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Purchasing a cordless drill

by Leon A. Frechette

With so many choices, it's difficult to find and purchase the right tool. It will be even more confusing when tool manufacturers reach their goal of having all their electric-designed tools on batteries. Actually, it took me quite a while to decide to buy my first cordless drill because I had a mental block about using a battery vs. 120 volts of pure power. I know from personal experience as I test manufacturers' cordless tools that they are not designed to replace electric tools. Both have their place in home improvement projects.

Battery life

Today's cordless models can certainly give electric-powered tools a run for their money. The new high-capacity batteries, like the Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) extend running time over Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) batteries by 25 to 50 percent, depending on environmental and working conditions between charges. NiCad batteries hold their charges better between uses and work at lower temperatures. On the other hand, NiMH batteries are better for the environment because they contain no cadmium or mercury.

Of course, the new "smart" chargers really help manage battery life. They can correctly charge a battery in an hour or less, even if the batteries are hot from use, because they pulse the charge into the battery. A microprocessor inside the charger senses when each cell is fully charged, so the charger no longer relies on battery temperature to judge if charging is complete. This minimizes heat buildup so batteries last longer.

Bosch's Bluecore battery system can recharge a battery in 30 minutes and its NiCad battery has cooling rods positioned between the pack's individual cells to help cool the battery and allow it to function at optimal levels. Users can expect up to 50 percent longer battery life over previous Bosch batteries.

Milwaukee offers their new V28 Lithium Ion power tools system. Its 28-volt battery delivers up to 40 to 50 percent more power, and they claim it has twice the run time of a traditional 18-volt model, yet the battery weighs slightly less.

Meet your needs

As you shop for a cordless drill, be realistic about your needs so you don't buy one too small or too large. They range in price from $79 to $1,200 and are rated from consumer to professional, depending on the package the manufacturer offers, from a 2.4-volt cordless screwdriver to a 36-volt cordless rotary hammerdrill. Cordless drills can run up to two times the cost of an electric drill depending on the model and its features.

Be sure you check out placement of the reverse lever switch. Can you easily activate this switch with your index finger only or do you need to use your index finger and thumb, (a one-handed operation)? I have found in most cases it is easier to activate the lever if you support the front of the drill with your opposite hand.

Keyed or keyless chuck?

Another area of concern is whether you prefer a keyed or keyless chuck. The chuck is the part of the drill that holds the bit; it may or may not require a key to loosen and tighten it so you can change drill bits.

For everyday projects, a keyless chuck works great. I prefer a keyed chuck if I am working in metal because I can tighten the jaws around the bit so it won't slip, provided I use all three holes in the chuck. However, for drilling into metal, I recommend that you use an electric drill. Finding a keyed chuck on the market may be a challenge.

If you are considering a drill with a keyless chuck, specifically consider the upper sleeve and the chuck ring, the areas that you grab with both hands to tighten or loosen the jaws around the bit. You don't want to hold the chuck with one hand and start the drill with the other in order to tighten the chuck jaws. Keyless chucks come in different combinations of materials and textures, and the chuck ring comes in different sizes, depending on the make and model. Handle the tools and operate the chucks to find a combination that is comfortable.

I prefer a wide chuck ring because it offers more surface area to hold. Also check out the materials and textures. I like an outer sleeve and a chuck ring made from knurled metal. Another good feature is a chuck completely encased in rubber. Both styles of chucks deliver great gripping surfaces. Most common are plastic chucks with recessed grooves, but they have a tendency to slip in your hands as you tighten the chuck.

Hand placement

Consider hand placement. Cordless drills come with both pistol grip handles and mid handles. Finding the right tool for you will depend on the size of your hand and the size and weight of the tool.

A mid handle helps distribute the weight of the tool but a pistol grip delivers more pressure right behind the chuck, which helps when drilling into harder materials. This depends on your being able to comfortably raise your hand high up on the housing so either your middle or ring finger is on the trigger switch. At the same time, I want the option of lowering my hand down the pistol grip so only my index finger is on the trigger switch. Again, handle the drills to find the best fit.

Be sure to check out placement of the reverse lever switch. If it is designed for one-handed operation, you should be able to easily activate it with your index finger or the index finger and thumb of one hand. I find it easier to activate the lever if I support the front of the drill with my other hand.

Are you buying just a drill?

Many drills today are sold as drill/drivers, which means they can drill pilot holes and drive fasteners. I believe that this type of drill should be used for drilling holes and occasional fastening, but not for everyday use such as installing deck screws. An electrical screw gun or cordless impact driver is better designed for this activity.

Some manufacturers sell a drill/driver with multiple torque settings but you probably won't need more than six settings and most likely will not use more than three settings. It is purely a marketing scheme to sell the product.

Battery issues

Your final consideration should be the battery. Bigger is not always better. I encourage you to handle the tool, especially one with a battery in place. For general projects, a 9.6-volt to a 12-volt (or a 14.4-volt) drill will handle most of your needs. An 18-volt or 24-volt cordless drill can be heavy, and may even feel a little off balance. A 24-volt battery can weigh up to 3 or more pounds (depending on the manufacturer)—and that's a lot of weight. If you want more power, then turn to an electric drill. They cost a lot less and you'll get constant power.

If the unit you are considering for purchase is not offered with a second battery, then purchase one so you will always have a battery charged and ready for use. The life of the battery is the biggest problem with cordless tools. It never fails—just as you start a project, the battery dies and you reach for the backup battery only to realize it's dead because it wasn't charged from the last project. It's easy to waste a lot of time waiting for a battery to recharge.

Be aware that the second battery is expensive. I recommend that you wait until the manufacturer offers a kit with a second battery as it will probably be less expensive to purchase a kit with two batteries than to purchase a kit with one battery and a second battery independently.

Read the warranty

A cordless drill is not the type of tool I recommend purchasing online. Each manufacturer has its own warranty, so it's important to read the warranty card supplied with the unit before purchasing.

Be sure to check out the return policy to learn where to take the tool if warranty work is required. Sometimes you have to send it back to the manufacturer, and sometimes you can just return it to the place of purchase. If you're lucky, the brand will have a local service center.

Finally, consider that less expensive drills may have more plastic parts inside while higher-end drills will feature all-metal gears and roller bearings and other high-quality parts. Also, some drills are designed and manufactured to survive without damage an accidental fall from a height of one story or more, something that occasionally happens.

I hope the information contained in this article will help you to select the right cordless drill for your next project. These tools are handy, but, as mentioned earlier, have their place and should not be purchased to replace an electric drill. Consider purchasing one of each (cordless and electric) so you're ready for whatever home improvement projects come along.

Copyright © 2005 & 2006 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved.

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