Based on responses from a recent Concrete Construction reader survey, we’ve compiled a list of the top tools our readers use to get the job done—from tried and true trowels to the latest in line lasers. Most of these must-have tools use electricity or fuel to do the heavy lifting, but a few favorites for finesse work are still powered by hand. The profiles of these 10 categories include the latest developments in these tools, with several of the models mentioned making their public debut at the World of Concrete 2011 last month. Here are the highlights of a few major trends shaping the industry and taking the tools you use to the next level.

High technology

Besides the collective evolution in material science, motor technology, and electronic controls that have gradually made most tools better than ever, some specialty equipment can perform feats exponentially more difficult than those of a decade ago. Many of today’s state-of-the-art tools may not have even been imagined by the concrete workers of a few generations ago. Indeed, machines with automatic laser-guidance systems, remote-control robotics, or wireless connectivity to computers and phones seem amazing even in the present day.

Production efficiency

Innovations fueled by technological development and driven by the interrelated goals of reducing labor and increasing precision mean motorized and automated tools are doing more of the work that used to rely on human power and control, even for small tasks. Like in other heavy industries, removing or reducing the human factor is often the route to increased productivity and greater accuracy—in a word: efficiency. In the reality of today’s building climate, supporting a smaller crew is a survival tactic born of economic necessity for many companies. Adapting to a worker-lean business model in a time when work is scarce is no doubt keeping many smart firms afloat. Whether purchased or leased, many contractors find that employing certain specialty equipment—although expensive—can save them money over employing a few more skilled hands.

Worker welfare

It’s impossible not to notice the advances made in dust collection and dust reduction for tools such as concrete saws, rotary hammers, and grinders. A cleaner jobsite was not inspiration enough however; increased legislation regarding the toxicity of airborne concrete and masonry dust influenced recent developments. Dust collection using aftermarket shrouds and covers to connect the working end of a tool to a filtering vacuum are quickly being supplanted by integrated models developed by the tool manufacturers themselves. Even retrofitable and universal-fit models are being offered by major brands to capitalize on this burgeoning new market. For dust reduction options—that is, turning the dust into slurry by mixing with water—water-fed guards and slurry-filtering vacuum pumps are available to fit some grinders and polishers, too.

Although the U.S. doesn’t share the strict limitations for a worker’s exposure to vibration held by European countries and the U.K., the fact many of the tools used in this industry are developed in Europe for worldwide distribution means buyers in the American market benefit—albeit secondhand—from the more progressive worker health and welfare standards adopted overseas. Interestingly, many of the largest handheld electric demo hammers and breakers made by some European companies were only available in the North American market as their user-felt vibration was considered too damaging to workers by their domestic standards. Luckily for all, the vibration values of these tools are decreasing as innovation increases, making safer, and more powerful tools available to all.

Richard PitStop

1. Handheld concrete saws

Gas and electric cut-off, or demolition saws remain the all-purpose mainstays from cutting slab joints to demo work to gang-cutting rebar to length. The trend toward high-tech, fuel-efficient gas engines that pollute less continues as the EPA leans on the outdoor power equipment market. Along with decreased emissions and fuel costs, other user benefits of this engine evolution are increased horsepower, even lighter models, and less vibration. All good news for the pros who spend their days operating these tools.

Virginia Beach, Va.-based Stihl’s latest 12- and 14-inch blade, gas-powered saws feature electronic water control modules. Using a waterproof keypad, the operator can dial in one of nine settings for the right amount of coolant flow for the job. That setting is saved until reset by the operator, even after the saw turns off. A solenoid valve opens via electrical current from a built in mechanical generator, so the valve stops the flow of water when the saw is at idle or off.

Along with accurate coolant control, dust collection is another important issue with these saws, especially on electric models more likely to be used indoors. Husqvarna’s, Olathe, Kan., new dust-collecting guard attachment for its K-3000 electric cut-off saw with blade-surrounding vacuum port features a fitting to connect to a water tank or hose for wet cutting.

For cutting modest depths in vertical surfaces, ring saws, chainsaws, or a dual-bladed step-cutting saw can save you set-up time, effort, and lots of overhead when compared to hydraulic-powered circular wall saws. Husqvarna’s new model K970 ring and chainsaws share a more powerful gas engine that produces 6.4 hp, up from the 6.1 hp of their predecessors.

For those unfamiliar with dual-blade step-cutting saws, here’s how they work. Twin, parallel 9-inch blades cut 21/2 inches deep into the concrete. The 3/4-inch-wide “core” of concrete between the kerfs is split out using a special pry bar that is twisted deep in the cut. Then additional 21/2-inch-deep cuts are made in succession to a maximum cut depth of 16 inches. The blades are mounted and belt-driven from the inside, leaving a flat profile to the outside that can plunge cut flush into an existing groove. Husqvarna’s second-generation cut-and-break model 760 has an engine that is 17% bigger than the previous version. According to the company, this extra power not only makes the saw cut faster, but it is more forgiving to the majority of users who tend to force or rush the cut.

Michael Boone

2. Power hammers and drills

This category encompasses a large variety of tools including rotary hammers, demolition hammers, breakers, coring drills, corded and cordless drills, and hammerdrills used in the concrete industry. Among rotary hammers on the job, workers rely on 1- and 11/2-inch class rotary hammers the most, according to industry sales figures. But newer 11/8- and 11/4-inch tools are expected to gain popularity as their power and performance rival that of some existing 11/2-inch hammers.

A relatively recent phenomenon is the advent of cordless rotary hammers considered effective for professional use. These 36-V lithium-ion (LI) hammers, from brands such as Bosch, Mt. Prospect, Ill.; DeWalt, Towson, Md.; Hilti, Tulsa, Okla.; and Makita, La Mirada, Calif., set an admirable performance standard a few years back, and now Hilti boasts its cordless TE4A, 6A, and 7A models will all outpace its corded TE7 tool of similar capacity when drilling with a 1/2-inch bit. Newer, next-generation 18-V LI tools from the major players are even capable of impressive drilling rates for holes 1/2-inch and under.

The biggest news in the category lately is the battle for supremacy in the full-size 65- to 70-pound electric breakers. The last year has seen the unveiling of new models from Bosch, Hilti, and Wacker Neuson, Menomonee Falls, Wis. These join strong contenders from DeWalt and Makita, which really round out the crop of new-school breakers featuring more impact energy and less user-felt vibration than ever before.

3. Laser levels

As one of the newest and fastest-evolving categories in the concrete contractor’s tool kit, the ever-increasing range and accuracy of laser levels and layout tools is astounding. Like computers and cell phones, the price per capability ratio keeps dropping. The variety of units is mind-boggling; now you can find virtually any combination of line, cross line, and point generating laser possible, with ranges and accuracy commensurate to price point. Also lasers aren’t limited to tripod use like the optical layout tools they set out to emulate. Adjustable wall, ceiling and pipe brackets, magnets, and fold-out feet accommodate specialty layout uses and plumb-bob functions. There are even units that clamp directly to batter boards for squaring up foundation layouts, such as the Hilti PR35, to be introduced this summer.

Two of the latest trends in laser level technology are green lasers and cone mirror line generators. In short, the benefit of more expensive green beams is their increased visibility range indoors, but they are only effective in a limited temperature range so they are best used in a controlled thermal environment. The 360-degree cone-generated lines are made by pointing a laser at a mirrored cone instead of rotating a beam. With no motor and no moving parts, creating vertical or horizontal planes with a mirror is less expensive, although the maximum range is less too. Bosch and its CST Berger brand feature various lasers with this technology.

Robotic total stations are the ultimate in laser technology, but their automated 3D modeling capabilities will cost you—as much as a nice car in fact. But according to makers such as Trimble, Dayton, Ohio, the return on investment comes from the reduction of man hours afforded by an automated, single-user layout tool. Feature laden models, such as the Trimble RTS series, have BIM-to-field capabilities, making them able to receive near-instant plan changes wirelessly to keep up with any design modifications sent from the home office while the unit is in the field.

4. Handheld floats and groovers

Many of these trusty tools have been perfected in both form and materials years ago, but there are efforts to make some lighter. Marshalltown Co., Marshalltown, Iowa, is seeing a lot of interest in its composite bull float brackets and magnesium extension handles with push-button connections, which it claims are a third lighter than typical handles.

Haivala, Seattle, has developed a hollow extruded magnesium bull float with welded ends that is lighter than its solid model. The new box construction is designed to be stiffer and stay flatter than solid floats.

As an innovation based on refining a specific material application, West Jordan, Utah-based Bunyan’s sharp-bladed rolling jointer cuts into pervious concrete with less distortion than drag-type tools, and its wide diameter roller is intended to leave a minimal footprint.

5. Internal vibrators

Specialized advances in vibration consolidation technology include shorter heads that stay fully submerged in tilt-up and other shallow pours, square head units designed to differently tune the shape of vibrations, and high-cycle vibration optimized for low-slump mixes.

Rubber covered heads are a necessity when working with epoxy-coated rebar to avoid chipping the coating and also to protect smooth forms. According to Oztec, Port Washington, N.Y., the cooling slots in its RubberHead cover act like suction cups that hold the concrete closer to the head for more effective energy transfer. This secondary performance benefit could lead to an increase of these tools’ use in noncoated rebar pours as well.

Another interesting category of vibrators are those that attach directly to rebar for consolidating CMU cavity pours where there is no space for a typical vibrator to go with the flow.

6. Handheld screeds

Old-fashioned handheld tubular screeds remain largely the same, and some workers still grab a 2x4 for small jobs. However, vibratory screeds operated by hand let the operator do the job standing up, and with greater efficiency. Gas or electric power heads attach to screeds ranging from a few feet across up to driveway width.

An exciting entry in the field is Québec, Canada-based Magic Screed’s E-Screed that runs on a 36-V LI battery. With no power cord or noxious emissions, this model is ready for jobs indoors and out. The manufacturer claims the battery will run the unit for one hour and fifteen minutes—or about 10,000 square feet of finishing—and the battery is expected to last for at least 1000 charge cycles. The unit is designed to power screeds up to 16 feet long, and an additional battery pack could be purchased for longer daily run times.

7. Walk-behind trowels

With hard-troweled floor surfaces becoming more accepted as finished floors in retail and institutional settings, finish troweling takes on new importance. To avoid discoloration caused by worn metal left on finished surfaces, plastic trowel blades are finding favor with contractors. For finishing or refinishing indoor floors without the fumes, electric trowels are the answer.

The new Whiteman J36E2 36-inch trowel by Multiquip, Carson, Calif., features a variable speed drive from 30 to 160 rpm. To protect the unit’s induction motor, which has to stay at a near constant speed, the belt transmission automatically downshifts when the motor strains and then resumes its set speed.

Also new is the Whiteman HDA48413H 48-inch gas-powered trowel—the brand’s latest heavy-duty model. It features an 11-hp Honda engine and runs at 30 to 225 rpm; with a fast top speed for more effective burnishing work.

8. Walk-behind concrete saws

From rolling electric grinder units for decorative work by Crac-Vac to Stihl’s cart that holds its Cutquik saws to giant diesel models for dissecting airport runways, there is a walk-behind saw for any application and cut depth. Early entry saws pioneered by Husqvarna’s Soff-Cut brand are a growing part of the market.

Stephenville, Texas-based Norton’s new GC55 Clipper early-entry saw is a gas saw with a 10-inch blade capable of cutting up to 31/2 inches deep. The position of the blade at the center of the saw carriage is intended to promote better balance, and patented concave wheels keep the saw from tracking crooked over debris. This saw is unique among early-entry saws for its lack of a skid plate surrounding the blade. According to the company, the combination of varying-depth gullet slots in the blade and its downward cutting direction prevent distortion of green concrete at the cut line.

9. Handheld polishers and grinders

Whether grinding a surface for a coating or polishing, a countertop, decorative concrete, or stone surfaces call for delicate finishing tools. Dry grinding requires shrouds that connect to vacuum and the best ones hinge open to allow the grinding wheel to reach all the way to the edge of a workpiece, such as those on Metabo’s 5-inch WE14-125 Plus and 7-inch W23-230 models. For smoother finishes, a wet polisher such as Metabo’s latest—the PWE11-100—is an option. This tool features a water feed through the spindle, fits 4- or 5-inch disks, and operates at speeds from 1700 to 5500 rpm. At lower speeds, an electronic feedback circuit adds power as the motor slows so it can even be used for drilling faucet holes in countertops.

The smoothest and flattest finishes are easier to achieve with a planetary polisher. With three 5-inch disks rotating beneath a slower rotating 12-inch platform, the stable, overlapping surface contact is hard to beat with a single disk tool. San Leandro, Calif.-based Intertool’s newest planetary polisher is the DS301 Xtreme. Powered by a Fein 15-amp motor, with soft start and a single operating speed, it features integrated water feed and dust collection ports, and can be fitted with a slurry skirt.

10. Power screeds

The rise in popularity of pervious concrete has created increased use of roller screeds to mechanically spread and compress the mix for proper compaction. New to Bunyan’s roller screed line is a wheeled guide that rides along a 2x6 mounted atop a curb to allow screeding right up to the curb. Also new is a direct drive hydraulic winch for pulling the screed up slopes using the screed’s own hydraulic power pack.

Somero, Fort Meyers, Fla., is the name in walk-behind, laser-guided screeds, thanks to unique, patented products. But in addition to its Copperhead and Mini Screed models, Somero just introduced the SMP (Somero Mid-Sized Platform) as its first ride-on model. The 4-wheel drive machine features three interchangeable head options so it can be used to grade as well as plow and screed concrete.