Blowers, mowers and more: American yards quietly go electric
For Jared Anderman, of Croton-on-Hudson, New York, switching from gasoline-powered tools to electric ones for lawn care was a no-brainer.
"I'm concerned about climate change and wanted tools that are more eco-friendly, and also quieter. I like listening to music when I do yardwork and this way I can enjoy music or a podcast while I work," he said. "I could never do that with gas-powered equipment."
The biggest advantage of all, he says, is maintenance. "Gas mowers are a pain. With electric tools, they boot right up and there's really no maintenance at all. It's just about keeping the batteries charged."
First, he bought an electric lawnmower. Then an electric string trimmer, hedge trimmer and leaf blower. "I don't have an electric snowblower, yet. But when I do replace the gas snowblower, it'll be with an electric one," he says.
There's a quiet transformation going on in yards across the country. Longstanding complaints about the roar and fumes from gas-powered leaf blowers, mowers and other equipment have grown even louder as more people work from home because of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the quality of zero- to low-emissions electric landscaping equipment has improved markedly, with battery packs that last longer.
"Batteries have changed a lot in the past year alone, and we are there in terms of technology. Now it's just a matter of getting the word out to professionals and consumers," says Kurt Morrell, associate vice president for horticulture operations at the New York Botanical Garden.
"Last year we were 90 percent electric on hedge trimmers and this year it's 100 percent. My guys won't even touch a gas hedge trimmer anymore," says Morrell, who oversees the trimming of the garden's 4,850 linear feet of hedges.
There are even autonomous lawnmowers akin to the Roomba vacuum cleaner.
"They are really taking off, and in the next four or five years you'll see more robotic mowers in the private sector," says Morrell.
Morrell, who also teaches aspiring landscaping professionals, says that while electric trimmers and mowers are now as good or better than gas-guzzling versions, cordless electric leaf blowers are still a challenge "because they require a lot of velocity and power, and the weight of the battery at this point is a lot heavier than gas."
But the technology is evolving quickly, he says. "When I teach my landscaping management students, who will go on to manage large landscapes, I know they will be using electric equipment."
The electric tools, and some less-polluting gas options, are just part of a rethinking of many lawn-care practices and their effect on the environment.
Many gardeners and landscapers are moving away from "a hyper-managed standard of blow drying leaves," for instance, in favor of "just letting leaves be leaves, with some of them staying on the ground," says Daniel Mabe, founder of the American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA), which offers homes, businesses and organizations across the country a certification for low carbon-footprint landscaping.
Letting more leaves, plant stalks and other garden debris cover garden beds during the winter helps the soil, and insects and other wildlife, experts say.
Where power tools are needed, the shift from gas to electric is not unlike the trend toward electric cars.
According to the California Air Resources Board, a department within the California Environmental Protection Agency, operating a gas leaf blower for an hour can create as much smog-forming pollution as driving a Toyota Camry 1,100 miles.
The battery-powered lawn equipment sector is growing at a rate three times faster than gas, according to the Freedonia Group, a division of MarketResearch.com.
"In terms of residential adoption of electric landscaping equipment, at least here in California, it's already about 50 percent," Mabe says.
He sees more resistance to electric equipment among professional landscaping companies than among residential consumers. But he estimates there are now at least 200 "all-electric" landscaping companies. Many of them make use of robotic technology, programming and maintaining the lawn equivalent of the Roomba.
Andrew Bray, vice president of government relations for the Fairfax, Virginia-based, National Association of Professional Landscapers, says, "The transition to electric is inevitable, and most landscapers are trying out this equipment all the time. But while the technology is already there for homeowners -- and I myself use electric equipment at home — the technology isn't there yet for most of the commercial sector."
"With leaf blowers, for example, they don't yet have the battery power needed for commercial use," he says.
And he said there are cost and infrastructure hurdles for professional landscapers looking to switch from gas to electric.
"Since battery packs are not interchangeable between brands of tools, you'd have to retrofit your whole shop so that everything is the same brand. You'd also probably have to upgrade the wattage of the electrical system in your shop, since an average crew would need about 36 batteries," he says.
Still, electric's momentum is growing. Stanley Black & Decker, a leading maker of outdoor products, estimates that the volume of electric-powered landscaping equipment that North American manufacturers shipped went from 9 million units in 2015 to over 16 million last year, an over 75 percent increase in the past five years.
"We continue to innovate in cordless (electric) products focused on delivering high performance while having lower noise and no emissions in use," says John Wyatt, senior vice president of Stanley Outdoor.