Contractors benefit from improved technology in cordless power tools.

Manufacturers are now tailoring cordless tools to specific jobsite applications such as drain inspections. [Photo credit: RIDGID.]


The invention of the cordless phone dates back to 1965. However, inventor and jazz musician Teri Pall could not market the technology due to radio signals interfering with aircraft.

Since then, the cordless phone has become a significant technological advancement throughout the world, allowing users freedom and mobility that was formerly restricted by older corded models.

That same parallel now extends to plumbing and mechanical contractors when dealing with cordless power tools.

“You may remember the days when the phone cord was attached to the wall,” Hilti Cordless Product Manager Robert Chetelat says. “That was the way of life for contractors with corded tools. If you can get rid of the cord, it’s a big difference for them.”

Not only have cordless tools provided contractors with better mobility, but continued technology advancements are improving jobsite performance and the amount of time spent working on a job - key factors that ultimately help with the bottom line.

Cordless saws, like the Bosch band saw shown here, are gaining in popularity with contractors due to their lightweight and compact design. [Photo credit :Bosch.]

Thank-You Lithium-Ion

A major change in the evolution of cordless power tools has been with battery power. Nickel-cadmium batteries, which supply high-surge currents, making them a good fit with power tools, have taken a back seat in recent years to lithium-ion. Lithium-ion batteries, prevalent in the automotive industry, feature strong energy densities and slow loss of charge when not in use. The lithium-ion platform has evolved from 18-volt tools in recent years to a popular 12-volt platform, which provides end users with an even more compact and lightweight tool.

“The change to lithium from nickel-cadmium is a lot like the change from the Walkman to the iPod or from a TV with a tube to a flat screen,” notes Paul Fry, the director of product for cordless tools at Milwaukee Electric Tool. “There’s been a monumental change in the industry since 2005. The lithium-ion platform is beginning to mature a little bit. You are seeing more speed, power and application with every tool. Tools have longer run times, perform better in cold temperatures and are now more durable than before.”

Randy Christianson, the general manager at Christianson Air Conditioning and Plumbing in Austin, Texas, is a fan of the improved technology in the lithium-ion line, particularly when it comes to battery run time. Residential new construction work is Christianson Air Conditioning and Plumbing’s bread-and-butter.        

“Our guys are telling me these tools sustain their power,” he states. “They are getting better battery length. The lithium-ion battery will tell you how much charge you have left. They like that because they know when the battery is going to need a charge. They can go and use the car charger between jobs.”

Continuing electronic upgrades to the cordless platform could ultimately save a contractor in the pocketbook.

“Cordless tool users have a tendency to push a tool to the limit,” Bosch Product Manager of Cordless Nick Feld states. “There are electronics to protect the tool and battery in those cases where a user might try to push the tool beyond its limit. Without that protection, you could potentially smoke the motor, burn out the tool and be out quite a bit of money.”

Des Plaines, Ill.-based Bykowski Plumbing works exclusively on commercial projects and was in the midst of working on a Walmart store this spring. Like many of its other projects, the suburban Chicago contractor encountered challenging electrical conditions.

“When you are doing commercial plumbing, sometimes you are out there in the middle of the floor in a 140,000-square-foot building and there are no electrical outlets,” owner Mike Bykowski states. “You’re in these places and the floors aren’t poured yet and there is no electrical to be found or they are putting in the electrical while you are doing your job. We also do a lot of work in hospitals where you can’t bring in gas. Cordless tools have come in handy many times in those situations.”

Uponor's partnership with Milwaukee Electric Tool has given contractors a cordless option for installingUponor PEX tubing. [Photo credit: Uponor.]

Finding That Niche

Already tailored to specific trades, manufacturers are now honing in on cordless power tools that fit a particular jobsite application.

Milwaukee Electric Tool and Uponor’s partnership has yielded a special tool for the expansion of Uponor’s PEX tubing. The tool is available in the 18- and 12-volt lines and replaces a custom-built European hand tool.

“The new tool is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Austin, Texas-based Custom Plumbing Vice President Dennis Guthrie states. “If you are working with 1-inch pipe and expanding it 11 or 13 times while using the hand tool, you are trying to pump it 11 or 13 times to expand the fitting. With this battery tool, it’s zip, zip, zip and you are done.”

Guthrie recalls installing a fire sprinkler main on a recent residential job.

“There were probably 40 joints in one room,” he states. “If we were using the hand tool to expand, we would have been there four or five hours. We were there for an hour-and-a-half. Our productivity has increased.”

The PEX tool has come in handy for Mike Dupree, owner of Dupree Plumbing Co. in Marietta, Ga.

“PEX is popular in Georgia,” he notes. “It makes my guys’ lives easier, which makes my life easier.”

Manufacturers such as RIDGID and Bosch have taken the cordless platform and applied it to drain inspection equipment. General Pipe Cleaners is coming out with a cordless model for its Gen-Eye video pipe inspection systems.

 “Some of our systems have the option of running on 18-volt or smaller batteries,” RIDGID Brand Manager Wyatt Kilmartin says. “Instead of worrying about an outlet or power cord, you have the freedom to get right to the issue. The cord is not only being eliminated in traditional power tools, but battery technology is allowing a lot of applications to go cordless.”

Porter-Cable's cordless clamp saw is shown. Lithium-ion batteries in cordless tools allow contractors to maximize both runtime and performance. [Photo credit: Porter-Cable.]

Cut To The Chase

Typically one of the more common tools seen at a jobsite, saws are quickly gaining momentum in the cordless game. Bosch, for example, will be releasing a cordless pocket recip saw in the near future, as well as an 18-volt compact band saw. Hilti and DeWalt also offer a variety of cordless cutting tools.

“Plumbers don't want to be carrying around big and bulky tools,” Feld notes. “They have been really grabbing onto the lightweight and compactness of these cordless tools.”

Hilti’s Chetelat adds: “Workers spend an enormous amount of time rolling cord out and pulling it from one section to the next. They are making cuts every 50 or 100 feet and are making turns constantly and fighting with the cord. Cordless tools get rid of the leash and increase productivity.”

DeWalt is preparing to launch a 10-pound cordless band saw on the 18-volt platform this summer.

“A lot of plumbers, especially those doing commercial jobs, are up on a lift or ladders and are carrying these large and heavy band saws up there to make cuts on common materials such as strut-threaded rod and smaller pipe. They don’t need all the capacity of those saws for these applications,” DeWalt Product Manager Jim Watson explains. “It’s not intended to replace the large band saw they use to cut larger-diameter copper or black-iron pipe. With these tools being smaller and more compact, it allows a plumber to work in all areas. We want the user to take the tool to the work and not the work to the tool.”

Chris Knight, a plumbing mechanic at Virginia-based Vince Marino Plumbing & Heating, has thrived using a Porter-Cable cordless reciprocating saw.

“We’ve been doing demo work where we’re cutting a lot of galvanized pipe,” he says. “It’s easy to get in and out of crawl spaces with. I’m really reliant on it. I’m using it three or four times a day. Without it I think I would be lost.”

Along those same convenience lines, manufacturers are offering cordless combo kits that provide a variety of different tools housed in a singular carrying case.

“Every tool in the kit can be used for the jobs plumbers find themselves executing even down to the bright, long-lasting LED light,” Kilmartin says. “Battery advances have made every tool an all-day jobsite tool.”

Hilti’s cordless rotary hammer drill is shown. Lithium-ion batteries in cordless tools allow contractors to maximize both runtime and performance. [Photo credit: Hilti.]

Why Stop Now?

Manufacturers are continuing to look for ways to harness even greater technology and value into their cordless lines, whether improving battery performance or tailoring even more tools to specific jobsite applications.

“In general, the industry is going to continue to see this trend where tools are going to be smaller and more powerful with more specialized applications,” Uponor Director of Channel Marketing Steve Lockridge states. “Contractors want tools that perform specific functions for them. You design around the needs of the customer.”

Porter-Cable Cordless Senior Product Manager Derek Vlcko stresses finding balance between power, size and functionality will be the key to future success.

“The companies providing tools with the best comfort, the lightest weight, the fastest charge time and the most power to complete a job - all delivered at the best price - are the ones that will win,” he says.