A big decision you have to make when choosing a power tool is whether you want to go with a brushed motor or a brushless model. What’s the difference? Are brushless motors worth the extra money? Read on to find out.
Brushless and brushed drills, impact drivers, circular saws, and more exist as options. It isn’t just the carbon brush that differentiates brushless and brushed motors. Both harness the power of an electromagnetic field to turn the shaft. But they go about generating that field using different methods. Brushed motors do it mechanically, while brushless motors do it electronically.
It’s essential to understand what a brush is in the context of power tool motors. Brushes are simply small blocks of metal, usually carbon, mounted against a motor’s commutator. They don’t have bristles, they’re fixed in place, and they don’t clean anything. The brush’s only job in the motor is to deliver electric current to the commutator. The commutator then energizes the motor’s coils in an alternating pattern to generate an electromagnetic field that turns the motor shaft. The commutator and brushes setup has been around for decades, and you’ll still find them in powerful drills, rotary tools, and more.
Brushless technology does away with both brushes and commutators. Instead, they employ a ring of permanent magnets around the motor coils. The electromagnetic field spins the permanent magnets when the coils are energized, turning the shaft. These types of motors use a Hall effect sensor to constantly monitor the position of the rotor and energize each motor coil exactly when needed to sustain the stability and speed of the spin.
Doing away with components that require physical contact to deliver electricity makes brushless motors superior to their brushed counterparts in many ways. Including increased energy efficiency, improved responsiveness, greater power, torque, and speed, less maintenance, and a longer overall lifespan for the tool.
But how do those advantages manifest themselves in regular use? To get some expert answers, I sat down with Vincent Ferrari. He’s the owner of Handmade by Vincent Ferrari, a boutique woodworking store, and host of Because We Make, one of the premier podcasts in the maker space. According to him, “the benefit of brushless motors isn’t so much that they don’t have that consumable part, it’s just that they work better, they generally work better.”
He explained that the most significant area you notice is in battery life. “Battery life is significantly better on a brushless tool.” said Ferrari, “I actually had this cordless circular saw from Ryobi, the original brushed version. As soon as they came out with the brushless version, I upgraded. The battery life with the exact same batteries, I would say it’s easily doubled, if not more.”
Other enhancements of brushless tools are the tool’s speed, torque, and control, all of which apply to everything from cordless drill drivers to circular saws. According to Ferrari, since there are fewer moving parts and no friction in a brushless motor, “as soon as you pull the trigger, all the power goes directly to the motor, and you’re immediately up to full speed. You don’t have to kind of ramp up the speed and the torque and stuff. The RPMs are there from the second you pull the trigger.”
Ferrari also noted that brushless motors produce a great deal less noise than their brushed counterparts. “You’d be surprised how quiet they are.” said Ferrari, “And that’s something people that work with tools tend to not take seriously enough. Noise is a consideration when we’re talking about drills. Routers too, they’re loud. Circular saws are really loud tools. If you get a brushless version of a tool, it’s definitely going to be quieter.”
When asked about tool maintenance, Ferrari explained that replacing brushes isn’t something most people ever actually do. “It’s important to remember that not all brushed tools are user-serviceable.” said Ferrari, “If you’re mechanically inclined, you can rip them open and replace the brushes. But they’re not really meant to be serviced. They’re meant to be disposable. When the brushes die, they die. Whereas a brushless tool will last you significantly longer, you’ll probably get tired of it before you have a mechanical failure.” You most likely won’t take your power tools apart to fix them, so a longer last brushless drill or saw will help pay for itself.
The only downside to power tools with brushless motors is the price tag. Brushless tools cost about 30% more than their brushed counterparts. Every other aspect of a tool’s performance is improved through the use of a brushless motor. I even asked Ferrari to give us any reason why someone should choose a brushed tool over a brushless model — if the price wasn’t a factor. His reply was simply, “I don’t think I would ever recommend a brushed tool over a brushless tool unless the price was a consideration.”
I asked Ferrari who he thought didn’t need to spend the extra cash on brushless tools. “If you’re a homeowner that just wants to have some tools handy, or you may be a weekend warrior, and you’re not doing a whole lot with them. I would say no.” Ferrari said, “For someone like me, I use my tools a lot. I make a lot of stuff. I make a lot of stuff for customers. So, for me spending the money makes sense. But for someone who’s gonna grab a bag of tools once a month and use them for 15 to 20 minutes, it’s just not worth it.”
My last question for Ferrari was which tool companies make brushless tools. He said, “All of your big box store brands do but not in their complete lines. So, when it comes to the big brand names like DeWalt, Makita, and Ryobi, there are certain tools that are going to be brushless and certain that are going to be brushed, and that’s just the way it is. So, all the big names have some brushless tools; it’s just a matter of which tools.”
Power tools with brushless motors offer increased value and utility in nearly every area compared to their brushed-motor equivalents. But you’ll pay a hefty premium to get it. The question you need to answer is if you use your tools enough to justify spending the extra cash.