Ride-on lawn mowers are great for quick lawn care. But they are loud, jerky, and chew up oil and gas. An electric lawnmower promises to solve all of this. But after two years of owning one, I’m here to tell you not to make the mistake of buying one. At least not yet.
I have owned a variety of lawn mowers, both push and ride, and have tried both gas and electric versions. I switched to electric mowers years ago, first with my push mowers and then with my rider. And while I absolutely loved my electric lawnmower in the beginning, I now regret buying it. The purchase feels like a mistake to me and it’s all due to using old technology.
Advantages of an electric lawnmower
Although it’s easy to think that an electric lawnmower sounds like a silly idea, it’s not. Range really isn’t as big of an issue as you might assume. While corded electric mowers were once commonplace, battery technology has come a long way. If you have an electric push mower, chances are one battery will get you through an average 1/4th acre yard in the US, and if not, you can swap it out for another battery on the fly.
It helps that companies selling electric push mowers also usually sell other garden tools, such as weed whips, that use the same batteries. It’s similar to power tools at this point – stick to the brand, buy more batteries and you’ll have plenty of juice for the job. And you’ll get more benefits along the way.
First, whether we’re talking about pushing or riding, electric mowers are much quieter thanks to the omission of a traditional motor. Depending on your machine, the loudest parts will be the blade itself; you may not even need hearing protection like you do with regular mowers. In the case of my riding mower, I once helped a neighbor who ran out of gas while mowing. As I started cutting, she caught my attention as if something was wrong. Turns out she thought I hadn’t started the blades on the machine because it was so quiet.
An electric mower is also easier to use. No really. Think about how many times you’ve pulled on the chain of a gas lawnmower, only to have to pull it again and then a third time. If you’re lucky, that’s enough. Even with a walk-behind mower, you’ve probably worked out how to set everything up correctly so that it starts when you turn the key. Electric mowers are nothing like that. You press a button and it goes. Every time, provided you remembered to charge the battery.
What’s more, while an electric mower is usually more expensive to purchase than a gas mower, it is also less expensive to use. Electricity is cheaper than gas, especially now, and you won’t have to deal with oil. Depending on where you live, mowing your lawn with an electric mower will cost you pennies.
When I first bought my electric lawn mower, I loved it for all of these reasons. It starts quickly, is quiet, doesn’t cost much to run, and I felt like I finished mowing the lawn faster than with my old gas lawnmower.
But two years later, I’m not so in love with it anymore.
A problem with most electric lawn mowers
For the first year and a half that I owned my lawnmower, I loved the thing. But since this summer I have changed my mind. In fact, I cannot in good conscience advise anyone to get an electric mower right now. You shouldn’t buy it at all. You are better off with a gas mower, at least for the next few years.
Why did I change my mind? Battery. When you buy an electric push mower, you get a nice set of easy-to-replace, long-lasting lithium-ion batteries. But this is not the case with an electric riding mower. Instead, most currently use a sealed lead acid (SLA) battery. You’re probably already familiar with SLA batteries – there’s one in your car. Yes, it is the same type of battery that your car uses. And chances are, if you have a gas mower, it uses one too!
However, there is a big difference between how your gas mower, your car, and an electric mower use this battery. In very simple terms with the first two, the battery starts the engine before the gas components take over to keep things going. The battery then powers other electrical functions, such as the unnecessary headlights on the mower.
Electric riding mowers are completely dependent on SLA batteries. In the case of my machine, there are four SLA batteries under the seat and they all work together to provide 48 volts or about an “hour of run time”. My mower promises to cover a hectare before needing a top up, but I can tell you from experience that this is inaccurate. It’s probably something closer to 3/4 of an acre.
So what’s wrong with that? Well, SLA batteries are, frankly, terrible. It does not last long at all and is easily damaged. They work well enough in the car (although some people may disagree) as most people drive their vehicles on a daily basis. But you probably don’t mow your lawn every day, and certainly not in the winter.
And therein lies the problem. Buy any electric lawnmower with an SLA battery and you will find some serious warnings:
Always connect the mower to the charger when not in use. If it is not possible to leave the mower charger connected, make sure to fully charge the batteries at least once a month.
Unlike other battery technologies, SLA batteries must remain charged and can be damaged if allowed to drop below 50%. Even the cold is not good for them. Ignore these warnings and you could kill your batteries. Or the battery may no longer charge. We tried our best to follow these rules, but two years later our batteries are not working properly.
I think the range issues eventually killed the batteries. Our mower is rated for a full acre before it needs to be recharged, but realistically it’s closer to 3/4 of an acre. We have half an acre of land, so just mowing the lawn regularly drained the battery below 50%. Again, dropping below 50% can deplete the SLA battery life.
From the information I am getting now from the battery indicator display, I can tell that two of the four batteries are dead. It tracks like when I start the mower (it takes several tries now) I only get half the range I had when I first bought the mower. Two years in and my electric mower needs two new SLA batteries – will cost about $480 to replace. And that requires a complex procedure that involves disassembling the mower, dragging the heavy tray back, avoiding tipping the mower over during the process, and then avoiding shorting the system because the four batteries are connected together. It’s not nice.
I spent over $2,000 on a mower that is now half as useful as it once was, and will spend hundreds more to get it back in shape. Just repeat the process in two years. The same mower now costs even more than when I first bought it. A gas mower would be better. You may be wondering if there are better electric mowers on the way, and the answer is yes. But it’s not all good news.
The future of electric lawn mowers
Obviously, the biggest complaint and downfall of most current electric lawn mowers is the reliance on SLA batteries. And if that’s the case, the solution is, in theory, quite easy – switch to lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. You probably own devices that already use Li-ion batteries. Do you have a smartphone, a cordless drill, true wireless headphones or an electric vehicle? All use Li-ion batteries.
It’s no wonder so many devices have chosen to do so, as Li-ion solves many of the problems that plague SLA batteries. They won’t be damaged by the battery draining to zero (at least not that much), you can keep them charged all the time (modern technology prevents “overcharging”), they don’t suffer from “memory problems” and, as usual, last longer. With an electric lawnmower powered by a Li-ion battery, you won’t have to worry so much about keeping it charged or plugged in during the winter.
So what’s the catch? Price. Electric riding mowers are already expensive. For a model that promises to mow just one acre per charge, you’ll pay over $2,000 if you need something that can handle a larger yard. Compared to other similar riding mowers, this is a 20% premium. But if you want to buy a Li-ion electric lawnmower, the price goes up significantly.
Ryobi just recently started selling its first Li-ion options, and the starting price is $6,000. This huge price gets you a mower that only promises to mow around an acre of land on a single charge. And remember that companies tend to over-promise and under-deliver on fee requests. When it’s time to recharge, you’ll have to wait an hour and a half to get back to full charge. You can buy a model with more range, but each step up adds another $1,000 to the price.
Other mowers either go for a similar price or come from lesser-known manufacturers. The most affordable entry I’ve found is the Craftsman tilting pan scales at $3,000. But go through the reviews and any comments that aren’t marked as promotions are pretty negative.
For that kind of money, you can buy professional equipment that will mow your lawn in a fraction of the time.
Bottom line, until prices drop and enough time has passed to prove reliability; you probably shouldn’t drop a ton of money on a Li-ion electric lawnmower. Push mowers, on the other hand, are a solid bet. They work well and won’t break the bank. Electric riding mowers are not yet worth the money, despite their advantages. They will either cost too much up front or they will cost too much down the road as you keep changing batteries over and over again.