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Musing on Mowing, part 2:
Stop and Smell the ... Exhaust?

Before lawnmowers, lawns were cut with scythes. Edwin Budding, who worked in a weaving mill in England, used a machine which trimmed the pile on cloth. He adapted its design to produce the first lawnmower, marketed in 1832. Mowing became so much easier, they caught on fast. In 1842, some were horse-drawn; fifty years later, steam-driven; at the turn of the century, gasoline-powered.

Until 1995, lawnmower emissions were unregulated; a lawnmower polluted much worse than a car. (In addition, some used more powerful but less efficient two-cycle engines, which release 25-30% of their oil and gas unburned into the air.)

Gas mowers emit hydrocarbons (a principle ingredient of smog), particulate matter (damaging to the respiratory system), carbon monoxide (a poisonous gas) and carbon dioxide (contributing to global warming). The health toll includes cancer as well as damage to lungs, heart, and both the immune and detoxification systems. Plus smog inhibits plant growth.

EPA regulations are reducing mower emissions. Two-cycle engines are disappearing. Of course the new engines are more expensive and as Glen Shepherd — of Shepherd's Sales and Service in Townsend — says, "The equipment is no longer simple to work on." They do still smell. It's getting harder to ignore; more and more people are chemically sensitive.

Electric mowers don't eliminate pollution; electric power generation creates important amounts, and regulations on industry are currently being rolled back. Still you don't fill the yard with it every time you mow.

We had one of the electric models with a cord — having to swing it around out of the way all the time was a bother. Battery-operated mowers can mow small to medium-sized yards on one charge. They're less powerful than gas mowers, but cost less, and need no tuneups — plus you don't have to lug cans of gas around and try to avoid polluting by its spilling or evaporating.

Photocell rechargers are being developed. For a while, Toro sold a machine made by Friendly Robotics, which did the job by itself: looking like a giant metal bug, it patrolled within the magnetic field established by a perimeter wire. In Europe, Flymo sells an electric mower that hovers, making it easier to handle — but also quite dangerous. Another option: electric reel mowers give a cleaner cut.

Choosing the right equipment was easy for us: what we want to smell is the flowers — and the new-mown grass.

© Copyright 2003 Catherine Holmes Clark


Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 18 June 2003

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For more information
  • A History of the Lawn Mower, by Bill Hutchings at St. George's News, (Summer 1999) — with a picture of the first one.
  • No Room to Breathe: Air Pollution and Primary Care Medicine, by Jefferson H. Dickey MD (2001). On the site of the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.
  • Small-Engine Pollution, on the site of the North Star (Minnesota) Chapter of the Sierra Club (Nov. 3, 2002). Good general summary.
  • Lawn Care Appliances — brief reports on the site of Environmental Media Services, from a variety of linked sources, the most recent from May 30, 2001. (Some of this information is outdated).
  • Lawn and Garden (Small Gasoline) Equipment — an EPA page providing information for manufacturers on federal regulations, and for consumers on maintaining a yard and lawn, while minimizing air pollution from spark-ignition engines. (Lasted updated July 1, 2003.)
  • Two-cycle Engine Applications and Lubrication Needs — describes (with diagrams) the differences between two-cycle and for-cycle engines. Originally published in AMSOIL Action News, July 2001.
  • ETC Pollution Calculations Forms, Lawnmower Emissions (2001). Calculate your lawnmower's performance on this page from the Canadian Environmental Technology Centre.
  • Clean Air Lawn Care , by Bill Kelly, News Bureau of the South Coast AQMD, the air pollution control agency for Orange County and major portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties in Southern California (March 31, 1996). Although this page is outdated in many ways, see the great picture of a big electric golf-course groundskeeping mower by Ransomes, the British company who built the first lawnmower.
  • Choosing a Lawn Mower, by Maggie Oster (2000). On Do-It-Yourself.com. Describes many new features of new gas mowers.
  • Lawn Care Equipment — an EPA Green Report (PDF format)
  • Electric Rotary Mowers