adventures with battery lawn mowers
I HAVEN’T PULLED a starter cord all season, for which my tricky right shoulder thanks me. I haven’t needed oil or gasoline. But I’ve been keeping the half-acre mix of beds and lawn right around my house nicely mowed, and the first battery-powered machine I invested in turns out to be the best edge trimmer I ever bought, too—perfect for running around the many, many hundreds of linear feet where turf meets mulched beds, all without crushing adjacent plants.
I have Lee Reich to thank for making the “green” mower investment; I first saw one in his garage, in 2013, and purchased mine in April 2014. And though my Stihl RMA 370, my first battery mower adventure, wasn’t perfect–no battery mower would be, as the technology is evolving–it quickly became a trusted mowing-season companion, for a couple of years in a row. In 2016, I added a slight bigger battery model; more on that below.
First, to be clear: My yard is 2.3 hilly acres, not something that could be tackled by one person behind a push mower of any kind alone. I do have a diesel Kubota tractor (above) for the bigger areas, which I use every other week or so.
I mow closer to the house by hand, though, for about an hour or an hour and a half each session, often twice weekly when temperature and moisture combine to warrant it.
Until 2014, that was always with a conventional gas-powered mulching push mower of about 75 pounds. Its deck was 22 inches wide; on the Stihl battery mower, the cut is only 14.5, meaning more passes, but while pushing just 30 pounds. In 2016 I did also purchase a wider-deck battery mower, by Greenworks (20-inch cut and 42.5 pounds), which made my mowing a little quicker. I much prefer the extra walking (think: aerobic exercise) to the joint-straining task of humping my old gas mower in and out of all the garden’s spaces.
My plants prefer it, too; the conventional beast (above) left tire tracks in the mulch and worse on flowers, stems and leaves where it straddled the edge (more on edging and trimming in the box at the bottom of the page). The little wheels of the original Stihl? Extremely low impact. The Greenworks (below) is somewhere in between.
It took awhile to get used to how light the Stihl was, in fact, and neither over-effort it, nor go too fast. I had to learn a new rhythm for uneven or inclined surfaces, in particular, where its lightness means the RMA 370 doesn’t hug the ground like the heavy gas one, and can bounce or even want to tip. I almost wish it weighed 5 pounds more, a bad idea that would sacrifice efficiency. By slowing down and concentrating, I have learned to maneuver the slightly trickier spots.
The Stihl mower’s nimble, but getting the 3.8-pound battery out of the machine, which weighs 26.8, and out of the charger can feel like a struggle. That’s for good reason, the Stihl product manager explained when I called to ask. Engineers designed the battery to insure tight (and they mean tight) connection between its contacts and the charger’s or mower’s—both of which are so lightweight you’ll need to hold them down while pulling out the battery. Awkward, but probably unavoidable. The Greenworks is easier to install and remove but still tight, and likewise requires dexterity.
The Stihl RMA 370 is a rear-discharge style machine with a very well-made clippings catcher. If you leave the catcher in the garage like I do, you’ll deposit occasional mound-like globs of clippings in your wake (not the usual lines a side-discharge model can create). A mulching-blade kit is now sold, and that’s my next purchase, for finer clippings dispersed downward as I go. For a smaller lawn, the catcher would be adequate.
I prefer to let clippings lie, plus I’m too lazy to empty the basket so often. With the Greenworks, the mulching happens as you mow without an add-on, and you can also put the bagger on to catch the clippings–again, if your lawn is not so big as mine.
The battery mowers make me less lazy in one way. Since on-off is just a matter of pressing a button then gripping the handle, I’m more inclined than with a pull-cord gas mower to stop and start as needed to do a better job—to move a chair, or an overhanging plant in my route, than to just steer around it.
THE MOST OBVIOUS PLUS to changing to a fuel-free machine: no emissions. EPA has estimated that conventional lawn mowers produce something like 11 times the amount of exhaust of a car, and estimate that all those splashes and spills made while filling our lawn tools adds up to 17,000,000 gallons of gas on the ground annually. Not this one.
The battery mowers are also quiet, really quiet. There is no cord. There is no annual fluid change and maintenance, as with a conventional engine.
The little Stihl (there is now a model with a wider cut, too) isn’t the mower for every purpose, nor does it pretend to be. And it’s not cheap. It is just one tool in a 15ish-tool Stihl suite that uses the same battery, which may explain why battery and charger are sold separately. They could be used to power a chainsaw, a blower, a long-reach pruning saw and more.
There are less-pricey battery mowers, like the Greenworks, some with side discharge, slightly wider cuts or other features to consider.
Get two batteries, and a rapid charger. (The Greenworks comes with two, despite the lower price.) A single battery goes for maybe 25 or 30 minutes, and that’s about the time it takes to recharge the spare. A Stihl battery is said to mow just over 3,000 square feet per charge, and last for hundreds of charges.
What’s coming next in battery mowers, I asked Stihl when I first got mine? A wider cut was on top on their list, and has since been introduced. I registered my hope for a more comfortable handle–I’m not sure why mower grips are often not ergonomic, to say the least.
Last, a safety reminder: Though you may not need major ear protection with a battery lawn mower, never mow without safety glasses, no matter what kind of engine you’re walking behind. And proper closed shoes; no flip-flops!
keeping bed edges neat
WHETHER YOU’RE AN EDGING FREAK like I am, or just need to mow around things you can’t get next to with your rider mower or tractor like I do the many beds here that meet turf, a small battery mower might prove a big help.
I do not use, or own, a string trimmer; my curving beds stuffed with plants make for dicey, even violent, going with such a tool. Instead I mow the edges, then hand clip any fuzzy spots that remain with large scissors (called shop shears) or grass shears. I also recut like this with my step-on, long-handled half-moon edger a couple of times a season as needed, usually May and September. Above, an edged bed near the vegetable garden, ready for the pile of mulch in the foreground to be spread.
Another task the little battery mower has taken on: It’s great for mowing around trees I can’t get under on the tractor, speaking of things most people use a weed whip for.