In Praise of Tesla: Cordless Lawn Mowers, Part Two

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When my gas mower wouldn't start this spring I had the choice between hauling it off to the repair shop and spending the annual $80 fee to keep it running, or start looking for an alternative. I decided to go green with a cordless electric mower. To be honest, gas engines and I just don't seem to get along. I love the idea of going electric and if I won the lottery, my one splurge would be a Tesla Roadster.

Tesla Roadster
  • Tesla Roadster

The Roadster is named for Nikola Tesla, the Serbian electrical engineer credited with the invention of both the electric motor and the radio (Marconi got the initial nod, but his “invention” relied on some 17 different devices already patented by Tesla). Undeniably a genius, he had worked with Thomas Edison, but they had a falling out when Edison refused to pay Tesla a promised bonus. Tesla went on to beat the older inventor at his own game, championing the AC current delivery system we use today over Edison's preference for DC.

The appeal of the Tesla Roadster is irresistible. A single-speed drive train means no clutch, just push down on the pedal and you hit 60 mph in under 4 seconds. The electric motor tops out at an amazing 14,000 rpm, putting out 250 hp, with a flat torque curve from top to bottom. It's six times more efficient than a piston engine while producing one tenth the pollution. It recharges in as little as three hours which gives you a range approaching 300 miles. The top speed is electronically limited to 125 mph, but that will do for me. The price tag of $109,000, however, is something of a deal breaker. But at under $500, a sleek and sporty cordless lawn mower is not beyond my reach.

I did a fair amount of research before taking the plunge. As I wrote in my last blog, some 10 years back, I had a cordless that was a little bit too far ahead of its time. A design flaw left it very vulnerable to moisture, and it died after the first season. Things have come a long way in the last decade, and reviews are much more favorable.

I narrowed it down to four choices. First up, weighing in a 77 pounds, the Toro eCycler, its major plus— being manufactured by a familiar lawn mower name. Got great feedback on the net, but the downside for me was that the battery is only 24 volts and it can't be removed easily—you can only charge on board. That means if it fails you have to return the whole mower. And, when the temperature drops below freezing you have to bring it inside.

Next up, at a light and lively 69 pounds, the Neutron CE6 with a removable 36 volt battery. This company specializes in cordless lawn and garden tools. The name is respected and the reviews mostly positive, but it's at the high end of the price spectrum, typically selling for $499. I also flirted with a self-propelled cordless from a company called Solaris (aka Epic). At well over 100 pounds, it's heavy, but it is self-propelled. The batteries (it comes with a spare) are removable, but they are only 24 volt. Considering it has to both cut and propel a heavy load, that seems a little low in power, but the claim is that a super efficient, brushless motor makes the difference. Tempting, but the price was high (also $499) and the reviews were mixed.

So what did I go with? The newest model Black & Decker with a 36 volt removable battery and a total weight of 72 pounds. Why? Nobody has been doing electric mowers longer or better than Black and Decker and the reviews were very positive. One online consumer rating picked its 24 volt predecessor as the best choice over three other competitors, and at $399 it was the best buy complete with all the features I wanted. Set up could not be easier. The handle cradles over the chassis and you just pull it back, tighten two knobs and you re set to go. Push a button and the quiet motor purrs to life. By the time I got my mower the grass was about ten inches tall. I set the mower to its highest setting of four inches (it's a one lever operation) and plowed ahead. Even though the lawn was a little damp, the motor never bogged down, and it did a credible job of mulching, though it did leave a few clumps of grass. Another quick pass over, and those clumps were completely mulched.

The next day I tackled my son's completely overgrown lawn. With the mower in its folded position it slid into the trunk of my compact car for easy transport. Mowing the lawn was a bit more daunting. The grass was well over a foot high, and the going was slow, but the Black & Decker, with some patience, was up to the task. It stalled several times, but all you had to do was pull back and wait a second or two for the motor to rev back up. I'm guessing a gas more would have stalled as well, but the restart would not have been so easy. The down side? About 45 minutes in, the lawn was only about two thirds mowed and the battery was giving up. Had to recharge overnight and finish the next day. A second battery would have solved the problem.

That brings me to the final plus. Not only is cordless a more efficient and environmentally friendly way to mow, beyond sharpening the blade, there's no maintenance. The battery has a rated life of five years, which works out to just $25 a year, far cheaper than the $80 annual visit to the tune up shop. One final note: the lead acid battery is recyclable, and in fact, 97 percent of all battery lead is recycled in the United States (compared to 55 percent of all aluminum cans and 45 percent of newspapers), making it one of the best success stories.

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