Going green in the garden. Review of Stihl battery powered garden equipment

When it comes to power tools in the garden, I preferred petrol equipment. I tried electric garden tools before, but they didn't cut it when compared to their fuel counterparts. However, I was getting complaints from my wife about the fumes from the equipment, especially the lawn mower. So it was time to look at alternatives.

Advances in battery technology have enabled garden tools to cut the cord. I'm a big fan of electric things powered by renewable energy sources, so I decided it was time to look at garden equipment with two key questions to answer;

  • Do battery garden tools eliminate the mobility advantage of fuel based tools?
  • Do battery garden tools perform at the same level as their fuel counterparts?

I value long term reliability and I want local specialist dealer support should servicing be necessary. Stihl met both of those requirements with a comprehensive range of battery powered garden equipment. It would also be a direct comparison with my existing Stihl fuel powered equipment.

Battery system

Are the batteries compatible for each tool in the range, or do I have to buy separate batteries for each tool?

The good news with the Stihl Battery Power System is that the batteries can be used across the range of tools. There are two battery types; the AP200 (A$199) has 151Wh of capacity and weights 1.3kg; the AP300 (A$269) has 227Wh of capacity and weighs 1.7kg. Both are the same physical dimensions and have a charge indicator built in. Although the batteries are interchangable, some tools require the AP300, such as the lawn mower I chose.

How much run time will I get with a tool using a battery?

The next question was whether I get reasonable run time from the tools. I have a front and back lawn that each take about 40-60 mins to mow depending on how long the grass is. The AP300 will get me fully through the front or back lawn, plus about half of the other. This is almost exactly the same as a tank of petrol in my old mower.

How quickly can the batteries be recharged?

Refuelling equipment has drawbacks such as running out of fuel or 2 stroke oil, it's smelly, messy, toxic and potentially dangerous, but it has a big advantage of being quick. Downtime in the garden can be a big drawback, so how fast can the batteries be recharged? This is where you need to pay attention. There are three rechargers available from Stihl, the AL100 (A$54), the AL300 (A$108) and the AL500 (A$162). I'll save you some pain, go for the AL500. It can recharge the AP300 battery fully in 35 mins. The AL100 will take 4 hours by comparison. If you get a deal with an included charger, it will be the AL100. Just say no thanks and ask for a discount on the AL500.

With the AL500, even if I run out of battery, I can take a break for a few mins, have a drink of water and the AL500 will put enough charge back in an empty battery for me to go back out and finish the lawn. To completely eliminate downtime I opted to buy a second battery and have one recharge while one is in use. It's a better experience than fuel because swapping batteries is faster than refuelling, I don't have to leave the house or mix a batch of 2 stroke fuel.

What is the cost of battery vs fuel?

A full set of yard work takes 2 battery charges versus 1 litre of 2 stroke fuel mix. Charging both batteries on the weekend at shoulder rates for electricity costs 10 cents (2 x .227Kwh x 22c/KWh) versus $1.50, the cost of fuel/oil mix at approximately $1.50/litre. The maintenance cost on the equipment is also significantly different. The battery powered equipment has no annual required maintenance, versus approximately $150 per item for fuel equipment.

Mowing the lawn

What did I get?

Stihl had two options. The RMA370 (A$469) which is rated to cut 340m2 area and the larger RMA410 (A$599) which is rated to cut 400m2 area. I chose the RMA410 as I have a large area of lawn to cut and it has a wider cut width plus a large grass catcher. The grass catcher is particularly well thought out, with an indicator flap for when it is full, plus an easy to empty design.

Does it cut the grass as well as fuel based mower?

Yes. I invested in a very good petrol lawn mower a number of years ago. I previously owned an electric Flymo, but dragging a power cord around, and a poor cutting experience led me to get a "real" mower which was several hundred dollars and cut very well. The RMA 410 cuts equally as well and is slightly superior in catching the grass, with no discernible clippings left on the lawn, except if I continue to cut when the catcher is full.

Is it well made?

Yes with some niggles. My fuel mower was well above average quality compared to most mowers, so my expectation is high. Stihl electric mowers are an all body plastic construction. This made me nervous when I was in the shop, because I have an expectation of a metal body for a lawn mower. The electric mower does not have to support the weight of a petrol engine though, and the plastic body around the blades is very sturdy. The handle is superior to my fuel mower. I had to replace the handle on my fuel mower once because it was under-engineered for the weight of the mower body. That will not happen with the RMA410. The grass catcher is superior to any other mower I have used. The battery cover feels flimsy and allows dust into the battery compartment area.

How does it handle?

Very well. The RMA 410 is comparatively light, which is excellent for my use case as I have a couple of spots where I need to push the mower up an incline. I find it significantly easier to manoeuvre than a fuel mower but it retains all the stability. A big benefit is the noise. You can definitely hear it, it's not quiet but in comparison to a fuel mower, there is no comparison. There is also no fumes.

Trimming the edges

What did I get?

There are three options for edge trimmers. The FSA65 (A$269) which has a limitation of no variable speed trigger, the FSA85 (A$319) which has the variable speed motor and a larger cutting diameter, plus it comes standard with a cutting guide to prevent me ringbarking the smaller tress. This is the model I selected. There is also an FSA90 ($549) which has an even larger cutting diameter and looks ready for heavy duty applications.

How does it handle and cut?

Extremely well. Significantly better than my previous fuel model, which in fairness to Stihl would have been the cheaper model. The larger cutting diameter makes a big difference to me in the awkward areas of my block and the balance of the whole unit feels better. It seems lighter, which reduces fatigue, and it cut between 25%-50% off my time on this task. The guide also stops me damaging small trees. Battery capacity for this task is excellent. I could probably do my task 3-4 times over on one battery charge.

The leaf blower

What did I get?

The only option available to me for leaf blowers was the BGA85 (A$299). I've been very unimpressed by electric leaf blowers in the past and a fuel Stihl blower was my first petrol garden tool when I switched from cord based electric garden tools many years ago. Given the performance of the other tools, I decided to give it a try after I was allowed to demo it in store to ensure the air pressure was adequate.

How does it perform?

It performs well above my expectations, but just below the capability of my fuel blower. It has some significant advantages though, the best one being noise. I could not use the old blower without ear protection. The BGA85 makes noise, but nothing like a petrol engine revving madly next to you. The air pressure is also very good. More than necessary to blow leaves, dirt and stray grass clippings off the driveway even against a breeze. The best way I can describe the shortcoming is that where my old fuel blower would clear the drive in the rain, the BGA85 would take longer to shift things that had water sticking them to the ground.

Conclusion

I've been living with these garden tools for a couple of months and overall I'm very satisfied with them as replacements. The concern they may be under-powered in comparison to my fuel equipment was unfounded. The battery equipment eliminates the mobility advantage fuel equipment had over electric tools that require a power cord. Not only do they perform on par, but there are a number of key advantages;

  • Ability to recharge quickly without having to leave home
  • No need to work with messy/toxic fuel mixes
  • No fumes and significantly less noise when using the equipment
  • Significantly lower operating costs and no scheduled maintenance cost

The shift to battery powered garden equipment is happening. The local Stihl dealer said they were struggling to keep up with demand. I had to wait a week to get a second AP300 battery as they were in short supply at the time. The market is speaking clearly and the shift to greener technology in the garden is underway.