Hand Held Power Tools

Quite possibly, the least expensive pieces of all the essentials that ride in your vans, trucks or trailers are hand-held outdoor power tools. Combined, they most likely take up less space than one piece of your other necessary, larger equipment. But send your crew out without them, and a short, cost-efficient job quickly turns into a very long, unprofitable one.

Edgers, backpack and hand-held blowers, line and hedge trimmers, augers, chain saws . . . they all play an important role in the day-to-day activities of your company. These tools help complete both small and large-scale projects thoroughly and quickly. Unlike their larger counterparts, nothing revolutionary has come along to join the ranks of hand-held power tools over the past two-plus decades, other than some design and operating modifications. ?In relation to the professional hand-held power equipment line,? says Jeff Marcinowski, product manager for Little Wonder, South Hampton, Pennsylvania, ?I can?t say that there have been product introductions that have redefined how landscaping is done in recent years; however, since their creation, manufacturers continue to make them better and more efficient.? As with many new ideas and products, the original versions were larger, bulkier, noisier machines seeking to take the place of the much lighter, though manually tedious and time-consuming originals. Take, for example, the backpack blower. You all remember the earliest models. The original ones were designed to spread pesticides and fertilizers on fruit trees and crops. By the early 1970s, someone took off the chemical container, turned on the engine and realized how effective the unit was to blow leaves from one place to another. These early blowers were gas-powered, smelly, smoky, hot, loud, heavy and bulky. Do you remember one of the tools it was designed and manufactured to replace? The rake. Sure, that long, thin, light-weight wooden pole with foot-long metal teeth at one end (and later, heavy plastic teeth) did the job. But, with progress, companies are always looking for products to do the same job better . . . and in less time. Granted, the blower was heavier, noisier, and much more costly to purchase and operate (even when a gallon of gas was under a dollar) than a rake. And then there was that gas-and-oil mixture ratio to deal with. But . . . the blower did the job in a quarter of the time, and depending on the size of the job, it could be done by one person instead of two, three, or more with rakes. It didn?t take long for the landscape contractor to see that the substantial business expense of a backpack blower quickly became a time-and-money asset. Over time, and due to noise and pollution laws, the blower has become as ergonomically designed and user-friendly to carry and operate as your cell phone. Remember what cell phones looked like in 1983? Remember having to lug that battery pack around? On the other hand, many landscaping power tool companies have turned a percentage of their attention to electric power, though they still manufacture new fuel-efficient models that provide superior torque and performance than their electrical peers. Why are the manufacturers looking to the electrical side? Well, aside from their constant attempt to build a better mousetrap, there are more laws; not just federal, but state, and even municipal laws. Thanks to technology and the advancement of newer, lighter and more durable materials, outdoor power tools have undergone huge improvements in safety features and ergonomics. Jay Larsen, product marketing and communications manager for Shindaiwa, Inc., of Tualatin, Oregon, says, ?Today?s chain saws typically have lighter, stronger engine covers made of glass fiber-filled nylon. This new material is more durable and impact resistant, compared to the heavy steel covers common in the 1970s and ?80s. In addition, many chain saws now feature chain brakes, not just a hand-guard. Safety, durability and an overall improvement in power-to-weight are all examples of progress in the hand-held outdoor power equipment industry during the last decade.?

Exhaust emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released new emission standards that will go into effect in 2005. Its technical guidance document, ?Small Engine Emission Standards,? states; ?According to EPA estimates, in many large urban areas, pre-1997 lawn and garden equipment accounts for as much as five percent of the total man-made hydrocarbons that contribute to ozone formation. EPA expects that reducing emissions from small engines will help to alleviate the formation of ground-level ozone, resulting in a decrease of air pollution-related problems for urban residents.? Most manufacturers of blowers and other gas-powered tools have already taken steps to have their new models meet these standards. Now if only car manufacturers could do the same, two years before the fuel emission and consumption laws that pertain to them go into effect. To meet these stringent EPA exhaust emissions standards, Shindaiwa, who first introduced the industry?s so-called hybrid engine in October of 2001, has developed a catalytic exhaust muffler system. This clean engine technology is used in its T231 trimmer, and can meet the second phase of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) emission standards. Their patented four-stroke engine, called C4 technology, will meet the EPA?s strict limits, and is currently used on their T2500 trimmer. Steve Meriam, national sales and product development manager for Stihl Inc., in Virginia Beach, Virginia, says, ?We?re always looking for ways to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to regulations and safety. The exiting of exhaust fumes out of the cylinder is one of our primary concerns. ?Our patented Stihl 4-Mix engine is a hybrid 2-cycle and 4-cycle engine that offers the benefits of both. It?s clean burning, like 4-cycle engines, so it meets EPA and CARB regulations, but retains the advantages of the 2-cycle engine, including the power and comparable weight of a 2-cycle. This allows us to comply with the new emission regulations while also meeting the power-to-weight demands of the professional landscape contractor.?

Noise? What noise?

As leaf blowers became more powerful, noise complaints prompted regulations, along with limitations as to the hours or days they can be used. These regulations are often implemented by municipalities and can vary greatly. It should be noted that most of the annoying high-pitched whine from high-performance blowers can be traced directly to the impeller. Larsen adds, ?Our engineers have invested time and resources to develop revolutionary new impeller designs in an effort to effectively reduce blower noise decibels.? However, most leaf blower complaints can be resolved through operator training. ?When possible, Shindaiwa and the industry work with municipalities to offer alternatives to usage restrictions. One of the tools we offer is training programs. Complaints usually decrease sharply or stop altogether when leaf blower operators are trained on the proper and courteous use of the leaf blower,? says Larsen. Echo?s PB-750 measures only 71dB(A) at a wide-open throttle, as per the American National Standards Institute, making it ideal for noise-sensitive work environments. Little Wonder?s Marcinowski says, ?Environmental regulations in the United States have, and will continue to have, a major impact on power equipment, specifically in relation to 2-cycle engines. These regulations are worthwhile and beneficial to us all; however, it will be a challenge to all power equipment manufacturers to supply engines that meet the great power-to-weight characteristics that 2-cycle engines have been known for in the past, while maintaining a reasonable cost.?

The future of the hand-held outdoor power tool

In 1926, Stihl Inc., created their first chain saw. Besides its mechanical ability, it was ahead of its time because it was powered by electricity. But getting electricity to the forest wasn?t as easy as it is today, which led to the development of a gas-powered model three years later. ?Our entire future, and the future of all power tool manufacturers, is based on making a better product for tomorrow,? says Meriam. This is emphasized by the innovation of powerheads for various interchangeable landscaping and maintenance tool attachments, such as straight and adjustable hedge trimmers, straight and curved edgers, scythes, mini-cultivators and sweepers. Even new wood-boring drills can be adapted and changed into augers in minutes, saving the cost of two separate tools. ?Over the years, power tools have become lighter, more powerful and more fuel efficient. Technically, they?ve become more like highly-tuned engines,? adds Meriam. ?Electronic ignitions are now part of the power tool. By eliminating the points and condensers, it relieves moisture concerns and also means a quicker and more reliable start. The engines are made of lighter alloys and run faster. Many of the earlier unit?s exterior parts were made of magnesium. But the development of lighter, more durable polymers led to magnesium?s replacement, which is another major advancement for our industry.? The end result In time, who knows what could be in store for these tools? Perhaps a company will manufacture one combined unit to handle all of the various functions. Maybe the tools will even be operated by a robot of some kind that can log the process, so that it knows when that particular function needs to be performed again, visually catalog the work site and possibly even video-scan it and transmit back to a landscape contractor?s office. These new models could alert the owner of a malfunctioning, or soon-to-be-malfunctioning part or unit, and report the total number of hours they?ve been in operation. They could keep detailed records, then notify the owner of a required maintenance call or check-up. Sound impossible? Perhaps not. Who knows what the future might bring. . . .

October 2003