SCARSDALE, NY — Electric lawn mowers have taken the US consumer market by storm over the past few years. And they’ve done so quietly — about 20 decibels more quietly in some cases.
Once restricted to lawns no larger than the length of an extension cord, mowers on the market today run on lithium ion batteries that can last 45 minutes or more without charging and cost about as much as gas-powered versions. And in 2021, according to market research company FactMR, electric lawn mowers made up 37% of all sales.
But professional landscapers, who have to run their machines all day, day after day, have yet to join the trend in large numbers. Electric heavy-duty ride-on mowers make up just 11% of the total market for all heavy-duty ride-on mowers.
“For homeowners, I feel like it’s great,” said Austin Acocella, co-owner of Acocella Landscaping in Scarsdale, NY “The battery just doesn’t last long, especially for the stuff that I do.”
He has checked out commercial-grade mowers with batteries that can last six or more hours, but hasn’t wanted to pay the upfront costs. A 52-inch-wide ride-on model, the Rival from Mean Green Mowers, starts at nearly $30,000. That is more than three times a comparable gas-powered machine – though the manufacturer says the customer will break even given significantly lower operation and maintenance costs.
“In the future I would love to buy them, but right at this second, I just can’t because of inflation and just everything that’s going on,” Acocella says. “I just can’t swing it yet.”
Acocella and his employees began using hand-held electric devices – leaf blowers, weed whackers and hedge trimmers – last year when one of his clients, the town of Larchmont, required it. He’s begun to use them on other properties as well because they are lighter, much quieter, and don’t emit pollutants. But with the exception of the hedge trimmer, he says, they need frequent battery changes and are not as powerful.
“I need something that’s going to last long or something that’s easy,” Austin says. “Like I have a gas can, it’s on a truck that I just fuel up and I go. How many batteries do I need to have in order to get through the day?”
Bans on gas-powered gear
Yet landscapers are being pressured to change – sometimes by clients and sometimes by governments. Last fall, the California Legislature passed a law requiring that all new landscaping equipment sold in the state be emissions-free beginning Jan. 1, 2024.
The state and national landscaping associations objected, arguing that electric equipment wasn’t advanced enough to operate for long periods of time, and in some cases, did not work as well as gas equipment. As proof, they cited a study from the California State University at Fullerton to show that zero emissions equipment hadn’t caught on among professionals. The study found that less than 6% of equipment used by landscapers were zero-emissions, compared to more than 50% of the gear used by homeowners.
But Assemblymember Marc Berman, the bill’s author, disputes the industry’s characterization of zero-emissions equipment.
“This equipment is ready today,” said Berman, a Democrat from Palo Alto. “There are at least eight brands that produce zero emission equipment in each major equipment category for commercial equipment.”
After that bill was passed, New York State Sen. Pete Harckham introduced a similar bill in Albany. Though it did not pass in the regular session, Harckham told NPR he plans to re-introduce it but has not decided on when the mandate would take effect.
Both the California legislation and the New York proposal only address the sale of new equipment, meaning landscapers and homeowners can continue using their existing gas-powered tools.
Numerous cities and towns across the country have gone further and restricted the use – as opposed to just the purchase – of gas-powered leaf blowers. And this month, two municipalities in Marin County, Calif., – Fairfax and Sausalito – banned the use of other gas-powered equipment as well, including mowers, to be phased in over the next 18 months.
Mixed environmental impact
Electric lawn mowers won’t help much in terms of climate-changing emissions – people just don’t mow their lawns nearly as much as they drive. The California Air Resources Board, for example, estimates that phasing out gasoline-powered lawn equipment will save an average of 0.66 million metric tons of CO2 a year, while the state produced 418 million tons in 2019 – the last year data was available.
But the agency found that gasoline-powered engines produce substantial amounts of other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide, which can lead to respiratory difficulties and smog. In addition, researchers have raised concerns about the impact of the equipment’s noise and vibrations on operators’ health.
Large, commercial-grade equipment is used on a significant proportion of green spaces around the country – not only public properties and office parks. The California State University survey found, for example, that half of the state’s residents with lawns hired landscapers to take care of them, either partially or fully.
Drawbacks of mandates
Still, even some supporters of green landscaping oppose mandating electric equipment, arguing that it may cause small landscapers – an important employer of immigrants and limited-skill workers – to go out of business.
“If you just ban the use of equipment, you’re really putting the entire onus on the landscapers to come up with the money that they need to purchase the equipment,” said Jamie Banks, the founder and CEO of the non-profit Quiet Communities, Inc. “It’s not just purchasing the tool but also purchasing enough batteries and enough chargers that they can meet their work production needs.”
And some of those batteries are expensive – as much as $1,500 for a backpack-style one to power a leaf blower. California lawmakers have so far allocated $30 million for subsidies to offset the higher prices landscapers will have to pay for new electric equipment. But the National Association of Landscape Professionals said the amount breaks down to just $15 for each piece of gas-powered equipment that landscapers in the state need to replace.
Berman, the state legislator, said that he is hoping to get more subsidies in the budget for the coming year.
Quiet Communities and another nonprofit, the American Green Zone Alliance, have been working with towns, school districts, and other entities to adopt zero-emissions equipment for their own properties, but to do so voluntarily. So far, they say they have recruited about 20 locales and institutions across the country to take part in their program.
“I think the writing is on the wall,” Banks said. “It’s just, how do we get there in a way that’s, you know, fair, most efficient and so forth.”