Friday, October 16, 2009

Going Electric

It's all about the green ...

If you're a homeowner you can take advantage of a proven technology that will save you money, time, and trouble while at the same time lowering your energy consumption, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the air quality. You might even prevent yourself from going deaf. Interested?

No, you don't have to park your SUV and invest 30K in a hybrid car. All you have to do is dump your humble gas guzzling lawnmower and replace it with an electric one. I did it myself about 3 years ago and I'm here to tell you it works.

The way it happened is, my old lawnmower was giving me problems. I had just spent about $120 having it refitted with a new blade, spark plug, air filter, and oil change. It worked for about a month before it became impossible to start. Then I noticed the metal housing of the whole thing was beginning to rust through and was almost ready to fall apart. So I went shopping for a replacement.

Not finding anything that didn't seem overpriced, I returned from the store with only an electric weed-whacker, which was another tool I needed. I thought I could at least do some trimming while I figured out what to do about the mower. The new machine was light weight and fun to use. I quickly cleaned up all my edges, then paused and considered how much grass was left in the remainder of the front lawn. Hmm ...

Twenty minutes later I had mowed the entire front yard with the weed whacker. My back was a little sore but I'd hardly broken a sweat. That was enough for me. If I could do it with a weed whacker, then a scaled up version with 4 wheels had to be that much easier. For less than $200 -- that's almost $100 less than the price of a Kindle Reader -- I came back with an 18" Black and Decker Lawn Hog electric mulching mower that made short work of the back lawn, and has served me faithfully now for 3 South Florida lawn mowing seasons.

Trust me, there is nothing wrong with this idea. Let's take the usual objections one at a time:

  • The extension cords are a hassle*. Not really. I have two 50-foot cords that I plug together, and two exterior outlets to choose from. All you need is enough wire to reach the farthest corner of your lot. Uncoiling them and wrapping them up again at the beginning and end of the job takes about 2 minutes and is less work than yanking a rope trying to get a gas engine going when it's not in the mood.
  • You get tangled up in the cords. Not if you give it any thought. The only concession I had to make was the time honored pattern of mowing from the outside of a square to the center. Of course if you insist on that you will get tangled up. The thing to do instead is to start from where the cord plugs in and work your way back and forth away from it so the cord just unfurls as you go.
  • Electric motors aren't powerful enough. Baloney. I don't know how a 12 amp motor converts to horsepower, but I know that my gas mower used to stall if I plowed it into a clump of tall weeds. The electric has never done that. It slows but does not stall and has cut down everything I have asked it to.
  • An electric mower won't last. We'll see. Three years and counting. My gas mower gave up after less than 10. One thing I do know is that I will never spend time and money on oil changes, tuneups, or trips to the gas station to fill my 2-gallon can.
  • Your electric bill will go up. Can't say I've noticed anything there. If you think about it, buying 2 gallons of gas every few months is not a noticeable expense either, so why should electricity be any different? I trust the electric company to use its fuel more efficiently than the noisy, polluting engines that they slap on mowers.
And then there are the pluses of going electric:

  • Maintenance-free, or very nearly. I suppose I may need a new blade someday.
  • Quieter - more like a vaccuum cleaner than a mower.
  • Light weight - again, more like a vaccuum cleaner. Even gas mowers that drive themselves are beasts to wrestle around corners, or to lift into the back of your car when you take them to the repair shop.
  • No fumes - remember you're not the only one who has to breath that exhaust.
  • Safety - my gas mower caught on fire once when dry grass clippings were ignited by the hot engine. Remember, it has a gas tank on it, too. Whoops! Another time I splashed gasoline into my eyes when the filler hose came out of the gas tank while I was pouring. Those things are dangerous!
There are some amusing estimates of how many miles per gallon a gas lawnmower gets. This one, for example, concludes: "If you mow for 1 hour and your mower uses say 1/2 gallon ... then in 2 hours you would have walked 8 miles and used 1 gallon. So your MPG is 8 gallons to the mile!" In my case my yard is much too small to walk 8 miles in. I would say maybe 1 to 2 miles max, especially because I walk so slowly while pushing a mower. That gives me between 32 and 64 gallons per mile -- yikes! [Note: this math is backwards, see comments below.]

But mpg is not everything. This article delves into the pollution caused by gas lawnmowers and their noisy brethren -- leaf blowers, chain saws, and trimmers. They say that every week 54 million of us mow our lawns, so you have to multiply what you do by a very large number. 20 million small engines are sold each year, which is another measure of the scale of the problem, as well as how many old ones must be disposed of each year. Altogether they contribute a whopping 10% of our annual production of hydrocarbons.

Convinced? Please, give it a try the next time your mower causes you grief. I promise you won't be sorry, and you'll feel good about yourself, too.

[*You can also get electric mowers that run on rechargeable batteries, but I don't recommend it. They are more expensive, much heavier, lower powered, and have higher maintenance costs because of replacing the battery. Engineers tell me AC motors that run on wall current are always more powerful and longer lasting than DC motors that run on batteries. Let's let them do the math and take their word for it.]


  1. Anonymous7:47 PM

    Hi Steve,
    I love your blog site
    love your wimsical and excellent writing.
    love even more your topics (your interests)
    and truly enjoyed meeting you and sitting next to you at Laura's recent workshop.
    I'm now, via your blogsite, sharing you around, showing you off to my friends.

    I used to mow my Dad's 60x100' lot in the fla keys with his electric mower. He set it up exactly as you said...the cord continually uncoiling as I'd zig-zag walk away from the plug...works great...soo much better than gas and easier to push, lighter. Ps: I think your example should read 8 miles to the gallon, rather than 8 gallons to the mile (unless you drank the other 7 gallons and, maybe even, wandered about in a stationarry circle as you sipped) Hugs and thanks ever so, Julie

    ps, i'm posting as anonymous , even though I;m not anonymous, because my PC is too slow, and i don't really know what the other categories mean

  2. Glad you like it and the whole electric mowing thing. You're right about the erroneous math - as I'm noting above. But I think 8 mpg is still much too high since it is based on walking 4 mph while behind a mower, and I think it is probably closer to 1 or 2 mph.