By Tik Root June 30, 2021 washingtonpost.com
MOUNTAIN BROOK, Ala. — It was a few minutes past 6 a.m., and the sun had already started to boil the muggy Alabama air. Matt Harrison, 38, watched as his colleague backed the public works pickup truck into a parking spot alongside city hall. The two tipped the tailgate and slowly lowered a shiny orange push mower onto the pavement.
Harrison popped open the top of the mower, where a pull cord might normally be, and instead snapped two battery packs into place. Click. Click. A moment later, the low whoosh of mower blades filled the air. A slight whine from his co-worker’s electric leaf blower soon joined the din.
Passing joggers hardly noticed.
“I was kind of skeptical at first,” Harrison said after cutting the grass. Until April, he had spent his 20-year career using gas-powered lawn maintenance equipment. He worried that the electric versions wouldn’t be powerful enough, or would die too quickly. “It proved me wrong.”
From the mower and blower to weed whips and chain saws, Harrison said nothing on his truck is gas anymore. “You ain’t got to wear ear protection,” he said of the battery-powered equipment. And “you don’t have to worry about coming home smelling like gas.”
Mountain Brook Mayor Stewart Welch, left, has been the driving force behind the city's conversion to electric equipment. At right is public works employee Matt Harrison. (Cameron Carnes for The Washington Post)
An affluent hamlet of about 21,000 on the outskirts of Birmingham, Mountain Brook is a set of three small village centers, each complete with boutiques, mini-mansions and neatly kept lawns. The city voted for former president Donald Trump by a 50-point margin in the last election.
Mountain Brook is also among the latest converts to America’s rapidly growing electric lawn care movement. Over the last year, the city has spent about $18,000 transitioning Harrison’s truck, along with the majority of maintenance of one of its parks, off gas.
“My hope is that in five years we can be 90 percent electric,” said Mayor Stewart Welch, the driving force behind the effort. “If we could get people to do this across the country, it could make a big difference.”
Experts say the shift is already well underway. “The transition to electric products is gaining momentum,” said John Wyatt, senior vice president of outdoor at manufacturer Stanley Black and Decker. The company estimates that the volume of electric-powered lawn equipment that North American manufacturers shipped jumped from about 9 million units in 2015 to over 16 million in 2020 — a leap of more than 75 percent in only five years. And during that time electric went from roughly 32 percent to 44 percent of the overall lawn equipment market.
“We’re just responding to customer demands,” said Wayne Hart, a spokesperson for another manufacturer, Makita, which he said has gone from having about 30 battery-powered offerings last year to 47. “And there’s more on the way.”
According to the Freedonia Group, a division of MarketResearch.com, the battery-powered lawn equipment sector is growing at a rate three times faster than gas. “It’s just exploding,” said Daniel Mabe, the founder of the American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA). The company runs workshops and trainings, as well as certification and monitoring programs, aimed at helping people transition to lower-impact landscaping. “We’re on the precipice of a revolution.”
The move to electric is particularly pronounced among residential consumers. A 2019 California Air Resources Board (CARB) survey found that more than half of household lawn and garden equipment in the state was already zero emissions. While that number is much lower (around 5 percent) for commercial landscapers, there are a number of all-electric companies across the country. Chris Regis, founder of the Florida-based lawn-care company Suntek, said he’s able to charge a premium for electric because his customers value the quiet, especially with more people at home during the pandemic.
Gas equipment is also dirty. According to CARB, operating a gas leaf blower for an hour can create as much smog-for... Department of Transportation data shows that in 2018 Americans consumed nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline running lawn and garden equipment. That’s equivalent to the annual energy use of more than 3 million homes.
As is often the case, though, it was decibels, not carbon dioxide, that initially prompted Mountain Brook’s interest in electric equipment.
The city gets about a dozen noise complaints a year about its lawn equipment, and many more informally, Welch said. In 2014, the city limited the use of the commercial lawn equipment to daytime hours, joining the some 170 communities around the country that a 2018 study in the Journal of Environmental and Toxicological Studies found have some leaf blower restrictions.
Mountain Brook’s electric awakening came five years later, in 2019, when Welch found himself on a tennis court surrounded by a caterwaul of gas leaf blower engines. The mayor’s playing partner, who was among those who had complained to the city in the past, suggested looking into electric as an alternative.
Of course, going electric isn’t always the obvious choice. Runtime, cutting power and costs are all reasons for reluctance. And, environmentally, electric equipment is only part of the equation. A sustainable yard also requires reducing water, fertilizer and pesticide use.
And, experts say, how we care for our lawns is secondary to the amount of lawn we have in the first place. Having less grass and growing more plants, they advise, are among the most important factors in keeping a yard eco-friendly.
But such cultural shifts take time. Meanwhile, lawns will still need mowing, blowing and trimming.
After the tennis court experience, Welch hired Mabe at AGZA and the nonprofit Quiet Communities, which comes at lawn care from a noise and health perspective, as consultants. Going electric for him became about how the noise and emissions savings could better protect the health of city employees, who have to hear, handle and inhale gas engines for hours on end.
The electric Husqvarna blower that Harrison’s colleague was using, for instance, is rated at 94 decibels, whereas a similarly priced gas model hits 111. That’s the difference between a loud conversation and a snowmobile.
“I know these guys,” said Welch. “If I’m going to run a blower for the next 20 years, and it’s a gas blower … what effect is that going to have on my health?”
Between the two Mountain Brook crews going electric — the city villages that Harrison works on and Overton Park across town — the only major piece of gas equipment left is a riding mower for the park. More powerful gas blowers also reappear during leaf season, and gas chain saws are sometimes needed for larger trees or during storms.
AGZA estimated that these pilot projects could avoid as much as 26 tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions each year, as well as hundreds of pounds of fine particulate matter and exhaust. And both have eliminated two-stroke gas engines (the most pollutant variety) from routine maintenance. That meets the minimum requirement for being certified as an AGZA “Green Zone,” and Welch held a ceremony in June at city hall to mark the achievement.
“Mountain Brook is a model for the region and the nation,” Jamie Banks, the founder of Quiet Communities, told the crowd at the event. While perhaps not the most flashy, she said, Mountain Brook’s approach is certainly replicable, and she’d like to see it catch on elsewhere. “It becomes dramatic when it scales.”
The transition to electric lawn equipment has been particularly swift in California, say Mabe and Banks.
South Pasadena converted all of its machines to electric and became the first AGZA “Green Zone” city in 2016. Subsequently, a local golf course did the same. Ojai also went “cold turkey,” said Mabe, adding that school districts and others in the state are making the move as well.
But interest in electric is growing elsewhere, too. Yale University, for example, is aiming to move away from gas equipment, as is North Carolina State University. The private sector is also taking note.
“We took it a step further,” said Regis, with Suntek. In addition to all of the company’s lawn equipment going electric, its landscaping vans are outfitted with solar panels to recharge the batteries on the go. “Every three months we’re building a new van.”
The company, which launched last year, now has four vans in the Orlando area and one in California. The plan is to organize as a franchise, with different van owners all operating under the same name.
It’s not cheap. Even with a manufacturer sponsoring them with discounted equipment, each van costs $100,000 to outfit. But Regis said he’s able to charge 10 to 20 percent more than his competitors. “There are people who don’t care and say, ‘I just don’t want the noise,’ ” he said.
Suntek now has more than 700 customers, said Regis, who sees enormous potential not only for his company, but also electric lawn care more broadly. “All the big [manufacturers] now are investing big time,” he said. “This thing is going to grow like a wildfire.”
But until professionals more fully embrace the equipment, the electric lawn care revolution may not progress as quickly as advocates hope. “We think battery is going to be the future,” said Britt Wood, CEO of the National Association of Landscape Professionals. “We’re just not there yet.”
Runtime, he said, is one significant hurdle. If the batteries are interchangeable, the issue could theoretically be solved by buying extra — often expensive — batteries. But when the battery is built in, as it is on the Mean Green riding mower, operation is limited by battery size — though the company said its mowing time of seven hours per charge is meant to last a whole workday.
Another barrier is power output. Harrison’s team’s top-of-the-line electric leaf blower has only two-thirds the force of a comparably priced gas model and half that of the most powerful gas version. Not having enough power or torque with the blowers is a common complaint among Mountain Brook’s Overton Park crew.
Walking across the park, crew member Jimi Layne said it takes significantly longer to blow leaves with electric equipment and questioned whether the switch is financially sound given the extra labor. “Are we looking at dollars and cents?” he asked.
Even if the technical issues were solved, the upfront costs of electric equipment are still significantly higher than gas. Although the electric handheld equipment tends to be relatively comparable, larger items like riding mowers can be as much as twice the price.
And unlike with electric cars and Energy Star appliances, there are no federal rebates for electric lawn equipment. Any programs that exist are at the state or local level, such as in California, where several air quality districts offer incentive programs.
If passed, a bill in the California legislature would require regulators to phase out gas engines in new equipment by as soon as 2024. It’s the type of move that industry has long fought.
In 2003, manufacturer Briggs & Stratton opposed an attempt in California to clean up small gas engines, calling the standards “unreasonable.” Then-U.S. Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), where Briggs & Stratton has had a manufacturing plant, successfully added a rider to an appropriations bill blocking California’s efforts.
Today, the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, an industry trade group, is also against a regulated transition away from gas equipment, which its members still produce. “The marketplace will sort this out,” said Kris Kiser, OPEI’s president. “It’s all moving in batteries’ direction across the board.”
But Banks sees government initiatives as key to speeding the movement. “It would greatly accelerate with incentive programs,” she said. “It’s an area that’s been off the radar. ”
Welch, for one, said Mountain Brook residents would be against “ramming electric equipment down their throat.” He wants to use the momentum from Mountain Brook’s AGZA certifications to continue pushing the city council to phase out as much other gas equipment as possible, when it needs to be replaced.
He has also persuaded a local landscaper with a city contract to dabble in electric. The company, Landscape Services, has been phasing in the equipment over the last few weeks. The step was likely inevitable, said co-owner Will Newton, but happened on a quicker timeline because of the city’s nudge. “I think it’s great for the municipality to lead the charge on this.”
Education is another key to speeding the transition, said Welch. After the AGZA ceremony, he had the crowd file outside city hall for a demonstration of gas versus electric equipment.
Harrison played model, with the sidewalk as his runway.
As he walked to the end of the block, the electric blower emitted a high-pitched whine that faded as he moved. On the way back, he pointed the air flow toward people’s legs to highlight its strength. The onlookers oohed and aahed.
The gas version started with the pull of a cord, and a roar that carried all the way down the street. When Harrison revved the engine, it screamed and belched exhaust. The fumes lingered even as he made it to the corner.
That was the first time Matt Harrison had touched a piece of gas equipment in months.
I like my little Dewalt battery powered mower, along with the weed eater and blower. Of course, I have a very small yard and can mow it twice with the two 10Ah batteries that came with it before needing to recharge.
Agree, it makes sense for those with relatively small yards to go completely battery electric. My EGO mower works great and I'm planning to replace my corded blower and trimmer with EGO units that use the same battery. The 60 volt battery that came with my mower is good on a full charge for both my front and back yards. If I find that I need one, I'll buy a second battery. This is my second year with the EGO and I am pleased however I should mention that there are other good brands and that in general they all get better with each new product roll out.
It beats the heck out of having to store fuel and have multiple fuel cans for different 2cycle mixes. Then you have to rebuild your carbs at the beginning of every season. I'm not gonna lie, if I had a half an acre or more, I'd probably run dino-fuel, but I'd sure be looking into ways to run a mower off of CNG or propane.
There is a surprisingly large selection of battery riding and zero turn mowers to choose from for larger areas.
I solved the problem a different way. No grass - only decomposed granite. No mowing no edging, no fertilizing, no watering. Still have to blow -- still using the same electric blower I have had for 40 years. All flower beds have gravel instead of mulch and use much less water.
I do like the rock that they use for the railroad bed
I suspect that many locales will be going no-grass in the next ten years to conserve water. I'm with you guys, I would like nothing better than a weed free, no cut front yard. I might keep a little exposed dirt in the back for a garden. I'm hoping to be able to grow more than cactus.