As recently as 10 years ago, the typical industry stance on Single Rope Technique/Single Rope System (SRT/SRS) was pessimistic at best, and the idea of outfitting tree crews with mini skids was seen as a major waste of resources. It’s crazy how blind we so often are. Now, I can’t imagine handling a full production-climbing workload without SRS systems or mini skids!
Today, we are faced with similar resistance regarding the impending shift from traditional, gasoline-fueled equipment to battery-powered outdoor power equipment (OPE). Our industry is too often a reactive one, but I hope recent legislative changes and technological advances help steer us toward a more proactive approach to battery OPE.
Over the last several years, we have seen a substantial increase in the number of OPE products fueled by battery power. In this article, we will take a look at some of the primary reasons for this uptick in the production of battery-powered OPE in general. But because we are arborists, this article’s primary focus will be on battery chain saws and whether or not they are viable for everyday use by commercial tree care technicians.
A bit of background information
My team and I embarked on this project directly following TCI EXPO ’22. Previously, we had very little experience using battery OPE, and were not overly impressed with the capabilities of the limited lineup of products we had been exposed to.
It’s safe to say that we took this project on with a rather pessimistic outlook toward battery-powered OPE. After nearly a year of testing products from Husqvarna, Echo, Greenworks, Makita, Milwaukee and Stihl, I can confidently state that battery OPE is here to stay, and will take a much more prominent role in the very near future!
Preconceived negative opinions
Most people I have spoken with seem to have very strong, pessimistic opinions, if not flat-out dismissive views, toward the viability of battery power for the tree industry. Interestingly, of the numerous professionals throughout North America and Europe who were interviewed, most of those with opposing opinions had little to no experience actually using battery OPE.
On the other hand, most of those with neutral to favorable opinions were ISA Certified Arborists, climbers or municipal specialists, nearly all of whom live in coastal U.S. regions or in Europe. It seems that a large faction of the commercial tree world has developed a preconceived bias against battery OPE. However, changes in legislation and rapidly advancing technology make it worth taking a deeper dive into this rising market and reconsidering outdated opinions.
Legislation brings rapid change
Battery OPE is not a new concept, but many commercial manufacturers have rapidly increased their battery-product portfolios in the last few years. This increase shouldn’t come as a surprise after California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB1346 into law in 2021. AB1346, authored by Marc Berman, a California State Assembly member who directs the California Air Resources Board (CARB), essentially bans the sale of new, gasoline-powered small-engine products (sub 25hp) such as generators, pressure washers and OPE – including mowers, trimmers, blowers and chain saws.
AB1346 goes into effect January 1, 2024. Although this bill doesn’t ban the sale of used, sub-25hp gas-powered OPE, it does represent the writing on the wall for gas-powered OPE in California and beyond. Many states, including New York, Vermont and Illinois, are considering almost identical legislation, and many other states, including Colorado and Minnesota, are contemplating abbreviated versions of California’s AB1346.
Like it or hate it, it is very likely we are going to see a greater push to encourage or even require zero-emission OPE. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that manufacturers are reacting to these policy changes in a big way. Most of the manufacturers I spoke with are already working toward “greener” equipment options, but there is no denying that recent legislative initiatives are affecting many of these companies’ research-and-development (R&D) and production timetables.
How the market will respond
I am very curious to see how traditional gas-powered OPE manufacturers, such as Husqvarna, Echo and Stihl, navigate this market shift. All three have relatively robust battery lineups, but there is no denying that they have a challenge to maintain a balance between their traditional, gas-powered products and battery OPE. Companies such as Ego or Greenworks have been exclusively producing battery OPE for some time now, so we may see their product lines expand heavily. The impending push for zero-emission OPE has certainly not been lost on longtime battery-tool manufacturers like Makita and Milwaukee, who are eager to apply their extensive experience with battery-powered equipment into a relatively new OPE market.
Throughout this process, my team and I have spoken with dozens of people in the industry who have negative impressions about battery-powered chain saws, and we have consolidated their opinions into seven common concerns.
- Poor power: Battery chain saws lack the power to perform the full scale of professional tree work.
- Poor run-time: Batteries don’t last long enough to perform the job, and you need too many batteries to perform one job.
- Expensive: Saws and a large supply of batteries are just too costly.
- Poor availability: We can’t find these products readily available at our local pro dealer.
- Heavy/poor ergonomics: Battery saws are too cumbersome and difficult to manipulate.
- Inability to use them in inclement weather: Battery saws can’t get wet.
- Safety/compatibility issues with chain-saw PPE: PPE such as chaps or chain-saw trousers won’t stop battery saws.
These complaints will sound familiar to most tree care professionals, so let’s dive deeper into each one to determine if these claims are warranted or outdated.
1. Poor power
In some ways, the perceived lack of battery-chain-saw power is warranted, but how much power do most tree care professionals need? The truth is, there isn’t a current battery chain saw on the market that shares the relative power equivalence to larger 90cc chain saws, such as the Stihl 661 or Husqvarna 592. A relatively small segment of our profession is using saws in this power class on a regular basis.
I think it’s safe to say that most commercial tree work is comprised of pruning and small- to intermediate-sized removals. There are numerous battery options on the market to tackle the majority of commercial tree work. Companies like Greenworks now have battery rear-handle chain saws approaching the 70cc equivalency mark, and several manufacturers are producing saws floating around the 50cc equivalency mark.
Aerial workers can enjoy the same power they have grown accustomed to with Stihl’s MSA 220 TC-O, which replicates the performance of the popular 201 TC. Milwaukee Tool’s first offering into the professional arborist market has produced the M18 Fuel Top Handle Chainsaw that is pushing nearly 40cc of equivalent power.
2. Poor run time
This concern is a little difficult to address, because we don’t have much information to compare it to. The saws we tested during this process all exceeded our initial expectations. But some saws certainly excelled in the roles and parameters they were designed to perform within.
The Echo DCS 2500T is the smallest of the top-handle saws we tested, so we fully expected it to have shorter run times in larger wood than some of its larger counterparts, such as the Stihl MSA 220 T and the Milwaukee M18 Fuel Top Handle. The Echo utilizes a 56 volt, 2.5ah battery, and was built specifically to be a lightweight pruning saw. The Stihl and Milwaukee top handles are much larger saws that come equipped with batteries ranging from 6ah-12ah. The Husqvarna T540i is widely recognized as the pinnacle of battery top-handle saws, and the team at Husky did not disappoint with their flagship battery saw.
The Husky product delivers good power equivalency at 35cc, while still maintaining impressive run times in both pruning and removal applications. In our extensive testing, we found that the battery top-handle chain saws demonstrated much more consistent run times in pruning operations compared to their gas counterparts. But some of the models we tested ran through batteries at a slightly more rapid pace when consistently cutting through larger-diameter wood. A good solution is to always have one battery charging while another is in use.
In general, battery saws are cheaper than their professional gas counterparts when you purchase the saw without the battery. Saw-only purchases are the only fair way to compare chain-saw costs. Most users do not purchase the first two years of 2-cycle mixed gas when they purchase their saw, so batteries shouldn’t negatively impact cost comparisons, either.
In many scenarios, the price of the saw, charger and battery are comparable to their gas counterparts. Although we didn’t have the opportunity to test any of the commercial saws from Greenworks or Ego, they boast comprehensive saw-and-battery-combo kits that are extremely competitively priced.
The Stihl MSA 220 TC-O and the Husqvarna T540I are similarly priced to their gas counterparts – the Stihl 201T and Husqvarna T540 – when purchased without batteries. Some people take issue with the similar cost, but let’s not forget that these saws are not just niche products – they are being produced as true equivalents to their gas counterparts. Nearly every manufacturer has produced a comprehensive list of the battery vs. gas cost-savings charts, so I won’t dive into the topic.
Battery OPE tends to require lower maintenance throughout its lifetime due to the electric motors, so it should come as no surprise that many of the gas and battery manufacturers state that lifetime cost of ownership is lower for battery OPE.
4. Poor availability
When we first embarked on this project, the logistics crisis brought on by COVID-19 was still wreaking havoc on seemingly everyone. OPE manufacturers were certainly not immune. Apart from Makita and Milwaukee, it seemed like everyone else we spoke with was frantically working to acquire materials to meet the rapidly increasing demand for their battery products. After hearing customers’ concerns about this issue, manufacturers worked to clean up their supply chains and increase their stock lists.
Most of the manufacturers we spoke with said the combination of packing their own batteries in-house and their increased lithium buying power (a result of increased demand) has boosted their inventory goals. It still may be good to go with a product line that has readily available local pro support, or to consider latching on to one of the larger battery-operated tool manufacturers, like Milwaukee, that consistently has product on hand in nearly every major U.S. city.
Heavy, poor ergonomics
After nearly a year of daily use, our team has not experienced issues with weight or ergonomics. The “orange” manufacturers have essentially replicated their most popular top-handle gas chain saws with the launch of their newest battery saws. Stihl’s MSA 220 TC-O feels and operates almost exactly like the 201T. So, if you like the 201T, then the MSA 220 TC-O should be an easy transition.
The Echo DCS 2500T nearly replicates the ergonomics delivered by the gas-powered 2511T, which happens to be my favorite gas chain saw ever produced. The DCS 2500T is very lightweight and friendly in hand. The Husqvarna T540I is considered by many to be one of the best top-handle saws in the world, gas or battery. After hundreds of hours of testing, I feel like the T540I might be the most ergonomically friendly top-handle saw on the market.
We have yet to experience any significant added fatigue or ergonomic disadvantages when testing rear-handled saws compared to their gas counterparts. The Husqvarna 540I rear handle offers uncanny power-to-weight ratio.
Inability to use them in inclement weather
One of the primary pros of battery OPE is the idea of its usefulness in storm/disaster response due to its “always-ready” monicker. But common sense would tell us that electronic tools don’t coexist well with wet conditions. And, if they are unfit to use in wet or rainy conditions, that could pose a serious problem for their commercial viability.
Some of the manufacturers I spoke with were a little reluctant to fully green light their products in wet conditions, so they provided carefully worded statements that provided little clarity. However, Husqvarna and Milwaukee representatives were confident in their products’ ability to save the day – rain or shine.
According to Ben McDermott, Husqvarna’s senior product manager, tree pro North America, Husqvarna batteries are IPX4-rated, which means the saws can be operated in heavy rain at long intervals. He added that, “Short of completely submerging them (which you shouldn’t do with any chain saw), you should have no concerns using them in wet conditions.”
According to Kelly Blasi, Milwaukee brand manager, “All M18 batteries are constructed with a specific feature set to mitigate failure when exposed to harsh conditions. Our existing batteries feature a water-protection barrier that routes water away from the electronics and out of the battery through integrated weep holes. Pack electronics (a reference to the way individual lithium cells are packaged together within the casing) are equipped with an electronic coating that shields them from water and condensation.” She adds, “The new M18 Redlithium Forge batteries feature patented ingress coating for increased protection from harsh job-site conditions, weather and other environmental conditions.”
Safety/compatibility issues with PPE
This has become a hot-button issue in the arguments against both chain-saw protective pants and battery chain saws. During my presentation on chain-saw trousers at TCI EXPO ’22, some attendees boldly proclaimed that chain-saw trousers will not protect you against battery chain saws. Let’s set some things straight. Wearing UL-rated chain-saw protective garments is required when handling any chain saws on the ground. There is no rating specific to battery saws, because they are still saws. If you earnestly want to cut through chain-saw protective garments, you can certainly find saws or cutting methods that will breach the protective layers. But we have yet to see actual evidence that demonstrates UL-rated protective garments failing to stop battery saws when replicating the actual testing standard.
Travis Vickerson wrote an excellent piece for the January 2022 issue of TCI Magazine, “Selecting Cut-Resistant Leg Protection,” in which he covered this very topic. His companion training-demonstration video shows Vickerson actually testing battery saws with UL-rated chain-saw trousers. Every battery-saw manufacturer we spoke with recommends wearing UL-rated chain-saw protective garments, and every chain-saw chap/trouser manufacturer we spoke with feels very confident in their garment’s ability to stop all current battery saws, if tested appropriately.
Husqvarna’s Amber Huffman, senior brand manager, tree pro North Americas, states, “We acknowledge there is no ASTM standard and/or UL-test procedure specific to battery chain saws. For Husqvarna battery saws, we simulated the current standard certification testing and have determined that our chain-saw chaps and trousers provide protection according to this standard.”
Manufacturers such as Husqvarna and Milwaukee designed their battery saws to rapidly ramp down when the trigger is disengaged, to ensure that chain speeds are reduced prior to potential incidental contact.
PPE manufacturers Arbortech, Clogger and Pfanner have all conducted rigorous in-house testing utilizing the battery saws currently on the market. The results of these tests bolstered their confidence in their chain-saw PPE’s ability to stop all battery saws when tested in accordance with the UL standard testing procedures.
Battery chain saws, as well as other battery OPE, have many virtues that should make them attractive to the professional. After running battery OPE for the past year, my team and I continue to marvel at the ease of operation we constantly experienced while operating battery saws and other related OPE. We found that most of these saws were more consistent in their performance, quieter, safer to operate and easier to maintain than their gas counterparts. Our confidence in these products stems from their performance amidst the heavy workload we subjected them to.
The battery technology packed into all these products provides a cutting experience that has little performance variability throughout the life cycle of the battery. Gas-powered saws often run differently throughout the day, based on usage and temperature.
Notwithstanding dull chains and the like, all the battery saws we ran performed consistently, regardless of how many battery cycles we went through. Gas chain saws require periodic tuning, whereas battery saws always perform the same. This consistency increases productivity, safety and the proficiency of chain-saw training. Again, aside from chain sharpness, operators of professional-grade battery saws should never experience performance variability resulting from the saw itself.
This consistency dramatically expedites new-hire chain-saw training, because the new operator is never faced with performance-issue troubleshooting, poor-idle issues or irregular power output. Removing these variables allows the operator to focus on the mechanics of the cut, such as material orientation, body positioning, chain-saw manipulation and chain speed, not whether the saw is operating differently than it did during prior training sessions.
Because battery saws enjoy consistent performance, operators are less likely to injure themselves using a saw that may require maintenance. Some of the biggest safety benefits are most notable for the aerial worker. One of the biggest drawbacks to gas-powered saws is their propensity to idle irregularly. It isn’t uncommon for a gas top-handle saw to have “free-spin” or “chain-spin” issues. This free-spinning chain while the saw is running can pose a significant cut risk to your body, your saddle or your rope.
It is widely accepted that battery saws are quieter than their gas counterparts, and our testing confirmed that battery saws are typically about 10-15 decibels quieter while cutting. That’s a substantial difference in daily sound exposure, which we know leads to premature fatigue and hearing degradation. It’s also important to recognize that battery saws are completely silent when the trigger is not actively engaged. This key feature facilitates better communication between crewmates.
Battery saws do not require a pull start to engage the motor, so a climber can realistically expect to save hundreds of chain-saw starts a week, mitigating the risk of occupational injury caused by repetitive start-up procedures. Battery saws are much cleaner to operate, and users should enjoy operating them without prolonged exposure to chain-saw exhaust fumes!
One of the clearest advantages to using battery chain saws is their cross compatibility with other battery OPE and tools from their manufacturers. All of the manufacturers of the battery chain saws we tested have other essential OPE products that tree workers often employ. Stihl, Greenworks, Ego, Echo and Husqvarna all produce professional-grade battery hedge trimmers, blowers, pole saws and many other essential products that operate on the same battery platform as their respective battery chain saws.
Companies such as Makita and Milwaukee produce all the traditional OPE products, but they also boast an extensive tool portfolio that operates on the same battery line as their OPE tools. This flexibility allows end users to slowly build comprehensive tool lines without the need to deviate from their battery platform of choice. As a small-business owner, the ability to have one battery lineup power all my battery OPE, general tools and automotive power tools is a major advantage. This flexibility ensures that I always have a power source, no matter what products are currently being employed.
As arborists, we rely on an assortment of OPE products to best serve our clients. Many of us consistently use handheld hedge trimmers, extension hedge trimmers, telescoping pole saws and blowers. All our in-field use of hedge trimmers and pole saws has been battery powered, and we feel strongly that in these applications, the pro-grade battery versions of these products outperformed their gas equivalents. Most pole saws and hedge trimmers utilize a 25-35cc engine, or battery equivalent, which is right in the wheelhouse for the current professional-grade battery-powered OPE.
Future of battery-powered chain saws
So what does the future look like? Two years ago, Richard Jones, BCMA, wrote a great piece for TCI Magazine (June 2021) titled “Battery-Powered Chain-Saw Considerations.” In this piece, Jones explored the viability of battery saws for professional arborists. Jones discussed many of the pros of this technology, but was ultimately unable to determine if battery chain saws were ready for full-time professional use.
Since Jones’ article, the industry has seen several advancements in battery chain saws and related OPE that have been built specifically for the professional user. Are battery chain saws ready to usurp all gas-powered chain saws? Not yet, but factors including battery-friendly legislation, consumer demand, technological innovations and more manufacturers entering into the professional OPE space will rapidly expedite the transition from gas to battery.
Traditional saw manufacturers such as Stihl, Echo and Husqvarna are still dedicated to delivering premium OPE solutions fueled by both battery and gasoline for their customers. But these companies are seeing a major increase in the demand for better battery OPE.
After working closely with many of the manufacturers during this process, I can confidently tell you that big things are coming. When you see the battery saws we have had the opportunity to field test, you will no longer wonder if battery-powered chain saws have enough power, or long-enough run times to overcome any obstacle throughout the range of professional tree care.
Change isn’t just coming, change is already here. Legislation such as California’s AB1346 is just the beginning. As with all previous legislation or regulations, the tree care industry will adapt and continue to provide expert care and science-based solutions to meet our clients’ tree care needs. Regardless of where you fall politically on “greener” legislation, I challenge you to legitimately consider this rapidly growing technology. The results may surprise you.
This experiment has certainly solidified our opinion in favor of battery OPE. Ultimately, we want to be responsible stewards of the urban forests that our clients entrust us with. If we have access to “greener” OPE solutions that are as productive as their gas counterparts, then our revenues and employees and the environment all stand to gain.
Andy Jones, CTSP, is an ISA Certified Arborist, production climber and co-founder of Rooted Arbor Care Climbing Solutions, based in St. Louis, Missouri. He is also a member of TCI Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Committee and has presented at past TCI EXPOs, and will be presenting at TCI EXPO ’23 this month in St. Louis.