The Robots Are Coming … to Mow Your Lawn

This article is part of our new series, Currents, which examines how rapid advances in technology are transforming our lives.

Even before last winter’s snow had fully melted, the roar of leaf blowers began to punctuate the quiet of many towns, renewing noise battles that had only intensified as more people worked from home.

Leaf blowers are not just loud. The small gas-power machines, subject to less-restrictive federal regulation than cars and trucks, release large amounts of pollutants into the air.

But Jamie Banks, the president of Quiet Communities, a nonprofit based in Lincoln, Mass., said it’s not a one-machine issue. “If you just focus on leaf blowers, it trivializes the whole problem. It’s really the very widespread use of all polluting, fossil-fuel-powered equipment that is at issue,” she said. “And, of course, it’s very noisy, too.”

Ms. Banks, whose organization promotes the use of cleaner equipment to maintain green spaces, was the primary author of a 2015 report for the Environmental Protection Agency on the hazards of gas-power equipment.

To put the problem in perspective, according to California’s Air Resources Board, operating a commercial lawn mower for just one hour emits as much pollution as driving a Toyota Camry about 300 miles. For a commercial leaf blower, one hour of operation emits pollution comparable to driving a Camry about 1,100 miles.

Change may be, well, in the air. Technological advancements, including equipment that relies solely on longer-lasting lithium batteries, are reducing emissions and lowering the noise levels of leaf blowers, lawn mowers and even chain saws. New and traditional manufacturers are offering electric as well robotic equipment for the home and commercial markets.

And even after factoring in the emissions that result from the charging of equipment, the battery-operated equipment is greener, especially when the electricity is generated from renewable resources, Ms. Banks said.

The market for all lawn care equipment shipped annually in the United States is approximately $16 billion, according to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade organization based in Alexandria, Va. Most of it is bought by homeowners, and their choices are changing. For example, while gas-power mowers still dominate sales, “the speed at which battery-powered alternatives are gaining ground is notable,” said Grant Farnsworth, the president of the market research firm Farnsworth Group. Within the last four years, sales of battery push mowers have increased from 4 to 8 percent, he said.

The noise from gas-power lawn equipment is what stands out for people. But just how loud are those machines? While sound levels typically are measured in decibels, experts also rely on what are known as weighted decibels, or dBAs, which take into account not just the intensity of the sound, but also how the ear responds.

Any “sound above 45 dBA is likely to start having negative effects,” said John Medina, an affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington department of bioengineering. Leaf blowers, he said in an email, “are potentially quite dangerous,” because when close to the ear they “have been measured at 95 dBA.” A person standing 50 feet away is exposed to levels of 65-80 dBAs, he added.

For noise reduction alone, “robotic mowers are the biggest bang for the buck,” said Dan Mabe, the founder and president of the American Green Zone Alliance, or AGZA, a California-based consulting firm that is creating its own standards and certification for areas that move to emission-free lawn care. Like LEED certification for buildings, the AGZA designation will mean that the community or commercial area has achieved emission-free status in its green spaces.

Robotic mowers are more prevalent in Europe, where yards tend to be smaller. In the United States, a few companies have begun to offer robotic services, according to Frank Rossi, an associate professor at the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Labor challenges” in the landscaping market are helping to bring about changes, said Kris Kiser, president and chief executive of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.

For example, a labor shortage first propelled the Langton Group, a landscaping company in Woodstock, Ill., to make the transition to emissions-free and 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 labor problems,” said Joe Langton, president of the company. “I began to realize that we not only saved labor, but helped the environment.”

Last year, working with Mr. Mabe of AGZA, they designated a 29-acre green zone in Woodstock, which Mr. Mabe said was the first in the state. The zone comprises a large corporate campus as well as an 11-acre group of townhouses.

Langton now has a fleet of 200 robotic mowers, each about 2 by about 2.5 feet and just over a foot tall, operating in this zone. They charge on site, some conventionally through electrical outlets and others by solar power. Like robotic vacuum cleaners, they can return to charge when they have finished their work (and can be shut down if the weather is bad).

Each robot covers 1.25 acres, constrained by an underground, signal-emitting wire similar to one used in an invisible dog fence. The family-run company largely relies on equipment manufactured by Husqvarna. a Swedish company in the forefront of green lawn technology.

And Mr. Langton said that using robots had not eliminated jobs but instead had changed the kinds of workers he hired. Now he needs people who can oversee the technology and also trim hedges and work on weeds — all with battery-power equipment.

Robotic mowers are expensive, which can deter homeowners. Costs can range from about $1,000 to $2,500, depending on the model. But over the life of the equipment, battery-power models ultimately save money, a 2017 analysis at the University of Arkansas found. Some communities are offering rebates when older mowers or blowers are traded in, Mr. Mabe said.

Among manufacturers that offer equipment, Husqvarna is well known, and there are newer companies, like EGO and Ambrogio, as well as Mean Green Products, which in September was acquired by a division of Generac Holdings. Market stalwarts like Toro and DeWalt now also offer battery-operated lawn care equipment.

The equipment is comparable in size to traditional mowers, said Joe Turoff, the chief marketing officer for Chervon, North America EGO’s parent company. Running time, depending on the size of the battery, is about 60 to 90 minutes, he said.

Those who care for their own yards are moving toward battery-operated blowers, trimmers and edgers when purchasing new equipment, Mr. Farnsworth said, adding that roughly half of newly purchased blowers and trimmers are battery powered.

The biggest hurdle may be the professional market, because the electric equipment needs recharging to handle, say, 10 hours of continuous use. Until there is a solution, he said, landscapers may “be laggards when compared to homeowners.”

source: nytimes.com