Electrical work can't be done without the right tools. As basic tools have been improved over the years and new specialized tools are developed, the list of tool choices for electricians becomes even longer.

Even so, there's a short list of “must have” tools that every electrician needs-indeed, cannot do without-regardless of the type of electrical work he or she does. What are those tools? And has the list changed significantly in recent years?

We asked Graybar, a North American provider of electrical tools, telecommunications tools and service solutions, to identify the tools electrical contractors buy more than any other for electrical work--power testers and VDV tools and testers are not included in this report.

“There's no question that today's electrical contractor must be more versatile than ever, and to tackle a variety of jobs with efficiency and ease, electricians need an arsenal of hand and power tools,” said Dennis Rees, Graybar tool product specialist.

However, to avoid being loaded down with too many tools, choices must be made wisely.

Rees explained: “It is easier to narrow down tool options by recognizing that the most essential hand and power tools fall into distinct categories. That's how we've organized our list of 'Tools Most Commonly Used by Today's Electricians.' Whether buying tools for the first time or replacing well-worn favorites, these tool selections can help electricians work smarter.”

Graybar's Top Tools List includes the following:

• Pliers

• Screwdrivers and nut drivers

• Wire strippers

• Fishing tools

• Measuring devices

• Labeling machines

• Power drills and drivers, hammer/drills

• Power saws

HAND TOOLS

“Every electrician needs basic hand tools to perform everyday tasks,” said Rees. “Fortunately, today's basics are better than older models, providing more comfort and safety than their predecessors. Manufacturers have made tools more 'ergonomically correct,' and improved designs help cut down on hand and wrist injuries often caused by repetitive movement. Plus, they make it easier to perform the same motion over and over because the tools just feel more comfortable. While today's designs may provide more safety and comfort, they're still the basic hand tools electricians have been using for years.”

Pliers

Two of the most common tools an electrician can't work without are side-cutting pliers and long-nose or needle-nose pliers, Rees said.

According to Rees, Klein is the most recognized hand tool name in the electrical industry, and Graybar stocks several models of Klein pliers to suit individual preferences and tasks. Graybar's top sellers include classic models such as the high-leverage side-cutting pliers for heavy-duty cutting and connector crimping, and six-inch long-nose pliers. However, the company has seen increases in sales of the ergonomic Journeyman series introduced about three years ago. These tools have contoured and cushioned handles that feature a pliable outer surface and hard, black inner material providing a more comfortable grip without sacrificing tool strength and durability. They also have a contoured thumb area and a flared thumb rest that further improves their feel and gripping power.

Screwdrivers and nut drivers

Electricians need several screwdrivers and nut drivers to work with various types of fasteners and applications. For electricians who want one tool that adapts to many uses, Graybar sells Klein's 10-in-1 screwdriver/nut driver set with numbers 1 and 2 Phillips; 1/4-inch, 3/16-inch slotted, 5/16-inch and 1/4-inch nut drivers; numbers 10 and 15 TORX; and numbers 1 and 2 square-recess bits. Everything fits into the same chrome-plated, heat-treated shaft with a comfortable cushion-grip handle. Replacement bits are available.

Wire strippers

In this category, Ideal Industries' T-Stripper line of wire strippers is a top seller at Graybar.

“They have been an industry standard for almost 50 years,” said Rees. “Best sellers are the Reflex wire stripper and the T-Stripper. The Kinetic Reflex T-Stripper is a strong new addition to the line.”

Ergonomic designs are one reason for their popularity. Curved handles are designed to fit an electrician's natural grip and reduce repetitive motion fatigue. Non-slip Santoprene textured grips provide more control. A thumb guide promotes comfort while focusing kinetic energy for faster wire stripping.

Fish tapes and poles

Fish tapes: The Ideal Tuff-Grip line of fish tapes is a strong seller at Graybar.

Handles on impact-resistant cases are large and comfortable, so a secure grip can be maintained, even when wearing work gloves. Tape materials are suited to any type of job.

Graybar's best sellers are the versions with fiberglass tape for working around live circuits and the steel tape for everyday use in longer runs with few bends. The Zoom tape is suited for shorter runs of small-diameter conduits. Omni-directional round cable design makes easy work of multibend applications.

Fish poles: Fish pole wire-installation tools facilitate wire pulling in drop ceilings, down walls or under raised floors. Graybar offers several Greenlee models, including the 12- and 24-foot Fish Stix kits and the new 15-foot Glo Stix that glows for better visibility in dark environments. The lightweight design makes them easier to use than heavier models.

Measuring devices

Laser measuring tools are becoming more popular, but no electrician's tool belt is without a basic tape for simple measurements. Those with rare earth magnetic tips that stick to iron and steel surfaces permit fast, one-person measurements. Big sellers at Graybar are Klein's Power-Return Rule, available in 16-, 25-, and 30-foot versions. A 25-foot double-sided version (without magnetic tip) facilitates taking measurements from below. Power-Return Rules have two-step lock control: the first step slows blade retraction, and the second step holds the blade securely.

Labeling machines

Properly labeling work at installation saves time when making moves, adds and changes, and handheld labeling tools speed this important step. The capability of printing bar codes, graphics memory to sort and recall lists, and compatibility with PCs increases the versatility of today's labeling tools. A wide range of labeling materials includes wire and cable markers; panel, rack and frame ID; facilities labels; and specialty labels. Best sellers at Graybar are the Brady IDXPERT handheld labeling tool with electric keyboard style, which makes quality labels that stick on tough and curved surfaces, and the Panduit handheld thermal-transfer printer.

POWER TOOLS

Whether corded or cordless, today's power tools pack more power in smaller, lightweight models. Ergonomic consideration makes today's tools easier and safer to use.

“Cordless power tools,” Rees said, “are enjoying greater acceptance because tool designs and recent improvements in battery and charger technology make them more convenient and versatile, making workers more productive.”

The most-used power tools for electricians are saws and drills, including hammer/drills.

Power drills

Every electrician uses drills, but the type of tool needed varies with the application-what is essential for one worker isn't necessarily needed by another. The power required depends on the material being drilled. For fastening work, a lower-voltage cordless model might be used; for drilling into concrete, a hammer/drill provides more impact and can drill more holes faster.

Multipurpose tools reduce the number of tools needed on a job, and a Graybar top seller is the DeWalt heavy-duty XRP 18-volt cordless hammer drill/drill/driver kit. The kit comes with two batteries, a charger and carrying case. Popular features include long battery run time, maximum torque from the high-efficiency motor, superior ergonomics, and metal ratcheting chuck with carbide jaws to prevent bits from slipping or falling out.

Saws

As with drills, the type of power saw needed by electricians varies with the job at hand. Because of versatility and dependability, handheld reciprocating saws are one of the most popular classes of power-saw equipment. Spiral saws perform the same tasks as reciprocating saws, but instead of a blade, they cut with a bit with downward, parabolic fluting. Other types of saws used for electrical work include hole saws, cut-off saws and portable band saws.

Rees said the Milwaukee Deep Cut portable band saw is Graybar's bestselling saw. “You can't beat the performance of a corded band saw. To make a lot of clean cuts in metal, optimum speed and extended high performance are necessary, and that demands a steady power source that only an outlet can provide,” Rees said.

The tool has a six-amp motor and uses standard 44 7/8-by-1/2-inch-by-.02-inch band saw blades for cutting rectangular stock to sizes of 4 3/4-by-4 3/4 inches and 4 3/4-inch round stock.

“The types of tools that are today's top sellers are the same as they were five years ago, and will probably be the same five years from now, but with marked improvements,” said Rees. “That's because electrical contractors have developed proven installation methods, and they need a specific set of tools to perform them.”

Graybar, a Fortune 500 corporation, distributes electrical, telecommunications and networking products and provides related supply-chain management and logistics services. Graybar operates at more than 250 distribution facilities throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico. EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.