It's 8:30 a.m. on a sunny Sunday morning and the lawn needs mowing. The grass is already dry, but the neighbors are all still asleep. Is there any ruder awakening than a power mower starting up? With my lawn mower, however, I don't need to worry. I roll it out of the shed, insert the ignition key and circuit breaker, squeeze the padded handle, push the starter button. And the 19-inch blade begins to whir.
Whir? It's not a word commonly used to describe a power mower, but whir it does, spinning at 3,250 rpm and cutting the grass. A mulching model, it cuts the grass very fine, recutting each clipping many times. All this I could be telling you as I mow. You'd have no trouble hearing me, for this machine generates about as much noise as conversation. What makes this lawn mower's engine so quiet? It's battery powered.
It takes me on average 45 minutes to mow the lawn, which occupies about two-thirds of our 13,000-square-foot lot. When I'm done, I take out the ignition key and plug in an extension cord. After six to eight hours, a green light appears on the control panel, informing me that the battery is now fully charged and that I can put the mower away.
This is the fifth summer I've used this mower. After its initial recharge out of winter storage each year, it has started every time I pushed the button, and stopped every time I let go of the handle. Its electrical consumption is less than $10 per year. Fuel for a gasoline-powered machine would cost two or three times that much. The only servicing I've ever done is to sharpen the blade and periodically wipe down the underside of the deck. Compare this to oil changes, air filter cleanings, and the cost of periodic trips to the repair shop when the engine simply refuses to start, and you will understand why I tend to feel pretty smug on a Sunday morning.
Smugness, however, is never a virtue, especially on Sunday morning. And therefore I must confess that I have not found paradise quite yet. What could be wrong with all this? Well, for starters, my Ryobi cordless mulching mower is no longer made. I can't urge my neighbors to buy one just like it. And when my mower finally stops working (as it inevitably must), I may not be able to repair it. Parts typically cease to be available five years after a model stops being manufactured, and Ryobi quit making mine in 1998.
The opportunity to mow quietly wasn't the only reason I switched over to an electric lawn mower. I knew I'd be generating less air pollution as well. Gasoline-powered engines, especially older models, are egregious emitters of noxious fumes. Running a typical gasoline-powered lawn mower for a single hour has been calculated to emit as many hydrocarbons as a late-model passenger car driving 20,000 miles.
Electrically powered lawn mowers are not new. Corded models have been around for years and are still available. They are, however, best used to tend very small lawns since, even if you can manage to keep the cord out of the way of the blade, you have to take voltage drop into account: the longer the extension cord, the less power reaches the end (and most corded electric mowers are limited to 100 feet of extension cord).
This is why rechargeable batteries are such an attractive option. They free the mower from the umbilical cord of a power source. Black & Decker introduced the first battery-powered lawn mower to this country back in 1971. This was followed by new models in 1980, 1990, and most recently in 1996. Black & Decker was not alone. Both Briggs & Stratton and Tecumseh began to manufacture battery-powered motors that could be attached to lawn mower decks. Sears sold a battery-powered Craftsman mower. Toro offered two CareFree mower models. And of course there was Ryobi.
But none of these electric lawn mowers generated as much popular demand as I, or the manufacturers, expected. Toro discontinued their CareFree line in 2000, Sears no longer offers a battery mower, and Ryobi is out of the business. In fact, I know of only three currently available models of battery-powered push mowers. The most popular is the 19-inch Black & Decker CMM 1000 (www.blackanddecker.com). Joining it are a pair of new introductions. The 14-inch Neuton rotary mower from Country Home Products (www.countryhomeproducts.com), and a 15-inch Sunlawn Brill 380ASM reel mower from Sunlawn, Inc. (www.sunlawn.com), and Clean Air Gardening (www.cleanairgardening.com).
Some six million new gasoline-powered mowers will be purchased this year. Why is it that fewer than 50,000-not even one percent-of these will be battery powered? Clearly there is an interest in alternative technology. The fastest-growing sector of the lawn-mower market is old-fashioned push reel mowers. According to Terry Jarvis of Sunlawn, there's been a sixfold increase in sales in the last decade, with annual sales now over 300,000.
Given my own entirely favorable experience with a battery-powered machine, what's holding everyone else up? For starters, it may be the batteries themselves. The Brill uses a removable 24-volt nicad battery that weighs only 3.5 pounds. The others, however, use 25-pound lead-acid storage batteries. My Ryobi weighs 75 pounds total, as does the current Black & Decker. The Neuton is lighter at 48 pounds. Even the Brill weighs 29.
Gasoline-powered mowers typically range from 50 to 100 pounds, but many of them have engines that help with the pushing. With a battery-powered model, the engine drives only the blade. The mower itself has to be pushed. It's not an issue on the flat, but you'll know it when you're mowing uphill. As a society that has grown accustomed to riding mowers, we may be unwilling to accept anything less than self-propulsion in a walking model.
It's also true that battery-powered engines produce less torque. Joe Newland of Black & Decker points out that you can't simply drop a battery-powered engine into a mower designed for a gasoline engine. "You waste too much energy moving air with a heavy blade," he says. If a machine is to have enough power to mow 10,000 to 15,000 square feet on a single charge it clearly has to be smartly designed from top to bottom. It also has to be smartly used. Heavy grass or wet grass will drain the battery faster. And batteries must be promptly and fully recharged to preserve their life. How long will a battery last? I'm told I can expect mine to last five to six years before it needs replacement.
Finally, Bill Williams of MTD Technical Services (the new owners of Ryobi Outdoor Power Products) claims that the safety requirement that the mower blade stop rotating as soon as the engine is switched off presents a special problem for electric motors. With both corded AC motors and the battery-powered DC ones, the sudden stopping, he says, causes an electric arc which can result in premature wear of the brushes and switches.
This hasn't affected my trusty Ryobi. At least not yet. I would be happy to hear from readers about their own experiences with electric lawn mowers of any kind. How have your machines fared? And would you be interested in owning another?
Today's battery-powered lawn mowers aren't cheap. Though prices may be lower depending on where a mower is purchased, the best-selling Black & Decker model has crept up to nearly $450, which is twice what the average person pays for a similar-size gasoline-powered machine. However, the total expense drops when you take into account savings in operation, and falls still further when you subtract environmental costs. In the interests of reducing air pollution, utility companies along the West Coast have even begun providing a $250 credit to anyone who brings in an operational gasoline mower to trade for a battery-powered one. Last March in Sacramento, California, for instance, 1,200 Black & Decker mowers were traded out in four hours.
Why, then, aren't electric mowers more visible at your average lawn mower dealership? I'm beginning to suspect that it's not simply everyone's unfamiliarity with a new technology. I think that dealers and salespeople may worry that praising electric lawn mowers could be seen as pointing an accusing finger at gasoline-powered ones. It's understandable that dealerships might be reluctant to trash-talk their primary offerings. But I also think it's possible for both technologies to coexist. I drive a Toyota Prius-a hybrid-electric SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emitting Vehicle)-which I bought from a dealer who would have happily sold me a noisier, gas-guzzling, higher-emission SUV.
Surely one can own a gasoline and an electric lawn mower. But even if only 20% of the nation's lawn mower sales this summer were to become electric, wouldn't we all get to sleep a little longer and breathe a little easier?
Readers are invited to share their thoughts and experiences with electric lawn mowers, battery-powered or corded, by e-mailing us at email@example.com.
Country Home Products
cutting width: 14 inches
battery: 24 volt lead acid
capacity: 10,000 square feet
weight: 48 lbs.
Cordless Rechargable Mulching Mower CMM1000
Black & Decker
cutting width: 19 inches
battery: 24 volt lead acid
capacity: 15,000 square feet
weight: 75 lbs.
Sunlawn Brill 380ASM
cutting width: 15 inches
battery: 24 volt nickel cadmium
capacity: 3,000 square feet
weight: 29 lbs.
The closest we'll probably come to a lawn that mows itself is to buy an automatic robot mower. This is a battery-powered mower that functions by moving around inside a perimeter defined by a buried signal wire. When the mower reaches a boundary wire, it turns and mows in a new direction. This means that (nearly) every blade of grass eventually gets cut, but in no predictable pattern. Two models are currently on the market: the Husqvarna Auto Mower (www.husqvarna.com), which plugs itself in for recharging when its battery gets low, and the Toro iMow (www.toro.com).-R.B.S.
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