Thursday, March 30, 2023

Electric Cars, Electric Trucks, Electric RVs, Electric Tools, Electric Lawnmowers!

The future of battery power is here - and unless supplanted by something else, it isn't going to go away.  That doesn't mean, of course, that the market has stabilized, yet.

Not a few years ago, you went to a construction site, such as a roofing job, and there were a handful of "pancake" compressors running, with hoses crisscrossing everywhere, and the sound of nailguns snapping through the morning air.  Air power was king, even if it was wildly inefficient.  Electric nailguns, running on 110V would require a dozen extension cords and create electrocution hazards.  Not only that, but the instant power released by compressed air beat what instant power you could get from a solenoid back then.

Today, lithium-ion battery powered tools are supplanting pneumatic tools, slowly across various industries.  Air power will remain for some time, of course, just as IC engines will remain in an era of electric cars.  Your local muffler and tire shop isn't going to trade in all their tools just to be trendy.  But for many others, who occasionally need a power tool, such as homeowners, handymen, and some carpenters and sheetrock installers, the battery-powered tool is becoming more and more popular.  You see a sheetrocking job, and there is a "power station" bristling with charging battery packs, next to a scratchy AM radio playing Banda music from Mexico.

Myself, I have a plethora of 20V tools (which is arguably already obsolete) in the Black and Decker universe - a hedge trimmer (given to me by a neighbor, which got me started on Black and Decker 20V), two leaf blowers, a line trimmer, two screwguns, a sawzall, and a small circular saw. Not having to hassle with cords turns out to be a big deal.

Vacuum cleaners and other household appliances are following suit.  We have a cult of Bissel model 1984 vacuum cleaners here on our island.  They are so light, you can literally lift them with your pinky finger.  Just pick up, press "start" (gently) and go!   No cords, no heavy vacuum to haul around.  The end result is you are more inclined to vacuum more and enjoy it.

But of course, this scratches the surface - robotic vacuums are a big deal, of course, and some of our friends have them.  I recall the primitive first models coming out decades ago, no doubt with nickel batteries - they were little more than robotic carpet-sweepers than just randomly ran around the room like a child's toy.  Today they are far more sophisticated and are priced accordingly.  Will there be one in my life someday?  Perhaps, particularly as I get older.

I have resisted the robotic vacuum, only because those early models were quite primitive and waiting until the technology is mature (as it is rapidly becoming) makes sense.  Prices will also stabilize as the technology improves - so there is no hurry to be an early adaptor or ride the "bleeding edge" of technology, in my opinion.

A reader writes, asking me what I think of electric lawn mowers, particularly now that battery-powered ones are readily available.  It is an interesting thought. I'm on my second Honda push mower which seems to get the job done, provided I changed the air filter and put fuel stabilizer in the gasoline before I go away for the summer. It is loud though.  A neighbor was throwing away a similar Honda "mulch" mower, so they are pretty readily available.  I use that mower (with new mulch blades) to mulch our flower beds twice a year, basically by running everything over with it, to produce a nice chopped-up mulch.  It helps to get it all wet, first, as that keeps the dust down. It beats the shit out of the mower, of course, but it was free.

I expect my next lawn mower may be my last and it probably will be battery powered electric. The technology is already there and I think by the time I'm ready for a new lawn mower it'll be even better. My neighbor next to me has the battery powered electric mower and really likes it. For a quarter acre lot or less I think it works pretty well. Some have removable battery packs - the same kind as used for other power tools around the house.  So you could use the same battery packs as in your electric drill, etc.

If there was some standardization of battery pack formats (I wish!) you could use the same battery packs to run your house vacuum, your power tools, your lawnmower, and even your electric bicycle.  But the manufacturers make less money that way - they would prefer to sell you dedicated packs with proprietary formats.  It is the one downside to the battery regime.  Imagine if you bought a Honda car and it could only take Honda gasoline, sold at the Honda dealer.  They would sell a lot fewer Hondas, to be sure.

My neighbor behind me has a old-fashioned corded model which have been around since the 1960s as far as I know. A neighbor of ours had one when I was growing up in the 60s, so that's how I know they've been around that long.  The corded models are a lot cheaper I think almost half the price of the battery powered ones. There is the hassle of the cord, but I have lots of extension cord and I tend to mow the lawn in a pattern anyway so it's very easy to lay out the cord to accommodate your mowing pattern, I think.

For many modern homes, such as townhouses, with postage-stamp sized lawns, a corded model (which are very, very inexpensive) might make sense, if you are on a budget.

Some of these battery powered electric mowers are just string trimmers, though. They use a string like a weed wacker and that wears out rather quickly.  I think I would try to avoid these.  There are a plethora of models available at your local big-box store - even riding mowers for larger lawns.  The catch is, they are more expensive - perhaps twice as much - as a basic gasoline push-job.  Because of this, we can expect gas mowers to stick around for a while.

Of course, you could argue that the maintenance on a gas mower (annual oil changes, gasoline, air filters, spark plugs) offsets the higher cost of an electric mower.  And perhaps this true.  That being said, I can find parts for my Honda mowers online or even by the side of the road.  Some new-brand made-in-China mower?   I suspect that when I hit a rock with it, that's the end of it, as the motor shaft bends or something stupid like that.

I guess that is one thing to think about - are there parts, such as mower blades, available for the mower?  Check that out before buying.  Just a thought.

A neighbor of ours one street over has a robotic lawn mower that patrols his yard and keeps the lawn down. I've never seen it actually run - it seemed to sit in one place all the time - although their lawn never got long, so maybe it was stealth mowing at night.  I saw them fussing with it one day I think it broke. I think it also used weed wacker string instead of a metal blade for obvious reasons.

They had a robotic mower on display at Lowe's a few years ago, with a fake "lawn" it was supposed to mow.  You pushed a button and it would demonstrate.  The button was broken.  It was also outrageously priced (in the thousands) and I doubt they sold many in our impoverished little town.  I don't think they carry it anymore.  Robotic mowers sounds like an obvious application of robotic technology, until you think about the neighbor's toddler walking across your lawn and sticking his hand inside it.  Safety measures aside, it isn't hard to see how someone will get hurt - or allege to be hurt by it.

Sam's Club and Walmart use robotic floor sweepers which have a bevy of cameras (which also scan for inventory bar codes as it sweeps!).   They seem to be well designed and stop if you walk in front of it.  One of them sort of started harassing me at Sam's Club, trying to sweep the aisle and stopping several times, as I moved near it.  Eventually, it gave up, made the sad R2D2 sound, and phoned home to the death star.  An employees came by later and drove it away.  So there are limits to this technology so far.

But I digress.

At the campground we are in, a neighbor is showing off his Lithium battery pack.  It was very sophisticated and sort of plug-and-play and fit right in his generator compartment.  He had an "expansion pack" as well and it would run his air conditioner for several hours, if necessary.  The problem is, you have to recharge it by plugging it in somewhere, so as an "off the grid" solution for camping for days or weeks, it isn't there quite yet.

We have two 6V golf-car batteries in our camper, wired in series.  They work OK, but twice a year, I have to top off the batteries with distilled water.  It is a pain in the ass.  And realistically, they last about five years (they are four years old already).  When the time comes, we will spend the money on a 12V lithium battery (they make them now) which has no acid to spill or water to add - and lasts a lot longer than five years.   Escape (the company that makes our trailer) offers these from the factory now.

And others are taking it even further.  Another neighbor has a fancy new RV on a Ford Transit chassis (Class B Motorhome).  It is chock full of lithium batteries and will run the A/C for a day or so, and can be recharged, apparently, from the engine while you drive.   Some argue that in the future, the very rig itself may be powered by an even larger bank of lithium batteries, although I suppose that would weigh a LOT - much as the GM electric "Hummer" now weighs close to 9,000 lbs.

The point of this posting is that this stuff is here to stay - unless supplanted by something better (and no, I am not sure hydrogen is the answer, except maybe for aircraft or something?).   It is already at the Walmart stage of adaptation - meaning it is redneck-proof.  But that doesn't mean the teething pains are over.  There will be a big shakeout in the lithium battery products business in the near future, just as there was in the early days of the steam engine and the IC engine.

Another neighbor down the street from us just bought a Rivian pickup truck.  It looks cool and is orange like a creamsicle.   I am not sure I would have bought one - Rivian looks destined to be an orphan brand down the road, as they struggle to actually produce products.  My neighbor is one of the lucky few to actually take delivery of his truck - many others will be waiting until 2024 and beyond for theirs.

I noted before there are many off-brands of EVs that are claiming to have a product "next year" every year for nearly a decade.  Only a few are actually delivering on that promise.  Tesla has delivered the most cars, it seems, but not without a struggle.  Tales abound of how the production line is rushed and quality, fit-and-finish, are diminished.   Mainline automakers are getting into the game, and frankly, if I was in the market for an EV pickup truck (I am not) I would buy a Ford or a Chevy before I bought a Rivian or a "Cybertruck" (the latter of which doesn't exist yet).

And I suspect a lot of folks would feel the same way.  One reason the "IBM-PC" dominated the computer market (and its format continues to dominate, long after IBM got out of computers) was that many people were taking a "wait-and-see" attitude about personal computers.  There were a plethora of machines back in those days, each with its own O/S and even slightly different version of programming languages.  I once programmed an Olivetti desktop PC that was the size of a typewriter and would display one line of code a time, on a red LED dot-matrix display - unless you wanted to print out your "program" on a spool of thermal fax paper.

AppleDOS, CP/M, there were a host of formats and brands.  When IBM came along with its PC-XT, it wasn't a startling innovation or significantly better than other brands, it was just a big name brand that people were familiar with.  The expectation was that everyone would coelesce around this banner - and they did.  It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Of course, it was Microsoft which really came out the winner, with its poorly coded DOS.  Back in the day, we thought 640K of memory was a "lot" so Microsoft programmed MS-DOS to allocate only a portion of that to usable memory, with some of the coding located at higher addresses.  When computer memory expanded, they had to create "extended addresses" to access this additional space.  No one expected that anyone would need megabytes, much less gigabytes of memory for a "personal" computer.  Like I said before, Bill Gates fell bass-ackward into a swamp and came up smelling like roses.  He's the luckiest guy in the world, not the smartest!

But I digress, yet again.

The point is (and I did have one) is that I suspect we will see the number of formats and brands condense over time.  Our European friends will no doubt start to insist that battery packs (of all types) conform to a standard format, so that they can be interchanged with other devices, regardless of brand or type.  They are already doing this with smart phones.

In America, some on the right decry this "interference in the free market" but once upon a time, America was at the forefront of setting standards for all sorts of technology, from computers to telephony, to radio and television.   Your standard light bulb has an "Edison thread" that dates back to the late 1800's.   Whether set by the government or by industry associations (e.g., Motion Pictures Expert Group or MPEG), at one time, we did indeed "pick winners" in the marketplace, and as we were one of the largest marketplaces on the planet, what we said carried a lot of weight.  It is sad that we gave up this huge market advantage in the name of "Free-Dum" and "Free Enterprise".

But I digress... yet again.

UPDATE: I was at Home Depot today. Out front, about six Kobalt zero-radius electrics - all 80V. One battery pack plug-in, and space for three more. I guess you have to change batteries on the fly.  Inside, electric push mowers were about 1/3 the selection overall.  The zero radius was $2600 which isn't much more than I paid for a Cub Cadet zero radius, ten years ago.   I think these things are here to stay.