If you’re an RVer, chances are pretty good you’re also a do-it-yourselfer. Sometimes it’s a matter of necessity: Get out in the backwoods with your RV, something breaks, and you’re suddenly on the spot to fix it. Others of us are just gluttons for punishment, taking on repair and upgrade projects for the sheer joy (?) of it.
Of course, fixing or upgrading it yourself requires tools. And some of the handiest tools for our kind of work are cordless power tools. A current project of ours involves re-roofing an RV, and that involves twisting literally hundreds of screws. Do that with the old manual screwdriver, and we’d be hauled off to the graveyard long before we ever got the roof on. But how do you choose good cordless power tools? Some say, “Buy the brand.” Others, “Buy the voltage.” But there’s more to cordless tools than brand names and how big the battery is that drives the tool.
Anatomy and Physiology
First, the most essential cordless power tool an RVer needs is, without any argument, the cordless drill. With it, the boring of holes, the twisting of standard screws, and the in-and-outing of sheet metal screws so common in the industry is made practical. And there are dozens upon dozens of cordless drills. For this reason, we’ll aim the spotlight on cordless drills, but some of the basic selection principles apply to other cordless tools, too. First a word about cordless screwdrivers.
They are “cute,” if you will, but most cordless screwdrivers turn into big disappointments. They often have built-in batteries, and once the battery charge has wimped out, you’re without screw driving capacity until it recharges. Second, they’re not cheap. You can easily spend nearly the price of a Benny Franklin bill for a “tinker toy,” when for 10 or 15 bucks you could have bought a good set of manual screwdrivers. If you invest your money in a good cordless drill, you won’t need the cordless screwdriver.
To make the selection easier, let’s talk some basic anatomy and physiology of cordless drills:
Power: You’ll find a wide range of battery voltages in cordless drills. The guiding principle here for many is: More power is better. To a degree, that’s true. A battery with a higher voltage rating does generally translate to more work between charges and higher torque. But it’s not always the case: Consumer Reports found that while the often ballyhooed 18-volt tools did deliver big in terms of work, some smaller voltage tools did just as well.
Something to remember: the bigger the voltage rating, the heavier the tool. A “weakling” 7.9-volt drill can scale in at less than four pounds, while its Goliath-like 18-volt counterpart can weary its owner with its hefty 10-pound weight.
Battery type: For some time now, most cordless tools have stored their juice in a nickel cadmium battery; today the majority still do. But a new breed of battery on the marketplace is the lithium ion battery, said to be more environmentally friendly (it doesn’t contain cadmium). These new characters are lighter than the old nicads for the same amount of available power. Still, price could be a consideration, as the newer technology is more expensive.
Battery Charging: Do you need the expensive fast charger? If you’re a building contractor, maybe so. But us “homies” can probably do just as well with the less expensive standard charger, particularly if we have two batteries to fit the drill we’re using. Count the cost here; some drills come with a single battery, while others offer two as the standard. What is the cost of an additional battery?
The faster the charge rate, the greater the chance of damaging the drill battery. “Smart” chargers are safer, they determine the rate of charge needed to optimally charge the battery and deliver just what’s needed without the chance of overheating (and possibly damaging) the battery.
Clutches: Here’s what really makes a cordless drill different from the corded counterpart. The adjustable clutch allows you to vary the amount of torque delivered by the drill. If drilling into softwoods or plywood, you can dial back the amount of torque to prevent driving screws too far into the wood. The greater the number of settings on the clutch, the happier you’ll be.
Chuck Size: The typical RVer will probably be working with drill bits with a 3/8-inch shank. The more expensive (and heavier) drills take up to a 1/2-inch shank. When making a decision, ask yourself how often you use a 1/2-inch shank bit. If it’s rare, you could use your corded drill, or even rent the necessary larger drill.
Cordless drills generally have a keyless chuck, meaning you can hand tighten the chuck, locking the bit in place without fiddling with a chuck key. Saves time and frustration.
Single or dual-speed? While all cordless drills allow variable speed selection by how far you pull the trigger, some also have a switch that allows for changing drill speeds between high and low. If you do a lot of finish work, you may find the dual-speed switch a handy option.
Drill speed? If you do a lot more drilling than screw poking, look for a drill with a higher RPM to speed up your work. Just remember though, when drilling metals, don’t take advantage of all that high speed—drill slowly.
Other options: Some niceties include an LED work light on the front of the drill that helps you see your work in dimly lit locations. Other drills aren’t just drills, but allow you to remove the drill head and install other tools. For example, our favorite drill can also be changed into a small circular saw, an orbital sander, even a router. You pay more for these “multi-tools,” but when comparing them to separate cordless tools, the price for the multi-tool really beats buying separates.
What Tool for You?
Price is obviously a consideration, but it shouldn’t be the only measure of what to buy. We find that evaluating a tool in person, as opposed to purchasing over the Internet or by mail without touching the tool, is much better. Check out your favorite hardware or tool store. Pick up the tool. How does it fit in your hand? One contractor, a woman, says she found it hard to find a tool that fit her hand properly.
Lift the tool and let it balance in your hand. Does the “nose” stay level, or does it droop or point high? You don’t want to fight with the tool—you want it to work with you. Heft it. How will it be to work with the tool overhead if required? Will it be light enough that you can handle the job without wearing yourself out?
Think about how much time you’ll spend working with the tool, and what you’ll be doing with it. If you’ll be doing the typical RV maintenance work, you probably don’t need to spend the money that Joe Contractor would spend for the heavy-duty industrial tool. On the other hand, buying the lowest-priced power tool may leave you high-and-dry if you need to run some really long screws or do a lot of drilling on a project.
Check warranties, too. Find out how long the tool is warranted for, and where it has to go if it needs repair. Being without your cordless drill for a long period of time can cause separation anxiety.
And if you boondock with your RV and get your power from an inverter, it’s best to double-check with the tool manufacturer before committing your money. Call and ask the customer service folks if you can safely charge a prospective tool with an inverter. We say this as most RVers use less-expensive modified sine wave inverters. In a few rare instances, some cordless appliance chargers find this type of power indigestible. Here’s a big tip: Examine the charger, and if you see a warning that says anything like, “Dangerous voltages are present at the battery terminals,” don’t try and charge it on a modified sine wave inverter. If in doubt, call and ask the manufacturer.
This writer loves his cordless tools. The other day one of our two cordless drills gave up the ghost. I am still stressing out on whether to bury the tool, or try sending it into the shop to see if a resurrection is possible. But still, there’s always a new model!
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. They also provide great resources in their book, Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit www.icanrv.com for more information.