Once you decide to go with cordless tools over corded ones and picking your favorite power tool brand, the next thing you have to decide on is whether to go with 12-volt tools, 18-volt tools, or even 20-volt tools.
In this article, I will take a closer look at the differences between the three platforms. I’ll also tell you why the decision between 18-volt and 20-volt tools might not be as important as you might think.
12-Volt vs 18-Volt Tools: What Are the Differences?
When you’re discussing the voltage in tools, you’re discussing the difference in power and torque produced. The higher the voltage, the more power. There are other implications when it comes to a higher volt rating, though.
Voltage indicates the tool’s power. This means that 18V tools are a more powerful option compared to 12V tools. The result is a higher operating torque of the motor.
Twelve-volt tools are much lighter than their 18-volt counterparts. So if you’re working in tight spots, drilling in awkward angles, or going to be using the tool for a while, you’ll find yourself fatiguing quicker while using an 18V tool.
It might seem obvious, but a bigger motor also means a bigger profile of the tool. Eighteen-volt tools are larger overall than 12V tools.
Since 12V tools use less power and have a smaller capacity, they will charge a lot quicker.
If you find yourself in a project where you are juggling between two battery packs, the 12V back-up pack will charge a lot quicker. When your project comes to a halt because you ran out of juice, you’re going to wish you had a 12V tool.
Piggybacking off the same point that 12V battery packs have a smaller capacity – 12V tools don’t run as long as 18V tools do. In fact, an 18V hand drill will run for much longer on a single charge.
This is imperative if you can’t afford to take a break in your job or need to minimize the number of backup batteries you bring.
Keep in mind though, that different batteries, even with the same voltage, last different amounts of time. The run-time depends highly on the tool you are using, whether you are using it at full power or not, and on the battery’s capacity in mAh.
When you talk about a tool that’s bigger, heavier, more powerful, with a longer-lasting battery, you have to realize there’s a cost implication. This is no exception. You’ll find that 18V tools are more expensive than 12V tools.
Milwaukee 2498-25 M12 Combo Kit
12V kit including an impact driver, a ratchet, and more.
Makita XT706 Combo Kit
18V kit with 7 tools including a saw, a grinder, and more.
18-Volt vs 20-Volt Tools: An Actual Difference or Just a Marketing Gimmick?
At face value, you’d think that the same logic that holds in 12-volt vs. 18-volt has to hold true for 18-volt vs. 20-volt. Get ready to be surprised.
In general, 18V tools are just as powerful as 20V tools. There is a little bit of trickery going on here. The way the battery cells are wired plays a part.
The simplified version goes like this. There are five battery cells in 18V and 20V tools. When you combine and average the voltage across the board, it equals 18V. If you look at the max rating of one cell and multiply that by 5, it equals 20V.
What’s really going on here is one manufacturer is saying “six”, and the other is saying “a half dozen.” Identical tools can be called either 18V or 20V depending on how they want to spin it.
It might just be regional nomenclature. Typically, in the US, you’ll see tools referred to as 20V, and overseas you’ll see the same tools referred to as 18V. For example, DeWalt sells the same tool as 18V in Europe, but calls it 20V MAX in the US.
It’s worth emphasizing that there is no difference between the motors or batteries on a base level.
Certainly, you can find 20V drills that have higher torque, more battery life, and that are heavier than 18V tools. You might think this proves the point that 20V tools are more powerful. But looking deeper, you can also find the opposite to be true. It all comes down to the brand making the tool, and the internal factors.
Regardless, it holds true that 18V and 20V are one and the same thing.
Which One Should You Choose?
When you’re comparing 12-volt, 18-volt, and 20-volt tools there are some factors you need to consider. Right off the bat, you should lump 18-volt and 20-volt tools into the same category since we established that they are the same.
So really, the comparison is just 12-volt vs. 18-volt.
If you are working on a job during which you’ll be holding the drill above your head for a while, you’ll be in awkward positions, or you’ll be leaning and drilling, you want to stick with 12V tools when possible. They are much lighter than 18V tools and will save your shoulders and arms a lot of pain over the period of the job.
Along the same vein, if you are working in a tight spot like a crawl space, you will want to bring your 12V tool. It will have a smaller overall size which equates to more maneuverability for you.
If you’re looking to maximize power at any cost, 18V is the right pick. The basic principle is, since the motor gets more volts, it produces more torque which means more power. If you need even more power than is offered from your 18V tool, there are some tools that use two battery packs to give more power. You can also consider corded tools.
Remember that the 12V battery has a smaller capacity than the 18V battery. This means that 12V tools will not operate as long as their larger brothers. So if you’re on a job that you can’t afford to take breaks, and you want to optimize how long you’re using your tools you need to use 18V tools.
Another consideration is the battery and how quickly it charges. The smaller 12V battery packs will charge much quicker than 18V battery packs. It’s kind of like comparing how long it takes to fill up a water bottle vs. a large jug.
At the end of the day, if you are flexible with all of the above points, you want to consider the cost and the tools you need.
Twelve-volt tools cost less than 18V tools. If either tool will get the job done, I’d lean towards the cheaper option. For the casual user or hobbyist, this is the leading reason to get a 12V tool. They perform all the functions they need, at a lower cost.
But most pros will steer away from 12V tools. One reason is needing more power in a specific tool, but more than that it’s because some tools are not available in 12V versions.
As mentioned above, when deciding which voltage to go with, the first thing you should do is to stop thinking of 18V and 20V tools as two separate categories. Then, with many 12V tools performing well enough for most situations, the question becomes whether you really need the more powerful 18V/20V tools.
If the answer is no – and all the tools you need are available on your 12V platform of choice, go with that. If you need the extra power or if you need tools that are not available on the less powerful platform, then go with 18V tools.