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Perspective | Globe Magazine

Honestly, you don’t need that gas lawn mower

If you’ve got a smaller yard, an electric mower is just fine, thank you. And a greener (and quieter) choice too.

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When my wife and I bought our home, we were overwhelmed — and not just by the lengthy to-do list that came with the 1920 fixer-upper. It was late summer, and the yard was out of control. We’d just closed on our new house, and Mother Nature was already threatening to repo it.

As a kid, I’d mowed my parents’ lawn every weekend, but years of apartment life had left me soft and stripped me of my suburban sensibilities. We had no mower, but the previous owner had left an electric weed-whacker in the garage. And that’s why, shortly after moving from Boston to the relative countryside of Quincy, I was haplessly weed-whacking our front lawn like some kind of jackass city slicker.

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It wasn’t the most efficient method, and it gave our yard the erratic look of a 7-year-old left to play alone with hair clippers, but it got the job done until we could find a mower. It also helped me realize that in the dense neighborhoods in and around Boston — where the lots are measured in square feet, not acres — you surely don’t need a gas lawn mower. You should think twice about buying one.

Gas mowers are nasty, brutish things — so are gas-powered leaf blowers and weed trimmers — and they’re everywhere. They belch volatile organic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde, some of the most potent carcinogens in existence, and make a holy racket doing it.

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“Gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment are heavy polluters of toxic and carcinogenic exhaust and ground-based fine particulates,” says Jamie Banks, executive director of Lincoln-based nonprofit Quiet Communities. In fact, a gas lawn mower produces as much pollution in an hour as a car driven 100 miles, according to one study. To match the contaminants released by a gas leaf blower in half an hour, Edmunds.com found you’d have to drive a Ford Raptor pickup truck 3,900 miles — from Texas to Alaska. And the noise? Gas-powered mowers and leaf blowers produce 80 to 110 decibels, putting users at risk of hearing loss, Banks says.

It’s not just the equipment, either: One study estimated that Americans spill 17 million gallons of gasoline into the ground each year while trying to top off our gas-powered yard machines. That amounts to a BP oil spill every 12 years, or more than an Exxon Valdez every mowing season.

Yet it seems most of us, even in and around the city, still use gas mowers without a second thought. Rick Manupelli, manager at Curry Hardware in Quincy, says four out of five mowers he sells are gas-powered. “You’ve got a handful of people who like the electrics,” he says. “And we sell a lot of the old-fashioned reel mowers, too. But it’s still about 80 percent gas mowers.”

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I’m among the handful. After the weed-whacking embarrassment, we bought an electric mower off Craigslist; I was able to cram the thing in the back seat of our tiny Kia Rio (no spilled gasoline!), and it did a fine job on our lawn. We’ve used an electric mower ever since. Why don’t more urban homeowners do the same?

Some gripe about the restrictive extension cord, but most electric mowers can handle cords up to 100 feet long. If I tried to mow the lawn 100 feet from my house, I’d be in my neighbor’s yard — and not my next-door neighbor’s, mind you, but the one two houses away. I’ll admit that pacing the yard with my little plugged-in mower, yanking the cord this way and that, makes me feel like I’m vacuuming the grass carpet before company comes over. But if you really despise cords, battery-powered mowers have made huge strides in recent years. One model, the EGO LM2101, even outperformed top gas mowers in recent Consumer Reportstests.

Electric mowers and their batteries aren’t ecologically perfect (install solar panels at home to charge them, though, and you’re getting closer), but they’re quieter than gas models and shift harmful emissions to a power plant, where they’re better treated. But there’s a more selfish reason I prefer my electric mower: It’s virtually no-maintenance. No buying gas. No spark plugs or carburetors. No changing oil or air filters. “With an electric, there’s really no maintenance other than plugging it in,” Manupelli says.

Even pros say an electric mower is plenty capable of taming a typical patch of lawn, particularly one smaller than 2,500 square feet. “I always encourage homeowners to look into electric units when buying a mower,” says Peter DiClemente, director of turf management at Pure Lawns, an organic lawn care company in Weston. For the best cut with an electric mower, DiClemente says, “use sharp blades and mow at a slower pace,” and cut the grass higher than you might be used to, at about 3 to 3 ½ inches, which is good practice whatever mower you use.

Still, let’s face it: Between work, kids, weekend trips, and the more urgent demands of homeownership (I never knew how many different things could leak at once), I don’t know many people in the running for Lawn of the Year. We’re just trying not to be that house with the mangy excuse for a front yard. So if you skip town for a week and your grass gets really long, can an electric mower power through it?

Manupelli says battery-powered mowers lose some run time in wet or tall grass, but corded mowers can handle the rough. “With a corded electric, it’s no big deal if the grass is a little long, it doesn’t matter,” he says.

Besides, isn’t that what an electric weed-whacker’s for, anyway?

Jon Gorey is a writer in Quincy. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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