When are gas powered lawn mowers still a better option than emission free electric mowers?
In times gone by, gas powered mowers were the only realistic choice for when you needed a mower with a good amount of power or had a large yard that extended beyond a safe distance for an electric corded lawn mower. Thankfully, innovations in lawn mower technology have led to the development of electric battery powered mowers that are almost indistinguishable from gas powered mowers, at least in terms of power.
For most of us, an electric mower is more than sufficient to maintain a standard sized lawn. Only those folks with huge amounts of grass to cut, or who have especially steep, uneven, or rock strewn lawns have reasonable cause to consider a gas powered model. Indeed, a smaller electric model is preferable in many ways to a larger gas powered lawn mower, for the reasons I lay out below.
Maintenance and ease of use of gas powered mowers
If you’re really into getting dirty and oily and have the kind of masochistic tendencies whereby you want to spend your weekends yanking cords to try to start an itinerant motor, a gas powered lawn mower might be perfect for you! If not, bear in mind that these engines aren’t anywhere near as easy to use and maintain as an electric mower.
I have many a memory of myself and various family members getting rather frustrated when pulling a recoil starter again and again without the gas powered mower jumping to life. So, let’s just say that I was very happy when my folks upgraded to a corded electric mower.
If you live somewhere cool or have an old mower, the chances are even higher of your engine not firing when you want it to. That might be because of carbon on your spark plug or a dirty carburetor, both of which you’re going to have to deal with if you want to keep using the mower.
Larger engines with heavier pistons are even harder to start, which has prompted lawn mower manufacturers to design easy-start functions. These are usually based on an electronic decompression device to help reduce engine resistance, as well as an electric ignition to make for a more reliable start-up process. Some gas powered motors also have easy access spark plugs and drains for oil, including those in my top picks for Leaf Score.
If you have a gas mower, it’s best to have the mower serviced regularly by a certified professional. Doing the maintenance yourself may seem cheaper and easier in the short term, but the DIY approach invalidates your warranty, meaning you’re not covered if anything goes terribly wrong.
At minimum, you’ll want to remove and clean the air filter for your gas mower before every use. This will support reliability and is a quick and fairly simple job. You’ll also need to use the right ratio of fuel to oil. Too much oil leads to excess carbon production, producing more smoke and damaging the engine and carburetor. Not enough oil can cause overheating and serious engine damage. Fresh fuel is also key to good gas mower maintenance as ethanol-based gas typically deteriorates within a few weeks. As such, you’ll want to drain the fuel from the carburetor at the end of the mowing season or whenever your mower will be out of action for longer than a couple of months. You can do this by running the mower’s engine with the fuel cap closed, until the engine runs out of fuel and cuts out.
If you’re mechanically minded and rather like mucking about with motors, these issues probably don’t phase you in the slightest. The fact remains, however, that gas mowers are still noisier, require more maintenance, reduce air quality and cause more pollution than electric mowers, even if they do still tend to be a bit more powerful, for now.
Maintenance and ease of use for electric mowers
Electric mowers are cheaper than gas mowers and are usually powerful enough to tackle most lawns. If you have long, thick grass, or try to cut grass when it’s wet, this can overtax a low power electric mower, so choose your mower wisely to meet your needs.
Top tip – If you’re faced with an unruly patch of pasture that hasn’t seen a lawn mower in many years, consider borrowing a gas powered mower for the first pass (check local tool libraries and ask friends and family), then save money and the planet with a more eco-friendly electric mower for maintenance.
Electric mowers are also much easier to look after and to store. Aside from basic inspections every once in a while (such as to make sure the wiring is in good condition), and a bit of cleaning, the only other requirement to keep an electric mower in good shape is to replace the brushes on the motor.
For both gas powered and electric mowers, you’ll want to clean the cutting deck after every use before you put the mower in storage. This means getting a hard brush and water and getting rid of fine lawn cuttings stuck to the blades. If there’s a hose attachment, this is easy peasy, just plug in your hose and turn on the water.
Again, for all mowers, check the general condition of the mower at least once a year, noting the state of fuel pipes, electrical wires, nuts, bolts, paintwork, and so forth. Remove dirt and rust as necessary and apply fresh paint or other rust inhibitor to exposed metal. Grease bearings, levers, and shafts annually and tighten any nuts and bolts as needed.
It’s a pretty safe bet that the first lawn mowers, invented in the 1830s, were probably not all that effective or energy efficient. Nowadays, we have robot mowers, ride-on mowers, and the more traditional ‘walk behind’ lawn mowers to choose from. We’ve moved away from 2-stroke mowers to 4-stroke mowers and now to robot mowers and hybrid-electric solar battery powered mowers that are even more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, not to mention quieter. If you’re wondering whether electric mowers really are better for the environment, I examine the issue here (spoiler alert: yes they are!).
Unfortunately, lawn mowers are not eligible for an Energy Star rating, which means you have to do your own research to find an energy efficient, eco-friendly lawn mower. Energy Star used to offer certification for battery chargers, but their program was discontinued in late 2014, largely because manufacturers were required to meet more stringent requirements of the California Energy Commission (CEC) if they wanted to sell chargers in California. Energy Star do offer an archive of products meeting Energy Star standards, but most of the lawnmower batteries on this list are lead acid or very low voltage, meaning they’re almost certainly outmatched for energy efficiency and performance by current lithium ion batteries and chargers.
If you absolutely must have a gas mower, you can keep noise and fumes to a minimum with a newer energy efficient model. This means looking for a mower with a four-cycle OHV engine (such as is found in my top picks for gas powered mowers); these cost more but will use less fuel, last longer, and produce lower emissions.
Battery power and size
Voltage (V) and Ampere-Hours (AH) are two key things to look for when buying a battery powered electric lawn mower. A higher voltage doesn’t mean more power, but it may mean a slightly longer mowing time between charges. So, don’t be bamboozled into thinking an 80V battery is way better than a 20V; both will provide the same wattage, it’s just that the lower voltage battery will require higher amps. Confused? Let’s do some math.
Consider the following two batteries:
- A 4 AH 20 V battery
- A 2 AH 40 V battery
Which one is best? Well, the fact is that they both provide around the same amount of working time because the 20 V battery has half the voltage but twice the Ampere-Hours than the 40 V 2 AH battery. Because the higher voltage battery is a little more efficient, there might be a few extra minutes of mowing time from this model, but that’s not enough to warrant a significant price difference. If, however, you were to compare a 2 AH 80 V battery with a 4 AH 20 V battery, the former would be better in terms of longevity as this battery would give you about twice the working time of the lower voltage battery.
Manufacturers will promote their mowers with the maximum working time under optimal conditions, which likely won’t represent your actual experience with the mower. Hotter weather means batteries discharge faster, and I’m going to guess that you’ll be mowing your lawn on a warm sunny day, not on a cooler day in early spring or late fall. If, for instance, you’re cutting thick grass in hot weather, chances are that your battery will last only around half the time the manufacturer specifies for optimal conditions.
Newer battery powered mowers have power monitoring technology built in, so that the motor continually adjusts power output depending on cutting conditions. Thicker grass and/or longer grass means the motor will increase power, while the onboard computer will reduce power as the mower traverses shorter, less dense grass. The responsiveness of mowers does vary, however, with some complaints of a significant lag between the mower sensing the cutting conditions and changing power output. The easiest way to counteract this is simply to slow down as you begin mowing a thicker or longer area of grass, giving the mower the chance to bump up power output.
Slowing down when you’re coming up to thicker grass also helps with another potential downside of electric mowers: a lack of suction that means the mower doesn’t collect clippings all that well.
If you spend a lot of time mowing your grass in summer, especially if your grass is dense, you may want to invest in a second battery. This will probably allow you to get the job done without needing to take a break while the battery recharges. If you’re gradually replacing all of your tools with battery operated versions, consider buying those that use the same types of battery. This way, you can always have at least one battery charged and can share batteries across tools for convenience and cost savings.
A good battery charger is also essential. This means one with rapid charging capabilities, cooling (batteries can quickly overheat and become damaged when charging), and over-charge protection. When you’re done using your battery powered device, it’s best to set it to charge again to at least 30%. Make sure your charger is in a cool area and recharge all batteries at least once every three months to help keep lithium ion batteries in good working condition. Correct charging could help double the lifespan of your battery, saving you a lot of money. Most batteries will last at least two years before you start noticing any decline in performance.
Electric mower rebates
One other big advantage of electric mowers is the potential rebate for new purchases. In some jurisdictions, local government offers money back on your first purchase of a new electric lawn mower if you can demonstrate it will replace a gas guzzling lawn mower. For example, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) has two programs designed to support cleaner air by encouraging the replacement of gasoline powered residential and commercial garden equipment.
Residents of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange and Riverside counties can get up to a whopping $250 rebate if they buy a cordless, battery electric lawn mower and scrap an operable, gasoline powered lawn mower. Not all mowers meet the conditions of the program however, so be sure to check the specifics before buying. And, if you don’t live in this area, ask your local authority if they run a similar program. If the answer is no, form a delegation and ask them to put a program in place!
Some of the manufacturers who offer eligible models of electric lawn mowers for the SCAQMD rebate include:
- Lawn Master
- Moe Joe Sun Joe (Snow Joe)
Many of these are included in my top recommendations for an eco-friendly energy efficient lawn mower.
Pros and cons of gas mowers, corded and battery electric mowers
Cord length isn’t a consideration for a battery powered electric mower, and many such mowers use brushless DC electric mowers, some with technology that modulates power depending on conditions, which makes for a very efficient mowing experience. Indeed, most cordless, battery powered electric mowers are now more powerful and more energy efficient than corded models, and just as powerful and more environmentally friendly than gas powered mowers.
Cordless electric mowers do cost a bit more than a corded mower, but you’ll save a good chunk of money on your electricity bill by using a battery powered mower. Before buying a cordless electric mower, though, you’ll want to check out the battery specifications.
Disadvantages to corded electric mowers include not being able to use the mower in wet weather or when the lawn is wet. This is both because of the hazard of mixing water and electricity and because wet grass makes a mower work harder, which can damage a lower power electric motor.
There’s one other obvious drawback for corded electric mowers: the length of the cord. If you have a large yard, or a yard with lots of obstacles, you may find a corded electric mower infuriating as the cord gets tangled or doesn’t stretch far enough to cover the whole lawn. The longer a cord is, the thicker the wire, which creates a limit on cord length due to weight and expense. And, even if you use an extension cord, safety becomes a serious concern as you have to constantly be aware of where the cord is so that you don’t run it over, damage plants, knock over garden statuary, or otherwise cause an accident.
In summary, the pros and cons of corded electric mowers include:
- Very low energy costs
- Easy and inexpensive to maintain
- Weighs less than a gas mower and is easier to store
- Lower noise output than a gas mower
- No toxic gas emissions
- Usually lower powered than a gas mower
- Limited range due to cord
- Irritating to use as you have to pay attention to cord safety
- Usually a narrower cutting width than a gas mower
The pros and cons of a cordless, battery powered electric mower include:
- Even lower noise levels
- Easier to maneuver and use (no pesky cord!)
- Can often be stored upright to save space
- No toxic gas emissions
- Low weight
- Energy efficient and environmentally friendly
- Usually lower powered than a gas mower
- You have to remember to charge batteries
- Batteries deteriorate over time and can be costly to replace
- Battery time is limited, so you may have to charge mid-mow or switch out your battery
- Usually a narrower cutting width than a gas mower
Gas powered mowers also have their pros and cons, of course, including:
- Powerful performance
- Longer mowing time on a tank of gas
- No cord to contend with
- Can be used when grass is wet
- Great for steep, hilly, uneven ground
- Can handle going over some errant rocks and stones
- Emit toxic fumes and pose risks of gas spills
- Loud! May fall foul of neighborhood noise restrictions
- Heavy and more difficult to maneuver – not great for tight spaces
- Take up more storage space
- Require more maintenance than electric mowers
- Fuel costs more than an electric charge/electricity
- Harder to start
- Need to mix fuel and oil, and/or drain fuel for longer periods of disuse
- Higher vibrations, which can cause health problems over time
Now that you have a better sense of the kind of mower that suits your needs, you might want to look at other factors to consider when buying a new mower, such as cutting height and width, noise level, mulching and side exhaust options, and vibrations.