Line trimmers and lawn edgers

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The end of the line for petrol trimmers?

Power matters when it comes to keeping your edges neat and tackling long grass. While petrol engines remain your best choice for a hard day’s trimming, we uncovered a handful of battery models that aren’t far behind and represent a great option for many suburban sections.

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Line trimmer features

What to look for when buying a line trimmer.

  • Line-feed: most trimmers use a bump system, where you tap the head on the ground to get more line. Some electric trimmers use an automatic feed that gives more line when you pull the throttle. This generally doesn’t work as well as a bump feed. A few entry-level petrol and electric trimmers use a manual feed – you turn off the trimmer to replace the line or plastic blades.
  • Noise: you’ll need hearing protection with any trimmer louder than 85dBA.
  • Balance is as important as weight. Before you buy, hold the trimmer in the cutting position, with your dominant hand on the trigger and the other on the front handle: its weight should feel evenly distributed between the top and bottom of the shaft, or a little heavier on top.
  • Curved shafts keep the cutting head at a good angle for trimming grass and are generally easier to wield, but straight shafts are the best choice for taller users and heavy-duty work, as they give a longer reach.
  • Re-spooling line gives many line trimmer owners grief. Use our “Ease of re-spooling line” scores to weed out fiddly models. Trimmers with a single cutting line are easier to re-spool, but give inferior cutting performance to twin-line models.
  • Starting is another big gripe for owners of petrol trimmers – see the “ease of starting” scores in the line trimmer profiles. Electric trimmers all score perfectly in this category as they start at the pull of a trigger.
  • Safety guards are mounted on the rear of the cutting head to protect you from debris. A good guard shouldn't limit your view.
  • Line-limiting blades chop the line off at the right length if you unspool too much. The blades are mounted on the safety guard.
  • A shoulder harness shifts the trimmer's weight from your arms to your shoulders. It’s usually an optional extra. Long-horn-style handles also help ease the load and make controlling the trimmer much easier, but they're typically found on more expensive commercial models.
  • Front handles should be adjustable. Most can be rotated around the shaft when you flip the cutting head over to edge your lawn.

Lawn edger features

What to look for when you're buying a lawn edger.

  • Clear edging guides (markings) on the blade cover help produce a neater job.
  • A cutting blade that can be raised or lowered allows you to edge different-height terrains.
  • Telescopic shafts and adjustable front handles are handy if gardeners of different heights use the edgers.

Power source

Price, power, performance and convenience are the main considerations when buying a line trimmer.

Cordless models are convenient but can lack oompf.
Cordless models are convenient but can lack oompf.

Petrol engines still reign supreme when it comes to performance and endurance, especially for levelling long grass and weeds, and where you need your trimmer to run for hours at a time. But they’re heavy, noisy and can be a pain to start. Most line trimmers are powered by 2-stroke motors so there’s the added hassle of mixing oil and petrol, as well as noxious fumes and emissions. They’re also less reliable than electric models – in our 2016 appliance reliability survey 17 percent of petrol trimmer owners had experienced a problem requiring repair, compared to only 6 percent for cordless-electric models.

Cordless (battery-electric) models are quickly closing the gap on petrol, driven by innovation at both ends of the trimmer. Brushless DC motors, once confined to high-end power tools for tradies, are increasingly making their way into domestic cordless gear. They deliver more torque with greater efficiency, and are lighter than brushed versions traditionally found in electric tools.

The other big factor is the falling price and improving capacity-to-weight ratio of lithium-ion batteries. Our best line trimmers give you 30 to 45 minutes’ run-time out of the box, while manufacturers are increasingly offering very high-capacity batteries, led by Stihl and Husqvarna which sell “battery backpacks”. These backpacks offer many hours’ hedge or line trimming on a single charge (the catch is they start at about $600 each).

Another big advantage of electric outdoor gear is it starts with the push of a button or pull of a trigger, compared to the hassle of fiddling with a choke and primer then yanking a start cord.

Mains-electric trimmers have been eclipsed by cordless models when it comes to performance, but they can be a good, affordable option for tidying up patch of grass or weeds closer to home

Best practice

Here’s our top tips on getting sharp lawn edges and making short work of tall grass:

  • Cut vertically (with the head at right angles to the ground) near trees. Nicking the bark could kill the tree.

  • If you’d like your lawn to blend cleanly into a fence or garden border, hold the trimmer at a slight angle so the cutting head gradually tapers down the edges.

  • Use vertical edging where you want a clear demarcation. For example, between a lawn and a path.

  • In longer grass, slowly swing the trimmer around like a scythe in a U-shape motion. Let the tip of the trimmer do the cutting, and cut in small sections to avoid stalling the machine or tangling the line.

  • On slopes, a trimmer with a straight shaft will be easier to control than one with a curved shaft. Never hold the cutting head of the trimmer above waist height.

  • Always wear safety glasses (ideally anti-fog and anti-scratch) when using any trimmer. You’ll need to use hearing protection for all petrol models, and some of the more powerful electric models.

Safety tips

Following these guidelines when operating a line trimmer or lawn edger will help keep you safe.

  • Avoid loose or flapping clothing – you don't want to get tangled in the trimmer.
  • Protect your ears and eyes.
  • Wear stout shoes and gloves.
  • The safety guard should cover the cutting line without interfering with the cutting action.
  • Make sure there's a fixed blade or post that automatically trims the line to a maximum length.
  • If you own a petrol trimmer, don't smoke while re-fuelling or using it.
  • If you own an electric trimmer, use an electric cord that has sufficient rating for the appliance and is suitable for outdoor use.
  • Use a residual current device (RCD) at the power-point end of the electric cord.
  • A cord restraint clip will stop the plug/socket connections becoming over-stressed.
  • Keep the electric cord behind you.

One-battery systems

Manufacturers of cordless power gear usually market their products as members of a universal battery platform. The idea is you’ll buy your first one as a kit including a battery and charger, then for subsequent tools you’ll only need to buy the “skin”.

We tested the line and hedge trimmer sold from the One+ range, and while they returned reasonably good performance they’re outclassed by higher-voltage tools (36V and above), though they’re a viable option for lighter jobs. The best one-battery systems, based on this test and our previous assessments of outdoor and garden gear, are:

  • EGO Power+ 56V
  • Victa V-Force+ 40V
  • Stihl 36V
  • Husqvarna 36V Li-ion
  • Makita LXT 18V

How we test

Our performance scores are based on:

  • Horizontal trimming (with the head parallel to the ground) of short- to medium-length grass along fences, walls and areas of lawn.
  • Vertical trimming (with the head at right angles to the ground) along path and garden edges to assess whether they’re able to create razor-sharp lawn borders.
  • Cutting long, thick, weedy grass.

Our ease of use assessment looks at:

  • The general comfort and ergonomics of the line trimmer, including weight, balance, shaft length, visibility, and the ease of using the controls.
  • Ease of re-spooling the line.
  • Ease of starting.
  • Ease of feeding out line.
  • The level of vibration.

Volts, amps and watts

When shopping for cordless power equipment and batteries you should consider volts (V) and amp-hours (Ah). For mains-electric models, all you need to worry about are watts (W).

  • Volts (V) measure electric potential difference and indicate the power of a battery. Voltage is analogous to the pressure in a water pipe, while amps (A) measure the amount electric current flowing in a wire, comparable to the flow rate of water through a pipe. Multiplying volts and amps gives total power in watts (W). The best cordless line and hedge trimmers use 36, 40 or 56V batteries. A tool of a certain voltage can only be powered by a battery of the same voltage.
  • Amp-hours (Ah) measure battery capacity. A 1.0Ah battery is rated to deliver one amp for an hour before running out of juice. Typically, lithium-ion batteries for power gear range from 1 to 5Ah. A 2.0Ah battery gives about 30 minutes’ line trimming or 60 minutes in a hedge trimmer, but you’ll need a higher capacity battery for a cordless mower. Manufacturers, such as Stihl and Husqvarna now offer large “backpack” batteries with capacities in excess of 30Ah, giving 400 minutes’ non-stop line trimming, but setting you back upwards of $600.
  • Watts (W) show the power of an electric motor, and are usually only quoted for mains-electric (corded) products. Hedge trimmers generally range from 400 to 600W, but we find 500W is powerful enough to give a good cut on most domestic hedges.
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