Legends of the Fall: Smart Choices in Chain Saws, Leafblowers, Chippers/Shredders & Lawn Vacs

Redesigned engines allow today’s fall yard-care machines to cut your chores down to size more quietly and efficiently than ever before. You’ll find more choices among chain saws and leafblowers that are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which have eclipsed the use of nickel-cadmium technology.

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When fall arrives, there’s yard cleanup to be done. This fall, chain saws and leafblowers are designed to start more easily and run more quietly than ever before. Thanks to tighter federal regulations, manufacturers have adopted increasingly fuel-efficient, cleaner-burning gasoline engines on a widespread basis. If battery operation is your preference, you should know that choices have expanded among battery-powered chain saws and leafblowers.

Fortunately, prices for these improved products haven’t increased from the levels of 3 years ago.

BREATHE EASY. Since 2010, gasoline-powered chain saws and leafblowers have had to meet Environmental Protection Agency Phase 3 requirements that call for a 35 percent reduction in exhaust emissions. Consequently, manufacturers redesigned their engines to meet those regulations. Some also replaced older fuel tanks with versions that are metal or that use different plastic formulations to allow less fuel to permeate the tank and evaporate into the atmosphere. The good news is that, in our evaluations, we didn’t notice any decline in performance—either in terms of power or in the ease of starting the equipment.

You also will notice more models than ever before that eliminate the emissions discussion: At least 12 battery-powered chain saws and 21 battery-powered leafblowers now are on the market, compared with five such chain saws and six such leafblowers 3 years ago. As is the case with other outdoor power equipment, lithium-ion now is the standard battery type. Only two of the 12 battery-powered chain saws and six of the 21 leafblowers still use nickel-cadmium (NiCd) batteries.

Unsurprisingly, the older technology is found in less expensive models. NiCd-powered chain saws start at about $80, compared with $120 for lithium-ion-powered models. Similarly powered leafblowers start at $75 and $100, respectively. But you should know that lithium-ion batteries are 20 percent to 40 percent lighter than are NiCd batteries, and they retain full power until they’re exhausted, unlike older battery technologies.

Although models that have 18- and 20-volt lithium-ion batteries are standard, a handful of chain saws and leafblowers that use 24-, 36- and 40-volt batteries have emerged. The more powerful versions can help you to get jobs done more quickly than you will with low-voltage versions, but they average about $115 more. How much quicker they are depends on the task at hand. But even the high-power battery models still can’t match the performance that gasoline-powered equipment delivers.

“You’re not going to cut down a large tree with it,” says Jeff Salamon of MTD Products, which offers a 20-volt lithium-ion-battery chain saw under its Cub Cadet brand. “But it will cut right through a smaller tree or branch.”

Indeed, we found that battery-powered chain saws deliver a cut that’s clean and smooth. The problem, besides the restrictions of the job’s size, however, is the time that it takes.

Every industry observer with whom we spoke says any gasoline-powered chain saw cuts faster and handles thicker limbs than its battery-powered kin do. We found that the cutting times of the battery-powered chain saws that we evaluated are significantly slower than are those of gasoline or even corded chain saws. Making cuts in 6-inch-diameter logs with a 20-volt-battery-powered chain saw took us at least twice as long as it did with a corded chain saw and three to four times longer than it took with a gasoline-powered chain saw.

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Consequently, if you have big chores, such as cutting firewood, it makes sense to opt for a corded or a gasoline-powered model. You can expect battery-powered models to average about $35 more than corded versions cost, and about $105 less than gasoline-powered models do.

The story is similar when it comes to leafblowers. The maximum speed that we found for a battery-powered model was 193 mph. At least 37 corded or gasoline models exceed that performance, topping out at about 250 mph. Air speed is most important when you try to move wet leaves or heavier materials, such as mulch, so corded or gasoline leafblowers will help to make your task to be more of a breeze. 

Patrick White has written about lawn and landscape topics for 17 years for Turf Magazine, Tree Services Magazine and Landscape & Hardscape Design-Build, among other publications.

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