From chores to hobbies

Electric tools and garden appliances in the home environment

By Morand Fachot

A variety of electric tools and appliances has changed the home environment. For many, they have transformed often unpleasant chores into rewarding and enjoyable activities. From home improvement to basic car maintenance, pressure washing or gardening, it would be impossible for amateurs to tackle many tasks today without these tools and appliances.

Same battery fits all... (Photo: Bosch) Same battery fits all... (Photo: Bosch)

From industrial workshops…

Like in countless other domains, these devices have moved from the industrial world to the home environment. The continuous introduction of better products is made possible thanks to the role played by the IEC in the preparation of International Standards for components and parts used in these devices, such as switches, transformers and batteries, to name just a few.

Few people realize that individual electric power tools have been around for quite a long time. If asked "when was the first power drill introduced?" most reply tentatively: "in the 1940s or… 1950s?"

In fact, the first power drill, looking unmistakably similar to current models with pistol grip and trigger switch, was launched by the US (United States) tool manufacturer Black & Decker in 1916. This drill immediately proved very popular with workers owing to its unique ease of use.

In following years, Black & Decker introduced more power tools featuring the same pistol grip and trigger switch for industrial use.

In Europe other tool manufacturers, such as Bosch, Metabo and Peugeot, followed in Black & Decker's footsteps and launched similar electric tools for the industry in the 1930s.

…to homes…

Observing that many workers were taking their tools home for personal use, Black & Decker, sensing a commercial opportunity, introduced the world's first electric drill for consumers in 1946. It soon followed up with more consumer-oriented electric-powered tools, such as sanders and jigsaws. These proved popular in the US as more and more people took on DIY (do it yourself) to improve their homes or tackle other tasks.

The trend was repeated in Europe where electric tools moved to the consumer market and became increasingly popular among non-professional users. Japanese manufacturer Makita, a leading player in the professional and DIY power tools markets these days, started manufacturing and exporting power tools in the late 1950s.

As DIY, boosted by dedicated TV programmes, magazines and stores, expanded, users needed more tools for different tasks. The main obstacles to the expansion of the market for the occasional and even committed "DIYer" was the price of individual tools, most of it made up of the cost of the electric motor itself. The solution found by manufacturers was to offer drills as driving units and produce attachments that could convert them into other power tools such as circular saws, jigsaws, sanders and other devices, and this at a fraction of the price of separate self-contained units.

… and gardens

Consumer gardening appliances have followed in the footsteps of electric tools. The first electric lawn edgers and hedge trimmers for consumers were marketed in 1957, and the world's first cordless outdoor product, a hedge trimmer, was launched in 1962. The range of garden appliances, corded or cordless, extends from small grass shearers to lawnmowers, giving amateur and keen gardeners all the tools they need.

Severing the cord

Following the pattern observed ever since power tools were launched, the next technological revolution started in the professional environment before winning consumers over. One of the main drawbacks of corded power tools was, and still is, that they may have to be used in awkward places and where power is not easily available. A solution to this vexing problem was found, again, by Black & Decker, which introduced the first battery-operated (cordless) drill in 1961.

Black & Decker was later contracted by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to develop cordless tools for use in the US space programme and to collect samples from the moon's surface.

Electric tools manufacturers elsewhere quickly followed suit. As their price dropped, cordless tools – drills and drivers in particular – became quite popular for their convenience, not as full replacements for corded drills initially, owing to their initial lack of power and torque, but as additional tools to be used for a variety of tasks such as fitting furniture or putting shelves together.

From attachments to multiple units

The major advance in cordless tools was made in battery technology, making possible the production of more powerful tools.

In an interesting reversal of the trend observed with early corded electric tools, in which the electric motor itself was the costliest component forcing manufacturers to produce attachments for drills, the most expensive part in today's cordless tools is the battery. Producers now offer individual tools or kits of several tools – for instance, a hammer driver-drill, a circular saw, a jigsaw and an angle grinder – that all use the same battery pack.

Standards matter

The wide range of components and parts used in the production of electric tools and gardening appliances means that a multitude of IEC International Standards have to be followed in the design and manufacturing of such devices.

One IEC TC (Technical Committee) and one SC (Subcommittee) in particular are involved in the preparation of International Standards in two areas vital for these appliances: safety and batteries.

As corded or cordless tools or appliances are designed to cut or go through various materials, they may cause serious injuries even in the hands of professional or experienced users. Therefore, they must be designed to operate safely. It is the responsibility of TC 116: Safety of motor-operated electric tools, to prepare international safety standards for hand-held and transportable motor-operated electric tools and gardening appliances.

As more and more of these tools and appliances use batteries, SC 21A, which prepares standards for portable batteries among other types, plays an essential role in the development of cordless tools and gardening appliances.

As the range, use and adoption of electric tools and gardening appliances are growing constantly, the contribution of the IEC in developing and improving these devices is set to expand, too.

Same battery fits all... (Photo: Bosch) Same battery fits all... (Photo: Bosch)
Makita 18 V cordless jigsaw (Photo: Makita) Makita 18 V cordless jigsaw (Photo: Makita)
DeWalt battery for the XRP range of 12V cordless tools DeWalt battery for the XRP range of 12V cordless tools