Stihl Delivers Cordless Power in a String Trimmer

Stihl FSA 56 string trimmerWith every new year’s lawn season, we can count on one thing: that battery-powered outdoor tools will creep even closer in performance to their gas-powered siblings. And now and then, you needn’t shell out a lot of green to own green gear. The Stihl FSA 56 string trimmer, from the manufacturer’s AK line of midrange cordless-electric tools, is the second of two Stihl cordless tools reviewed here—and, at about $200, is moderately priced for a battery-powered trimmer.

The price for the straight-shaft trimmer includes a 36-volt, lithium-ion AK 10 battery and AL 101 charger, though we tested the trimmer with the beefier AK 20 battery we’d already had on loan from testing the Stihl MSA 120C-BQ chainsaw. (That product will not run on the AK 10.) Already have tools from Stihl’s AK line? You can buy the FSA 56 without the battery and charger for $50 less.

Revving up the FSA 56
As with the MSA 120C-BQ, the battery snaps snugly into place and has four LEDs indicating remaining power. Starting the trimmer takes three steps, one of them the usual safety lockout for the actual trigger, but the lockout itself has a lockout—a retaining latch you must release before anything else. Without a glance first at the manual, you might find the unit adult- as well as child-proof. But once you’ve done it once, you won’t forget it. You need to hold down only the trigger to keep the tool whirring.

The business end of the trimmer has a bump head for feeding line plus the usual metal blade in the deflector to keep line from spanning beyond the 11-inch cutting width. Not many years ago, a dual-line, battery-powered string trimmer was scarce. Now they’re fairly common, and this pair has an ample 0.80-inch diameter. We didn’t need to swap spools but ran through the process anyway and judged it as easy as in the video below. As with the unit itself and all Stihl products, you’ll find replacement spools only at a Stihl dealership.

The FSA 56, as tested, weighs 8.2 pounds, and we found it well-balanced and easy to operate along the perimeter of the test property. But the news gets better: With the lesser AK 10 battery, the one actually sold with the unit, the trimmer weighs only 7.3 pounds. The shaft is also adjustable by several inches, and you can adjust the angle of the front (loop) handle with a quick turn of a star knob.

Turf battles
We tested the FSA 56 on everything from soft, overgrown grass to a some stiff-stemmed weeds, with a persistent patch of ground elder providing much of the challenge. The dual lines ripped deftly through the grass and ground elder, though the heaviest growth likely accounted for the roughly 30 minutes we got out of the AK 20 battery before it began to cut out. (It’s rated for 34 minutes; the AK 10, 17 minutes.) Not that the trimmer didn’t slice through the denser patches. It did, but if you have a lot of thick weeds on your property, you might want to pay another $70 for a second AK 10, which would serve for another 15-17 minutes while the first battery charges.

Stihl claims that with the standard AK 10, you can “trim the length of five football fields on a single battery charge.” With most homes and their diverse plants and widths of the places the mower can’t reach, there’s no way to judge that claim. Still, we trimmed plenty of property on a charge—even accounting for fallen sticks, which add resistance, among the weeds we cleared. We even edged with the FSA 56, though we had to do it by holding the trimmer sideways; the cutting head can’t be rotated as with some other manufacturers’ trimmers.

As with the MSA 120C-BQ chainsaw, the charger took about 2 ½ hours with the AK 20. Buy the string trimmer in the usual way, with the AK 10 battery, and you’ll be up and running again in about 80 minutes.

A couple of caveats: We found no concerns about the battery life, but perhaps none arose since we used the higher amp-hour battery. Some customers on Stihl’s own site have complained about short battery life, along with problems getting replacement spools. For this second grievance, we advise you check before buying the trimmer that your local dealer stocks replacement spools for this product.

The verdict
With either battery on the FSA 56, you’ll be spending a lot of time charging it if you live in a woodsy neighborhood with lush growth around the edges. That, in fact, might be the concern of some buyers who’ve posted user reviews to Stihl’s website. In such settings, you’d be better off with a gas machine such as the $240 Stihl FS 56 RC-E.

But if you have modest weed growth along your property’s perimeter and don’t want to deal with the maintenance of a gas-powered weed whacker, the FSA 56 deserves your consideration. For power, ease of use, and light weight at the price, you can’t do much better in a cordless string trimmer.

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Cordless Stihl Chainsaw May Be Just Enough

Stihl MSA 120C-BQ chainsawYou can’t beat a gas-powered chainsaw for a property full of trees, especially when many of them seem itching to cause trouble. If you’re like many suburban homeowners, though, you don’t need to break out the chainsaw often enough to maintain a gas model. Sometimes, too, cutting doesn’t require a tool with so much muscle. That’s the thinking behind the Stihl MSA 120C-BQ chainsaw, part of the manufacturer’s AK line of midrange cordless-electric tools.

We tested the Stihl MSA 120C-BQ, whose $240 price (all prices noted are rounded) includes a protective plastic scabbard but no way to power the saw. Pay another $100, and you’ll get the 36-volt, lithium-ion AK 20 battery and AL 101 quick charger, though you might already have this from another tool in the AK line. (Don’t, however, use the AK 10 battery for the MSA 120C-BQ; it doesn’t supply enough power.) If you have no other tools from this line, you can buy the chainsaw as a set with the AK 20 battery and AL 101 charger for $300.

Also your job to purchase and wear, if you value your health and safety, is hearing and eye protection, a secure helmet, boots, heavy-duty nonslip gloves and protective pants or chaps intended for chainsaw use.

An important plus in any chainsaw intended for DIY users is ample safety features. As with other, beefier chainsaws from Stihl—guide bars for professional tree-feller saws range up to almost 60 inches long—you get the Quickstop chain brake, tool-free chain tensioning, comfortable handles and low vibration. The saw weighs a mere 8.4 pounds with battery, which made for easy handling throughout our testing.

The MSA 120C-BQ we tested came with its chain mounted already on the saw’s 12-inch bar, and the rest was easy. The oil reservoir has a wide spout, so filling it was a snap. The ¼-inch chain remained well-lubricated throughout our cutting.

Testing the MSA 120C-BQ
Stihl claims its chainsaw will run up to 35 minutes on a charge, which the company says will get you 100 cuts if you’re cutting nothing wider than four inches, such as some firewood. Our test hardwood trees, ranging from three to eight inches (but five-plus on average), didn’t allow for a true test of 100 cuts per charge. What we achieved through two charges was roughly 50 cuts per run, still plenty for a homeowner saw.

One point to keep in perspective is that the MSA 120C-BQ isn’t meant for heavy-duty work. With any chainsaw, you have to position your body properly to avoid leaning into your cut—and apply just enough pressure to let the saw do the work at the speed its engine (or motor) allows. With a cordless saw like this one, you’ll be taking it slow through hardwood.

This isn’t a limitation, as long as you’re patient and keep the tool in perspective. Want a chainsaw that will tear through everything you’ve got? Consider a gas-powered model such as the $230 16-inch Stihl MS 180 C-BE, a 16-inch saw that, at $230, costs $10 less than the MSA 120C-BQ without battery and charger.

The verdict
The MSA 120C-BQ is more than a capable chainsaw. While no battery-powered chainsaw, even the $280 MSA 160 C-BQ from Stihl’s pro-level AP line, can rival the best of its gas-powered brethren, most of us don’t need all that oomph. This saw delivers just what most DIY tree work calls for, and it’s lightweight and maneuverable enough for years of confident use.

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