Lawn Mower Savvy

By Frank A. Viggiano and National Gardening

They may not be the most glamorous garden tool, but many millions of Americans will buy a lawn mower this year. If you are buying your first or replacing an old one, you confront a potentially daunting number of choices: reduced emissions, polymer decks, zero radius, overhead valves, 24 volts and deadman switches, not to mention prices ranging between $200 and several thousands of dollars. Clearly, lawn mowers are significant investments, not disposable toys. Making an informed choice is not easy.

How can you control the process? Call manufacturers for brochures and warranty information and interview all local dealers. Ask about accessories and availability of replacement parts. Read on to gain a working knowledge of the tremendous range of mowers available today.

Six Types of Lawn Mowers

Most lawn mowers are either reel or rotary types. Walk-behind rotary mowers are most popular. These cut the grass with a blade spinning one to four inches above the soil. They may be self-propelled or manual, side or rear bagging and with or without the latest trend on mowers--the mulching" option. But the whole idea of clipping grass started in England some 160 years ago when an inventor adapted some carpet-making machinery to the out-of-doors.

Reel Mowers

Invented in 1830 by Englishman Edwin Budding, the reel mower has a series of twisted metal blades arranged as a reel between the wheel assembly. Reel mowers cut like scissors. They are more effective on grasses 1 1/2 inches tall or less. When no motor or engine is used, the mower is economical, easy to use and maintain and very safe. These "push-type" reel mowers produce no emissions or noise, so are easy on the environment and neighborhood. Using one also provides healthful exercise, burning as many calories per hour as tennis or low-impact aerobics.

Lightweight alloys and plastics have reduced the former 40- to 60-pound weight range of the units to the current 16- to 32-pound range If your lawn is 1,000 square feet or less, a reel mower is an excellent choice. All reel mowers follow the surface contours of your lawn more than a rotary. They reveal humps and hollows that a rotary mower disguises. Reel mowers tend to flatten tall grasses and weeds without cutting them, however. Prices are generally under $100.

Self-propelled reel mowers with gasoline engines (and, rarely, electric motors) are also available. There are two basic types. Turf professionals use the kind that discharges clippings to the front. Although these produce the finest cut, you probably don't need one unless you're mowing a golf-course green, or a lawn that looks like one. Short-growing, dense grasses such as bentgrass, hybrid Bermuda, St. Augustine and zoysia look best if cut with a power reel mower.

Reel mowers that throw clippings to the rear are more general purpose. The cost of powered reel mowers begins at about $400 for front-throw types and $250 for rear-throw types.

Rotary Power Mowers

Leonard B. Goodall from Warrensburg, Missouri, invented the push-type rotary mower in 1939. The most popular type of mower available today, it employs a gasoline engine or electric motor that spins a metal blade (or occasionally a heavy filament line) at constant speed. The engine is mounted on a deck supported by four adjustable wheels, all connected to a long handle that has controls for operation.

Push-type Mowers

Push-type machines cost about $100 less than self-propelled mowers you walk behind, and at least $500 less than mowers you ride. Push models come in two basic designs: those with the grass catcher (or bag) mounted at the rear, and those with it mounted on the side. Rear-bagging mowers hold more clippings than side-bagging mowers, and allow close trimming in whatever direction you are mowing. Side-bagging mowers are usually lighter and less expensive than rear-bagging mowers. They allow close trimming only on the opposite the bag. Regardless, a good side- or rear-bagger will literally vacuum the grass clippings and leave little, if any, on the ground. When shopping for a bagger, be sure to remove the bag from mower and replace it in order to evaluate the ease of the operation. Also check the size of the bag opening. A small opening clogs more easily and inhibits quick and easy dumping of the clippings.

Manufactures use steel, aluminum polycarbonate or Xenoy resin for the deck material. Steel costs less but rusts, shortening the life of the mower. Aluminum is a little heavier, but does not rust. Decks of modern plastics are virtually indestructible.

Finally, plastic catcher bags are generally more durable than cloth bags. Appropriate for lawns up to 1/2-acre size, prices for the standard mower range from about $150 to $400 for the side-bagging models, and about $200 to $800 for the rear-bagging mowers.

Self-propelled rotary mowers use a power drive mechanism. These machines require the operator to squeeze a bar or a lever to engage the mower. If the lever is released, the drive system and blade both stop. Some models abruptly start, while others move forward gradually. The latter is much easier to control. The self-propelling feature adds at least $100 to the cost of the mower. These require more horsepower--4 1/2 is ideal.

I prefer rear wheel drive over front wheel drive. The rear-wheel-drive machines move in a straight pattern. Front-wheel-drive units seem to pull the machine forward, creating a somewhat erratic movement that requires guidance.

in mulching mowers. Mulching mowers are the basic mower for most home lawns today. They burst on the scene about a decade ago, once American communities began to exhaust landfill space. Their capacity to mulch clippings so you can leave them in place is useful if you don't want to collect them.

Some manufacturers create mulching mowers by simply blocking all clipping exit channels. Mowers designed to be mulchers have a doughnut-saped deck housing with various baffles, and a specially shaped blade, all to ensure clippings are cut several times. Compared with mowers that bag clippings, these save time because you don't have to stop and empty the bag every few rows, and they can shred leaves into near-invisible pieces along with the grass. Also, they are safer because there is no avenue for discharge of a rock from the side or rear of the machine.

Mulching mowers save resources. Lawns cut with mulchers need less fertilizer. Also, you consume less landfill space by not disposing of clippings. On the downside, mulching mowers work less well on wet or overly tall grass compared with nonmulching rotaries, and the cutting blade must be sharp. Mulching mowers also require somewhat more powerful engines, at least four horsepower.

Some mulching mowers only mulch; others allow the option of bagging clippings. Cost ranges between $250 and $550. Electric mulchers are available ($400), as are riding mowers that mulch clippings ($1,000 to $2,000).

Electric Rotary Mowers

The greatest virtue of electric mowers is the noise they make or rather the lack of it. If you live where noise is an issue or if you've simply had enough of it yourself, I recommend you consider a mower powered by an electric motor. Keep in mind, however, that electric mowers rarely have the power of a gasoline engine mower.

The least-expensive electric mowers are powered by a standard electric motor connected by an extension cord to an outlet. These are for small lawns accessible with no more than a 100-foot power cord. (Electrical resistance in cords longer than 100 feet could damage the motor.) The cost of these mowers is in the $100 to $200 range.

Another type of electric mower features rechargeable batteries. For instance, the Ryobi Mulchinator promises to cut 1/2 acre of lawn, or to deliver about one hour of mowing time, per 16-hour charge on its nicke batteries. It is convenient and easy to use, and the 24-volt recharger is built in. The Black & Decker CM500 is similar. It uses 12-volt lead-acid batteries and also allows about an hour of mowing after a 24-hour recharge. These cost $400 to $500.


These may be the mowers of the future. Poulan/Weed Eater introduced the first solar-powered robotic mower. It wanders around the yard by itself--you don't have to touch it. Small razor-blade-type cutters clip the grass a little at a time. A wire, placed around the perimeter of the yard or flower beds, keeps the robotic mower within the bounds of the lawn. The unit clips grass all day long. If it hits an obstruction, such as a fence post or sprinkler, it stops, backs up, then goes forward again in another direction. Still, it requires level areas that include a minimum of obstructions.

Lawn Tractor

This category includes the widest range of sizes and prices. The general advice is to use some sort of riding mower for lawns larger than 1/2 acre. But if your 3/4-acre lawn is dotted with trees, flowerbeds, edged walkways and other obstructions, a walk-behind might be still be a better choice. Typical horsepower ratings are provided here, but more isn't always better. In some cases, the less refined machine has more horsepower to compensate for its reduced efficiency.

The simplest kinds are riding mowers that are smaller than lawn tractors. They are usually easier to maneuver, but less capable on slopes.

Lawn tractors are larger and look more like a car. You sit and look out over a hood covering the engine, and the mowing deck is underneath you. Commonly 10 to 15 horsepower, lawn tractors cut with a 38- to 42-inch deck. Mulcher conversions and tow carts are usually available. Cost is $700 to $4,000.

Garden tractors are scaled-down versions of farm tractors, with 12 to 20 horsepower engines and 38- to 60-inch mowing decks. Compare frames, axles, transmissions, efficiency from power take off to attachments and interchangeability of attachments. Typical attachments include chipper, rototiller and snowblower. Tow carts and reel mower gangs are also available. Prices start around $1,000 and reach upwards of $6,000.

In some cases, you sit in a sort of chair with the mowing deck underneath you and the engine in the rear. Called rear-engine riders, these are practical if you maintain at least 1/2-acre of lawn.

The turning radius is much tighter than on a lawn or garden tractor. When there is no turning raius at all, the mower is called a "zero turn." You steer by controlling the drive on the rear wheels; the front wheels are like those on shopping carts. This creates limitations, such as the inability to maneuver across a slope. The mowing deck is 30 to 42 inches wide, and the engines deliver eight to 13 horsepower. (John Deere's spin-steer tractor is a hybrid that looks like a typical lawn tractor but behaves like a zero-turn.) Typical rear engine mowers cost $700 to $1,000; zero-turns cost $1,500 and up.

Comfort is a major concern when purchasing these larger machines. Your body should fit the machine so that the steering wheel, seat, pedals, controls, key starter and movement controls are easily accessible. Ride the unit. I've tested some that are noisy, full of unwanted vibration and simply uncomfortable. You test drive a new car, why not a riding mower?

Safe and Sensible Lawn Care

No matter which type of lawn mower you choose, there are concerns and features that must be considered.


Many states have passed laws banning the disposal of yard waste, including grass clippings in landfills. According to the Composting Council, yard trimmings are the second largest component of municipal solid waste (18 percent or 35 million tons). The Professional Lawn Care Association of America is promoting Grasscycling. This term means either composting or mulching the clippings where they are produced. Your choice of a mower will determine how you deal with your lawn clippings.


It has been widely reported in recent years that typical lawn mowers are relatively more polluting than a modern car. Mowing a lawn for half an hour with a gasoline engine makes as much smog as driving a new car 170 miles. Gasoline-powered garden equipment accounts for 5 percent of all U.S. air pollution. California has regularly introduced tough new emission standards. The cleanest power mowers are the solar/electric. Battery and 110-volt electric mowers are next. Gasoline engines with overhead valves are less polluting than those with side valves. Mowers powered by two-stroke engines, for which gasoline and oil are mixed prior to ignition, are dirtiest.

Deadman Switch

Since 1982 all mowers have been equipped with a blade break system or deadman switch. This device stops the spinning blade within three seconds of release of the handle. This safety feature has definitely reduced injuries. (Older mowers that remain in use were not required to be retrofitted.) Some blade brake systems stop both the engine and the blade whenever you move your hands from the handle. More expensive and sophisticated mowers stop only the blade. This is a very convenient feature that will save you several restarts, considering how often you'll need to empty the bag or otherwise leave the mower momentarily. This is especially advantageous if the mower is also self-propelled. You can allow the machine to run and move under its own power when taking it from the garage to your yard without engaging the blade.

Dr. Frank A Viggiano, Jr. is an outdoor power equipment consultant and a professor of consumer services at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association

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