Tools are a mechanic’s stock in trade. Sure, your knowledge is vital, but without the right tools, you cannot bring that expertise and experience to bear. You could know all there is to know about transmissions, but if you cannot remove the subframe and engine mounts, you can’t really get it out to rebuild it. Of course, when we talk about tools, there are several categories. You have your hand tools – those aren’t really replaceable. But you also have air tools and cordless tools. Which is best? Is there such a thing as “best” at all? Let’s dig into the discussion.
We’ll start with air tools. Once, they were the uncontested kings of the shop for the simple reason that cordless tools didn’t really have the oomph to do much. Sure, you could use your cordless drill to loosen breather housing bolts, but when it came to serious work, the only option was to go with air tools.
That’s changing today. However, air tools still have a lot going for them. Like what, you ask?
For one, they are very powerful. Compare a battery-powered air hammer to a pneumatic one, and you’ll definitely see that air power is superior. To put it in perspective, an air tool is generally capable of delivering around 950 lb-ft. of working torque, and 1,295 lb-ft of breakaway torque. In comparison, cordless tools only offer 700/1,200 lb-ft. Of course, brute force is only worth so much.
There is also the fact that air tools weigh far less than their battery-powered cousins. This is because they lack the heavy battery pack necessary to make cordless tools operate. They rely on air pressure only, so there is less there. The average weight of an air tool is around 4.5 pounds. In comparison, cordless tools weigh just over 7 pounds on average.
In terms of size, air tools also have an edge. They’re generally smaller than the equivalent cordless tool, usually by several fractions of an inch, which can make a very big difference in the tight confines under the hood.
Finally, air tools are often seen as being more economic over time. Their purchase price is higher than cordless tools, but they are very durable. In addition, because they have fewer moving parts, they require less maintenance – a drop or two of oil in the air inlet is usually enough. When things do start to wear down, they can also be rebuilt for relatively little money.
Once, cordless tools had little place in the automotive shop. Today, that is no longer true. In fact, cordless tools are becoming more and more popular for a number of reasons.
Yes, air tools still reign supreme in terms of strength, but cordless tools really aren’t that much weaker. They’re also getting more and more powerful with each successive generation. That means there is little tradeoff between air tools and cordless tools in terms of performance.
Size is another area where air tools win, but cordless tools are slimming down. In fact, you can find a number of “slimline” versions on the market. Yes, they do cost more, but that cost difference can be very worth it in light of the other benefits that cordless tools bring to the table.
Cordless tools have also made great strides when it comes to reliability, durability, and maintenance. While you cannot get away from the need to charge your battery, most systems today offer very fast charging times and will hold their charges for a long time. They also offer better build quality, meaning that maintenance, repairs, and replacements are not problematic.
Perhaps the single most important aspect of cordless tool use that trumps air tools is in portability. Cordless tools can go literally anywhere (as long as you have a charged battery pack, of course). Air tools can only go as far as your hose will reach. That means, while they might be great for working on a car in the shop on the lift, they’re not so great for handling things just beyond the shop door.
There is also the fact that cordless tools are able to take advantage of modern technology, such as IoT connectivity. Take the Milwaukee ONE-KEY system for example. This single system allows you to achieve a number of things with your power tools that were once impossible. For example, you can track your tool’s location by Bluetooth, even disabling operation remotely if it is stolen or being used improperly. You can also delve into performance and usability metrics, and even fine-tune the performance of your tools to suit your specific needs.
None of those things can be done with air tools, nor will pneumatic tools ever be part of the wider IoT ecosystem. What does that mean? Simply put, pneumatic systems may have their days numbered. It is doubtful that they will fade away completely, but it’s very likely that their use will decline with cordless tools coming to prominence.
With that being said, cordless tools do have one Achilles’ heel – the use life of their battery packs. All batteries deteriorate over time and through use. Negative experiences with older, short-lived batteries has made many mechanics leery of investing in cordless tools. The good news is that today’s batteries can actually last for several years, often up to five years or more.
So, who wins? Do air tools trump cordless tools? Does the evolution of cordless tools mean that air tools are not worth your investment? Actually, both air tools and cordless tools still have important roles to play, and will for the foreseeable future. While Bluetooth and IoT technology may eventually erode the market share for air tools, that hasn’t happened yet. And, because both cordless tools and air tools have unique things to offer, it is worth building a toolkit that includes both of them.