Friday, May 14, 2010

Switching to a Hand Push Reel Lawn Mower

Hand push reel mowers have made a big come back in the past decade. A better lawn, at lower cost, better health for you and your family,  and better health for the planet as a whole - this is how supporters of manual push mowers present the arguments for switching from your old gas mower to manual reel mowers. How true are these assertions? Should you switch?

Better Lawn

There is no doubt that reel mowers provide a better appearance to a well groomed lawn. Golf courses are mowed with reel mowers, and lawn aficionados talk up reel mowers as the best of the best: Reel mowers do a true cut, and are able to keep a very uniform and low cut, while normal gas rotary mowers tear the grass leaves, and have a much less precise height of cut. However, few of us keep our lawns in golf course condition, and reel mowers do not do well when grass is too high. They will also fold over very tall weeds rather than cut them. A reel mower probably provides the best cut if the grass is not overgrown, and if the lawn in not invades by tall weeds. Result: deuce.

Lower cost

A reel mower costs between $50 and $300, does not need gas or oil, requires very little ongoing maintenance, and lasts much longer than average gas or electric mowers. Here the advantage is clearly for the reel mower.


Gas mowers are a significant source of toxic and particulate pollutants, both of which are a health hazard. In fact, the EPA estimates that the average gas mower emits as many pollutants as 11 modern cars (34 for a riding mower). Being able to avoid being at the source of this emission must be beneficial to your health and to that of your family. But, in fact, when proponents of reel mowers tout health benefits, they typically think of the physical exercise of pushing a reel mower once a week for 45 minutes to one and a half hours... That aspect is definitely good for your health (or that of your teenage son...) IF you are not afflicted with a health problem which makes forbids vigorous exercise. Last, but not least, the American Speech Language Hearing association considers sounds above 80 dbs as potentially hazardous, and the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC) rates gas mowers at 85-90 dbs. In comparison, reel mowers typically hover between 55 and 75 dbs according to the same source, with non-contact reel mowers around 55 dbs. Winner: reel mower.

Environmental impact

Air pollution is typically measured in terms of  and volatile organic compounds (VOC) - a broader category than total hydrocarbons (THC),- oxides of nitrogen (NO x ), particulate matter (PM 2.5 under 2.5 microns, and PM 10 under 10 microns), and carbon monoxide (CO). The EPA has estimated the contribution of all small non-road spark-ignited engines (SNSIEs) to total air pollution. Approximately 25 million SNSIEs are sold every year, of which 5 million are lawn mowers, so we can estimate lawn mowers as approximately 20% of all SNSIEs emissions for calculations in the following paragraph.

Based on EPA data from the 2008 Regulatory Impact Analysis for regulation EPA420-R-08-014, lawn mowers generate close to 4% of all CO emitted in the US, a portion that will go up 50% in the next 20 years, despite the strict new regulations to be introduced over the next two years for lawn mower engines. They represent over 1.5% of all volatile organic compounds, a proportion that goes up 20% in the next 20 years, and which represents close to 4% of all mobile engine contributions. They are not a significant proportion of emissions for nitrogen oxides and particulate matters because heating sources and power plants contribute so much of it.

Because there are almost three times as many cars sold every year as there are lawn mowers, the contribution of each lawn mower is disproportionately high, when you look at the total contribution of all lawn mowers and compare it to all mobile applications or to the whole economy. As we saw earlier, one lawn mower running represents as much harm to the environment as 11 cars, a proportion that will not get better in the next 20 years, and which is likely to grow worse. What this means, in the end, is that there is significant environmental benefit to each gas mower replaced by a reel mower.

The downsides of reel mowers

While, as we have seen, reel mowers bring significant benefits, they also have some disadvantages that must be taken into account.
  • Time to cut. Because reel mowers take 30-50% more time to cut than gas mowers, total time to cut will be longer with reel mowers. 
  • Lawn size. In practice, the time and the effort involve make it unreasonable to consider reel mowers for lawns over 8,000 ft2 (some people say 5,000 ft2), a number which should be lowered for older people or for those who cannot safely exercise vigorous effort. 
  • Tall grasses and weeds. Reel mowers do not cut really high grasses or weeds but simply fold them.
  • Mowing frequency. As reel mowers do not cut high grasses very well, a reel mower needs to be used no less often than once per week during the growing season in order to efficiently mow lawn, under the risk of incurring significant additional effort and obtaining less aesthetic results.

Should you switch?

If your lawn is small enough, and if you are healthy, the benefits of switching are high. For a regular lawn under 2,500 ft2, the effort of mowing is very small, and you will actually gain time when you think of having to take care of your gas mower. Between 2,500 and 5,000 ft2, the effort of mowing and the additional mowing time probably even out with the additional maintenance of the gas mower. Between 5,000 and 8,000 ft2, there is a global time penalty in using a reel mower, although other factors are still positive.

If you switch

  • Check our review of hand push reel mowers

  • Rake before you mow if your lawn may pick up twigs and stones.
  • Start your reel mower on already mowed grass the first time (less than 4", 3" if you can), or your first few sessions will be difficult.
  • Overlap your mowing lanes by 1/3 of the width of your mower
  • Expect to have to mow twice over per session for the first month, changing mowing direction by 90 degrees every time.
  • Mow every week (or less) during growing season
  • Use an electric weed wacker for the edges, and for fast-growing tall weeds that do not get mowed
  • Be ready to wait one to two months before your lawn has adapted to a reel mower. After that, enjoy your healthier, handsomer lawn:-)

What to read more about switching? Here is a funny, interesting and very honest blog thread about switching to reel, and another very serious one here. Gardenweb has some excellent threads about reel mowers, including this one and that one. PeoplePoweredMachines has a good blog post on switching over.
Want to read more about lawn mower noise? Here is some more information from PeoplePoweredMachines, EcoMowers, and at

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