Brushless drill vs brushed: Which is better?

Brushless drills are more expensive than brushed drills. But old-fashioned brushed drills are getting hard to find. What’s the big deal about a brushless drill vs brushed? Which is better?

Brushed tools are cheaper, often by $20, when you can find them. Brushless tools offer longer battery life and better reliability and lower maintenance in the long run, in addition to being smaller, lighter, and having more power.

Brushless drill vs brushed: Cost

Brushless drill vs brushed
Modern brushless drills are smaller, lighter, more powerful, and have more battery life than their cheaper brushed equivalents. You don’t even see brushed tools in higher-end tool brands much anymore. Generally only budget brands like Ryobi give you a choice anymore.

When you can find a brushed drill, it’s cheaper. When you buy a $50 drill on Black Friday, it’s a brushed drill. Outside of the big shopping seasons though, you might not even be able to find the older cheap brushed drills. On the high end brands like Milwaukee and DeWalt, I can’t find a brushed drill anymore, at any time of year. The premium tools all seem to be going brushless.

So brushed tools are cheaper, but the premium brands are going brushless. So generally only the cheaper brands offer both brushed and brushless models anymore. When you have a choice, the price difference is around $20.

Brushed motors are much easier to make. Brushless motors have existed in some form since 1856, but didn’t become practical until the 1980s. Even then, they were expensive. Brushless motors require electronics to convert the DC from your battery pack to three-phase AC. It’s finicky and convoluted, and anyone who tried to make an electric motor as a science fair project in grade school knows motors are finicky and convoluted enough as it is. So that’s why they cost more. So is there a benefit, or is there some conspiracy afoot?

Yes, there are benefits to the newer technology, and that’s why the premium brands are going that direction.

Battery life

The major benefit to brushless drills over brushed is battery life. The reason for this is because a brushless motor operates with less friction.

It helps to understand how a brushed motor works. A brushed motor is basically a collection of electromagnets. As you know from playing with magnets as a kid (or adult), opposite poles repel. The way brushed motors are designed, you have three electromagnets inside a fourth electromagnet. Only two of the magnets inside are active at any time. But the brushes make contact with the electromagnets that are active and allow them to spin. The brushes’ job is to provide power and constantly reverse the polarity, so the magnets never find the opposite pole they’re looking for. That makes the motor spin.

But all of this requires the brushes to be in constant contact with the electromagnets. That causes friction. They make brushes out of graphite, so the brushes have lubricating properties, but it’s still friction.

Brushless motors operate on induction. The opposing magnetic fields are created without needing brushes to come in contact with the motor’s rotor. Creating induction is a complex process that seems convoluted and troublesome, but there’s a benefit. The only friction is from the rotor spinning in its bearings. Brushed motors have to deal with the friction from the bearings and the brushes.

The benefit of all this complexity is longer battery life. To the tune of 50 percent, if you have modern Lithium-Ion batteries. So you pay 40% more to get 50% longer runtime. With older battery technologies, the difference is more like 25%. Still not insignificant.

The effect of battery life on impact drivers

I remember 10 years ago, impact drivers were jaw droppingly impressive, but it took 2-3 batteries to finish a project with one. They blew you away with their power, but their practicality left something to be desired. With a modern brushless impact driver, I can finish small projects on a single battery change, and larger projects on at least one less battery change than it used to take. The combination of brushless motors and Lithium-Ion batteries makes impact drivers more practical today than they used to be. They’re even more impressive than they used to be, and you can get more done with one now too.

Of course, the benefits helped regular drills too, but the effect is more noticeable on impact drivers.

Brushless drill vs brushed: Maintenance

The other major benefit is long term reliability. Brushes operate on the principle of wearing themselves out. They’re literally a consumable. Brushless motors don’t have wearing parts like that. It’s like the difference between tube radios and TVs and solid state radios and TVs. No more need to open them up and replace parts that wear out.

Sounds amazing.

Now here’s the thing. Brushes wear out, but it takes a while. My Dad’s Lionel trains from 70 years ago have brushes in them. They’re still running on the originals. I see Black and Decker power tools from 50 years ago in their telltale early 1970s public nuisance green at estate sales that still work, because their brushes haven’t worn out yet. The maintenance makes a difference if you use the tools all day, every day. If you don’t use it every day, let’s face it. The tool’s battery system will be obsolete before you need brushes.

So the promise of the tool not breaking in the middle of a project and needing new brushes sounds really good when the salesperson says it to you in the store. But if you’re buying it for yourself, it’s a solution to a problem you’re not really likely to run into.

Brushless drill vs brushed: More power

Sometimes you’re in a situation where you’re drilling at an awkward angle and over your head. I run into it when I’m drilling holes for network cables. Especially because I cheat and need to drill a larger hole to accommodate the type of cable I use. The brushed drill I bought 15 years ago can struggle in that situation sometimes. A modern brushless drill is more likely to power through it.

In the past, sometimes I had to drill a pilot hole to get the job done. The greater power of a brushless drill makes it less likely I have to drill a smaller hole followed by a bigger one. The time it saves me in getting a job done faster can pile up. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike working on projects. But I like being done with projects better.

Brushless drills are smaller and lighter than brushed drills

The design of brushless motors is more complex, but the benefit is the motor is smaller and lighter than a conventional brushed motor. The result is a smaller and lighter drill. If modern brushless drills look smaller than older and cheaper brushed drills, it’s not your imagination. They are.

The reduced size and weight gives you options. You can get into tighter spaces than you would otherwise. You can give back some of the size and weight and use a bigger battery to get longer runtime. Or you can cash in some of the additional power and battery runtime and use a smaller battery, to get into even smaller spaces.

The reduced size and weight of a brushess drill gives us options we didn’t have with conventional brushed drills.

Should you ever buy a brushed drill?

So, with all the advantages of a brushless drill, why should you ever buy a brushed drill?

Normally I would say don’t. Most of the time, it makes sense now to buy a brushless drill if you’re in the market for a drill. You’ll get your projects done faster and easier with a brushless drill.

That said, there was a time, a year or two ago, when someone asked me for a gift idea that would cost around $50. I spotted a $50 Ryobi drill. And I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been in a project and I’ve needed to change drill bits. Having a second drill helps. And it’s usually OK if that second drill isn’t as nice or as powerful as the other one. It’s there to save you the time it takes to change bits.

To some people, the idea of having a secondary drill is ridiculous. And maybe it is, depending on the projects they do. I’ve found it helpful. So, if you can find a cheap brushed drill that uses the same battery system as your other tools, it can be worthwhile. I’ve really enjoyed having that second drill, even if I look a little ridiculous juggling a brushed drill, a brushless drill, and an impact driver in the same project. For me, that cheap brushed drill was a great gift.

Should you upgrade your brushed drill to brushless?

If you already have a drill and it works with the same battery system as your other cordless tools and you’re happy with it, there’s little reason to upgrade. But if you’re unhappy with your current brushed drill for some of the reasons I’ve cited above, that it’s hard to get into awkward spaces with it, or it seems lacking when it comes to power or battery life, then sure, consider getting a brushless drill. Your current drill might be just fine in a secondary role the way I use my cheap brushed drill. You might also consider getting a brushless impact driver if you don’t have one. If your current drill does fine drilling but struggles with driving screws, a brushless impact driver could be the upgrade you need.

The key is knowing whether brushless technology solves a problem for you. If you’re buying a new tool, you may not have much choice. Brushless is the way everyone is going. If you’re buying a new drill anyway, then sure, pay the extra for brushless, assuming you even have a choice. But also consider getting a specialty drill, if all you have is a standard all-purpose model.

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