For many years, professional technicians have relied on pneumatic power tools to loosen stubborn bolts, disassemble and reassemble parts, and to perform a variety of tasks in the shop. Pneumatic impact wrenches and air ratchets have saved countless hours of labor and busted knuckles on everything from brake and suspension repairs to replacing head gaskets, water pumps, engines, clutches and transmissions. And where would a body shop be without their pneumatic polishers, buffers, grinders and air chisels?
Well, now there’s a new kid on the block that’s challenging pneumatics in the shop. It’s cordless electric power tools. Thanks to advances in long life, high power lithium-ion battery technology, smart power management and more powerful and efficient brushless electric motors, many brand name cordless power tools can now compete successfully with most pneumatic tools. Increased battery capacities that now range from 4.0 amps up to 9.0 amps can deliver significantly longer run times (2X to 4X) than cordless tools of only a few years ago. That means you get a day’s work out of a single charge in many situations. Even if you have to swap battery packs, it’s no big deal because most users who go cordless also buy one or more extra battery packs. Battery recharge times with a fast charger are often 30 minutes or less, which is far better than the old NiCad batteries that took hours to recharge and might give you 20 to 30 minutes of run time before they ran out of juice.
One of the ways cordless tool manufacturers are getting more out of their battery packs is by using higher capacity, next generation lithium-ion cells. Some manufacturers have also added an additional row of cells inside their battery packs to increase capacity up to 30% or more over a two-row, 10-cell battery pack.
Some cordless tool manufacturers have kept their tool and battery voltage ratings the same over the years so users can use the latest generation of high output battery packs on their existing tools. Others have made their old tools and batteries obsolete by introducing higher voltage tools and batteries (no backward compatibility).
An important point to keep in mind with respect to cordless tool voltage ratings is that you can get the same performance out of an 18-volt tool and battery as you can a 20-volt, 24-volt or 36-volt tool and battery. A higher voltage system may deliver more power initially, but the trade-off given the same total amp capacity of the battery pack is shorter run time. It all depends on the type of lithium-ion cells in the battery pack, how they are wired together, how the current flows into the tool, and how efficiently the motor inside the tool converts the current into torque.
More than one technician who has made the switch from pneumatics to cordless said they would never go back to the “old fashioned way” of doing things.
One of the main advantages of going cordless is that it eliminates the need for air hoses and an air compressor. Hoses can be clumsy to maneuver, and they can easily catch under tires when you drag them around a vehicle. Hoses can create a tripping hazard for you, other technicians or customers in the shop. They can be pinched under a lift, or be punctured by dragging against sharp edges, and if carelessly drug across a fender, they may scuff the paint. You also have to roll them up after every use. Air compressors also have to be drained at the end of every day (unless you want the tank to rust out), and the air supply system requires a certain amount of maintenance (filters and oil supply). Go cordless and you get rid of all of that.
Less noise is another advantage of going cordless say technicians who have made the switch. How many times have you had a phone call or conversation with a customer interrupted by a noisy compressor or air tool? Impact wrenches are one of the loudest tools in a shop (and air drills, air grinders, air polishers and air sanders). Letting electrons do the work instead of airflow cuts the racket considerably. It’s an improvement your ears will appreciate because exposure to excessive decibels over a long period of time can cause hearing loss.
Portability is another huge advantage for cordless power tools. You can take the tools anywhere without needing a compressor or power outlet. Any shop that makes emergency road service calls for tire repairs, services fleet vehicles outdoors or at remote locations, or removes used parts from vehicles in a salvage yard will appreciate the versatility and utility of a cordless impact wrench. Old rusty fasteners can be nearly impossible to loosen and remove without the forceful persuasion of an impact wrench.
Many “full-size” 1/2” cordless impact wrenches can generate well over 700 ft.-lbs. of torque (some as high as 1,600 ft.-lbs. of peak break-away torque!). Even the smaller 3/8” impact wrenches or “compact” 1/2” can deliver several hundred ft.-lbs. of torque, which is often more than enough to remove lug nuts, axle nuts and suspension fasteners.
There are numerous YouTube videos reviewing various cordless tools and what they can do. If you’re not convinced cordless is a viable alternative to pneumatics, watching some of these videos will probably change your mind.
If you do decide to try a cordless power tool, go with a reputable brand name product and you won’t be disappointed. Quality manufacturers back their products with a multi-year warranty and will honor their warranty if something fails as a result of normal use. That’s not the case with inferior “no-name” bargain-priced cordless tools. Many of these turn out to be no bargain at all because they can’t deliver the same kind of performance, run times or durability as their better known competitors.