On test: Electric strimmers deliver petrol-powered performance

Battery and brushless motor technology has improved so much in recent years that even power-hungry machines such as brushcutters are beginning to go fossil-fuel free.

At a recent press event our ears pricked up when a certain German power tool maker proudly pointed out its professional range of cordless kit could match its best petrol models for performance.

That included items such as pole pruners, leaf blowers and brushcutters, with just chainsaws and disc cutters still to catch up.

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As well as their petrol-like oomph, these engineless machines promise the benefit of quiet, low-vibration operation, no more fiddly starting problems and an end to mixing-up gallons of stinky two-stroke.

A group of strimmers

© Jonathan Page

So, to see if batteries really can compete, we got hold of the best cordless brushcutters from market leaders Stihl and Husqvarna.

To assess their power, battery life and build quality we then put them to work in some dense scrub alongside their petrol counterparts.

For those looking to spend a little less, we also lined up a more domestic spec Oregon machine.

Here’s how they got on…

Stihl FSA130 cordless brushcutter (Score: 4/5)

Stihl FSA130

Stihl FSA130 © Jonathan Page

  • Unit price £415 rrp (about £350 online)
  • Battery price £187 rrp (about £160 online)
  • Charger price £120 rrp (about £100 online)

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What’s it like?

Likes and gripes

Likes

  • Bags of power
  • Good ergonomics once strapped in
  • Light to handle

Gripes

  • A fiddle to strap into
  • Short battery life on full power
  • No option of on-board battery

The FSA130 is the most powerful pro-spec cordless brushcutter Stihl offers and unlike the other models on test, it has the motor at the rear of the machine.

This means there’s no option of having the battery stowed on board, so the operator has to wear a belt or harness with a pouch attached.

A lead then transfers the power to the cutter.

It isn’t really a problem for the bike handle version we had as you have to wear a harness anyway.

But if you’ve got the loop-handle machine, it means you can’t just pick it up and go.

Power wise it took some beating and we found it almost on par with its 36cc petrol counterpart – the FS131.

On full speed it smashed though thick undergrowth with ease and even the lowest power setting was sill ahead of the Oregon at full tilt.

As for the battery, ours came with the biggest of Stihl’s handheld units – the AP300.

On paper this 6Ah block will apparently offer up to 85mins of cutting time, but on full power we managed to mince it in just 23 minutes.

On the second of the three power settings it lasted a similar length of time, but the lowest setting allowed it to run for about 35 minutes.

In all cases, the strimmer maintained full power until the last minute or so where there’s a noticeable drop, as if to warn you your time is almost up.

We found the supplied AL500 fast charger would get the battery back up to full power in about 35mins, so two units won’t quite cut it if you want to work flat out continuously.

However, for those who do want that sort of performance there are bigger backpack units available.

Specs

  • Rated voltage 36V
  • Battery AP300 – 6Ah
  • Battery location Pouch on harness or backpack
  • Motor location Rear of machine
  • Handles Bike or top handle
  • Throttle Variable-speed with three power settings
  • Tool weight 4.5kg
  • Battery weight 1.7kg

Test results

  • Run time to a charge 23min on full power and mid-power settings, 35min on low power.
  • Charging time 35min
  • Perceived cutting ability/power Almost as good as the petrol-powered FS131
  • Noise 86db

Husqvarna 536LiRX (Score: 4/5)

Husqvarna 536LiRX

Husqvarna 536LiRX © Jonathan Page

  • Unit price £325 rrp (about £270 online
  • Battery price £270 rrp (about £230 online)
  • Charger price £115 rrp (about £95 online)

What’s it like?

Likes and gripes

Likes

  • Neat design
  • Long run time
  • Twin-direction head

Gripes

  • Not as powerful as Stihl
  • Flex in handles
  • Touchpad buttons hard to press in gloves

The Swede’s top-spec offering comes in the form of the 536LiRX, which has a sealed brushless motor directly at the cutting head and a slot for the battery at the rear.

This will accept all of Husqvarna’s battery units and for those that want ultra-long cutting performance it can also be teamed with a backpack battery.

All you have to do is insert a battery-shaped adapter the backpack can plug into.

It’s a neat setup, particularly as the compact motor in the cutting head is no larger than the head on some conventional machines.

Husky says it’s fully waterproof too, so there’s no need to worry about getting it wet.

Power was impressive and it chopped though everything we poked it at, only stalling when we pushed it into a patch of woody nettles and brambles.

For longer running times there’s an eco mode, which gave us about an hour of continuous operation.

It’s useful for keeping your string in tact when strimming along fence lines, but is a bit tedious on larger patches.  

It couldn’t match the Stihl for power, but when we weren’t working the two side-by-side we were pretty happy with its performance.

Our machine came with the biggest of Husky’s handheld batteries, which is rated to a whopping 9.4Ah. At full power this gave us 42 minutes of continuous cutting and 61 minutes when we worked in eco mode. In both modes there was no drop in power whatsoever – it just cut out.

There’s also a handy button for reversing the cutting head.

The QC500 charger supplied got the unit back up to full charge in about 57 minutes, so like the Stihl it wasn’t quite up to continuous operation at full power with two batteries.

Specs

  • Rated voltage 36V
  • Battery BLi300 – 9.4Ah
  • Battery location Rear of machine
  • Motor location Cutting head
  • Handles Bike or loop handle
  • Throttle Variable speed with normal and eco setting
  • Tool weight 3.8kg
  • Battery weight 1.8kg

Test results

  • Run time to a charge 42min on full power and 61min in eco mode
  • Charging time 57min
  • Perceived cutting ability/power Strong, but not as powerful as the Stihl FSA130
  • Noise 81db

Oregon ST275 string trimmer (Score: 3/5)

The Oregon ST275

Oregon ST275 © Jonathan Page

  • Unit price About £120 online
  • Battery price About £160 online
  • Charger price About £45 online

What’s it like?

Likes and gripes

Likes

  • Neat all-in-one design
  • Very simple to set up and use
  • Long run time

Gripes

  • Too front heavy
  • More of a domestic-spec machine
  • No option of bike handles

Oregon’s ST275 is a more domestic-spec machine than the Stihl and Husky, but it shows the sort of performance you can expect when you spend just over half the price.

Like the Husky, it has the battery at the rear of the machine and the motor is housed in the cutter head. However, this is a much bulkier unit and it makes the machine a little head heavy.

It’s unfair to compare the Oregon’s performance directly with the Stihl and Husky machines, but as a guide its power seems to be about that of the other two on their lowest power settings. We still cut plenty of tough stuff with it, though, and it’s handy for lighter jobs.

As the power is lower, the 6Ah battery (the biggest of three offered by the firm) lasted for about 43 minutes of medium grade work and 34 minutes when we really thrashed it.

Unfortunately, the power did tail off towards the end of the charge, particularly when we weren’t working it as hard.

The fast charger we were supplied with got the battery back to full power in about 90 minutes.

Specs

  • Rated voltage 36V
  • Battery 36V 6.0Ah lithium ion (biggest of three options)
  • Battery location Rear of machine
  • Motor location In the cutter head
  • Handles Loop handle only
  • Throttle Variable-speed
  • Tool weight 4.3kg including 4Ah battery

Test results

  • Run time to a charge 43min in medium grade work and 34min in heavier going
  • Charging time 90min
  • Perceived cutting ability/power Roughly the same as the Stihl and Husqvarna on their lowest power settings
  • Noise 84.6db

The petrol benchmarks

  • Stihl FS131 – £756 rrp (about £530 online)
  • Husqvarna 525RTX – £430 rrp (about £320 online)
Petrol strimmers

© Jonathan Page

Our two petrol benchmark machines were Stihl’s FS131 and Husqvarna’s 525RTX, both of which were picked out by the makers as a fitting match for their best cordless machines.

The Stihl’s 36cc engine makes it the second largest machine in its professional line-up, while the 25cc in the Husky, makes it one of the smaller pro-spec models.

Both were good performers, but the noise and vibration was particularly unpleasant after we’d spent some time using the cordless models.

Power wise, we reckon they’ve still got a slight edge over the cordless machines, but there wasn’t much in it. As for running times, the Stihl worked considerably longer run than its cordless cousin, managing 50 minutes to a tank of fuel, while the Husky was similar at 41 minutes.

Verdict – can batteries cut it?

Strimmer battery packs

© Jonathan Page

In power terms,  these cordless machines are now seriously close to the best petrol has to offer and they come with the added bonus of relatively quiet and fume-free operation.

For out-and-out power, the Stihl is the one to go for, but the Husky is more convenient, particularly if you want a grab-and-go loop-handle model. The Oregon is also worth a punt if you haven’t got too much to do.

If not hammering them hard, all of the machines we tested can just manage continuous operation with two batteries – one in the machine and one on charge.  This does assume you have access to a mains power point or vehicle with an inverter in which you can juice up the second battery, though.

As for price, the machine and one battery will come in around the same as a petrol equivalent, but opting for a second battery will push that up by another £200 or so.

However, once purchased, these will cost a fraction of the price of a two-stoke machine to run and remove the inconvenient task of running to the pumps and mixing the fuel.

In the same vein as the cordless drill market, these batteries can be used in the makers’ other kit, such as hedgetrimmers or leaf blowers, which are handy for cleaning down combines and balers.

As for their life expectancy, Stihl units are rated to last for 1,200 full charging cycles and Husky says its can do 1,500, depending on how well they’re looked after. If you do an average of 10 charging cycles per month, that works out at a life expectancy of 10 and 12-and-a-half years respectively.

For those that do want longer run times to a charge, both Stihl and Husky offer larger backpack battery units. However, they’ll set you back a good bit more than £500.

Watch out for specs

If you’re considering buying one of these machines it’s important to check the specs of the batteries you’re buying. We had the top-end units and all manufacturers featured offer smaller versions, which will have considerably shorter run times.

It’s a similar story with chargers, and lesser versions will take longer to juice the batteries back up.