Lithium Ion Drill vs. Nicad: What’s the Difference?

Advances in technology have made cordless tools the most popular choice for both small- and large-scale projects. DIY-ers and professionals use cordless tools due to their portability and ability to fit into cramped spaces by eliminating the risk of getting tangled in cables.

For most of recent history, nickel cadmium (NiCad) batteries were the go-to battery to cordless power tools simply because there weren’t any comparable options. Nowadays, they have mostly been replaced by lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries. Li-ion batteries are more compact, have fewer maintenance issues, and are considerably more environmentally friendly than NiCads.

This doesn’t mean that NiCad batteries are long gone. On the contrary; many manufacturers release cordless tools that use these batteries, albeit with a few proprietary tweaks and updates. Since both NiCad and Li-Ion batteries are both available on the market, let’s find out how they differ and decide which of is the overall better battery to choose for your cordless drill.



Electrochemistry

There are vast differences in the chemical composition of each type of battery. NiCad batteries use a cadmium anode (negative electrode), a nickel oxyhydroxide cathode (positive electrode), and an aqueous potassium hydroxide electrolyte. Li-ion batteries use graphite, lithium oxide, and lithium salt as the anode, cathode, and electrolyte respectively.

Performance

Nickel-Cadmium Batteries
This type of battery suffers from a thing called “memory effect.” Essentially, over time, the capacity of a NiCad battery will decrease rapidly if charged and recharged too often. This sounds like a common problem among batteries which it is, but it’s significantly worse in NiCads. When inserted into a battery charger before it’s completely depleted of power, it’ll “remember” the capacity it began charging and use it to mistakenly determine that as the full capacity. For instance, if you begin charging the battery at 47%, the next time you use your tool, by the time the battery falls below a 47% charge, you’ll notice a significant drop in voltage. Basically, the battery experiences a premature death.

Lithium-Ion Batteries
Li-Ion batteries are not as high-maintenance as NiCads. They do not experience any capacity-related dementia. You’re free to begin charging these batteries before it is complete depleted. However, Li-Ion batteries require a protection circuit to ensure that safe functionality. They come with a protection circuit which prevents the peak voltage of each battery cell while charging, and it also serves to stop voltage from dropping too low when depleted.

Effects on the Environment

Nickel-Cadmium Batteries
Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that needs careful treatment to dispose of properly. NiCad batteries contain anywhere from 6% to 18% cadmium which can be quite substantial considering how many NiCad-exclusive power tools are out there.

Lithium-Ion Batteries
Li-Ion batteries, on the other hand, are perfectly safe for the environment. Lithium is not classified as a hazardous waste and requires no special treatment to dispose of properly.

Price

Nickel-Cadmium Batteries
NiCad batteries are typically less expensive compared to Li-Ion. The main reason for their lower price tags when sold as either individual batteries or as battery packs is because they’re quite inexpensive to produce and their technologically “streets behind.” In many countries, the government taxes the sales of NiCad batteries and uses that tax money to help fund disposal services after the battery has kicked the bucket. However, note that being cheap comes at a cost, and in this case, it’s the battery’s life expectancy.

Lithium-Ion Batteries
Li-Ion batteries can cost between 40% and 50% more than NiCad. The main reason for their higher price tags is the production of the protection circuit which helps the battery function as intended. But when it comes to battery life, the cost of a Li-Ion is definitely worth it in our humble opinion.

NiCad vs. Li-Ion – Which is better for Cordless Drills?

The only thing left to answer now is whether NiCad batteries or Li-Ion batteries are better for cordless drills. Ultimately, it depends on how much money you have to spend. We know that this isn’t exactly the answer you’re looking for, but it’s actually more relevant than you may think.

We mentioned earlier that Li-Ion batteries could cost 40% to 50% more than NiCad. However, Li-Ion cordless drills can cost upwards of 300% more than their NiCad counterparts. It may seem like an outrageous figure, but in truth, some Li-Ion cordless drill sell for less than a Benjamin.

Additional Notes

There are a few things we need to address before leaving you, namely the misconceptions of Li-Ion batteries.

Power

First of all, many people are of the belief that Li-Ion batteries are magically more powerful than NiCad which is true if you’re comparing different voltages. However, when pitting an 18V Li-Ion against an 18V NiCad, one does not provide more power than the other.

Efficiency

When it comes to cordless drills, efficiency is measured by how many holes it can produce per charge. In general, Li-Ions are slightly more efficient than their NiCad counterparts, but there are actually other factors that come into play, such as brushed vs. brushless motors, the design and weight of the drill, and the size of the chuck. Some people mistakenly conclude that a Li-Ions are better than NiCads after testing a brushless 24V Li-Ion cordless drill and a 12V brushed NiCad. Of course, you’re going to get two completely different results!

Interchangeability

One thing that many people often ask about is whether a NiCad battery pack can replace a Li-Ion battery pack and vice versa. Fortunately, at least for Li-Ions, they can be used in tools that previously used or came with a NiCad pack. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go the other way around. So if you like a power drill that comes with a NiCad pack, you can more than likely swap the battery out for a Li-Ion if you’d like (check compatibility beforehand).

Final Remarks

To sum things up, although there are many differences between NiCad and Li-Ion batteries when it comes to performance, the type of battery is irrelevant. We would recommend that you use Li-Ion batteries exclusively since they’re low-maintenance and don’t cause long-lasting damage to our planets. However, if you absolutely need a NiCad cordless drill, try and find one that is compatible with Li-Ion batteries when you’re ready to make the switch.