Alternatives in power - Battery use expands in construction and general tool equipment
by Steve Elliott
Technological advances are continuing to change the way manufacturers are powering equipment. Gas and diesel engines still dominate in many areas, but change is ongoing and evolving.
Clean air and lower carbon dioxide emissions are driving forces worldwide in developing and improving other forms of power to run machines. In addition, internal combustion engines (ICEs) fueled by gas and diesel are moving in the direction of green, becoming more efficient. Hybrid technologies using a combination of electric motors and ICE, may retain the advantages of ICE’s longer running times.
Manufacturers also are investing heavily in the development of battery-powered equipment, using advanced lithium-ion batteries.
Sorting through the various options means knowing as both a rental company and a customer what your specific needs are.
Dave Schulenberg, director of product management – battery and electrification, Briggs & Stratton, Milwaukee, thinks there always will be a need for the ICE even as other technologies develop.
“There are many applications where the run time, quick refuel capability or lack of electricity will always require a combustion engine,” Schulenberg says. “There will also be a number of emerging applications where a hybrid will make a lot of sense. The key to the future is understanding what the best power source is for the application, whether it be petrol, diesel, battery or some hybrid of these.”
Today, electric excavators and backhoes are available on the market in testing stages and for actual applications. Tools ranging from battery-powered chainsaws to hedge trimmers are becoming a routine to use for a full eight-hour workday or to complete a do-it-yourself (DIY) handyman weekend project.
Several factors are pushing manufacturers and users toward alternative power. First, clean air policies are beginning to carry weight at job sites. Next, indoor jobs require zero emissions and noise ordinances may exclude power equipment exceeding certain decibel levels.
Earlier this year, the Freedonia Group, an international industrial research company, reported demand for battery-powered lawn and garden equipment will continue to outpace the overall market and increase its share of sales through 2024.
“We continue to see the battery get smaller, and deliver more power and a reduction in cost,” says Tony Marchese, vice president, sales and operations, Greenworks, Mooresville, N.C. “There are new styles of batteries that will arrive that will make the product we use today look archaic in cost and power delivery.”
Equipment categories that are now using batteries and electric motors continues to expand.
Engine developments. Honda Power Equipment, Alpharetta, Ga., signaled its new direction by entering the battery-powered lawn and garden product market in April 2017 with the launch of Miimo, the company’s first robotic lawn mower for use in the United States. In June 2021, Honda launched the Honda eGX, an advanced, electrified power unit.
“The company’s new electrified motor is powered by a lithium-ion battery and can accommodate the needs of construction applications,” says David Bush, senior marketing strategist, engines and industrial products, American Honda Motor Co.
“The battery, assembled in series and parallel, emits no greenhouse gases, providing power for use indoors, outdoors and in enclosed spaces, while the quiet motor lets the operator work for extended periods, and at night or near residential areas,” Bush says.
Schulenberg, from Briggs & Stratton, says batteries are capable of delivering a lot of power for a very short period of time.
“For example, the Vanguard 5kWh battery is rated for 5kW (6.7 hp) continuous power but can provide 15kW (20 hp) of power for 10 seconds,” he says. “This ability to provide a lot of instantaneous power for a short period of time allows a battery to absorb instantaneous loads, like climbing a hill, with a smaller power source than would be needed with a traditional engine.”
Battery-powered tools. Cordless, zero emission tools have become the norm. More battery-powered chainsaws, hedge trimmers, leaf blowers, grinders, wet/dry vacuums, lawn mowers and other types of equipment are available to contractors and homeowners each year. Greenworks, a leader in battery-powered outdoor power tools for DIY consumers and landscaping professionals, has an array of products including 24V, 40V, 60V, 80V and commercial-grade 82V battery-powered cordless outdoor power tools.
“Battery power has significant advantages over fossil-fueled power equipment,” Marchese says, adding that batteries do not need to be refueled, saving time and money.
“There are typically no belts to power equipment as the electric motor is placed where the power is needed. There are no carburetor issues, spark plugs or other down-time maintenance issues that plague rental equipment. And, in the end, it is easy to use — just insert the battery and use the equipment. No pull cords or other potential starting or running issues to deal with,” he says.
Marchese says there are more than 500 towns and municipalities in the U.S. with some form of noise ordinance or outright banning of the use of two- and four-stroke engines, creating a bigger market for battery-powered equipment.
In addition, he says the rapid growth of battery-driven automobiles is accelerating the development of battery technology and capabilities of the battery platform for all sizes and ranges of need.
Electric-powered construction equipment. Electric vehicles (EVs) are entering the mainstream of construction equipment and off-road equipment in general. In fact, to win local and state government contracts contractors often need to prove that they are working with equipment with reduced or zero emissions, and manufacturers aim to help.
At The Utility Expo in Louisville, Ky., in September, Volvo Construction Equipment, Shippensburg, Pa., for example, displayed the electric ECR25 excavator and L25 wheel loader available for test drive at the show. Volvo is partnering with Beam Global, San Diego, a company that produces patented infrastructure products for transportation electrification.
Beam exhibited the EV ARC™ solar-powered EV charging system, a portable charging station for equipment like the Volvo excavator and wheel loader.
“There’s no infrastructure or permitting needed,” says Ray Gallant, product management, Volvo Construction Equipment. “This tracks the sun and basically you’re charging and fueling for free. You’re running this machine totally on sunshine.”
Case Construction Equipment, Racine, Wis., introduced in 2020 a fully electric backhoe loader, the 580 EV. Named “Project Zeus,” the company said the machine is equivalent to other diesel-powered backhoes in the company’s product line while also producing zero emissions. The machine is powered by a proprietary 480V, 90kWH lithium-ion battery pack from Green Machine Equipment, Buffalo, N.Y., that can be charged by any 220V connection.
Case said it is estimated that the 580 EV could save fleets as much as 90 percent in annual vehicle service and maintenance costs when taking into account the reduction or elimination of diesel, engine oil, diesel exhaust fluid, regular preventive maintenance and long-term engine upkeep/maintenance.
John Deere, Moline, Ill., unveiled the 310 X-Tier, a battery-powered backhoe, at The Utility Expo. Developed to match the company’s diesel-burning 310L spec for spec, the machine is intended to provide lower operating costs, lower job-site noise, enhanced machine reliability and zero tailpipe emissions, says Brian Hennings, Deere product marketing manager – backhoes and tractor loaders.
There is no timeline for the machine’s release as testing continues.
“We have to target at least 8 to 10 hours of charge life to match what’s currently there for job sites,” Hennings says. “This is somewhat unique for Deere. In the testing phase, we’re a little bit closer to the vest, but with the environment we’re in with battery electric technology and the excitement around it, we wanted to, No. 1, showcase and promote to our customers that we’re working on such solutions.”
In July 2020, Doosan Bobcat North America, West Fargo, N.D., and Green Machine Equipment, Buffalo, N.Y., created a partnership to produce electric/hydraulic Bobcat compact excavators. Green Machine is custom retrofitting Bobcat excavators with its proprietary battery technology to replace the standard diesel power source, with the machines selling in select markets.
Lars Arnold, Volvo’s electromobility product manager, says for most contractors who consider the move to electric machines, the biggest challenge is a change in the mindset about the capabilities and needs of electric equipment.
“Customers must have an adequate charging infrastructure in place to ensure machines operate as planned,” Arnold says. “While a 110V setup will charge the units over time, a 240V setup is necessary to charge the machines quickly. And, for remote job sites, a solar array may be necessary to provide power when an electric grid isn’t an option.”
Rental store advantages. As battery-powered equipment becomes more common, equipment rental stores are incorporating these machines into their own inventories.
“Battery-powered equipment, particularly high-performing battery-powered equipment in a commercial environment, has huge appeal for the buyer and those renting equipment,” says Bush, the Honda senior marketing strategist.
“I believe the rental yard will make more money on a battery tool over a like gas item because there is really no maintenance needed other than sharpening of a blade — no spark plug, no ethanol/carburetor issues, broken pull cords, no won’t start issues and many more happy customers,” says Greenworks’ Marchese.
Volvo’s Gallant says his company is interested in working with rental companies on battery-powered equipment.
“We think there is going to be an industry for renting this equipment, especially for people working inside and on different applications,” Gallant says.
Lloyd von Scheliha, product market manager – power cutters, masonry/tile saws, Husqvarna Construction Products N.A., Olathe, Kan., says teaching customers how to run and operate a battery-powered tool verses a gas unit is less complicated, which can be an advantage.
“It’s easy to train a new employee or DIY customer how to start a battery machine,” von Scheliha says. “It requires less instruction and retention is higher. This is especially true for operators that do not have a lot of experience with gas-powered machines.”
In addition, von Scheliha says batteries are often interchangeable with multiple tools, decreasing initial overhead costs.
Jay Thaker, marketing manager, Toro, Bloomington, Minn., also says rental stores have a lot to gain when it comes to renting out battery-powered equipment.
“As the industry continues to evolve, many contractors are looking for ways to meet the operating conditions of various job-site environments,” Thaker says. “Having battery-powered equipment as part of a rental store’s offerings also increases the options available to contractors working on unique job sites, such as in highly- opulated urban areas where noise is a concern, and indoor applications.”
Butch Trevor, president, Trevor True Value Hardware, Moline, Ill., says battery-powered tools have made great strides in the last 10 years. The challenges, he says, are how well the equipment thrives in an equipment rental environment, which can be rugged.
“You want that piece of equipment to hold up. Customers also want that equipment to last a full day. They have high expectations,” Trevor says.
Richard Thompson, owner, 5G Equipment Rentals, Bend, Ore., says his full-line rental store has had battery-powered equipment available for nearly two years.
“We mostly have it in the lawn and garden right now with electric weed eaters, chainsaws and that type of stuff,” Thompson says. “We also have some electric booms and scissor lifts in our fleet, and some are hybrid.”
Thompson says the equipment has proven to be durable so far. “There have been a couple of times if the contractor doesn’t make sure it has a full charge, we’ve had some issues there, but that was more of a user situation. But we like it. It’s easier for us to maintain. There’s not a lot of complications.”