Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Are battery-powered chainsaws worth the money?

I've written here and there about chainsaws, and found them useful during the cleanup after hurricanes in Louisiana, where I lived for more than a decade.  However, these have all been gas-fueled models, big, powerful - and noisy.  Regular "homeowner" models have never been able to handle entire fallen tree trunks, either.  They've coped with smaller trees and de-limbing larger ones, but the big stuff has always had to await the arrival of professionals with really big, powerful saws to get through the trunks and thick branches.

I've had a query from one of my correspondents asking about the utility of smaller, lighter battery-powered chainsaws.  She's partly disabled, like me, and I came into contact with her through my efforts to teach disabled people how to shoot in order to defend themselves if necessary.  She says she can't handle a big, heavy chainsaw, but that the smaller, lighter battery-powered models are manageable.  However, she doesn't know if they're worth buying to cut firewood or clean up smaller limbs after a storm.

I did a bit of research, and found this Popular Mechanics article comparing half a dozen models.  It speaks highly of the Stihl MSA 160 C-BQ, as does Gizmodo's review.  The Stihl's an expensive choice, particularly if you get an extra battery or two, but I guess that's what you pay for that level of performance (at least at present).  There's also the MSA 200 C-BQ model, with a standard 14" bar, which is listed by Stihl under "Farm and Ranch Saws" rather than "Homeowner Saws" like the 160.  The latter is listed as taking a 10"-14" bar, but appears to be usually sold with a 12" option, so the 200 is probably designed for slightly tougher, harder jobs.  Here's a composite picture of both models, taken from Stihl's Web site.

I'd like to ask whether any of my readers have tried an electric chainsaw, particularly one of the Stihl models mentioned above.  If so, how well did it perform?  Was it worth the money?  In particular, was it easier to use than a heavier, more unwieldy gas-fueled chainsaw?  Do you think a partly disabled person, with limited physical strength and mobility, would be able to use it more easily than a standard model?  For emergency use (e.g. post-storm cleanup), if the power's out, I'm thinking that a generator could recharge a battery-powered saw with no trouble at all (their lithium-ion batteries recharge in an hour or so), and probably use less gas overall than a gas-powered chainsaw would need (since the generator would be powering other things at the same time).  That might make a saw like that, with a spare battery, a very serviceable option, but only if it does the job it's supposed to do.

Please let us know your thoughts in Comments.  Thanks.



ZerCool said...

I've not used one of the Stihl electrics - in truth, I didn't know they existed until I read this post - but I have a fair bit of experience with chainsaws in general.

Gut feel: the battery saws are probably fine for light limbing, minor storm cleanup, brush clearing, etc. However, 40 minutes of run time per charge is not a lot - and how long does it take to charge it?

My personal saw is a Stihl MS180 with a 14" bar, and it's done almost everything I asked of it with aplomb. A tank of gas (about 8oz) will run it wide-open for 25-30 minutes. My generator (a 3500W gas set) eats 5gal (640oz) of fuel per 10 hours run time at 50% load.

Also, checking specs, the MSA-160 you linked is almost three pounds heavier than the gas-fueled 180 I use.

Plug-in electrics, on the other hand, run beautifully on a generator, are probably at least as capable as the cordless Stihl, and can be a bit lighter. (The Poulan 1514 is listed at 7.5lb, for example.)

ZerCool said...

In a parallel thought process, if you do decide to go gas, a few cans of TruFuel pre-mixed two-stroke fuel are a worthwhile investment. It's pricey (~$6/quart) but shelf-stable for five-plus years. Lowes and Amazon both carry it.

Anonymous said...

During Hurricane Rita I mostly used a Remington electric saw, though it wasn't battery powered. I powered it using a generator that I put into a kid's pull-behind wagon. It was much lighter and easier to handle than a gas saw and the generator was useful for other things.

Anonymous said...

I have used an older Stihl electric (battery) - back when we lived in the 'burbs and was quite pleased. It was used as a pruning implement mainly, and there were 2 emergency situations over the years where it actually was used to kill fallen trees blocking neighbors driveways after storms/blizzards. It was entirely adequate.

Now that we live in the country at our farm (former BOL, now main housing) we (I) got rid of the electric after a matter of less than 3 months. I purchased a gas Stihl, and had relegated the electric to my backup, and then subsequently upgraded the main gas Stihl, and kept the prior gas as a backup trading in the electric on the price of the new. You lose a lot of value, but at least there is some to be recovered.

When homesteading, my personal (and every property and homeowner will vary) view is that the electric is just not up to the task of cleaning a larger (5+ acres overgrown with scrub and pine and some off maple and oak) property, let alone felling/cutting multiple cords worth of wood for a Northern (Wisconsin) winter using mainly wood heat.

For a mid-country homestead, some folks do in fact find electric adequate. The nice folks over at http://www.waldeneffect.org/ have been reviewing an electric Oregon for their needs on the homestead. Of course, they don't need 3-4 full cords for the winter, on top of general property chores... YMMV

Eric Wilner said...

I'm very skeptical of battery-powered gadgets for maybe-some-year emergency use.
Shelf life of tool batteries has historically been short; leave your cordless drill unused for a year, on or off the charger, and it's likely toast.
Some of the newer lithium batteries seem to do better, but I still wouldn't be confident of them working after a couple of years in storage.
I like the suggestion of a plug-in electric and a portable generator on wheels.
A caution for California denizens, though: while my old chainsaw starts up quite happily after a year or two of casual storage, I'm informed that newer, CARB-compliant models need fresh gas every time or they'll gum up.

jefferson101 said...

If weight is the issue, go with a good plug-in type unless you have more range to clear than you do extension cords.

Even the battery operated weed-eaters are as heavy or heavier than a small gas model. Given that your typical chainsaw is at least as heavy, or heaver than a weed eater, it's going to carry a weight penalty if you get enough battery to keep it running for more than five minutes or at over a thousand or so RPM.

For the record, I use a battery weed eater. The weight doesn't matter to me so much, and I don't have good luck with gasoline small engines as a rule. The electric has lasted three years, which is the best I've ever done with a gas one, and it doesn't seem to be planning on failing anytime soon. Sometimes, you just get over yanking on that rope two dozen times to start the flipping thing when it's decided to be cranky.

B said...

Really, the battery powered ones are heavier than their equivalent gas powered units.

But the plug in electric units beat 'em both for weight.

Read the specs.

Hard to beat a small, short bar gas powered saw for utility. I like my small gas powered saws. But I wouldn't change my 20" bar stihl for anything.

dan said...

I've used the Remington corded to cut slab-wood inside...but I'll
be relieved when my son returns my Rancher....I'm running out of parts to keep my Jonsrud tip-top after the usual 6-cords for winter.The trick is to avoid alcohol mixed fuel with small engines and use a top quality mixing oil (I use marine grade)...
and pace yourself,lol.

0007 said...

I have a Ryobi electric with a =n 18" chain. The motor is close to 2HP(1500w) under full load. I cut a stack of green hickory about 8'X5'X2'(largest piece was about three feet in diameter) during one day and all I used was about a quart of chain oil(and a bunch of electrons from the outlet).

Anonymous said...

I've cleaned up my yard and neighborhood after 2 hurricanes using my Dewalt 18v reciprocating saw with a special pruning blade.

It cuts very well with just the weight of the saw, so I can use it one handed. I've cut up to 4in branches. That is enough to even clear a street by de-limbing and then dragging the trunk with a strap and the truck.

It feels MUCH safer in use than a chain saw.

It won't cut up trunks, but really, neither will a little chainsaw.


Anonymous said...

Just wondering if anyone has done a full side by side economic analysis of the total cost of ownership. Yeah, it's just curiosity, anyone seriously cutting multiple cords is going to weight that at 10% vs. The 90% for which saw starts easy, stays sharp, is easy to work on, and only scares 'em a little bit...

Swampdog said...

Those electrics are handy if you have a plug in or a generator. Much quieter too.

Inconsiderate Bastard said...

I understand the desire for labor saving devices, and the need for the physically incapable to perform tasks, but before I spent dollars on the questionable value of a battery chain saw, I'd look at a standard manual crosscut saw from the local hardware store or amazon (<$25 at amazon), a one-man "lumberjack style" crosscut saw (a 32" version, reg $95, was on sale recently at Woodcraft for $69), and a 16" coarse tooth pruning saw. A quality 30"-36" D-handle buck saw is under $30.

If one cannot use such saws and must have a power saw of some sort, I'd suggest a cordless reciprocating saw. For a lot less than a battery chain saw one can buy a good quality brand name cordless recip saw, several spare batteries and a couple packages of 12" wood blades.

The recip saw will be cheaper,lighter, and much safer for someone with limited physical abilities, not to mention more versatile - a few dollars for different blades and it becomes a power hacksaw for metal, or a tool for cutting uses around the house.

Given the limitations of a 12" battery chain saw, one doesn't give up much by going to a recip saw with a 12" blade.

For serious wood cutting, I'm afraid the laws of physics dictate a need for serious horsepower,and that means gas powered chain saws. I wouldn't buy one of those that didn't have enough power to use a 20" bar.

Anonymous said...

I had a plug-in electric chainsaw many years ago, and it had no power to cut through stuff. It was ALWAYS bogging down. On the other hand, it never bucked out of the cut, just stopped moving the chain.

Give me gas-powered chainsaws any day. They are much more powerful than any electric device.

PS I had the same experience with electric vs. gas weed-whackers and edgers. The electrics didn't have the power needed, while the gas powered had no problems chopping through stuff.


Michael Ankenbrandt said...

If I were to look at an electric saw, I'd also go the reciprocal route. If your questioner could afford it, I'd say a plug in model, a 100 foot extension cord, and (if this is for a true emergency where your power may be out) a generator. Higher cost than just a gas powered saw, but the saw itself will be much handier to use without the weight of a battery.

I'm a Bosch fan and have a 36V hammer drill set with two batteries and a charger I got on a massive closeout for $200 (obscenely cheap for what I got, but it pays to keep your eyes peeled). For myself I would get their matching 36V reciprocal saw - it's going to be the closest in capability to a gas saw that battery power can get. It's also probably going to be heavier and more unwieldy to USE, but much less unwieldy to START.

So part of the decision is going to hinge on whether the issue is starting the saw, using the saw, or both.

Knucklehead said...

Just some thoughts. My first chainsaw was a corded electric 14". It served everything I needed (primarily firewood processing and storm cleanup). It was very handy but not portable - you need to haul a generator. It also requires long cords. But it served me for 20 years before giving up the ghost.

I replaced it with a 16" gas saw. Very useful and portable and more powerful than the electric. But the electric was so light and easy to use for smaller jobs that when I spotted a great sale for another electric i picked one up.

Then a friend who was going 55 and over gated golfing community gifted me his 16" chain saw that "needed some TLC". The TLC was unwedging the chain - I gave it a new chain.

As for battery powered... Well, I have the Sears Craftsman C3 system. I don't do major projects anymore, too old, to impatient. But I get good service out of the weedwhacker and the little blower (just the walk and patio, no serious cleanup for that one) and the circular saw and - here's the best part - the reciprocating "saws all". I throw a 9 or 12 inch pruning blade on that sucker and it works great for cutting down the christmas tree or trimming small trunks down to ground level. Those longer pruning blades take a bit of getting used to but it is a great option for quick jobs on small stuff.

Nothing I would own or use would be big enough to handle the oaks in my yard. That's for professionals.

I do consider getting the little 10 in. saw to go with my batteries just to have it but...

The Raving Prophet said...

I have a Makita HCU02ZX2. It's a 12" cordless chainsaw that takes either one 36V battery or an adapter for two 18V LXT batteries. Since I have other Makita cordless tools, I use 2 18V batteries.

I've not used it for heavy cutting, but I do believe that it would work great for anything that a 12" chainsaw is sized to do. I wouldn't try chopping down a large tree with one, but for basic pruning or chopping apart a decent sized tree that's already fallen over, it's great. With the electric system there's no fighting with a recalcitrant 2 stroke engine that doesn't want to start. Just make sure you have chain oil in it and all is properly adjusted, insert batteries, and go. Nice and quiet too- no need for earplugs.

I do like this kind of electric saw, but they are best suited for suburban homeowners who fall into the "occasional use" category. If you're homesteading or have large trees, sure, get a larger gas model. If you just need to prune larger branches or maybe chop the occasional fallen limb or smaller tree, then one of these may be a worthwhile tool- especially if you already are invested into a system that uses the appropriate battery packs.

The Stihl ones you linked can also have their batteries work with an electric mower and trimmer, so if someone has a small yard I might see them as worthwhile to buy all together and then you're not worried about gas or engine maintenance. For me, the Makita made more financial sense (as stated, I have other Makita 18V LXT tools).

Anonymous said...

Never used a battery chainsaw (radial saw - yep, not bad). The corded chainsaw is a godsend around where grid power is. Very convenient and quick to use, no oil to mix, no gasoline to go buy nor gain gasoline damage from corn oil additive - many advantages there.

Judy said...

Here's my two cents worth as a 5'2" woman with above-average upper-body strength for a woman but less than a 5'2” man. The reciprocating saw with a pruning blade is the easiest to handle and does the job. The electric (corded) chainsaws didn't have the power need to do the job. Gas-powered chainsaws bordered on too heavy to handle safely for any length of time.

Anonymous said...

I took out a hardwood tree with a corded electric. My gas saw doesn't get enough use to be reliable when I need it. So, I got a Remington RM1640W for less then $100.00 and it works better than the gas model it replaced.

Ruth said...

We've got a corded WORX brand chainsaw, I'm drawing a blank on the size right now. I'm 5'2", with reasonable upper body weight but weak hands due to arthritis in both. This little chainsaw is FAR easier to use than a gas powered one. Its lighter, and I don't feel like I'm risking cutting a leg off cause my hands are going to give out. I've not tried it on a big huge tree, but it'll handle decent sized wood no problem.

I've never used a battery powered chainsaw, but big batteries weigh ALOT, so the above comments about the weight of such units is something to consider.

We have a Dewalt battery powered recip saw. Love it, and it works very well, in some ways better than the above chainsaw within the limits of the blade. Its certainly more versatile. However even 10minutes using it and my hands ache for the rest of the day, and depending on what I'm cutting with it I find it harder to use.