Tested This Week
Zanon Combi Z-1200
The Review Panel
David Barnes, gardener, Upton House; John Beswick, gardener, Canons Ashby; Neil Cook, gardens and park manager, Hanbury Hall; David Lewis, volunteer, Charlecote Park; Justin Litten, arboretum supervisor, Thenford Gardens; Guy Lory, gardener in charge, Dudmaston; Mark McCormack, assistant gardener Dudmaston; Ashley McKerney, grounds keeper, Charlecote Park; Andrew Mocrost, gardener, Hanbury Hall and Greyfriars; Gary Peach, gardener, Calke Abbey; Jason Price, volunteer, Charlecote Park; Paul Simpson, gardener, Calke Abbey; Chris Smith, gardens and park manager, Canons Ashby; Paul Smith, head gardener, Charlecote Park; Lisa Topham, park and gardens manager, Charlecote Park; Adam Webb, grounds assistant, Compton Verney; Gary Webb, gardens and park manager, Compton Verney.
Electrical power has clear benefits over petrol. Instead of noise, fumes and vibration, you can hear the birds singing and smell the flowers. There is no risk of mixing the wrong fuel and no fuel to store or spill. Now consider cordless tools with batteries that are interchangeable. These additionally mean cost and space advantages. Instead of buying three or four tools each with a power unit, you buy one battery - plus perhaps a spare - and the tools that you need.
In this test, we invited the leading battery-power tool manufacturers to submit interchangeable-battery systems. We took them to Charlecote Park in Warwickshire and asked National Trust and other professional gardeners from the Midlands to "come and play". With the weather warm and sunny, conditions were perfect for cutting hedges, mowing, trimming grass, clearing debris and working in the woodyard. Despite having several machines running at the same time, peace and quiet prevailed.
How many times do you reach for the fuel can when you spend the day hedge or grass trimming? And what is the cost? Pellenc offers a full day's work for around 10p - and that will power not only a hedge trimmer or grass trimmer but also a chainsaw, a blower or a pruner.
With the first true lithium battery multi-tool system to come to the UK, Pellenc has been in the game a little longer than the others and its kit attracts a great deal of attention at our demonstration. Okay, so this one is going to cost you quite a bit to set up, but we reckon once you have the right battery and the attachments you need, this system will pay for its self - and with all the added benefits of no fuel spills, no fumes, very little noise and minimal maintenance.
Having the weight of the power unit on your back means that your arms and shoulders tire less quickly.
Canon Ashby gardens and park manager Chris Smith is impressed. "It's sturdy and easy to use," he notes. "I like the fact that there is a good range of batteries and attachments. You decide what will be the highest powered item you need and how long you would use it for and from there you can choose the battery and then add to it."
If you are one of those people who are nervous about batteries deteriorating through the "memory" effect, then now is the time to change your mind. Pellenc's Ultra lithium battery is equipped with an "intelligent" charging system. This means that the battery can be charged at any time. If the battery is not used for four consecutive days, then it automatically discharges for optimum storage and to extend service life.
We are told that after 800 full charge and discharge cycles, the capacity of the battery is still 80 per cent of its initial level and the power delivery by the battery is not affected.
There is no denying that the harness on the Pellenc batteries is comfortable. There is loads of adjustment so you can get a perfect fit, whatever your size or shape.
Calke Abbey gardener Paul Simpson finds it so comfy he walks off with it on his back. "You forget you are wearing it," he says.
Our chainsaw expert, Simpson, puts the arb kit to the test. He finds the saws quick and responsive and even enjoys using the pole saw. "It is lightweight. It bites into the wood nicely and you don't feel it is going to suddenly drop through."
This is the first time Charlecote Park groundskeeper Ashley McKerney has used Pellenc equipment. "I didn't expect it to be as good as this," he admits. "I especially like the leaf blower. It has so much power." The blower, with adjustable speed, is also a favourite item for Charlecote volunteer Jason Price.
"I've used petrol blowers in the past but this one is certainly a lot lighter and a lot easier to use. Power wise, it is probably better than I've used before." He gives it the thumbs up. As does Calke Park gardener Gary Peach. "I am really impressed with the hedge cutter. It's so light and has the grunt you want," he says.
The brushcutter, with four-speed selector to match vegetation, is also favoured. But the hoe and secateurs appeal less to our testers. They see them more as novelty items, but they all agree that the pruners would be useful in a vineyard or orchard. McKerney suggests they could help if you had to prune roses all day.
Innovation continues apace at Pellenc. One of its latest developments is a solar charger. Can you get any greener than that? A solar charging station costs £1,490 + VAT. A rapid charger for all other batteries will set you back £259.07. For further details, call Etesia on 01295 680120.
If you think that backpack battery tools mean Pellenc, think again. There are new players, and STIHL is one pushing up the stakes.
"Gets my vote," confirms Thenford Gardens arboretum supervisor Justin Litten as he returns the backpack. STIHL developed a system of tools using slot-in or belt-carried batteries a few years ago. This year, it is giving Pellenc a run for its money with the AR900. It not only gives you choice, it gives you plenty of time too. At £600 + VAT it is setting a new benchmark in terms of price.
STIHL now offers the AP80 and AP180 batteries to run hedge trimmers - standard and articulating long-reach - grass trimmers, chainsaws, lawnmowers, sweepers and a blower. But its the backpack battery that causes most stir at Charlecote Park.
While the backpack AR900 takes 250 minutes to reach 100 per cent charge - compared to 50-100mins for the AP80 and 70-210mins for the AP180, depending on charger used - it takes more weight off your arms and gives much longer use time.
"With an 11-hour charge it means, in theory, you can hedge cut for two days," says Litten. "And I love the fact that it is maintenance free. The gearbox is sealed, so you can pick up the tool in the morning and get straight on with your work."
Litten is also impressed with the grass trimmer, although he senses thick, older vegetation would beat it. A National Trust volunteer at Charlecote, David Lewis, also appreciates the backpack. "The quality of build is very good, yet it is lightweight," he finds. "The tools are easy to handle but the big advantage is the battery life."
In the woodyard, Simpson tests the MSA200 chainsaw with a battery slotted into the top. "I like that they have optimised the size of chain for the amount of power, so you get a better cut," he says. "It's well-balanced and is just like using a real (petrol) chainsaw, but it's unbelievably quiet." For further details, call STIHL on 01276 20202.
Zanon Combi Z-1200
Just arrived in the UK, the Zanon Combi is another backpack battery system with several attachments. It comes from the Italian farm and garden machinery manufacturer of the same name and is imported by Tracmaster. Designed as a 44V multi-tool system for land owners, if you are mobile, working out of a van, it could be useful as a handy space-saving system for a garden round.
A powerful 1,200W motor, combined with low weight and wide range of multi tools, mean you can be cutting hedges one minute, trimming grass the next and then doing serious pruning work with the pole saw. A useful extension means you can reach further with both hedge trimmer and pruning saw.
But this is a flexi-shaft system and as such is that bit more fiddly when it comes to changing attachments. Instead of plugging in a cable, or slotting in a battery, you have to line up the splines and throw a catch to make sure it engages. Nevertheless, we are impressed with the power - especially with the grass trimmer.
"It is robust and has plenty of power for the job," Smith comments. What we would like, however, is a means of fixing the brushcutter to the battery harness, rather than being strapped into two harnesses.
The battery has good performance, with up to five or six hours achievable on average vegetation. The brushcutter will last between three and six hours depending on head and vegetation. The price is also good - £1,899 + VAT for the battery, hedge trimmer, pole saw, brushcutter and 100cm extension.
A separate pruning tool, the Z-35, is available to cut 35mm branches. The battery provides up to two days' use and is recharged in a few hours. The battery and pruner cost £1,650 + VAT. For further details, call Tracmaster on 01444 247689.
Makita has not got a backpack battery yet, but we reckon it probably will not be long before it joins Pellenc and STIHL. The firm is already getting a reputation for quality cordless hedge trimmers. We tested them last year (HW, 26 October 2012) and at Charlecote the team backs up our initial report. "The build quality is absolutely brilliant," Litten confirms.
Makita has developed a split-shaft system with brushcutter, pick-tine cultivator, pole saw and long-reach hedge trimmer attachments, but it also offers a range of 36V kit, including a lawnmower, rotary cultivator, as well as hedge trimmers and brushcutters with slot-in batteries. We are especially impressed with the commercial-grade brushcutter. It is feisty and oozes confidence.
"It's my favourite in terms of operation," says Litten. He likes the fact that the charge time is just 22 minutes. But there is a downside: "You don't have so long running time. But the speed of cut is really good."
While the loop-handled trimmer seems a little on the domestic side, the bike-handled version gets more praise from our testers. "This one is more robust - much better for estate work," says Lewis.
We like the rotation on the hedge trimmers. It makes them so easy and comfortable to use. But, hey Makita, we would really like to shed the battery weight off the arms and put it on the back instead. We try the battery in the split-shaft system and use the pole saw. It struggles. Perhaps it needs charging. For further details, call Makita on 01908 211678.
When a company in the premier league for petrol-engined chainsaws and brushcutters declares that it is venturing into battery power, we are keen to see how it will perform - and we are not disappointed.
Husqvarna has launched a total of seven handheld machines, plus a ride-on mower, benefiting from an interchangeable battery system and a highly efficient quick-charge system. On test day, only chainsaws and brushcutters were available to review, but if these items are anything to go by, the others will be well worth closer inspection.
The company tells us that the development goal was "petrol performance without the petrol". Certainly the bike-handled brushcutter and the chainsaws we tested have more grunt than expected. They are also well-balanced tools and easy to use. There are indicators to show when power is low and you need to change batteries and put one on charge.
"It's very much like using a normal saw," says Simpson. "It feels nice and comfortable - the weight is in the right place. The chain brake is very responsive and the chain cuts quickly." Expect to pay around £314 for the 12in and £329 for the 14in including VAT but excluding batteries and charger. Husqvarna is also offering a battery top-handled saw for professional use.
Of the two brushcutters - 536Li with loop and 536Li with bike handles - we prefer the latter, but they are both robust and powerful units. We especially like the two-way rotation of the trimmer head. It is designed to leave less grass on walkways - a good feature for gardens. Current prices are £289 for the loop and £329 for the bike-handled version - again including VAT but for body only.
A particularly clever feature is the "savE" function. This is a two-speed control that gives you the option of economy running or boost. It means that you can get around an hour of continuous running out of most items, depending on the vegetation.
The running time is less for a chainsaw - about 35 minutes. Charging time is generally 25 minutes to 80 per cent and 35 minutes to 100 per cent charge. Please, Husqvarna, can we test the hedge trimmers and rider mowers? And then can we have a backpack battery? For further details, call Husqvarna on 01325 300302.