electrical contractor: Mr. Employer, what would your electricians say if you asked “what improvements would you like to see in your hand tools?”

mr. employer: Do you mean everyday tools like screwdrivers and pliers and co-ax crimpers? How could anyone build a better mousetrap?

electrical contractor: How about a battery-operated crimper?

mr. employer: No way! You need hydraulics or electricity to do the big jobs.

electrical contractor: Not any more...

That’s right: Just when it seemed tool manufacturers had reached the edge of the envelope in the design of hand tools, the horizon has expanded again. These days, and in the foreseeable future, the definition of hand tools will be broadened to fit any manual or battery-operated tool that an electrician can operate alone.

As Mike Greenawalt of Rosendin Electric in Phoenix, Ariz., said, “The battery-powered crimping tool was huge! Look at it this way: we’ve gone from a hydraulic pump that took two people to operate, to an electric pump that still took one-and-a-half guys, to a tool operated by one guy.

“These tools are paying for themselves.” Fifteen years ago, “battery-operated” referred mostly to the toys we gave the kids at Christmas, while we were lugging bales of extension cords around job sites. The environment changed, permanently, with the introduction of the first battery-operated screwdriver, as if manufacturers woke up one day and realized that the tool field needed invigorating.

Ed Midden of Mansfield Electric in Springfield, Conn., said, “We need to keep our labor force empowered with energy by providing tools that reduce the fatigue factor, or do more than one thing.”

It doesn’t take major breakthroughs to simplify the life of the contractor. Midden cited two examples: “We found a simple induction heater that is used to heat two-inch PVC when we need to shape bends. Old style heaters required a babysitter, or the pipe would burn up. This one doesn’t. We also found a true RMS meter that measures 60-cycles and registers harmonics. Little things like that add up.”

So here’s what you can expect in the future: a growing emphasis on the weight of tools, more power and better durability. Also, portability, safety and ergonomics. Lastly, methods of converting tools from single to multipurpose instruments.

However, Alan Sipe, senior VP of sales at Klein Tools, asked, “How do you improve a pair of pliers that have been in the marketplace since the 1800s?”

His answer: “We’re are using materials in handles built to take abuse that are easier on the hands. In some cases we are using the same material used in the wheels of a skateboard. A great development has been the use of Robertson tips, which replaced traditional Phillip’s heads.”

As Don Thomas of Cinco Electric, Glen Burnie, Md., said, “Major breakthroughs have been made in the safety area. Hand tools have better insulation for situations where we’re working with live circuits.

“A tapered ‘unibit’ allows us to cut from 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch hole without changing bits. A strong, lightweight fiberglass ladder that replaces wood will last longer, and is easier to haul around. We just found harnesses with shock absorption that softens the blow in a fall. Sometimes the sudden jolt from stopping can be more dangerous than the fall.”

Dewalt’s new quick-change hacksaws have two time-saving features.

“A quick-change trigger allows you to swap blades by squeezing the hand grip, which is now constructed with a removable hand guard that adds protection at the end of a cut, when injury is most likely to occur. And, the frame holds five spare blades,” said Brian Kagen of Dewalt. Plus, a cam in the frame allows the blade to be extended forward, so it can also be used as a jab saw.

Tom Smith, group manager at Milwaukee Tools, said, “The keys are ergonomics, compressing size so it is easier to work in small areas, and weight and balance.

“We replaced the aluminum in tool bodies with magnesium, which allows us to use thinner wall bodies without compromising strength or durability. Our old portable saw weighed 11.5 pounds, the new saw weighs 10.4 pounds.”

From an ergonomic standpoint, “The key is a synthetic material that offers a softer grip over a cold-molded housing that is still tactile, so the user still has positive contact with the tool,” he said.

Dennis Rees, National Product Specialist for Graybar, operates at the midpoint between manufacturer and user. Graybar supplies contractors at 250 locations.

“Two of the most important features are comfort and durability. Contractors work may not be as repetitive as a carpenter slinging a hammer a thousand times, but an uncomfortable handle can make a job more difficult, or result in poor workmanship.

“As a result, grips are being designed anatomically, with longer grips that produce more leverage. Batteries also are being produced with multiple orientation, so drills are easier to use in tight spaces, and better-balanced. They are producing 18 and 24V of power, but that’s the point at which weight becomes a fatigue factor.”

To that end, Shane Moll of Dewalt said the company’s new impact drivers and wrenches “have three times as much torque as older models, are offered with three power ratings, and are cordless.” The 9.6V model impact driver produces 900 inch-pounds of torque; the 14.4V impact wrench 1,550 inch pounds of torque.

“They also have better shock-absorbing properties,” he said, a function of an impact mechanism consisting of a spring and cam that should eliminate 90 percent of the shock. The new tools also are 30 percent shorter than their predecessors and better balanced.

As Jim Eisele, senior product manager at Greenlee, said, “The next trend is to find more multiple-use options for the same basic units so that contractors can avoid having to spend large sums for tools used infrequently.” On the drawing board is a 14-inch crimper weighing three pounds that replaces a 10-pound unit; gear drives will be replaced by friction drive.

One additional consideration: Bruce W. Hartranft of Ideal Industries said, “Quality is becoming more important. Some ‘retail’ brands have lifetime warranties, but the tools don’t fulfill the promise of professional use, breaking down quickly when applied to the rigors of an industrial work environment. What’s the value of a lifetime warranty if you’re spending your lifetime getting replacements?”

The bottom line: there’s no conflict between manufacturers’ goals of selling more products, and contractors’ goals of having better products without price increases. You can expect that newer products will increase productivity in several ways, some of which are not entirely measurable or obvious. EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at hrscrk@mcn.net.