Compact Power Tools

Installers of alarm, surveillance and control systems use special tools designed for low-voltage copper and fiber work, but they also often need conventional tools used by electricians and other trades.


The lithium-ion revolution in power tools has brought a wide selection of lightweight, downsized drills, saws and accessories needed for a variety of integrated systems technician tasks.


“Compact 12V power tools are the optimal solution for installers and maintenance professionals, especially those that specialize in installation and maintenance of control systems,” said Jim Bohn, director of product development, Bosch Tools. “Drill/drivers, impact drivers and screwdrivers are small enough to literally fit into a pocket but have more than enough power to drive large fasteners. One-handed reciprocating saws have more than enough power to cut conduit or make plunge cuts in light demo work. Oscillating tools and the latest carbide-tipped blades can cut anything from wood to metal, making precise cuts in place.”


Bohn said these tools are lightweight, compact and ideally suited for overhead work. Integrated lights make work easier to perform in dark areas such as work closets, cabinets or crawl spaces and attics. The addition of brushless motors has increased tool life and run time, leading to better efficiency and overall value of the tool investment.


Downsized tools offer an impressive power-­to-weight ratio that never was possible to achieve before lithium-ion batteries.


“Battery packs are nearly one-third the size of historic 12V NiCad battery packs, and they also hold more energy,” Bohn said. “Amp-hour ratings have increased for more run time, and future increases are on the horizon. This adds up to more than enough run time to work all day. Adding a lithium-ion 4.0 Ah [ampere-hour] dual battery doubles run time while still keeping the tool compact and lightweight. These packs are the perfect complement to the installer go-anywhere work environment.”


Cutting accessories were developed specifically for these compact tool models.


“Smaller diameter spade bits power through wood for running cable and wire through studs,” Bohn said. “Bit tips are optimized for various types of fasteners with hardened tips and magnetized options. Short recip bits sized to fit one-handed recips cut everything from woods and plastics to metals, and carbide-tipped oscillating blades now cut more than ever before, including hardened steel.”


Compact Bosch lithium-ion-powered accessories include 12V flashlights that have output of 300 lumens and can be positioned nearly anywhere with an integrated magnet, pivoting body and hook. To assist in quick cleanup, especially after service calls or minor repairs that require demolition, a new, compact 12V one-handed vacuum cleaner features a microfilter and convenient translucent dust container.


Bosch also has introduced a wireless battery charging system for cordless tools using inductive-­energy transfer to produce charging current, similar to, but much more powerful than, chargers for electric toothbrushes. The company’s GLM 15 laser-measuring tool fits in a pocket and provides accurate measurements to 50 feet with simple one-button operation.


DeWalt Group Product Manager Jason Brodbeck said 12V subcompact tools are the smallest and lightest cordless tools on the market. He said that subcompact drills, impact drivers and lighting products are most relevant to integrated system installations.


“Higher capacity lithium-ion tool battery packs are driving increased run time and power,” Brodbeck said. “Power tool manufacturers often offer compact 1.5 and 2.0 Ah packs that are roughly equivalent in size and weight to premium 3.0, 4.0 and 5.0 Ah packs.


“The battery Ah rating drives tool run time [gas tank size] while battery Ah rating/energy density [gas octane rating] allows for Ah pack increases without increasing size and weight because they pack more energy into each cell. Higher Ah cells typically also are lower impedance [current flow/power], generating more power to the tool with overall improved cold-weather performance.


Brodbeck said when more power is needed, 20V models are available in packages that still are compact and lightweight. Tools that apply to this market are drills, hammer drills, right-angle drills, impact drivers, SDS+ rotary hammers and lighting products.


“Compact 20V tools have a primary focus on ergonomics, typically using smaller 1.5 or 2.0 Ah packs, while premium tools’ main focus is durability, typically including larger 3.0, 4.0, [or] 5.0 Ah packs for maximum power and run time,” he said. 


In addition to lithium-ion power, brushless motors contribute to the power and productivity of today’s compact tools.


“Brushless motor tools are more efficient than traditional brushed motor tools,” Brodbeck said. “Typically, brushless tools are shorter length with similar power to their brushed counterparts or similar length with increased power over their brushed counterparts. Because brushless motors are more efficient and run cooler, tools have improved run time per charge over traditional brushed motors. Lithium-ion power tool battery advances, coupled with brushless motor technology, are driving increased power and run time in the portable power tool world, in some cases driving corded performance with a cordless equivalent tool.”


DeWalt’s gyroscopic screwdriver powered by an 8V lithium-ion battery product is attracting attention. Brodbeck said the gyroscopic screwdriver has variable-speed motion activation control and reversing control for precise fastening control. 


“The user turns the wrist to the right to install or tighten a screw [and] to the left to loosen or remove it,” he said. “This tool increased productivity and decreased user fatigue by eliminating the need to manually fasten screws.”


Corey Dickert, Milwaukee Tool’s director of product marketing, said that cordless tools have traditionally chased power in an attempt to be more like their corded counterparts.


“Though this led to breakthrough productivity for the electrician, it left much to be desired in terms of portability, ergonomics and ease for lower voltage applications,” he said.


Twelve-volt lithium-ion tool technology has changed this paradigm.


“Our compact battery tool system targets three things: 1) Taking common power tools and making them tool-belt-portable, 2) taking repetitive high leverage manual applications and powering them, [and] 3) taking common alkaline products and making them rechargeable.


“For the first time, these compact, capable products were able to deliver the performance and run time only expected out of comparable 18V products while maintaining a small footprint. This never-seen-before power-to-size ratio enables users to keep more tool options in their tool bag, take less trips back to their job box or truck, and maximize ease of use and access of tools for low-voltage installations and repairs. Lithium-ion absolutely is the catalyst driving these innovations.”


Dickert believes the need to create smaller, more capable products and increase productivity will continue to be a driving force in changes to low-voltage installation techniques.


“The tools for these applications have dynamically shifted over the last five years, and the portability and problem-solving capabilities associated with tools is limited only by the creativity of those making the products,” he said.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Construction Journalist

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

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