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 VOCs (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 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 PV 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.
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