A few days back, on a hobby machining forum, I made an offhand remark about cordless tools. I said the more I used them, the less I liked them.
People adore their cordless tools, so my statement provoked a torrent of emotional argument, as though I had said people’s kids were ugly. I didn’t say cordless tools were bad, or that no one should use them. I just said my own infatuation with them was wearing thin, and I can back that up.
I believe the first two cordless tools I had experience with were screwdrivers. One, which was really primitive, was from Brookstone. The other, which came later, was a Black & Decker. They were nice to have, but the batteries didn’t last long, either short-term or long-term. They didn’t run very long on one charge, and they gave up the ghost completely after relatively short lives.
After that, I believe my next tool was a Panasonic impact driver. It came with a drill, which was silly, because once you have an impact driver, you don’t need a drill. You need a HAMMER drill, sure, but not a DRILL drill. The impact driver does everything the drill can do, better, while using less energy. Impact drivers run longer on a single charge, because of the way they generate torque.
I think I used the drill one time. I only bought it because the combination of the drill and impact driver was cheaper than the impact driver by itself.
The impact driver used NiMH batteries, which stands for, “Lame and Destined to Die Real Soon.” Okay, it doesn’t. Clearly. But it should. NiMH batteries don’t last long, and they have a memory effect, which means that if you top them off, you can end up with a situation in which the batteries will only hold a partial charge. Something like that. Look it up, because I’m on a roll right now.
I thought the impact driver was the greatest tool in existence. It magically turned fasteners without imparting the torque back to my wrist (drills can’t do that). It applied more torque than a drill. It gave much better control, so I didn’t have problems driving screws too far into things. It was much harder to strip screw heads with the impact driver. It ran longer than a drill. It had pretty LED’s.
I would have felt differently had I known the batteries were going to conk out while I was still getting to know the tool.
Before too long, the tool would only run a short time after a charge. I looked up the price of new batteries. I believe they are still sold, and they run about $85.
I also got a hammer drill. It was an 18-volt Bosch. I loved it. I used it to drive a 5/8″ bit through 12″ of aged concrete (concrete gets harder with time) without stopping. It was wonderful.
The drill had Nicad batteries. Like NiMH batteries, Nicads have serious issues. They die young, and they also discharge quickly when you’re not using them.
My love affair with the drill ended when the batteries stopped holding a useful charge. I can still use it for brief periods, but the batteries are not well at all.
Since then I have bought other cordless items. I got a top-rated hand vacuum for kitchen messes. It runs maybe four minutes, so you really need to have your sweeping planned out when you pick it up. I have a leaf blower. It runs long enough to blow crap off the porch, and then you’re done. It’s pretty weak, so when you use it, you have to choose your battles.
I got a screwdriver and a Jobmax as well. I also got a corded Jobmax. I don’t think I would have gotten the cordless one had I thought about the corded one sooner.
My newer tools have lithium-ion batteries, which are better than NiMH and Nicad, but they will still die and need replacement.
With this experience behind me, I will explain why I don’t love cordless tools.
1. They cost three times as much as real tools, and that doesn’t include replacement batteries.
The drill cost about $275. When I replaced it with a very good Bosch corded hammer drill, I paid about $90. I was flabbergasted. I didn’t really know what hammer drills cost when I got the cordless one. The Panasonic combo cost me about the same amount as the Bosch drill. I replaced it with an infinitely superior corded Makita for less than half the price.
2. Real tools are often better than cordless.
The Makita impact driver I bought is a lot stronger than the Panasonic it replaced. It doesn’t have as many toys on it, but then they’re not actually useful. You pull the trigger, and it turns. The corded hammer drill I bought has a real chuck, unlike the cordless one, with a real key. I paid less and got more.
3. In order to make cordless tools useful, you have to become a battery nursemaid.
You are things you can do to screw up tool batteries. You have to be careful. If you want to be safe, you have to make sure they never discharge too much. Also, you can’t tell how much time a charge has left on it by looking at the battery. You have to guess. A dead battery looks like a fresh one. So if you forget to charge a battery, it’s easy to get ambushed. You have to make sure you charge the batteries all the time, but not too much, because too much cycling wears them out.
If you screw up, you can find yourself holding a tool that insists on a 30-minute nap, right when you need it to finish a job.
The solution to this is to buy more batteries. That’s not cheap, and they’re heavy.
4. Tools use batteries that are incompatible with each other, so you have to have lots of batteries and chargers.
If you’re really confident that every one of a single company’s cordless tools are what you want, you can buy a huge combination kit that comes with two batteries. They won’t be the company’s best batteries, but let’s pretend that’s not true. You can get six tools, two batteries, and a charger for a grand or so. What if the kit comes with tools you don’t want? Tough. You take what they offer. What if you want the super-duper high-capacity batteries? You have to buy them separately, so instead of a grand, think about $1400.
If, like most people, you want a grinder from this company and a drill from that company, you will be stuck with incompatible batteries and multiple chargers. You won’t be able to prepare for a day of work by charging all four of your Milwaukee batteries. You’ll have to charge three Milwaukees, two Dewalts, a Ridgid, and four Bosches. You will have to keep all the chargers plugged in, and they will suck up room.
5. The need to buy new batteries will never, ever go away. Ever. Even if you break it down over time, it doesn’t feel good, paying $25 per year in perpetuity to use a tool worth $90.
Here is how corded tools work:
1. They are always, always, always ready to work, even if you just spent the last week in jail and could not get home to charge them.
2. They do not stop working because you forgot to feed them.
3. They almost never become obsolete.
4. You will never, ever have to worry about not being able to get new batteries or support from the manufacturers.
5. They generally work better.
6. They are lighter.
7. They cost a third as much. Not 75% as much. A third.
Does that mean I hate cordless tools? No. It just means I don’t need them badly enough to put up with the crap.
If I had to work far from electricity several times a week, I would get cordless tools. If I were a professional construction worker, I would get cordless tools. If I could deduct the prices of the tools and the never-ending cost of replacing batteries on my taxes, I might get cordless tools. None of those criteria apply to me. I do everything well within reach of electrical sockets, preferably with the air conditioning on and the stereo playing.
So anyway, I got the cordless guys going, and they seemed to feel like I was saying all cordless tools are evil and that no one should ever have one. Nuance. You know how that goes.
I will probably buy another cordless screwdriver if the one I have dies, and I do like the Jobmax, but I’m not in a hurry to get anything else.
With all that said, listening to the pro-cordless crowd got me thinking, and I decided to poke around on the web and look into cost-effective ways to save the drill and impact driver. I knew there were ways to get around the high cost of new batteries, so I Googled.
I saw some interesting options, so I got out the charger for the hammer drill and plugged it in. Nothing happened. So right away, I was off on a detour.
The charger is a Bosch BC130. I believe it’s the second one I’ve bought. They have a tendency to drop dead for no reason. There was no way in hell I was going to put down fifty or seventy bucks or whatever for a charger for a drill that doesn’t work, so I tried to find out what was wrong with it. I will relay that information here in case anyone else has the same problem in the future.
The BC130 has a resistor between the big main caps on the circuit board. It burns up. It’s said to be a 1/2-watt 180K resistor, and the solution is a 1-watt (minimum) resistor.
I’ll tell you what you need to know to get it fixed.
First, the case is held on by five Phillips screws. Take them out. Now you will find that the case sticks at one corner when you try to open it. Relax. There is a smaller circuit board that holds the charging prongs, and it’s attached to the upper part of the case. It is held in place by three black 20-gauge wires that are way too short.
You can pry the small board down out of its place. It’s held there by two plastic pins, and friction is the only thing that keeps it from coming off. Just pry carefully.
Don’t touch anything until you discharge the capacitors on the main circuit board. They hold lots of charge, and they can hang onto it for quite some time. The only sure way I saw to discharge them was to short their leads with a wire.
To get access to their leads, you need to get at the underside of the board. There are two plastic tabs you have to push back with a screwdriver, and they will release the board from the case bottom. The big problem here is that when you do this, you may short the caps with your fingers, so try not to do that, because you will die.
If your resistor is fried, you will probably see charring and so on when you examine it. To release it, you can attach a hemostat to one of the resistor’s leads and pull on it from above the board while you heat the soldered connection underneath the board. The lead will come out, and then you can do the other one. Don’t use too much heat, because the foil traces under the board are easy to melt loose.
Now all you have to do is stick a new resistor in there.
Unbelievably, I did not have a 2-watt 180K resistor, so I made an assembly using two 150K’s and a 470K. It comes out to almost exactly 180K, and because there are three resistors instead of one, the heat is spread out more. Hopefully it won’t fry like the resistor Bosch put in there. It was bigger than the old resistor, so I let it stand up on the leads in the space between the caps. I was thinking this might allow it to give off heat better, since it won’t be against the circuit board.
You might want to increase the lengths of the 3 black leads that go from the main board to the secondary board, to make reassembly easier. I didn’t have to.
That’s it. Hopefully your charger will work.
I did this today, and I charged up the old drill batteries. It may still be useful for short jobs.
I also looked around and found a Youtuber who has a video on replacing the guts of Nicad batteries with lithium. I may try that, just for fun. If I can have new batteries for $20 each instead of $100 each, I may want to keep the drill.
I don’t know much about lithium batteries, but supposedly they die permanently if you let them discharge too far. You can prevent this by monitoring the voltage while you use them. The Youtube guy found little meters that cost a few bucks each, and he stuck them in his modified batteries. Pretty cool. I suppose it would be bad if he dropped the tool and broke a meter; you probably lose some of the original battery’s toughness.
If you have the same batteries I have (Bosch BAT181), you may find them hard to open. The nice damen und herren at Bosch have decided that opening the case is VERBOTEN and NICHT for das konsumer. Because, hey, if you can open it, you can fix it, and then they can’t charge you a könig’s ransom for new batteries.
Bosch closes the battery case with five Torx screws (so intimidating, *yawn*). They try to make it look worse than it is by covering one screw with a piece of plastic that looks like metal. If you drill a small hole in the center of it, you can insert a sharp tool and yank it out. Then you can get at the Torx screw.
One more thing. I found out that Nicads often lose capacity due to whiskering. Because the green lunatics have gone way overboard in ridding the world of lead (one of the world’s most useful metals), electronic devices tend to grow metal whiskers on their soldered connections. These whiskers create shorts and do bad stuff.
Some brave people de-whisker their batteries using high currents. You find yourself a decent current supply at a fairly high voltage, and you apply it to your battery’s terminals. There may be stuff you have to bypass; I’m not sure. Anyway, if you have whiskers and you get rid of them by running jolts of current through them, you may find your batteries work again. You don’t want to leave the current on for a long time. You just want to whack the batteries briefly. Just pop them.
Speaking of “pop,” the down side is that sometimes the batteries explode. So you could die or be blinded or horribly disfigured. Things to think about.
I may try this on my batteries, after hiding behind a garage door.
You never know what I’ll do when I get bored.
Maybe this will be useful to someone. It kept me amused for a couple of hours.
As for cordless tools, yes, they have their place. But I’m glad I’m not sitting here trusting my work to a cordless compu