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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Battery vs. gas-powered chainsaws

They're great, as long as you don't plan on cutting down any trees with them.

P eople are buzzing loudly these days about battery-powered chainsaws. But nobody seems to be asking the most important question: are they any good at cutting down trees? In this article I'll give my honest opinion and let the chips fall where they may.

Let me start by saying I am not an arborist or a professional. My first chainsaw, a cheap one from a box store, seized up after a year of use. My second one was stolen after two years. So I guess that makes me a typical homeowner. Now I have one of each type. Thanks to the highway department, which killed a wide swath of my trees by spraying herbicide along the side of the road, I had a chance to spend much of every weekend this summer comparing the two types.

I learned that if you want to cut down real trees (meaning something more than 20 feet high and four inches in diameter), a battery chainsaw is not the tool to use. It can do the job but it's not safe.

Scene from sharknado
A battery-powered chainsaw would not be the best tool in this situation.

That's because when cutting a tree, time is critical. A tree can decide to fall at any time after you start cutting. A sudden gust of wind could tip it over, or a dead branch, called a widowmaker, could fall off from near the top, leaving it unbalanced. If it falls before you're finished cutting, it can fall in the wrong direction and kill you. And often a tree falls in absolute silence, so if you're looking the wrong way (inspecting the battery, for instance) it can get you before you see it coming.

Contrary to what you might think, a gas one is a lot safer if you're using it on trees (as opposed to, say, flying sharks). Every minute spent near an unstable tree increases your risk. The biggest danger from cutting trees is not the saw, but the tree itself. Spend more than a couple minutes making your hinge, and it can easily fall when you aren't expecting it.

Even though they're quieter, vibrate less, and don't give any smoke or fumes, battery chainsaws are more tiring to use because they take about four times as long to make the same cut. For a branch or a small tree up to 2–3 inches, that doesn't matter. But if you have to spend ten minutes cutting your tree, the temptation to skip safety steps is too great.

Battery life

It might be true, as battery fans say, that a battery lasts as long as a tank of gas, but you can get far more work done in that time with a gas saw. A 2 amp-hour battery runs down after about ten minutes of continuous cutting. For branches that equates to a couple of hours of work. But I had a nine-inch diameter tree that died and fell over. I got only four cuts before the battery went dead. On a larger tree, an 18-inch pine tree, I got one cut. A 4 amp-hour battery would have given me two.

The manufacturer says the recharge time is one hour. But if you cut for more than a few minutes at a time, the battery gets hot, and it must be allowed to cool before it can be recharged. That takes another 30 minutes. If the battery is flat, the charger takes 90 minutes instead of an hour. It's just not practical under these conditions.

On the other hand, if you're cutting branches or small trees three inches or less in diameter, a battery chainsaw is much more convenient. When I used it for pruning branches, the battery lasted a couple hours because each branch only took a few seconds. Battery saws are much quieter, there's no need for earmuffs, and you can use them earlier in the morning when your neighbors are still sleeping. You don't need gas and oil, only bar and chain oil, so you can store them indoors instead of in a shed where they're more likely to get stolen. That's important in my area, where there a lot of crooks.


Battery chainsaws also are a lot easier to start and maintain. There are no spark plugs to change, no air filters, no fumes, and no risk of flooding the engine. On most of them, the chain can be tightened without tools.

They also tend to be a little heavier than gas ones and they have shorter bars. They run more slowly and they start at the press of a switch and stop rapidly when it is released. Some of them still have a chain brake, but it's not as essential as for a gas one. For a casual user, they are far less intimidating. But you still need, at minimum, a hard hat, gloves, and goggles.

Conclusion: As a rule of thumb, if you can cut it with a pruning saw, a battery chainsaw is the tool of choice. If you can't, you need a gas chainsaw. They are completely different tools. A homeowner with a lot of trees needs one of each.

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