Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hand Push Reel Lawn Mowers: Review

Hand Push Reel Mowers Part 1

Hand push reel lawn mowers have made a big comeback in the last 15 years, making the news in many popular media, and increasing sales year after year. They are still dwarfed by the number of gas mowers sold every year - but they are now more popular than they have ever been since gas mowers became the predominant lawn mowing tool in the 1960s. Are you ready to make the jump? Before you do, check out what we have to say about them.

What you need to know about reel mowers

Reel mowers fix almost everything we don't like about gas-powered mowers - but they introduce some issues of their own.

  • Silence. Reel mowers are very silent compared to gas-powered mowers. The most silent of them are the no-contact (also called contact-free) mowers, where the reel does not make contact with the bed knife. The next best are the light-contact mowers. The others ones make a little noise as the reel blades hit the bed knife, although this noise is negligible compared to a gas mower. All manual push reel mowers can be used early morning without disturbing your neighbors - or your significant other.
  • Reliability. Doesn't it feel great to know that you don't need to worry about your gas mower starting in the morning, or failing to operate for some reason, or the battery of your electric mower being depleted? Your manual reel mower will start reliably every day.
  • Durability. An average reel mower can last upwards of 10 years, a good one can last upwards of 25 years. Many home owners still use all-metal Yardman (now Silent Cut) mowers from the 1950s.
  • Ease of maintenance. Manual reel mowers require much less maintenance that powered rotary mowers. The contact free versions need sharpening every few years -manufacturers call for 5-10 years, you should probably half that number. Regular reel mowers need sharpening (back-lapping is generally enough, and can be done at home) every 6 to 12 months -manufacturers call for double that. Like a regular powered mower, it is best to wipe the blades after use and spray some silicone, and to leave a reel mower sheltered from the elements until its next use.
  • Health. Gas mowers do not have catalytic converters, and discharge much dirtier exhaust gases than cars. Switching to a manual reel mower removes you and your family from this noxious effect, and gives you regular exercise which contributes to your general health - many reel mower owners praise this last part. At the same time, if you have a health condition, such as severe heart trouble or emphysema, which precludes vigorous exercise, it would not be good to switch to a push mower if you have a large lawn.
  • Environmental impact. We already discussed in depth the environmental impact of gas mowers in our story Switching to a reel mower. Pollution, and contribution to global warming, from a gas mower, is the same for 1 hour of use per week, as a car used 11 hours per week. Switching to a hand push reel mower makes a very significant positive contribution to the environment, and to your family's and your neighbors' health.
  • Raking twigs and stones. Because of their up-and-down motion, of because of the way they cut between the bed knife and the reel, reel mowers are particularly sensitive to foreign objects in grass, and twigs or stones may significantly damage the reel blades of the bed knife. If your lawn picks up a lot of foreign objects, from tree, or stone beds, you will need to rake it before mowing it with a reel mower. Every time your reel picks up a foreign object (starting roughly from the diameter of a pencil), it will stop, and you will need to manually turn the reel back and remove the object.
  • Mowing time. You will need to add 30-50% of the time you normally take with a gas mower to mow your lawn with a hand push reel mower.
  • Lawn size. Mowing with a reel mower is a vigorous exercise which takes time. For this reason, most people suggest that 8,000 ft2 is the upper limit for using a reel mower, although some people go as low as 5,000 ft2.
  • Tall Grasses. Reel mowers fold over really tall grasses and weeds instead of cutting them, while rotary mowers tear them. 
  • Mowing frequency. Because reel mowers do not do well with tall grasses, it is necessary, in season, to mow frequently, typically one a week or more. If you let your lawn go for a couple of weeks, you might need to borrow a powered mower to bring it back:-)
  • Overlap. You will need to overlap your mowing lanes by approximately 1/3 of the width of your mower. For the same reason, plan on using an electric edge trimmer where your mower cannot go.
  • Multiple directions of cut. The first couple of months, you will probably need to mow your lawn twice every time, from two different directions. Later on, you will still need to mow portions of your lawn from two different directions, where the grass is particularly dense, stiff, tall, or just does not stay up.
  • Contact vs no-contact mowers. Most (although not all) traditional mowers make contact between the reel blades and the bed knife. Some "no-contact" mowers, mostly in the past 10 years, maintain very thin clearance between the blades and the knife, resulting in a more silent mower which does not need to be sharpened as often. This very thin clearance requires very tight tolerance, and has to be readjusted every year.
  • Back-lapping and sharpening. Back-lapping is a slight resharpening. It involves spreading abrasive lapping compound on the reel blades, then turning the reel in reverse with a special handle. Sharpening requires that you take your mower to a specialist, who can sometimes be hard to find. Most contact mowers require back-lapping every year, and resharpening every 5 years, based on average use. No-contact mowers do not get back-lapped, and require sharpening roughly every 5 years.
  • Grass catchers. We have yet to find a good grass catcher (i.e. well reviewed by users) for a reel mower. Grass catchers do not stay put, fall apart easily, do not catch a lot of the grass clippings, and lose them quickly on a slope. On the other hand, the mulching action reel mowers is clean enough -because you need to mow so often...- that it is, in most circumstances, quite appropriate to leave the grass clippings where they belong - with the grass. Because no grass catchers have so far passed the tough review hurdles of their users, we will not use them as a criterion for this review. Do not plan on using a grass catcher with a reel mower, or you will likely be disappointed.
  • Uninformed reviews. Many users review reel mowers poorly because of issues that are generic to all reel mowers. For instance, no reel mower cuts tall dandelions, all reel mowers are stopped by twigs and stones, and it takes a couple for months before a lawn is truly adapted to a reel mower., Even then, you may still need to cut a lawn from more than one direction, and overlap your mowing lanes. Any review that downgrades a reel mower on these points -or others that are characteristic for reel mowers- does not add to the state of knowledge on that mower, and we discard it from evaluation - so should you. In the same manner, a review that praises a reel mower because it is more silent than a powered mower or more ecologically correct does not add any information.

What makes for a good reel mower

  • Durability. A good reel mower is made of long lasting materials and simple parts, and can last for many more years than a gas- or electric-powered mower.
  • Reliability. There is little likelihood that any part will break at any time.
  • Maneuverability. The reel mower should be easy to handle around edges, boulders, fences, other plants - both in terms of turning and lifting. The handle should not be so bulky that it has a hard time around fences, house sides, trees and tall obstacles. Weight is, of course, related to maneuverability.
  • Easy maintenance. The best reel mowers will require little regular maintenance. No-contact mowers will not require frequent sharpening (once every several years?). Contact models will require only infrequent sharpening (once per year?). Still, it is best to wipe the blades after each use and spray with silicone lubricant.
  • Height of cut. The right reel mower will cut at a height that is appropriate to your need. Reel mowers, because they cut, rather than tear, grass, can cut grass at much shorter heights and still leave grass healthy, compared to traditional rotary mowers. Many reel mowers are limited to 2" cut height or less, although these heights are often appropriate when cut with a reel mower. Southern grasses (e.g. Bermuda grass) can take a shorter cut than northern grasses (e.g. Kentucky bluegrass). At the same time, reel-mowed grass can still burn... 
  • Height of cut adjustment. It is often useful to be able to make quick height of cut adjustments in several circumstances. When you are late cutting grass by several days, you will want to increase height of cut so as to allow your mower to cut higher grass. If you have several disparate areas of lawn, it is helpful to be able to adjust height of cut from one to the next. However, most reel mowers require relocation of multiple bolts and the use of related tools. The use of simple, tool-less adjustments, such as spring-loaded levers, is strongly preferable.
  • Cut path. Most reel mowers have a cut path between 16"and 20"of width. As you widen the cut path, you decrease the amount of time it takes to mow your lawn, but you also increase the difficulty of pushing the mower. After all, you are the engine:-)
  • Suitability to your grass. Reel mowers are able to cut some grasses better than others - it varies by model. The right reel will be a model that deals well with your type of grass, be it tall or fine fescue, Bermuda, bluegrass, Zoysia, annual or perennial ryegrass, colonial or creeping bentgrass, St Augustine, or other. Good retailers list with which grasses a reel mower is compatible.
  • Number of blades. Most reel mowers come with 5, 6 or 7 blades on the reel. More blades means a more accurate cut, but also a reel that is harder to push. Some people believe that 5 blade reels are more appropriate to Northern grasses, while 7-blade mowers are more suitable to Southern grasses, 6 blades being the jack of all trades.
  • All metal. A good quality, all metal reel mower will last longer, and be passed along to the next generation - but it will be heavier. There are very few all metal reel mowers, even in the high end.
  • Weight. The right weight is best - but what the right weight is varies with the lawn and with the user. In general, higher, denser grass and bumpier lawns do better with heavier mowers, where airier, flatter lawns with obstructions deal may deal better with lighter mowers. However, some users are simply more comfortable with heavier mowers, while others prefer lighter models, regardless of other factors. Reel mowers range from almost 60 lbs, such as the 7-blade McLane, to 15 lbs with the small and agile Brill 33.
More info: height of cut discussed at ecomowerspeoplepoweredmachines, Ohio State University Extension, and on Organic Lawn Care Tips. We already discussed in depth what to consider before switching to a reel mower.
    Next we discuss traditional manual push reel mowers, where the reel blades make contact with the the bed knife... So come back soon!

                                        Next: Traditional manual push reel mowers                         Next Page >>


      Unknown said...

      Really a useful article. thanks for sharing this blog. i like it!!!!

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      TRACY BARNES said...

      Thanks for such a amazing post... really i found a good site that reviews and recommend lawn mowers.

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