Electric Lawn Equipment: Take Charge of Your Yard

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Photo by Cub Cadet
Cub Cadet’s RZT-S ZERO electric zero-turn riding mower gets the job done without gasoline or engine noise.

As anyone who has ever used gas-powered equipment knows, gas engines sometimes refuse to start just when you need them most. Maybe your mower needs a new spark plug or fuel filter. Or, maybe the carburetor needs cleaning. Electric equipment promises easier maintenance — but that’s not the only reason to choose electric models over gas-powered options.

With electric equipment, not only do you get reliable starting, avoid hauling gasoline and oil around, and skip breathing exhaust fumes, but you also consume less energy and save money. Electric motors are more efficient than internal-combustion engines, in part because electric motors waste less energy in the form of heat than gas engines do.

All the battery-powered mowers listed here will cost you just a fraction of what gas-powered equivalents would cost to operate. Stihl, a U.S. power-equipment manufacturer, estimates that the cost to operate its line of tools powered by lithium-ion batteries is only about 8 percent of the cost to run equivalent non-electric options.

If you’re in the market for a new mower, chainsaw, snowblower, log splitter, chipper, or even a tractor, your greenest option is probably an electric machine. Recent improvements in battery life and weight are making electric power equipment even more appealing. Lighter lithium-ion batteries are now mainstream, and, with them, a new generation of far more powerful and practical cordless lawn and garden tools has emerged. Get your motor started with this roundup of features and options currently on the market.

Before You Buy

Noise. An electric tool is usually significantly quieter than its gasoline-engine counterpart. But don’t expect tools that have high-speed spinning parts, such as blowers and mowers, to be whisper-quiet. A chainsaw, though, will be remarkably stealthy — what we like to call “Sunday-morning quiet” in our neighborhood. An electric snowblower or utility vehicle can be run at any hour without fear of disturbing your neighbors.

Power ratings. Manufacturers rate their electric products either by volts and amps or by watts. For example, most corded tools run on household voltage — 120-volt alternating current (VAC) — and have a particular amp rating. When comparing similar products, remember that a higher amp rating indicates that more power can be delivered to the task. Also pay attention to the amount of pressure that products, such as log splitters, can deliver. For example, electric log splitters’ force ratings, which range from 4 to 20 tons, indicate how effective the splitters are. These force ratings will help you compare electric and gas-powered options.

A motor rated in watts can be directly compared with one rated in amps simply by dividing the watts by the operating voltage. For example, a 120-VAC, 4-ton log splitter rated at 1,500 watts will draw about 13 amps (1,500 / 120 = 12.5). This formula works in reverse, too: A 120-volt motor that pulls 16 amps would be rated at 1,920 watts.

Batteries. For cordless tools, battery technology has been revolutionized and improved in the past few years, especially for lithium-ion batteries. Lightweight and long-lasting, lithium-ion batteries are smaller and lighter than comparable lead-acid batteries with the same capacity — but more expensive.

Golf carts, fork lifts, snowblowers, and other tools used for applications where weight is an advantage will continue to use heavier lead-acid batteries, as will most lawn mowers and other large tools. They’re inexpensive, last a long time, can be recycled, and are heavy — qualities that work well on a tractor, for example.

Types of Electric Lawn Equipment: Current Models

Electric log splitters are tools for which more power is better. They also represent an electric tool breaking into a true professional-grade performance bracket. Small splitters can’t handle much more than what you could accomplish with a few swings of a splitting maul. Any wood that won’t succumb to this level of force needs a professional-grade log splitter, such as the 240-VAC Ramsplitter. This electric log splitter is nothing more than a standard 20-ton hydraulic splitter powered by electricity instead of gasoline. At 240 VAC, it’s not something you can plug into a standard household outlet, but you could plug it into any 240-volt outlet.

Because they emit no exhaust, you can run electric splitters in a shed, barn or garage that’s fully enclosed (and even heated). Another bonus: You won’t need ear protection. Log Splitters Direct allows you to compare various manufacturers’ models online, including those from Ramsplitter, Boss Industrial, Oregon and Earthquake.

Electric chainsaws that are corded may not be convenient in a large woodlot. That’s where lithium-ion batteries come in. I tested Oregon’s 40-volt MAX cordless chainsaw, part of the company’s line of PowerNow lithium-ion battery-powered tools. The saw runs a 14-inch bar and weighs 11 pounds. On a single charge, the company says the battery pack will last long enough to cut up to 250 branches measuring 2 to 3 inches in diameter.

I put the Oregon chainsaw to the test on a 3-foot-diameter oak tree. Cutting without the ear-splitting whine and stench of a gasoline-powered chainsaw was a joy. I went through two battery packs and, as is typical with lithium-ion batteries, they barely slowed down until the charge was completely used up.

This Oregon saw is probably too heavy for rope or climbing work, and is not “professional” grade, but it’s perfect for occasional homeowner tasks.

Other companies that offer electric chainsaws are Worx, Remington and Stihl. Are electric chainsaws going to replace heavy-duty professional saws for cutting cords of wood every year? No, but they’re great tools for someone with a few acres to keep cleaned up, or a tree or two to buck up each season.

Electric snowblowers. A noisy engine can be especially annoying after a carpet of new snow has covered your neighborhood. Electric snowblowers offer a quieter option than gas-powered units, and a number of companies offer both corded and battery-powered models. These electric machines are lightweight, and available brands’ models range in price from about $200 (Mantis, GreenWorks, Toro and Worx) up to $400 for the 32-pound Snow Joe iON 40-volt cordless model.

Electric mowers are enjoying a more prevalent presence in the electric world. Walk-behind choices include Black & Decker’s self-propelled model, the lightweight Neuton CE6 from DR Power Equipment, Stihl’s RMA 370 with lithium-ion batteries, Toro’s cordless e-Cycler, and Worx’s line of cordless options.

Rider options include the Mean Green CXR-52 and CXR-60, and Cub Cadet’s innovative, super-quiet RZT-S ZERO. The ZERO is the only electric zero-turn riding mower with steering wheel control and four-wheel steering.

Electric tractors comprise a field that is surprisingly vacant, but more and more DIYers are converting conventional lawn tractors to electric power, and some folks offer complete conversion kits. Rather than a standard power takeoff (PTO) to run accessories, converters usually use another motor to drive the mower deck, tiller or even a snowblower implement.

Roof-mounted solar panels power Free Power Systems’ four-wheeled Sun Horse 4812, a compact tractor that can plow a field and fits in the back of a pickup truck (see videos of the Sun Horse in action at the Free Power Systems website).

The Electric OX2 is a larger four-wheeled tractor built primarily for towing, but the multipurpose model (Electric OX2 MP) accommodates attachments, such as a mower deck, rotary sweeper, snow thrower and dozer blade (learn more at the Electric Tractor Corp. website).

The Huguenot Street Farm in New York state completed an electric conversion of a vintage Allis Chalmers G tractor. With commercial batteries and a forklift motor, a golf cart controller system, and some fabricated mounts, you can take one of these classic beauties and give it a new, electric life. Learn how to do a conversion yourself at Flying Beet.

Niekamp Tool Co. offers kits and tutorials for converting the Allis Chalmers G to electric power. You’ll still need to source batteries and components, but the kit includes the bell-housing adapter plate, motor plate, stub shaft, pulleys with bearings, pilot bearing, screws and spacers, and motor cover for $595. Find the kit online at the Niekamp Tool Co. website.  

The Valley Oak Tool Co. offers electric conversions for Farmall Cub tractors. Find the currently available Electric Cubs, along with details about the conversion process, and watch a video online at the Valley Oak Tool website.

Even if you don’t power your home with renewable energy, switching to electric power equipment will help reduce air and noise pollution. You’ll spend pennies to operate electric tools, and you’ll avoid engine tuneups and messy oil changes. Say goodbye to the tiresome task of yanking on a starter cord once and for all.

Electric Chippers

Electric chippers are just the ticket when you need to shred twigs and leaves for mulch and compost. An electric model requires less preparation and starting effort, and you won’t have to deal with refueling and engine maintenance. Instead, simply run a heavy-duty cord to the chipper (long lengths require larger wire) and switch it on.

One option is Patriot Products’ CSV-2515, a 14-amp, 120-VAC electric chipper and leaf shredder. The company says it can handle branches of up to 2-1⁄2 inches in diameter. Though you won’t have the engine roar, you’re still going to get considerable noise from the spinning blades and their impact on the branches.

Sun Joe offers a 14-amp chipper, too, although its Chipper Joe is smaller and can only handle branches and twigs of up to 1-1⁄2 inches in diameter.

Solar Charging

Whether you live off-grid, want to avoid the oil and gas industries, or need to run electric tools in a remote corner of your property, a small solar photovoltaic (PV) charging system may be right for you.

For a modest investment of usually less than $1,000, you can set up a small PV charging station. This is an especially good fit for the weekend-only tool user, so batteries can recharge over several days and be full for their next use. A small PV system on your garden shed can charge all of your tools, and after the system is paid for, there will be no further costs for “refueling.” Learn how to build your own solar charging station by reading DIY Solar Power System Offers Easy Emergency Power Supply.

Alternatively, if you have a household grid-tied PV system that offsets your utility usage, you can plug in your tools and charge from the sun without setting up a dedicated system or dealing with system batteries.

Ted Dillard writes about electric-power technology atThe Electric Chronicles.This article was posted with permission ©2013 Home Power Inc. Visit Home Power for information on renewable energy projects for your farm or home.