Nothing says summer quite like the smell of freshly cut grass and the green stain of chlorophyll on my dog’s paws. But, while I rather enjoy using my manual rotary mower and working up a sweat, I can see how it would be a challenge to keep a large lawn neat and tidy without an electric- or gas-powered mower.
Some mowers are noisy, fume-belching, gas guzzling monstrosities though, while others have irritating electrical cords, short battery life, or little power. If you’re looking for an energy efficient, eco-friendly lawn mower that won’t break the bank or cause consternation while you mow, read on for my top tips on how to buy a new lawnmower. If you’re looking for specific product recommendations, we’ve compiled lists of both the best gas-powered mowers, as well as our top picks for electric mowers.
Looking to skip the lists? Our top pick for an electric lawn mower (which we prefer over gas-powered) is the Black & Decker MM2000.
General Lawn Mower Buying Tips
If you’ve never had to buy a new lawn mower before, or if it’s been a while since your last purchase, it’s worth (re)familiarizing yourself with some of the basics of lawn mowers. Key things to look for include:
- Power source
- Motor type and motor power
- Tank volume / battery life
- Cutting height
- Cutting width
- Noise level
- Self-propulsion and wheels
- Weight and shape
- Vibration output/control
- Mulching and collecting capacity
Perhaps the biggest things to consider when buying a new mower are:
- Performance – how well they cut long, thick, and/or wet grass
- Maneuverability – can the mower navigate easily around vegetable beds, trees, statuary, fences, etc.?
- Durability – does this mower have a reputation for longevity and performance?
- Budget – most household motorized lawn mowers cost from around $100 to $800, or more for a robot mower
You’ll also want to consider safety, of course, but it’s highly unlikely that any mower you find for sale in the US will pose a significant threat to your immediate health. Indeed, almost every mower will have a ‘dead man’s handle’ feature whereby the mower only cuts when a control on the handle is held down or in during operation. Robot lawn mowers often have an equivalent feature where the mower automatically shuts off if lifted. Both features help prevent serious injuries from functional lawn mower blades. There are, however, other potential health and safety concerns with lawn mowers, such as exposure to vibrations and ear-damaging noise with the more powerful models.
So, let’s take a look at some of the factors to consider when buying a new mower, especially if you’re in the market for an eco-friendly, energy efficient lawn mower.
Power source, motor type, tank volume, and battery life
Power source is pretty self-explanatory and will typically be either gas, electric corded, or electric battery. If you’re really eager to be green and energy self-sufficient, you may want to convert your battery operated mower into a solar powered electric lawn mower to be totally emissions free.
According to a technical document published by Michigan State, “mowing the average lawn in the United States creates as much air pollution as driving the family car on a 200 mile trip”. The document then goes on to outline how to convert your electric mower to a solar powered mower. According to a Swedish study published in 2001, operating a typical four-stroke, four horsepower lawn mower for an hour produced emissions equivalent to driving a car for 150 kilometers (93 miles).
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) places restrictions on emissions from lawnmowers, but there are no emission-free gas lawn mowers. Gas mowers also become less efficient and pump out ever greater emissions the older they get.
Most modern gas powered lawn mowers have a 4-stroke motor instead of the old style 2-stroke motors. Knowing the difference between these two motors is essential because you could ruin your motor if you use the wrong type of oil. With a 2-stroke engine, you need to use 2-stroke oil, which requires mixing oil and fuel. For a 4-stroke engine, there’s no need to pre-mix oil and fuel. Both types of engine are gas combustion, meaning that they belch out toxic chemicals that smell terrible and contribute to climate change. The old 2-strokes are especially bad for emissions, but you’re unlikely to find one of these new and even most secondhand gas mowers have 4-stroke motors.
What about tank size, then? The tank volume means how much gas your mower tank can hold at a time, which obviously impacts how long you can use the mower before you need to fill up the gas tank again. The larger the tank, though, the heavier the machine and the less maneuverable the mower is likely to be.
As for electric mowers, these are tankless and instead rely on a cord or battery. Corded mowers have no mowing time restriction as they draw energy from your main electricity hookup. For battery models, battery time means how long you can use an electric mower before having to charge the battery again.
Most battery-powered lawn mowers are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which are just bigger versions of the lithium batteries in our laptops and cellphones. You can store a lot of energy in a lithium battery compared to older types of batteries, which is why electric lawn mowers are now possible and, indeed, comparable in power to a gas-powered lawnmower. Unfortunately, lithium batteries are expensive and deteriorate over several years, with their capacity decreasing as the cells in the battery die off. It’s a good idea, therefore, to have a spare battery and to replace the battery ever few years to ensure good performance.
Top tip: Beware second hand electric mowers with older batteries; the mower itself may be sold cheap compared to a new model, but the included battery or batteries may be next to useless and cost more than the mower to replace.
When considering buying an electric lawn mower, consider the type of battery, its power, the number of batteries, whether there’s an automatic battery switchover, and both the run time and the charge time for the batteries. You’ll also want to check the battery warranty as this will likely be less than the warranty for the mower itself.
It’s also a good idea to opt for a brushless motor. Why? Because up until recently most battery powered motors have used ‘brushes’ made with graphite as part of the mechanism to connect the magnetic field that turns the motor. Over time, these brushes wear down and the motor stops working. With a brushless motor, permanent magnets and an electronic circuit are used instead to turn the motor. This system is more complicated but allows for greater flexibility in terms of speed and the load sensing torque features that are becoming more common for electric mowers.
Brushless motors have many advantages and are used in electric vehicles, like Teslas, but the circuitry is complicated and these motors typically either work for 20 years or fail in a couple of weeks. This might sound bad, but the good news is that if they’re going to fail, they usually do so while the mower (or other tool) is still within warranty. With a brush-style motor, chances are this will fail just as your warranty expires. Funny that. So, I’d definitely recommend going with an electric mower with a brushless motor, making sure your mower is under warranty for at least a year.
Cutting height and cutting width
The cutting height of lawn mowers varies quite considerably. In most cases, cutting height is above 20 mm and below around 80 mm. Most lawns don’t require cutting below 40 mm, so a minimum cutting height of 40 mm should be sufficient. Cutting your lawn any shorter makes it more likely the grass will dry out and be sensitive to wear. If you have an ‘ornamental’ lawn, however, on which nobody walks or lounges, you may want to cut this shorter than 40 mm, in which case you’d look for a mower that has a lower cutting height. Lower cutting height increases the risk of damage to the blades from rocks, sticks, and general wear and tear, so you’ll want to be extra careful if you’re using your mower for management of this kind of lawn.
Cutting width also varies considerably between different lawn mowers. In general, cutting width will be 30-55 cm (about 12-21 inches), with narrower widths seen in most cheaper mowers and larger cutting widths a feature of higher end models.
Think of it this way, if you have a large lawn with easy to mow grass, a mower with a larger cutting width will cut the lawn much faster as the mower’s blades reach farther and cover a larger area more quickly. If, however, you have a lawn with more difficult to cut grass, a large cutting width means your mower will need to be more powerful as each blade rotation attempts to cut more grass and, therefore, faces more resistance. A smaller mower with a narrower cutting width may end up being more efficient for both smaller lawns and larger lawns depending on the type of grass and terrain.
If you have a yard with more than an acre of grass to cut, you’ll probably want to use a ride-on mower. My top tip here is to club together with your neighbors, family, and friends to collectively share a mower. This will help keep costs and maintenance to a minimum and reduce your overall resource consumption.
For yards smaller than an acre, choosing the right size mower largely depends on how much physical labor you are willing to put in, your budget, and the type of grass and terrain with which your mower will need to contend. If you have moderate physical fitness, anything up to a quarter or even half acre in size shouldn’t warrant anything more powerful than a walk-behind electric mower with a deck of 22-24 inches. If you have mobility issues, really robust grass, or particularly bumpy or hilly terrain, you might want to look for a self-propelled mower.
In general, the smaller the engine, the harder it has to work to cut your lawn. A bigger engine provides more power at a lower RPM (revolutions per minute), which reduces wear on the engine, and helps prolong the life of the mower.
The size of the engine also affects the weight of the mower overall. A large engine means a heavier machine and a greater need for self-propulsion and other features to improve maneuverability and ease of use. Be careful to check the weight when buying a cordless electric mower; some listings cite the weight of the machine without batteries, which can be quite a bit lighter than when the batteries are installed.
Noise pollution (or measured mean value)
One key advantage of an electric mower over a gas mower is that electric mowers are much quieter. So, while you may pay more attention to air pollution, it’s worth considering noise pollution too, especially if you have anxious dogs or small children in the family or neighborhood. In some neighborhoods, a gas-powered lawn mower may even be louder than permitted noise levels, meaning you could be fined and banned from using the mower!
Gas-powered lawn mowers can be as loud as a motorbike, which can seriously damage your hearing, upset local wildlife, and generally make summer afternoons rather obnoxious for those trying to enjoy the sunshine. (Hence those noise level restrictions.)
The noise from lawn mowers is usually given in product specifications as ‘measured mean value’ in decibels. Some models produce around 56 dB on average, while others are as loud as 87 dB or so.
For most of us, repeated or prolonged exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can cause hearing damage. For some, just 75 dB can cause hearing damage. Some of noisiest gas mowers produce more than 100 dB at their loudest, while other gas mowers are usually quieter than 90 dB. This might not seem like much of a difference but it’s important to note that decibels are logarithmic, meaning that 100 dB is actually ten times as intense a noise as 90 dB. Still, it’s best to wear ear protection whether you’re using any gas mower.
Electric mowers are typically much quieter, with a measured mean value around 60-70 dB. It’s still a good idea to wear ear protection for noisier models, but some mowers are quiet enough that you could even make a phone call or listen to music while mowing the lawn. The one mower you can almost always get away with using without ear protection is a robot lawn mower. These can be much quieter than 60 dB, because they mow more often and aren’t required to be as powerful, and you’re likely not right beside the mower when it’s in use.
Self-propelling and wheels
Look at most lawn mowers and you’ll see that the front wheels are typically a few inches smaller than the rear wheels. This is because the rear wheels are usually those doing most of the work, while the front wheels help when you want to turn the lawn mower. Larger rear wheels make for an easier time mowing, and wheels with ball bearings are usually easier to move around.
Again, self-propelling is fairly apparent in meaning: a self-propelling mower has motorized wheels that propel the mower forward without needing much, if any, assistance from the user. This is a useful feature for those with less physical strength and if you have a large area of lawn and/or a steeper lawn where you struggle to push the mower uphill. If your mower collects clippings or mulch, self-propulsion can also be useful as the collector/bag gets heavier. Some of the best mowers have an independent propulsion system, whereby you can disengage the power to the blades but keep the motor running for the mower itself. This feature is really useful if you need to move a heavier mower across areas where blades might be damaged if they’re in cutting mode.
Putting aside ride-on mowers, there are three types of self-propelled lawn mowers: front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, and all wheel drive. Front wheel drive is helpful if you have a heavier mower and are using it on flat ground but need to steer around lots of obstacles. Pushing down on the mower’s handle reduces traction on the front wheels, making it easier to steer the mower around things. If you have a steep hill to mow, rear wheel drive is a huge help, while all wheel drive is excellent for all gradients and for uneven lawns.
There are two main self-propulsion mechanisms, with hydrostatic the most expensive and a belt and pulley system offering a cheaper option. Hydrostatic mowers use hydraulic power to propel/drive the wheels, creating a smooth action and offering good speed control. Front and rear-wheel drive mowers at the cheaper end of the market typically use a gearbox system with belts and pulleys to drive the wheels. This system isn’t as smooth as hydrostatic mechanisms and can also require significant maintenance.
Weight and shape
The weight and shape of your mower are other important things to consider. Electric models are much lighter and easier to store than gas mowers because they can usually be folded so they stand upright and take up less space. Some models also have an adjustable handle so that you can move the mower sideways more easily and so you can find a comfortable handle height no matter how tall you are.
Many electric mowers also have a fold-down handle, so you can collapse the mower into a smaller space and even store it sideways on a shelf (if you can lift it).
Powerful lawn mowers and other power tools can produce significant vibrations that can cause injury to the hands and arms. Specifically, the nerves and blood vessels in fingers, hands, and arms can become damaged, resulting in numbness, pins and needles, pain, tingling, and other symptoms. For most people, these symptoms are temporary and occur only after using the mower. Regular exposure to the vibrations from mowers and other equipment can lead to permanent nerve damage, however, and is not something to take lightly. And, as always, some individuals are more sensitive than others to this kind of injury, meaning that even a little exposure may cause problems.
Gas powered mowers are the biggest culprit for vibrations as these are the most powerful and have an internal combustion engine that produces greater vibrations during operation. Most electric mowers pose a much lower risk of dangerous vibrations, but damage may still occur with repeated, excessive exposure.
Vibrations are typically measured in the mower handle in meters per second squared (m/s2). According to the Swedish Work Environment Authority, the lowest risk from vibrations is seen with:
- Vibrations for 8 hours at 2.0 m/s2
- Vibrations for 5 hours at 2.5 m/s2
- Vibrations for 1 hour at 5.0 m/s2
Anything over these levels represents a greater risk for nerve damage. Unfortunately, few companies specify vibration levels for their mowers. As such, it’s best to look for a mower with a cushioned handle that can at least absorb some of the vibrations. And, where possible, use gloves while mowing. This will help reduce the likelihood of skin soreness and blisters.
Electric mowers are generally far better than gas powered mowers in terms of vibrations, even when matched for power. If you want to entirely avoid the risk of vibration damage, a robot mower may be the right mower for you. Otherwise, look for a model that has very low control vibrations, i.e. the amount of vibration you’ll feel when your hands are on the controls/handle.
Mulching and collecting
Mowers described as 2-in-1 usually feature a shredder that mulches lawn clippings and sends them into a collector bag. A 3-in-1 mower can work the same way but also offers an option discharging the clippings through a side chute.
Some lawn mowers just cut the grass and dump it out on the ground as you go. Others cut the grass into small pieces, i.e. mulching. Mulched grass decomposes faster and, if left on the lawn, returns nutrients and moisture to the soil, meaning healthier grass overall. If your mower mulches efficiently, there’s not much point collecting the grass after mowing.
However, if your lawn is overgrown, mulching is not the best idea as this can overtax the mower. Ideally, you won’t be cutting more than 30% of the length of the grass on any one cut. If you are, it’s better to simply cut the grass rather than mulch it. You then have the option of raking the grass clippings yourself or using a collector attachment on the mower. These clippings are an excellent addition to a home compost heap, where they break down to make lovely humus for your vegetable or flower garden.
If you are getting a mower with a grass catcher, there are two main things to look for: capacity and an indicator light or window. A larger collector will not need emptying as often but can add to the weight of the mower, so may not be ideal for all users. Some collectors have a window at the top, so you can easily see how full the catcher is and when you need to empty it. Others have a light indicator that tells you when the catcher is almost full.
Some mowers have a side discharge (or exhaust) option where grass clippings or mulch is blown out to the side. This is also a good option for when a lawn is overgrown and mulching will prove difficult for the mower on a first pass.
Final thoughts on choosing a lawn mower
We’ve covered considerable ground above, but there’s still a lot to think about when you’re in the market for a new lawn mower. Not least, the question of gas mowers versus electric lawn mowers.
In general, if you have a small to medium yard (less than an acre), an electric mower has some significant advantages. Compared to gas mowers, electric mowers:
- Are cheaper overall
- Require less maintenance
- Are quieter
- Are easier to start
- Don’t affect air quality by pumping out toxic fumes
- Don’t require you to mix fuel and oil
To really dig into the pros and cons of gas mowers, electric corded, electric battery, and even robot lawn mowers, head here. Or, if you already know which kind is for you, check out my recommendations for:
- Energy efficient gas lawn mowers
- Energy efficient battery electric lawn mowers (plus the best corded mower!)
- Energy efficient robotic lawn mowers
One thing to note is that a lot of the recent innovation in lawn mower technology has come out of Europe. This means that many of the best lawn mowers are not yet available in the US or Canada. The Bosch Rotak Ergoflex is a good example of this, with many fans in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, but no clear indication from Bosch of a US rollout for 2019. The same goes for one of my top picks for a gas-powered lawn mower, the Klippo Excellent, which is only available from European retailers but can be delivered to the US (and may be available second hand, making for an even more eco-friendly lawn mower purchase!).