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Lawn Mowing Season

My quest for a greener lawn mowing option

Posted on Jun 21 2012 by Alex Wilson

I’ve never liked mowing the lawn. And it’s not just because of the gasoline used in the process.

Lawns carry huge environmental burdens in this country, and we have a lot of them. I profiled some of these impacts once for an article in Environmental Building News back in the 1990s. From the information I found then, the total lawn area in the U.S. is 50,000 square miles — an area larger than the state of New York. We spend $25 billion per year on their care. We dump 3-6 million tons of fertilizer on them, and the runoff from those lawns is one of the largest pollution problems in our lakes and rivers.

We apply something like 34,000 tons of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and other pesticides on them, accounting for a whopping 14% of total pesticide use in the U.S. — and 34% of insecticide use. On a per-acre basis, this amounts to about two pounds per year.

And while not as big an issue in Vermont as elsewhere, we use a huge amount of water maintaining our emerald-green oases. “Kentucky” bluegrass is not from Kentucky (it’s from Europe), and it takes about 40 inches of water per year to keep it that lush green we’ve come to know and love. In much of the country, irrigating lawns is the single largest consumptive use of water (we use a lot more water in cooling thermo-electric power plants, but most of that water is only “borrowed” for power generation, then returned to the source), often accounting for 40-60% of total municipal water use.

And then there’s the energy. Our fleet of 40 million lawn mowers consume several hundred million gallons of gasoline each year. And despite improvements in recent years, lawnmower engines aren’t as clean as car engines. While our mowers consume just a tiny percent of the gasoline used by our automobile fleet, they emit as must as 7% of VOCsVolatile organic compound. An organic compound that evaporates readily into the atmosphere; as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are organic compounds that volatize and then become involved in photochemical smog production. (volatile organic compounds) in some areas.

My own predicament

Living in West Dummerston, Vermont, six miles outside of Brattleboro, I’ve tried to shrink our lawn area to minimize the need for mowing, and ten years ago we went out on a limb and bought a then-pretty-new battery-powered electric lawn mower. It’s a Makita mower — you-know (well, some of you guys know), that tool maker of the famed Miss Makita calendars.

I’m pretty sure that Makita no longer makes an electric lawn mower, and ours never worked all that well. But our lawn area was small enough that the mower (mostly) did the job. In the last five years, as the rechargeable lead-acid batteries gradually failed, it got harder and harder to mow the entire lawn on one charge. We looked into replacing the batteries, but they were going to cost something like $250 — for a mower with all sorts of other stuff wrong with it that had probably cost about $400 when new. I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the money for new batteries.

This year the batteries finally stopped charging altogether. What would we do about it?

Being a product researcher (it’s an affliction that gobbles up hours but at least finds a useful outlet in our company’s green products directory, GreenSpec) I spent a while learning how far the industry had come in ten years. I still liked the idea of mowing our lawn using electricity — opening up the potential for generating our own power for that task) — but surely the industry had moved beyond our Makita-blue mower (that had lost its slick plastic cover when I removed it one time to see about replacing the batteries and lost the screws).

Consumer Reports likes the Black and Decker 19-inch 36-volt mowers (either self-propelled or push-type). But neither Consumer Reports nor the local dealer in Brattleboro likes these mowers as much as gasoline-powered models. They aren’t stocked locally, so I’d have to special-order one. (If only more homeowners pushed for lower-impact products!)

We may order one of these, but I’m also watching the technologies. Power tools are converting to more environmentally friendly lithium-ion battery technology in place of nickel-cadmium or sealed lead-acid batteries (the latter being what is used in the Black and Decker mowers). Do I really want to go out and buy a mower (for about $450) with lead-acid batteries and then see the newer technology come along as soon as I’ve bought it? (I have an inquiry into Black and Decker to try to find out if the company’s battery technology will be changing soon.)

Meanwhile, my decision-making in the lawn-mowing department got more complicated by our purchase of a farm last fall. All of a sudden we have a much larger lawn to deal with — at least until we succeed in shrinking that lawn area. We’re now at the scale of lawn where a push mower may not be large enough. So far, we’ve been borrowing a generous neighbor’s riding lawn mower, but are less than enthusiastic about purchasing a new riding lawnmower that’s gasoline-powered.

Electric riding mowers?

What’s the status of riding mowers with battery-powered electric motors? It turns out that there are some. But they’re quite pricey! The company Driven by Solar, Inc. makes the ReCharge Mower G2, a riding mower powered by a 36-volt, 85-amp-hour battery system. The mower has two cutting blades with a 30-inch width and seven cutting heights. The blades spin at 3,600 rpm, which is pretty standard for gasoline-powered riding mowers. The manufacturer’s suggested list price (MSRP) of this made-in-America mower is $2,599.

Hustler makes the Zeon zero-turn commercial riding mower with a two-blade, 42-inch deck. The mower weighs in at a hefty 814 pounds with a roll-over protection system (ROPS) installed. The website claims the Zeon can mow a full acre on a single charge. It looks like a great machine, but carries a MSRP of $6,999, with a special Web price of $4,999 — out of our range.

And at the top end of the (limited) scale of commercial electric riding mowers seems to be Mean Green Products, LLC. The company’s 36-volt RX-50 riding mower has a 50-inch deck and enough battery capacity to mow about two acres, according to the company. It weighs an even more prodigious 890 pounds, and the price is $9,900. Way out of our price range!

These zero-emission, rechargeable electric riding mowers sound pretty good, but you can buy a decent gasoline-powered riding mower for half the price of the cheapest of these.

I’d like to use an electric mower and charge it with my own photovoltaic(PV) Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. power system, but the cost is just too high, and all of these models currently use lead-acid batteries, which may soon be obsolete and more manufacturers switch to lithium-ion batteries.

I’m thinking the answer is to find a decent used riding mower on Craigslist and use it until a battery-powered electric model is affordable. By then I should have a PVPhotovoltaics. Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic (PV) cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. system up and running.

Or maybe I should buy some goats….

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. He also coauthored BuildingGreen’s special report on windows that just came out. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


Tags: , , , , , ,

Image Credits:

  1. Black & Decker
  2. Driven by Solar, Inc.
  3. Hustler
  4. Mean Green Products, LLC

1.
Thu, 06/21/2012 - 11:36

Generosity
by Matt Dirksen

Helpful? 0

Perhaps you already have the right solution. Create a way to further cultivate your neighbor's generosity. Are things you can offer him/her in the spirit of reciprocity?. And when the time comes that they need a new mower, you both invest in it together at that particular time (when lithium-ion batteries are cheaper).
Like car sharing, the next logical (and arguably Very green) step is to create the ability to share large scale tools (lawnmowers included.)

My family is a part of twelve other families in what is called a "Gift Community". Over the past eighteen months, we have managed to collectively do tons of house/yard work at eachother's homes on a monthly basis - work which would have taken any of us years to accomplish alone. Many hands (and tools) make work much lighter.

If you want more info on Gift Communities, check out: http://www.weneedeachother.net/blog/

good luck with your decision. And congratulations on the new farm!

Matt


2.
Thu, 06/21/2012 - 11:42

Corded mowers?
by Alex Harwin

Helpful? 0

Since you didn't mention the corded electric mowers, I'm assuming you're lawn is either too big or too far from an outlet. If not, then I highly recommend the corded models for their durability and freedom from maintenance. The hassle of managing a 100' cord is much less than the hassle of dealing with gas, oil, seasonal maintenance, or batteries. The motor lasts forever and they're relatively quiet.


3.
Thu, 06/21/2012 - 13:20

goats
by Minneapolis Disaster, 6B

Helpful? 0

I see you only mention the goats as an afterthought, and possibly only as a joke--but isn't it something that would be realistic and appropriate for your farm?

I often wish the Minneapolis Parks and Rec Dept would set goats loose, from one park to the next, in weekly rotations, instead of the many lawnmowers they run. What a great sight that would be.


4.
Thu, 06/21/2012 - 13:47

Goats and sheep
by Alex Wilson

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Goats and/or sheep might very well play a role in our turf management in the future, but not until we deal with fencing--and the higher fencing priority is probably deer fencing for the fields that will be cultivated. Goats are great because they eat poison ivy and taller shrubs, but are harder to contain than sheep; my colleague Tristan Roberts just got goats for his place. So, yes, livestock is an option that we will certainly consider.


5.
Thu, 06/21/2012 - 14:26

No mention of non-powered
by Daniel Stewart

Helpful? 1

No mention of non-powered reel mowers? I've been using one for the past few years originally for no reason other than it was cheap and available. Admittedly I have a small lot (<5000sf), it takes about an hour to mow, and it's never going to be as crisp as a powered mower would get it (just pushes over weeds, rather than cutting), but it works for me. I'm not fussy about the slightly imperfect finish and actually find the manual labor cathartic after sitting in the office all week.

As for the lawn, I'm a huge fan of xeriscaping, but with 2 young kids it's nice having a lawn they can play in. I have never once watered or fertilized the lawn and just let it go slightly brown in the middle of summer. Think of it as seasonal grass patina. I do live in Seattle, so we get more rain than other places, but in general if you just relax your standards of needing an immaculate lawn it can have a much reduced environmental impact.


6.
Thu, 06/21/2012 - 16:14

Diesel?
by Patrick McCombe

Helpful? 0

What about a commercial diesel powered rig. You could even run if off bio-diesel. Seems like you'd have use for a real tractor on you new homestead.
I know modern over-the-road diesels have lower particulate emissions than they used too.


7.
Fri, 06/22/2012 - 11:55

reel!
by Leigha Dickens

Helpful? 0

I have a cheap reel mower that does the job for our small lot but in an admittedly messy fashion. The upside aside from the non-polluting aspect is is much lighter and easier to use than big clunky push mower, (even a self-propelled one) especially on a couple of our hills. The downside is that once the thick stalky weeds like plantain and crabgrass get started in your yard then the reel mower can't handle them super well.


8.
Fri, 06/22/2012 - 15:48

[The downside is that once
by Daniel Stewart

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[The downside is that once the thick stalky weeds like plantain and crabgrass get started in your yard then the reel mower can't handle them super well.]

By, "super well," I believe you mean, "it just pushes them over and they pop back up."
Despite that, they're great. I might change my position a bit if I had a significantly bigger lot, though...


9.
Fri, 06/22/2012 - 16:39

Reel Mowers and Cords
by Eric Sandeen

Helpful? 0

I agree with the other commenters - reel mowers are pretty great for a small lawn, and for a while it was about the only exercise I got! But I kept a gas mower for those times when I didn't get to it soon enough - reel mowers just don't cut too-high grass well at all.

I finally gave in and decided I wanted a powered option; got a corded black & decker, and I'm very happy with it so far. Considered batteries but there's up-front expense, maintenance expense, and likely obsolescence & disposal (what if the motor still works in 10 years - where will you get replacement batteries then?) The cord just isn't that bad for a reasonable sized lawn.

And, of course, i measured it - 0.16kWh to mow the lawn. Doing it while the PV panels are humming along feels pretty good.


10.
Sun, 06/24/2012 - 08:16

I have been mowing with a
by Keith Gustafson

Helpful? 0

I have been mowing with a 70's vintage Elec Trak tractor since 2008. I also have a 24 volt B&D push mower. I recently replaced the charger on the push mower, it works well.

Elec trak's are old, but fairly simple. They were produced in upstate New York, so there are a large number of them not that far from you. There are modern control systems available, and batteries last quite a while when treated well. They came with mower decks, plows, rear mounted tiller, snowblowers, forklifts, front end loaders..... they had 36 volt attachments like a chainsaw. My mower deck and snowblower work well,

The best running one in the world might cost a few grand. While they are not maintenance free, I have found it no worse than a gas tractor. In fact, I do not run these because they are green so much as I am sick of small gas engines.

There are one or two guys restoring tractors semi professionally,and the cost of one of those would be a fraction of a new electric and would last for decades.

www.elec-trak.com


11.
Sun, 06/24/2012 - 12:39

Edited Sun, 06/24/2012 - 12:43.

No gas, no grass, no ass... no one rides for free.
by Wes Harding

Helpful? 1

I hope the word ass isn't too racy for GBA. All of this talk about lawns and grass made me think of my buddy who had this slogan on the back of his car in college. As ridiculous as it may sound though this slogan does apply to the article and conversations about lawns. What is the true cost of owning a lawn and who pays the price for having one, especially when they are managed incorrectly like most of them are? Everyone pays the price one way or another when using gas mowers due to high pollution and a depletion of our natural resources. Large amounts of water and petroleum, emissions from mowers and emissions from discarding lawn clippings, and refuse services lead to a negative impact on our communities and environment.

Outside of minimizing the heat island effect in developed communities, the only benefits we gain from a lawn is the comfort of seeing a sea of green surrounding our homes. Lawns are like pools, jacuzzis, rain shower heads, and Hummers...they provide us comfort. We are socially conditioned to operate our homes like everyone else on the block. Lawns do not promote community involvement and in many cases are treated like a moat to protect us from our neighbors. I am not saying we need to get rid of lawns all together, but we do need to minimize the amount of lawn we do have and manage it more responsibly and change the way in which we operate our homes.

Covering our landscapes with plastic lawns is not the answer. The solution is to remove the lawn we don't need for comfort and replace it with drought tolerant and native plants or converting the space to an edible landscape. If we minimize our lawn we don't need rideable lawn mowers and can easily manage our lawns with a cheap plug in mower or push mower. Instead of tossing the clippings in the trash we should promote grasscycling.

www.hardingconstruction.biz


12.
Sun, 06/24/2012 - 23:48

Goats and sheep
by Michael Chandler, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Goats and sheep are really not a viable lawn solution. They are actually pretty picky eaters. Ours turn up their noses at stinging nettles, those really tall sumac's with the purple berries, a lot of woody weeds and, blessedly, pumpkin and acorn squash vines. t

The fun part is trellising pumpkins and acorn squash up into the trees in our pasture and having them hanging from the branches in the fall. But I have to get out and "dead-head" their pasture on a tractor several times a summer to keep it from going to seed and I have to walk it with a hoe to knock the thistles down.

Of course they just Love blueberry bushes and cherry trees so letting them out into the orchard is a non-starter as well.


13.
Wed, 06/27/2012 - 18:14

proved a point
by Andrew Cutting

Helpful? 0

It seems to me that you are part of the problem. If we are going to switch to non-gas mowers, somebody has to buy them. Using someone else gas mower is not any greener the you owning one.


14.
Wed, 06/27/2012 - 18:46

Don't mow
by Ed Dunn

Helpful? 0

Just got back from London. Kensington Gardens in Hyde Park has huge swaths of unmown areas they leave for the bees and birds. Beautiful!


15.
Wed, 06/27/2012 - 21:36

Battery push mower
by Kevin Hunter

Helpful? 0

We had a 24-v B&D which lasted about six years. Moved up to the new 36-v, which has not only more power but a removal battery pack. Don't wait around for Li-on batteries: that will be very expensive for several more years at least. (look at the tool sites). The removal battery should last longer if kept in conditioned space, and this mower handles 1/3 acre of thick stuff well.


16.
Wed, 06/27/2012 - 21:47

Since I was young I never
by Andy Kosick

Helpful? 0

Since I was young I never understood peoples need to cut grass. Looks better long in my opinion but there's an ordinance where I live. I've minimized the lawn and I have a manual reel mower. Contrary to popular believe it's easier to push than any other mower I've used, it's quiet, no gas, no oil, I keep it in the basement. Sometimes my two and half year old son even helps push for a few laps.


17.
Thu, 06/28/2012 - 01:09

German Ingenuity saves the day
by Greg Winger

Helpful? 0

Similar to another commenter, our well established and mediocre-looking Seattle lawn needs no fertilizer, no insecticide, and no irrigation- only going brown for a few weeks in August/September.
We own a Brill push mower which, with some sharp blades, makes nice work of our 1500sf of lawn. And with the bagger on, only takes about 20 minutes to mow. Plus, it's great to be able to mow with our small children playing close by.
I used to be a real motorhead and worked around small engines everyday. Now, I can barely stand the smell of raw gasoline or exhaust. Yuk.


18.
Thu, 06/28/2012 - 19:00

Edited Thu, 06/28/2012 - 19:02.

superlative scythe
by Derek Roff

Helpful? 0

For me, there is no garden tool more joyful to use than a properly sharpened, high quality scythe. The feel, speed, and efficacy of a scythe are close to miraculous. Faster than a power mower. And much closer to "zero emission" than an electric tool, if you include power generation.

Using a scythe gives me pleasure that is equivalent to what I get from my hand planes in the woodshop. Like a hand plane, I will admit that it isn't trivial to find, sharpen, and maintain a quality scythe blade. But worth the effort. The handle of a scythe is called a "snath". Just saying the word brightens my lawn-mowing day.


19.
Fri, 06/29/2012 - 05:35

Response to Derek Roff
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Derek,
I used to use my scythe every summer. (Interestingly, it's incorrect to use "scythe" as a verb. The verb to use when describing the use of a scythe is "to mow." Sadly, this useful old verb is now misconstrued.)

However, it's tricky to use a scythe close to a wire fence or a building. Not impossible, but tricky. It takes real skill compared to a gas lawnmower.


20.
Fri, 06/29/2012 - 13:10

Corded mower and Goats
by Roger Lin

Helpful? 0

I've been using Black & Decker a corded mower for 8 years. Kind of wonder when it'll give out but it seems to work just fine. I just love not having to add fuel and not having to service it.

I know someone who has contracts with cell phone companies. She fences out areas below cell towers and takes her herd of goats to eat the vegetation that grows under there. Every few days, she moves to another tower. Pretty cool business. Maybe this can be applied to farms too?


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