Power up

Electric equipment is taking a stand alongside gas-powered tools with more power, longer run times and commercial-grade construction.

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With noise pollution restrictions in some regions and fuel emissions a constant hot button in some states, electric outdoor power equipment is perhaps more attractive to the landscape contractor.

“We get a lot of landscapers who call us up and their customers have done the research and want electric products used on their properties,” says Zach Mersch, inside sales manager with Mean Green Mowers.

Meanwhile, advances in lithium ion batteries and motor technology are giving commercial users the power and run time they expect from equipment, says Andrew Lentz, product manager with Milwaukee Tool.

Lentz refers to a cordless string trimmer as an example. “Five years ago, it (had) a smaller cutting swatch and could do a half-acre maximum,” he says. “Now, you can get a full-sized 60-inch cutting swath running at 6,000 rpm and when they dig into thicker brush, it will maintain that speed.”

Advances in electric equipment are bringing more options to the market, and commercial power equipment manufacturers are dedicating R&D dollars to developing electric equipment lines, meaning investments in engineering and resources.

“This is a giant shift for the industry,” says Brian Manke, product manager with STIHL. “Instead of going with incremental improvements to gasoline products, having the market shift from gasoline to electric is a big change, so it’s going to be interesting to watch.”

Gas-powered equipment is still the industry go-to, but more landscapers are inquiring about electric products. “When you talk about the features and capacity of an electric trimmer, most people are like, ‘Wow. Really?’” says Christian Johnsson, product manager with Husqvarna, North America. “It’s all about getting the potential customer to test out the product in their environment for a day or two.”

Addressing the objections.

Less vibration, less noise and greater comfort are reasons some commercial users say they prefer electric products, particularly in the hand-held category.

Johnsson says arborists, in particular, have been the first to embrace Husqvarna’s electric hedge trimmer. “They can be up in the tree and they don’t have to pull a cord to start the equipment. They push a button and they’re good to go.”

Lentz adds, “There’s no mixing oil, no pulling the cord. That’s the feedback we’re getting. Many cite health reasons, emissions. And the other thing is maintenance and noise, and emissions.

“Operating expense is another subset, and gasoline is one of the highest expenses and can fluctuate drastically versus a cordless machine,” Lentz says. “We hear, ‘I can take this equipment off of my trailer and get to work immediately without mixing gas, pouring, pulling cords. I’m from trailer to grass in less than 10 seconds.’”

Can that be true? That’s what commercial users have been asking for some time with their main objections to electric equipment being power, run time and cost. “With the new technology, there are a lot of questions unanswered,” says Tyler Delin, assistant product manager with DeWalt. “One is the believability that the power will keep up with their pace of work.”

Power: This is one area where electric equipment has advanced in the last couple of years. “We are talking bigger batteries with more watt hours, more run time and power, and bigger brushless motors that are getting into higher performance levels and, in some cases, on par with gas performance,” Delin says.

Johnsson notes that hand-held electric products go through the same rigorous field testing as gas-powered models. “We have the same standards when we develop electric products and test them in the field and laboratory,” he says.

Mersch compares the power supply of today’s electric mower line to the first riding mower it introduced about 10 years ago that ran on a lead acid battery. The battery weighed about 800 pounds and ran for two hours. Today’s lithium ion battery weighs 330 pounds and runs for up to seven hours.

A hedge trimmer could be the first product commercial users adopt as a gas-powered alternative because it requires less torque.
Photo courtesy of Stanley Black & Decker

Gray Abercrombie, director of marketing, Greenworks Tools, speaks to the increase in voltage and amp hours the industry has seen during the last five years. “Before, the largest battery platform available was a 40-volt lithium battery, and those batteries were good for consumers, but they were inferior in providing commercial users the power and run time they needed to tackle their jobs,” he says.

Today, an 82-volt battery changes the picture entirely. “We are also building the equipment with commercial specifications, so you are seeing steel deck construction (for mowers) and tools that can stand up to the usage,” he says.

Run time: In the mower segment, in particular, commercial users are discerning about run time. Can a cordless product spend the day in the field? The Mean Green CXR60 solar assisted mower (SAM) runs six and half to seven hours, Mersch says.

Delin says some commercial users will tend to overestimate run time demands when considering the batteries they need.

“We get this all the time, where a customer is trying to figure out how much run time and they say, ‘I’ll need 20 batteries,’ and then they go through the whole day with five or six,” he says.

“It’s hard to wrap your head around run time and how much time you are actually on the trigger over the course of the day,” Delin says.

But with advances in lithium ion batteries, commercial users can be on the trigger all day and still take advantage of the benefits cordless equipment offers by way of lower emissions, and greater comfort with less vibration.

Related to run time, landscapers should consider uptime. “If you’ve got an (electric) product that sits during the off season for several months, you can pick it up in the spring and it just starts, there are no issues,” Manke says.

Lentz says since launching a cordless line in 2007, power output has increased up to five times versus models from a decade ago. “When we talk about cordless, we have three key components,” he says.

“First is the motor, second is the battery and third is the electronics that control everything. There has been an evolution in all three of these components over the last 10 years.”

Cost: The sticker price is a deterrent for some landscape contractors, who recognize they’ll pay about one-third more for a piece of electric equipment. “But they don’t realize how much they’ll save,” Delin says, adding that the battery is an upfront cost.

DeWalt conducted a case study to determine the cost of running an electric versus gas-powered hand-held piece of equipment.

“Over the course of the life of the batteries – three to four years – one saw $2,800 in savings and the other saw $3,300 in savings because they were not paying for gas, oil, stabilizer and other maintenance,” Delin says. They paid about $800 more on the day of purchase for the cordless equipment.

“When you buy a gas product, you buy the product ‘empty,’ so to speak,” Johnsson says. “When you buy a battery product, you buy a battery or two and charger, so it’s like buying a year’s supply of gas.

“It’s a different mindset. You need to understand you are basically paying for the fuel upfront.”

A market niche or power change movement?

Where is the industry headed with cordless equipment? Will it ever replace the gold standard gas-powered machines?

Manke says on the hand-held side, “You’ll definitely see it. For the average string trimmer and hedge trimmer needs, there is no reason that battery can’t totally replace gas someday.”

Johnsson says there will still be a need for gas-driven products for certain equipment (such as mowers). “But for sure we will see a shift toward battery,” he says.

He expects the hedge trimmer to be a first product that commercial users will adopt as a gas-powered alternative because it requires less torque.

A benefit of electric equipment design is the ability to “move components around” to be more ergonomic, Johnsson says. Gas-powered motors have lots of moving parts: pistons, crankshafts.

They all have to be in a certain position in the engine box for the machine to work. “We have to build (the equipment) around that,” he says.

“If you look at the battery-driven pole saw, you have a motor up by the bar and chain, so it’s easier to balance,” Johnsson adds.

Meanwhile, we are seeing mowers enter the market that run on battery from Mean Green and Greenworks. The latter unveiled a ZTR at the GIE+EXPO in October 2016 that will go on sales this fall.

Abercrombie says he sees a slower move toward electric equipment in the commercial market compared to consumer. “We have seen a double-digit increase in marketshare of consumers who are adopting the use of battery power at the expense of gas,” he says.

One thing that is not lacking across the board is innovation – and change. “No one can predict the future,” Manke says. “But it’s definitely going to be exciting.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.

July 2017
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