Get Reel with Your Lawn

By ecoRI News staff

Gas-powered lawn mowers and string and hedge trimmers are dirty and horribly inefficient. Every week, nearly 54 million Americans mow their lawns, using 800 million gallons of gas per year and producing tons of air pollutants.

Garden equipment engines, until the late 1990s,had no emissions standards. They emit high levels of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, producing up to 5 percent of the nation's air pollution and a good deal more in urban areas.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a new gas-powered lawn mower pumps the same volume of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere in one hour of operation as 11 new cars each being driven for that same hour.

The EPA also estimates that about 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. That's more than all the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez, in the Gulf of Alaska. In addition to groundwater contamination, spilled fuel that evaporates and VOCs spit out by small engines make smog-forming ozone when cooked by heat and sunlight.

There are many options for the lawn-maintaining homeowner who is looking to reduce his or her personal impact on air quality and pollution in general.

The first option is the old-school reel mower. Forget the heavy, clunky, blister-inducing, nearly impossible to sharpen reel mower that your grandfather used. Today’s models are extremely lightweight, usually have a wider cutting swath than their gas-powered cousins, and some are available with self-sharpeners that keep the blade honed as you mow.

But caveat emptor! Not all reel mowers are built the same, according to Mike Boutiette at J&M Mower Service and Sales in Pawtucket. “I love reel mowers, but basically you get what you pay for,” he said. “The low-cost lightweight reel mowers are all but disposable, and there really is no such thing a s a self-sharpening blade. You’ll still need to have the blades honed professionally every few years.”

A good heavy-duty reel mower will run you about $250, he said. Generally, the heavier the mower, the more well-built it is, and therefore, the longer it will last.

Gas-powered reel mowers can reduce your carbon footprint and your gasoline budget. “A gas-powered reel mower with a 70-inch cut uses a 6-horsepower engine. A deck or rotary mower with the same cut is anywhere from 25 to 27 horsepower, or you can go into diesel,” Boutiette said. “That lower horsepower engine burns less fuel. I know guys who have gas-powered reel mowers that run on one tank of gas all summer. The higher horsepower engines will have to be gassed up every couple of mows.”

Another added benefit to reel mowers is that they actually promote a healthier lawn by making a cleaner cut. “Deck and rotary mowers tend to pull and tear the grass,” Boutiette said. "The cleaner cut of the reel mower lets the plant expend less energy to heal itself, and more energy growing its roots.”

Another bonus to the reel mower, according to Boutiette, is that it creates less thatch, which allows more water and nutrients to reach the soil.

For those that feel blisters rising in the crooks of the thumb and forefinger at the mere thought of using a manually powered mower, you’re not without options.

The cordless tool revolution has not left lawn care behind, and most lawn-mower companies now offer a cordless rechargeable option for the carbon-conscious homeowner. These mowers offer all of the same options that your gas guzzler has, with the added bonus of using stored electricity for power. Battery packs range in voltage from 24V to 48V, and generally, the price goes up with the voltage. Those with larger plots to maintain can opt for rechargeable riding mowers, or mower — our online search found only one model.

Most home and garden centers, along with locally owned ACE and True Value hardware stores, carry a couple of models of reel mowers, usually for less than a couple hundred bucks. Cordless electric push mowers will run you anywhere from $250 to $350. The recharge riding mower retails for a little more than $2,000.