It’s not news that almost everyone associated with the housing industry is struggling. What’s interesting is how different building product categories are trying to stay afloat—and how it can benefit you.

Last year, tool manufacturers told Builder that they would try to jumpstart slumping sales by concentrating on other areas, such as the remodeling sector and deck building. This year, companies are looking within, by diversifying their own product offerings, varying the types of power tools they are introducing, and expanding on platforms so end-users may simply add tools to existing batteries. Moreover, companies are enticing buyers with affordable products that still offer some professional punch.

Power Up

Anderson, S.C.–based Ryobi America Corp., a company that prides itself on providing affordable tools to serious DIYers and “value-conscious contractors,” has upped the ante with a new line of 18-volt lithium-ion power tools that offers twice the run time as traditional 18-volt nickel-cadmium batteries and is 20 percent lighter.

“This is a significant launch for Ryobi tools and our loyal customers,” Mike Farrah, senior vice president of marketing for Ryobi, says in a statement announcing the launch. “We know we have very loyal DIYers that have embraced our 18-volt One+ System, and we also have professionals using the system. We’re confident the increased run time of new lithium batteries will be very attractive to our customers, especially pros who seek maximum performance at a great value.”

While the lithium-ion product introduction is merely an expansion of the One+ System, Ryobi also has diversified into other types of power tools. The company recently introduced a power paint-spraying product line that it says “is the only cordless paint sprayer in its class.” The product line uses an 18-volt lithium-ion battery and is compatible with the company’s ONE+ platform.

This past summer, Brookfield, Wis.–based Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp., created a whole new business unit dedicated to launching power tools in the Test and Measurement category for, among other groups, electricians and HVAC technicians.

The first wave of products in Milwaukee’s line includes products that use disposable alkaline batteries as well as those featuring the company’s lithium-ion technology in the M12 cordless platform.

“With a strong user base in electrical, HVAC/R, MRO, and remodeling, there is an opportunity for Milwaukee to deliver overdue change to an underserved, dormant category,” says company president Steven Richman. “We are dedicated to leading the industry by delivering new products with best-in-class performance, and solutions to enhance end-user productivity.”

Products in the line that use disposable batteries include a voltage detector with work light, fork meters, a laser Temp-Gun thermometer, a digital multimeter, and clamp meters. Products in the rechargeable M12 cordless line include a Sub-Scanner detection tool, laser Temp-Gun thermometers, and Clamp-Gun clamp meters. The company says many of the products come in two models with distinct features that are tailored to the needs of electricians and HVAC technicians.

Big Deals

One tool manufacturer recently made an offer it hopes contractors can’t refuse—or at least will think long and hard about. Charlotte, N.C–based Rockwell Power Tools announced in January that it will provide free replacement batteries for the life of any of its cordless power tools. (Other manufacturers offer warranties, ranging from one to three years, that may cover parts, service, and batteries.)

“Our Free Batteries for Life program definitely is an industry first,” says Craig Taylor, the company’s vice president of brand marketing. “Everyone’s aware of free refills on coffee and soft drinks—but this is the first time anyone has ever provided the consumer with free refills for their cordless drill/driver, impact driver, or reciprocating saw. This unique proposition is intended to convey our confidence in the uncommon quality of our batteries and portable power tools.”

The company estimates that the new battery for life program will reduce the overall ownership costs of its cordless tools by 40 percent to 70 percent, depending on the tool in question. Battery replacement, it says, can cost as much as the price of the tool itself so company officials expect the program to be very successful.

By all accounts, tool manufacturers will need to generate all the creativity they can muster to keep up sales at a time when contractors either aren’t buying new tools or replacing broken ones. The Specialty Tools & Fasteners Distributors Association in Elm Grove, Wis., says that its member distributors saw a sales decline of 2.1 percent in 2008 but are forecasting a decline of 6.8 percent for 2009. Thankfully, slumps don’t last forever, and these new programs should help until this one’s over.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Milwaukee, WI, Anderson, IN, Charlotte, NC.