During the recent downturn in the economy, I switched from new construction and remodeling to maintenance, repairs, and remodeling. As a result, I began to rely less on full-size (18-volt) tools and more on subcompact (12-volt max) models. When Tools of the Trade asked me to test some of Milwaukee's new brushless M12 tools, I readily agreed.
These tools are labeled M12 FUEL to distinguish them from brushed M12 models. Except for a few small changes, the new and old tools look pretty much alike on the outside. The internal components are different, though, as is the grade of battery supplied in the kits—the previous standard was 1.5 Ah for compact packs and 3.0 Ah for XC packs; now it's 2.0 Ah and 4.0 Ah. So even without the changes to the tools, one would expect better runtime. And of course, brushless motors have better runtime than brushed motors.
The FUEL drill/driver and impact driver arrived in late March and I immediately put them to work. Since then, my crew and I have used them on residential and commercial remodels and for ongoing repairs at medical clinics and hotels. Just before writing this I performed formal runtime and timed speed tests to put numbers to what we sensed about the tools from using them. I own several brushed M12 tools, so I compared the brushless ones with them.
I received a kit version of the drill/driver (2403-22) that included a charger, a case, and two different batteries—one 2.0-Ah compact pack and one 4.0-Ah XC pack.
The first thing I noticed about the tool was that the handle was much more comfortable to grip. The old handle was about the same diameter all the way up and always felt fat, whereas the new handle tapers in above the battery where your thumb wraps. It's an improvement that has been incorporated into all of the M12 FUEL drilling and driving tools.
Another big change is the chuck—the old one was 3/8 inch; the new one is 1/2 inch. You wouldn't think that it would make much of a difference, but it does. Now, when I need to run 1/2-inch shank bits, I can stick with a small, light tool and not have to go to an 18-volt model. Like the chuck on the previous M12 drill, this one ratchets, is all metal, and has a single sleeve.
The addition of a small belt clip to the drill/driver (and other M12 tools) is a welcome improvement. It's good for hanging the tool from a belt or pocket; it was a little tight, but I bent it open and it fit on the pocket of my tool belt. Something that didn't change is the handy battery gauge built into the side of the drill.
We used this tool for a wide variety of drilling and driving tasks: replacing door hardware, driving drywall screws, and making 1-inch and smaller holes. On a recent commercial job, we used it to install hangers for a suspended ceiling. The hangers weren't large—3/16-inch diameter at the lag ends—but there were a lot of them and the FUEL drill/driver drove them (unpiloted) for an entire day on a single 2.0-Ah battery. Being lighter than an 18-volt tool, it was easy to use overhead. The guys on my crew don't look at this drill as a subcompact tool; to them it's just a 1/2-inch cordless drill.
I received a kit version of the impact driver (2453-22), which included a charger, a case, and two 2.0-Ah compact packs.
Improvements over the previous, brushed model include a more comfortable grip (tapered at the top like the drill/driver's), a belt clip, and a higher maximum speed. The previous M12 impact driver topped out at 2,000 rpm; this one tops out at 2,650 rpm. A mode switch allows the operator to reduce maximum speed to 1,200 rpm for greater control during delicate operations. It's akin to changing from high to low on a drill/driver, but instead of relying on gears, it relies on electronic control of the motor.
With no brushes to wear out, brushless models are said to be more durable. And they're more efficient, so they should have more runtime. Our runtime testing (see table, right) bears the second point out. We found some differences in drilling and driving speed, but they can't be attributed entirely to the lack of brushes because gearing and other design features factor in.
Brushes are a means of mechanical control and when you do away with them, they must be replaced with a different form of control, in this case, sophisticated electronics. This adds cost but makes certain things possible that weren't before—for example, the dual speed range on the impact driver. It was clear when I used these tools that the electronics made for more precise speed control. If I squeezed the trigger so the motor spun at a certain speed, varying the load did not cause the speed to increase or decrease, as it would with brushed models.
After my crew used the M12 FUEL drill/driver and impact driver for several months, the consensus was that they'll do 90% of what we need to do with tools of their type. We'll still use 18-volt tools, but not as much as before. If my cordless drill/drivers and impact drivers were stolen today, I'd replace them tomorrow with M12 FUEL models.
Scott Dornbusch is a contractor in North Branch, Minn.