Battery-Powered Chain-Saw Considerations

Kyle McCabe of Northern Arboriculture, an 11-year TCIA member company based in Merrimack, New Hampshire, uses a cordless electric Husqvarna T536 LiXP chain saw to prune an ash tree, Fraxinus sp. TCIA staff photo by Richard May.

More and more, we’re getting told about the burgeoning potential of battery-powered saws in the industry. The technology is constantly improving, with longer running times, shorter recharge periods and greater torque. I feel it has gotten to the point where battery saws now really do have practical applications. So, what do you need to keep in mind when picking one out?

Use and battery life

How many batteries should you have on hand? Consider how you will be using the saw and check with the manufacturer on what the average expected runtime is for this scenario and battery. You do not want to be using a saw intended for limbing on a 30-inch-diameter log. Cut down on potential frustrations by doing some research.

There is a range of battery-storage capacity. Photo courtesy of John Ball, Ph.D., CTSP.

Recharging has become much less of an issue, with some models getting back to full charge in as little as 45 minutes. Going for an environmentally friendly approach? Try looking into small photoelectric systems that could be mounted on top of a truck or chip box. Automatic shutoff when the saw is not in use is a great feature as well, and some saws offer different operating modes depending on how much power you need.

Consider how you will get the batteries up to the climber from the ground. You certainly don’t want a battery falling 50 feet, so figure out the appropriate hitch to use.

A Greenworks 48TH14 top-handle saw uses a lithium 4 Ah battery designed to deliver high torque. Photo courtesy of Greenworks.

Components and looking for quality

Battery saws are heavily marketed to homeowners, so they generally follow the manufacturing processes tailored for these markets. What does this mean? Normally, it means plastic parts instead of metal. You will want to read through specifications and reviews of chain saws you are considering so you do not end up with plastic bucking spikes when you think you have a professional model.

A personal gripe: I hate, hate and hate using dial-style chain tensioners and plastic screw-on covers like the type you would find on a casual-use saw. They just never seem to want to turn or thread correctly, especially once a little sawdust or cold weather is introduced into the mix. Well, these are usually what you are going to find on a battery-powered saw. Removing the need for a scrench (combo screwdriver/wrench tool) means one less thing a homeowner would have to carry, so be sure to keep the saw clean and do not let it go banging around in the back of the truck.

Noise and emissions

This is an area where battery chain saws can be a huge benefit. Anyone who has ever worked in a city, neighborhood or campus with early-morning noise restrictions knows that having to wait a half hour or more to get started on a job can be a huge pain. The relatively quiet nature of battery-powered saws lets you get some of the on-ground pruning done right away. Don’t be fooled, though; they can still put out some decibels, so make sure you still insist on hearing protection for your employees.

With zero emissions and reduced noise, the performance of Stihl’s battery-powered saw was able to be demonstrated live, indoors, during TCI EXPO 2019. TCIA staff photo by Kathleen Costello.

Emissions have been a growing issue in the public eye. Even if you are not blowing leaves all day, you may still get requests from customers to switch to something a little more environmentally friendly for smaller jobs. These pruning tasks can get knocked out just as effectively with a battery-powered saw while helping smooth the way with concerned citizens, at least until the chipper fires up.

Weight and vibration

It was not always the case, but battery-powered saws can often be lighter than gasoline saws. For example, a Stihl 161 T battery-powered saw has a powerhead weight of 4.6 pounds, while a 151 T C-E gas saw weighs in at 5.7 pounds. Not a huge difference, but having a little less hanging from you can help.

Cordless electric chain saws are lightweight and easy to hold. Photo courtesy of John Ball, Ph.D., CTSP.

The lack of an internal combustion engine on the power head means that vibration is much less of a concern. Long term, this can cut down on fatigue and the possibility of workers developing capillary damage in their hands from the vibrations (also known as white palm). The forces on the chain saw have not changed, though, so pinching and kickback are still an issue.

Safety

This is the biggest consideration with battery-powered saws. You absolutely must handle them just as carefully as you would a gas-powered saw. The current perception of battery-powered saws among some homeowners and tree workers is that they are little more than toys, not needing any respect or wariness. This has led to people who shouldn’t be running a saw in the first place taking unnecessary risks with one. When used with incorrect techniques, a chain can still be thrown or broken just as easily from a battery-powered saw. Do not think that a brand-new employee doesn’t still need training and close supervision just because you gave them one of these to start with. As I mentioned earlier, the risk of kickback did not go anywhere just because you took out a battery-powered saw. Your employees still need to maintain safe work practices.

What about the rain? Well, this should be self-explanatory, but you should not be running a battery-powered saw in poor weather conditions. You will find that the manuals (you’re reading the manuals, right?) have several statements and scary icons mentioning that this is a big no-no. That is a pretty big negative against battery saws, as their usefulness in storm-cleanup situations is very limited.

When storing the batteries, you will need to be careful not to put them anywhere with poor ventilation and high temperatures (such as in that metal storage shed or shipping container you’ve been using). Once you get above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the risk of fire becomes very real.

Here is an important note to remember: The instantaneous torque provided by a battery-powered saw will not be stopped as quickly by protective clothing as with a gas-powered saw. You may have seen this noted on your chain-saw chaps, that they are rated for stopping gasoline-powered saws. Once again, you must be even more cautious with a battery-powered saw, and you need to treat it with the respect you would any tool.

Don’t forget …

Your employees still need to carry their sharpeners, and they still need to put in bar-and-chain oil. Bar-and-chain oil is one requirement I’ve noticed in particular being neglected on battery saws. Cutting-edge (sorry) technology isn’t going to do you any good if the new employee warps the guide bar and ruins the chain rollers every time they take the saw out.

The lack of a fuel tank and carburetor eliminates much of the planned maintenance, but you will still need to pull the saw apart from time to time to at least clean it and check that the bar-and-chain-oil tube is not getting clogged.

Conclusion

Will we ever see a battery-powered ground saw designed for the professional? Maybe, but in the meantime, there are plenty of practical options on the market.

Richard Jones, an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist, is the campus arborist for the University of Maryland, College Park, and one of the founders of Maryland Sustainable Ecologies, a company that provides tree care training to municipalities and nonprofits.

2 Comments

  1. I’ve been using a battery-powered Stihl for the past year as an arborist for a golf course. It’s been great for taking down smaller trees and removing smaller limbs. It’s my go-to tool. I can absolutely agree it’s use is so easy that remembering to treat it like a “real chainsaw” can be a challenge. Although its light weight can make you think it’s a toy, it is a dangerous tool and needs to be treated with respect.

  2. The power curve on an electric chainsaw is smooth and predictable. My first use of a Stihl electric was cutting volunteer trees growing by a chain link fence. You do NOT have to “feather” the throttle to keep it running. RPM’s are consistent with amount of trigger. That made it easier to not surge or stutter when cutting by the metal fence.
    How much battery life is left is easy to monitor with a glance at the gage. When did you see a fuel indicator on your gas powered saw? But I have seen gas saws start sputtering as a critical cut is half way done!
    Electric has many advantages. Now that I am a 60-something year old Arborist I find my saw gas mix can even go bad cuz I don’t use as many tanks of fuel as in the past. I already buy pre-mix fuel for my gas-powered tools. But electric doesn’t have that problem. And a long winter (Minnesota) no longer means I have to worry about carburetors going bad etc. Tune-ups are basic maintenance with an electric. Yeah, keep your chain SHARP and refill bar oil—always.

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