The Robots Are Coming … to Mow Your Lawn
This article is part of our new Currents series, which explores how rapid advances in technology are changing our lives.
Even before last winter’s snow had completely melted, the roar of the leaf blowers began to accentuate the silence of many cities and renewed the noise battles that had only intensified as more people worked from home.
Leaf blowers aren’t just loud. The small gas engines, which are less restrictive federal regulations than cars and trucks, emit large amounts of pollutants into the air.
But Jamie Banks, the president of Quiet Communities, a nonprofit based in Lincoln, Massachusetts, said it wasn’t a problem with a machine. “If you only focus on leaf blowers, the whole problem becomes trivialized. It’s really about the very widespread use of all polluting fossil fuel devices, ”she said. “And of course it’s also very loud.”
Ms. Banks, whose organization promotes the use of cleaner green space maintenance equipment, was the lead author of a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency report on the dangers of gas-fired power plants.
To put the problem in perspective, operating a commercial lawnmower for just one hour emits as much pollution as driving a Toyota Camry 300 miles, according to California’s Air Resources Board. With a commercial leaf blower, an hour of operation emits pollution comparable to driving a Camry 1,100 miles.
Change may be in the air. Technological advances, including devices that rely solely on longer-lasting lithium batteries, are reducing emissions and lowering the noise levels from leaf blowers, lawnmowers and even chainsaws. New and traditional manufacturers offer both electrical and robotic devices for the residential and commercial markets.
And even after taking into account the emissions from charging the devices, the battery-powered devices are more environmentally friendly, especially if the electricity is generated from renewable resources, Ms. Banks said.
According to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trading organization based in Alexandria, Virginia, the market for all lawn care equipment sold annually in the United States is approximately $ 16 billion. Most of this is bought by homeowners and their choices are changing. For example, while gasoline mowers still dominate sales, “the rate at which battery-powered alternatives are gaining ground is remarkable,” said Grant Farnsworth, president of research firm Farnsworth Group. Within the last four years, sales of cordless push mowers have increased from 4 to 8 percent, he said.
The noise from gas powered lawn machines is what people notice. But how loud are these machines? While sound levels are typically measured in decibels, experts also rely on weighted decibels (dBAs), which take into account not only the intensity of the sound but also the response of the ear.
Any “sound above 45 dBA is likely to have a negative impact,” said John Medina, associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington. Leaf blowers, he said in an email, “are potentially quite dangerous” because they “measured 95 dBA” near the ear. A person standing 15 meters away is exposed to levels of 65-80 dBA, he added.
In terms of noise reduction alone, “robotic mowers are the biggest bang for the buck,” said Dan Mabe, founder and president of the American Green Zone Alliance or AGZA, a Californian consulting firm that has its own standards and certifications for areas that convert to zero-emission lawn care. Like the LEED certification for buildings, the AGZA marking means that the municipality or the commercial area is emission-free in its green areas.
Robotic mowers are more common in Europe, where farms tend to be smaller. In the United States, some companies have started offering robotic services, according to Frank Rossi, associate professor at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“Challenges at Work” in the landscaping market are helping create change, said Kris Kiser, president and chief executive officer of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.
For example, a labor shortage prompted the Langton Group, a landscaping company in Woodstock, Illinois, to switch to zero-emission, quieter equipment about five years ago.
“I just couldn’t find enough people to hire, and I saw robotics as a way to solve my work problems,” said Joe Langton, company president. “I realized that we were not only saving manpower, but also helping the environment.”
Last year, in collaboration with Mr. Mabe of AGZA, they defined a 29 acre green space in Woodstock, which Mr. Mabe said was the first in the state. The zone includes a large corporate campus as well as an 11 acre cluster of townhouses.
Langton now has a fleet of 200 robotic mowers, each about 2 by about 2.5 feet tall and just over a foot high, working in that zone. They charge on site, some conventionally via sockets and others with solar power. Like robotic vacuum cleaners, they can be recharged after their work is finished (and switched off in bad weather).
Each robot extends over 1.25 hectares and is bounded by an underground signal-emitting wire that resembles an invisible dog fence. The family-run company relies largely on equipment from Husqvarna. a Swedish company leading in the field of green lawn technology.
And Mr Langton said that using robots has not eliminated jobs, but has instead changed the types of workers it hires. Now he needs people who oversee the technology and who can also cut hedges and work weeds – all with battery-powered devices.
Robotic mowers are expensive, which can put homeowners off. The cost can range from $ 1,000 to $ 2,500, depending on the model. But over the life of the devices, battery models ultimately save money, according to a 2017 analysis by the University of Arkansas. Some communities offer discounts when trading in older mowers or blowers, Mr. Mabe said.
Husqvarna is well known among the equipment manufacturers, and there are newer companies such as EGO and Ambrogio, as well as Mean Green Products, which was acquired by a division of Generac Holdings in September. Market enthusiasts like Toro and DeWalt now also offer battery-powered lawn care equipment.
The size of the equipment is on par with traditional mowers, said Joe Turoff, chief marketing officer of Chervon, EGO’s parent company in North America. The runtime is about 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the size of the battery, he said.
Those who tend to their own gardens turn to battery-powered blowers, trimmers, and edgers when buying new equipment, Farnsworth said, adding that about half of the newly purchased blowers and trimmers are battery-powered.
The professional market can be the biggest hurdle, because the electrical devices have to be charged in order to cope with, for example, 10 hours of continuous operation. Until a solution is found, landscapers could “be laggards compared to homeowners”.