Lawn Mowers and Zero Emissions

June 7, 2012

By Matt Palmer

My lawn mower died on Monday. It was a reliable workhorse for eight years, until while using it Monday, I began to smell something burning, then a while later, the motor died. I have to admit, I was a little happy because I wanted to buy a cordless mower. We have a reasonable size yard, and the cord is a pain, but I was willing to put up with the current model until the end of its life cycle.

Off I went to Home Depot to look for a new mower. After some discussion with the sales rep, I settled on buying another Black and Decker model, but this time a battery-powered cordless. As the sales guy pulled the box off the shelf and put it on my cart, I noticed a big badge on the top of box claiming that the mower operates with zero emissions! While on the surface this sounds great, I immediately felt that the claim was misleading.

When I got home I went to the Black and Decker website to do a little research to find the basis for this zero emissions claim. I do not like gasoline powered mowers or trimmers, mostly because of the need to have canisters of gasoline in the garage, and the potential for spills. I found some startling statistics on the Black and Decker website.

The EPA reports that a gas powered lawnmower emits as much air pollution in one hour as driving a car for 100 miles, which is significant with more than 30 million lawnmowers in the United States. A gas powered string trimmer emits as much air pollution in one hour as driving a car for eight hours.

Staggering! So clearly, the push to get people away from gas-powered lawn tools can make a serious contribution to reducing air pollution. But what about the zero emissions claim? Again from their website:

When it comes to caring for your lawn. Black & Decker electric and cordless products get yard work done, without emitting harmful gas emissions into the air and environment. No pull cords. No trips to the gas station. No gas to store or spill. No fumes. No tune-ups. And most importantly, ZERO EMISSIONS IN YOUR YARD. Just blue skies and green lawns.

Okay, so clearly if you switch from a gas-powered lawnmower to a battery operated one, the actual operation of the mower in your yard would produce no emissions. I buy that. There is one problem. You have to charge the battery. We could also talk about the emissions created from producing the mower, and we could ask the average consumer if they make that connection. But once the mower is made and purchased, is it truly zero emissions?

It all comes down to where your energy comes from. If you have solar panels on your roof, or buy your electricity from a company producing wind, nuclear or hydro, then yes, the lawnmower is probably as close to zero emissions as you can get. If your electricity comes from coal or natural gas then there is a problem in the equation.

I am not railing against Black and Decker here, I applaud them for educating people about the dangers of gas-powered lawn tools, and encouraging the switch to cleaner options. The problem is that advertising zero emissions disconnects people from understanding how the energy system works. It is misleads people into believing they are doing the right thing, and they are for the most part, but if you don’t understand that the production of electricity from coal and natural gas produces emissions, and yes natural gas is a far better option than coal, then it becomes challenging to encourage people to cut back their electricity consumption.

Our goal is reducing our energy consumption on individual and community level. We make choices every moment of the day that contribute to the solution or the problem. It makes sense switching from a gas-powered lawnmower to a battery or electric version, but be mindful of where your electricity comes from, because that matters. There is another trap though in acquiring that knowledge. Getting power from cleaner sources like wind and solar should not be a free ticket to use as much as you want.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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5 Responses to Lawn Mowers and Zero Emissions

  1. Glenn says:

    How are you charging a battery without causing emissions?? Are you using electricity generated by water, wind or solar? otherwise, using electricity generated by fuels to do any job will cause pollution, so, you’re only forcing the emissions bill over to the utility people, case dismissed!! Emission reduction technologies do exist for small engines but do to a lack of emission regulations they remain IDLE, and my question is why?? Something else you should know about emissions before you ramble on. Emission regulations for small engines such are those of lawn and garden equipment measures two serious smog forming pollutions, HC’s + NOx, for ONE emission value rather then regulations such are those of cars and trucks, all three pollutants, CO, HC’s and NOx are tested and measured separately. The measuring of two emissions for one emission value, in my opinion, is nothing more then a copout for manufacturers of small engines, so again, case dismissed.

    • Thanks for the comment Glen. Hope you didn’t misunderstand the point of my blog which is exactly what you point out – unless you are charging batteries with wind, nuclear, hydro or solar, you must count the emissions created by harnessing the electricity from coal or natural gas. You bring up another excellent point that when people talk about emissions CO2 is often the only thing referred to. It is important to account for all emissions.

  2. Ed Malcolm says:

    Matt, I use a push mower with just the blades in Canmore which I believe would qualify as zero emissions and as an aside I use an Organic Lawn Company in Calgary.

  3. Paul Smith says:

    This should confirm our suspicions of anything “reported” by EPA—can you imagine the stupidity of saying that a lawn mower, 3 to 5 hp, in one hour spits out the same crud as does a vehicle run for two hours–100 miles at 50 mph. Anyone should therefore question the validity of their “research”!!!!!!!!!

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