The Robots Are Coming … to Mow Your Garden
This article is part of our new series of Currents, which examines how rapid advances in technology are changing our lives.
Even before the snow had completely melted last winter, the roar of leaf blowers began to break the silence of many cities and renewed noise fights that had only intensified as more people worked from home.
Leaf blowers aren’t just loud. The small gas engines, which are subject to less restrictive federal regulations 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, Massachusetts, said it wasn’t a problem with a machine. “If you only focus on leaf blowers, the whole problem becomes trivialized. It is really the widespread use of all environmentally harmful fossil fuel devices that is at stake, ”she said. “And of course it’s very loud too.”
Ms. Banks, whose organization promotes the use of clean equipment to maintain green spaces, was the lead author of a 2015 report for the Environmental Protection Agency on the dangers of gas-powered appliances.
To put the problem in perspective, operating a commercial lawnmower for just an hour causes as much pollution as driving a Toyota Camry 300 miles, according to California’s Air Resources Board. For a commercial leaf blower, one hour of operation causes pollution comparable to driving a Camry about 1,100 miles.
Change can be in the air. Technological advances, including devices based 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 private and commercial market.
And even after considering the emissions from charging devices, battery-powered devices are more environmentally friendly, especially when 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 shipped to the United States annually is around $ 16 billion. Most of this is bought by homeowners and their choices are changing. For example, while gas 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. In the past four years, sales of battery push mowers have increased from 4 to 8 percent, he said.
The noise from gas powered lawn machines is what sets people apart. But how loud are these machines? While sound levels are usually measured in decibels, experts also rely on so-called weighted decibels or 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 “were measured at 95 dBA” near the ear. A person standing 50 feet away is exposed to 65-80 dBAs, he added.
For noise reduction alone, “robotic mowers are the best value for money,” said Dan Mabe, founder and president of the American Green Zone Alliance, or AGZA, a California-based consulting firm that creates its own standards and certifications for areas that are emission-free Switch lawn care. As with the LEED certification for buildings, the AGZA marking means that the municipality or industrial park has achieved an emission-free status in its green areas.
Robotic mowers are more common in Europe, where shipyards tend to be smaller. In the US, some companies offer robotic services, according to Frank Rossi, associate professor at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“Work challenges” in the landscape market help create change, said Kris Kiser, president and chief executive officer of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.
For example, a labor shortage caused 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 they worked with AGZA’s Mr. Mabe to designate a 29 acre green area in Woodstock that 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 roughly 2 by 2.5 feet and a little over a foot high, working in that zone. They are charged on site, some conventionally via sockets and others via solar energy. Like robotic vacuums, they can be recharged after their work is finished (and shut down in bad weather).
Each robot covers 1.25 acres bounded by an underground signal-emitting wire similar to that used in 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 did not eliminate the jobs, it changed the types of workers he hired. Now he needs people who can monitor the technology, cut hedges, and work on 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. According to a 2017 analysis by the University of Arkansas, battery models ultimately save money over the life of the devices. Some communities offer discounts when older mowers or blowers are traded, Mr Mabe said.
Husqvarna is well known among the manufacturers of equipment, and there are newer companies such as EGO and Ambrogio and Mean Green Products, which were acquired by a division of Generac Holdings in September. Market giants such as Toro and DeWalt now also offer battery-powered lawn care equipment.
The equipment is comparable to conventional mowers, said Joe Turoff, chief marketing officer of Chervon, EGO’s parent company in North America. The run time, depending on the size of the battery, is around 60 to 90 minutes, he said.
Those who run their own yards tend to battery-powered blowers, trimmers, and edgers when purchasing new equipment, Farnsworth said, adding that roughly half of the newly purchased blowers and trimmers are battery-powered.
The biggest hurdle can be the professional market, as the electrical devices have to be charged in order to cope with, for example, 10 hours of continuous use. Until a solution is found, landscapers may “be lagging behind” homeowners.