The Tool Truck: Cordless Tools
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The Tool Truck: Cordless Tools

Getting a Charge Out of Going Cordless

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I  Want Cordless!

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Cordless tools have come a long way. Earlier this year in Cleveland, a thief armed with a cordless reciprocating saw managed to remove the catalytic converters from 14 trucks before the battery pack on the saw wore out. It got me thinking, if a thief is willing to risk his freedom on a cordless tool, maybe professional technicians should start thinking about using one to make an honest living.

One of my regular tool guys confessed that he has problems selling cordless tools. Customers were asking for them, but he wasn’t comfortable selling them because 10 years ago they weren’t great, and having to explain the lengthy warranty process for the battery packs was a problem. Also, he felt more confident selling air tools.

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For some tool truck drivers who sell to automotive repair facilities, on the surface it may seem difficult to sell cordless tools. Why? Because chances are that a technician is never more than 10’ away from a compressed air or electrical outlet. But, the market and the tools have reached a tipping point as the packaging and battery technology has improved dramatically.

Cordless tools are not direct competition for air tools. If you pit cordless and air technologies against each other, chances are you will lose any sale. You need to tailor the tool pitch to the technician and realize their needs and environment. It’s not a one-size-fit-all market. After all, tool usage and needs are akin to fingerprints, everybody has their own style. This is especially true of cordless tools.

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Packaging
Packaging can be the ultimate factor in a tool’s success, I’m not talking about the box it comes in. Packaging is how the tool’s designer placed the functional components to optimize the tool’s ergonomics and performance. The catalyst in this trend continues to be plastics and composites.

Plastics are no longer really just plastics, they are composites (composites are plastics with structural elements like man-made fibers mixed in). The new materials used to make the bodies and cases of some cordless tools are stronger and more resilient than those of ones made just three years ago. This has also reduced the overall weight.

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Manufacturers are including more bearings in the tools, and their life has improved due to coatings and better manufacturing. Brushes are also lasting longer due to better materials and electronic control systems that help reduce operating temperatures.

(Brushes are the blocks of graphite that transfer power from the electronic control circuits to the spinning armature. In the 1890s, large electrical motors used large brushes made of steel strands for the same task. Since then, the name brushes has stuck.)

The grips on some older cordless tools were made for construction workers wearing thick gloves. The control surfaces had “anti-vibration” ridges that trapped grease and dirt. Or, the surfaces turned to “goo” when exposed to some automotive chemicals. Tool manufacturers have heard the complaints. They have responded with increased sensitivity in the triggers and other features that a tech might find in a conventional air tool.

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Batteries and Chargers
It is estimated that 50% or more of a cordless tool’s value is in the charger and batteries. They make up the foundation that a technician can build on. But, it’s the one sales attribute some tool truck drivers neglect to feature.

The most important thing to remember is that it’s not about the volts, but the amp hours for most tools. Amp hour rating is the real measure of a tool’s endurance, the voltage indicates what weight class it fights. An ampere hour (abbreviated Ah, or sometimes amp hour) is the amount of energy charge in a battery that will allow one ampere of current to flow for one hour. Basically, the amp hour rating is like gas tank size, the more amp hours, the greater the range.

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Most techs realize that Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) batteries are better, and they’re willing to pay more over Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cad) batteries. But, most of them don’t know why. If you can tell them why, the sale will be yours.

Ni-Cad-based battery packs are the standard power source for most cordless tool lines. Li-Ion batteries are that upgrade that holds more amp hours. Also, Li-Ion batteries have the best energy-to-weight ratios and no memory effect. That is all you need to know.

Techs will want more than one battery pack. By having multiple batteries it’s possible to reduce down time. Also, it reduces the chances that a technician will be swapping half-charged packs to finish out the day.

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The charger is another item you can turn into a selling point. The technician will be looking for three things. First, the charger’s contacts are protected with a sliding cover. Second, the lights should be easy to understand. Third, if the technician charges Ni-Cad battery packs, the charger should have a “refresh” button that can recondition the battery over a 24-hour period.

Ni-Cad batteries have a memory effect — if they are recharged before they are fully discharged. The battery “remembers” the point in its charge cycle where the recharging began, and during subsequent use there is a sudden drop in voltage at that point, as if the battery had been discharged. During the Refresh process, the battery is slowly and completely discharged, and then recharged.

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Three Cordless Tools You Should Carry
>> 3/8” and 1/2” Impacts
The 1/2” cordless market is exploding with manufacturers trying to beat the competition on specifications. But the real story is the size and weight of these tools. Early versions felt like you were carrying a car starter attached to a battery. Today’s versions are compact and work even better.

Your main market for 1/2” cordless impacts is tow truck drivers, off-road repair specialists, salvage yard workers or other vocations where the user is out in the field without a compressor. But some body shop and high-end vehicle technicians are using them because an air hose can damage paint.  Air hoses typically lay on dirty floors before and after they are used. If the hose comes in contact with the wet paint, the attached debris creates a paint-dirt-hose sandwich that can cause small imperfections. On a freshly painted vehicle, just a little bit of contact with the hose can send a car back to the paint booth.

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For skilled technicians based in a shop, the 3/8” cordless impact has great potential. Some of the first tools of this size were adapted from “cordless impact drivers” used by construction workers to drive lag bolts and other non-automotive fasteners. But, many tool manufacturers have made the 3/8” market more automotive technician friendly with technician-specific designs.

The weight and balance of some cordless 3/8” impacts can be heavier than an air-powered 3/8” impact, but when connected to a hose, some of the weight advantage is canceled from the air tool. While the cordless version may have, on average, half the torque of its pneumatic counterpart, it still has enough torque to tackle most moderately sized fasteners on a light vehicle.

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Also, remember when you sell a customer a cordless impact, make sure he/she understands how extreme temperatures will affect the performance of any battery. Leaving the tool and battery packs in the cab of a truck overnight or during winter or summer will result in a reduced level of performance.

>> Reciprocating Saw
For legitimate work, the cordless reciprocating saw does have its uses in an automotive repair and body shop. The cordless reciprocating saw is also an essential tool for salvage yard workers. It can be used to quickly pull engines and transmissions from vehicles. It will cleanly cut hoses, wiring harnesses and mounts.

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It’s also a nice tool for drywall and pruning work around the house, just don’t tell your spouse.

>> Trouble Lights
It’s getting more difficult to buy a light that doesn’t have Light Emitting Diodes (LED). LEDs are becoming brighter, more efficient and less expensive every year. Makers of LED lights claim the blue hue improves contrast. Older technicians I’ve talked with seem to be uncomfortable at first, while younger technicians don’t seem to mind. But, both groups will notice an increase in contrast while looking at certain components like aluminum transmission housings and wiring harnesses.

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Many cordless tool manufacturers are selling lights that work off the same battery packs as the rest of the system. You will be amazed how long one battery will last for a wide range of tools.

In the grand scheme of things, cordless tools are not replacements for air tools, they are their own product segment, at least that’s the way most technicians feel. There’s no such thing as an “air technician” or “cordless technician.” Like any tool, the user interface with the tool can create an emotional bond with the customer. This is why techs will feel more confident if they can hold it in their hands before they buy it.

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Above all else, know your product line. Most lines have multiple tools that run off the same battery packs. Technicians will be more sold on an entire system and not just one tool. Remember, 50% of the investment is in the battery packs and chargers. 

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