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The Power of Battery-Operated Tools and Their Impact on the Environment

By Mike Fitzpatrick

A grounds care maintenance provider uses many tools to help care for a business’ landscape, from the simple shovel to the most complex irrigation system. While some remain to be powered by the user, such as the saw, others have become powered by gas, electricity or batteries, such as the trimmer. Several factors go into making a purchase decision about these tools, including their benefits, any challenges they may pose, price and the advancements that are being made on the tools themselves.

Battery-operated tools are underutilized in this industry, but they are gaining in popularity. While they were once harder to find and more expensive to buy, they are starting to become more available. Many in-house operations are now using battery-operated tools. Fertilization crews like battery-operated tools because they can get their work done faster, and they are lighter than the alternatives. Technicians working in LEED-certified buildings also use battery-operated tools. Some commercial sites have sustainable crews that are equipped with battery-operated tools, as well.

The growing trend for the power source of these tools is certainly heading in the environmentally friendly direction with an increase in battery-operated options. Almost anything that is handheld or a two-cycle motor can be replaced with a battery-operated version somewhere. The list of battery-operated tools keeps getting longer and includes chainsaws, string trimmers, blowers, hedge trimmers and other types of mowing equipment.

The benefits of batteries

Battery-operated tools are more sustainable, and they do not rely on fossil fuel. They also do not produce carbon emissions, and they are not as noisy. Another benefit to a battery-operated tool is not having to replace spark plugs and carburetors, as well as not having to mix fuels, or deal with the smell of fuel odors. They are also safer because they do not have the idle mode like the gas-powered options do. This means that if the operator takes his or her finger off the trigger, the machine automatically turns off. This ensures the safety of both the operator and the machine. Another safety factor is that operators do not have to store fuel in a closed trailer.

Battery-operated tools also require less maintenance because they do not have as many parts to maintain, including exhaust ports, carburetors, air filters, and spark plugs. Another maintenance issue that battery-operated tools do not face is a clogged muffler. This is a common problem with two-cycle equipment. This is typically the result of improper mixing of the gas and oil. Different types of equipment require different mixing ratios. So if workers are used to buying an oil that uses 2 ounces of oil per gallon of gasoline and then happen to switch to a type where it is only supposed to get 1 ounce and still put in 2 ounces, the equipment will be in trouble. It is like running a car without oil: It may be able to get running again, but the damage to the engine is done.This obviously is not a problem when using battery-operated tools.

As the products continue to evolve, manufacturers are going to offer more features on battery-operated tools than their gas-powered counterparts. This is a multi-billion-dollar industry, so any grounds care maintenance companies like ours eventually replace the engines on their commercial vehicles. And as the gas-powered vehicles are replaced with batteries or other sustainable options, crews will not be spilling gas anymore, and it will have a positive impact on the environment.

The challenges they pose

Even though the benefits of battery-powered tools are clear and they are certainly the environmentally friendly option, they do come with their own unique challenges. The batteries do not last forever, so charging them in the field can be difficult. And while operators typically have a fuel gauge on a gasoline-powered tool to see when it is nearing empty, battery-powered tools do not have that, so they die without giving a warning. If the battery on an operator’s tool dies, he or she may have to return to the truck to get a new one, and then go back to the area he or she was working on and finish the task.

Since the batteries are often heavy, it is unrealistic to assume that the operator will have the backup battery with them. As the batteries themselves are expensive, it is an added expense to have backup batteries on hand to switch out. While replacing the batteries can take time, the argument can be made that some batteries may last the same amount of time as the run time for gasoline-powered engines per tank of fuel. So by replacing the battery, you have eliminated trips to the gas station.

Other factors to consider

When purchasing battery-operated tools, it is important to understand how the batteries work and what they need. One way of thinking about it is that the amps are like the battery’s horsepower, and the volts are like the size of the gas tank. Users will need to know what the tools have because the amps and volts will affect the power and run time. Also, know how many cycles the battery has. This will let operators know how many times it can be charged again before it has to be replaced. It is also important to know how long it takes to recharge the battery. Does it need hours to recharge or just 45 minutes?

Another important factor that buyers should consider when looking for battery-powered tools is their price. Buyers should realize that it is important to price these products without including the cost of the battery. Think of the price of the battery as the price of fuel and oil; the fuel savings is what will offset the cost of the battery, not to mention the money that will be saved on maintenance.

Advancements in tools

Manufacturers are working on creative solutions to charging batteries in the field. Options we have heard about include installing solar panels on the roofs of trailers. This will help charge the batteries while the operator is performing his or her tasks. When the battery dies, he or she can return to the truck to get the backup battery and charge the dead one. Another option is to find an energy source that allows for battery charging.

The industry is also trying to experiment with how much power these tools really need to perform their jobs. If they can manufacture the tools to use less power, the batteries will last longer. The more power the operator needs, the less run time they will have. The average run time for a battery is 20-45 minutes. This means the operator would either need to carry a backup battery with them physically, have it on the truck, or carry multiple tools for the same job. It is challenging trying to find a balance between power and run time. The more time you get, the less power you have. But it is getting better, and I believe we will continue to see advancements in this area.

There are several exciting tools on the horizon that grounds managers should be on the lookout for. For example, last year I saw a hedge trimmer that came with a visor that goes on the operator’s head, allowing him or her to see how they pruned their left side so they can match their right side. It looked more like a lightsaber than a traditional trimmer. There are also unmanned, robotic mowers that are programmed to cut turfgrass. It usually involves setting up a perimeter wire around the property. The mower then leaves its docking station and moves about your property as it mows. While these options can be expensive, they can address one of the limiting factors in our industry, which is labor. There is often a shortage of labor, and these robotic options can help tackle that issue.

Regardless of how elaborate or simple the tool you end up choosing is, there is no denying the benefits they offer. Battery-operated tools have the power to help shape how landscape maintenance is performed in the future, while also minimizing the impact on the environment.

Mike Fitzpatrick is vice president of U.S. Lawns, which has more than 260 franchises nationwide. He has more than 30 years of experience in the green industry.