upsmanship on the issue of amp-hour battery capacity, you’ll know what to look for.
If you’ve got more than just a picture to hang in your house, and you want to max your productivity by going cordless, then you’ll save money and hassles with a good combo kit. Just be careful whom you lend it to. You might get invited to more volunteer building jobs than you bargained for.