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Green Go the Mowers, Oh!

Efficiency can win in the market.

By Kermit Frosch  |  April 24, 2009

Spring is in the air, and one of the most memorable sounds of spring is the revving of running lawnmowers, awakening from their winter hibernation.

Lawnmower technology is an interesting little corner of antique engineering, especially when compared with their larger brethren the cars.  It's often said by environmentalists that today's automobiles use the same technology as the cars of the 1950s, and at the core that's true; but there's an awful lot of peripheral improvements that make a big difference in both reliability and pollution control.  Fuel-injection, computer sensors, all kinds of new innovations have cumulatively turned today's car into something quite different than one from the days of Elvis.

Lawnmowers, however really are almost exactly the same today as they've always been.  The two-stroke engine has changed hardly at all: simple, cheap, heavily polluting, and grossly inefficient.

What's more, to a person who is not terribly mechanically minded, a lawnmower is a never-ending source of frustration.  Why won't it start today?  Is the filter clogged?  The spark-plug wire loose?  Maybe some grime got in the fuel tank and jammed something?  Cars need an oil change every 3000-5000 miles; for lawnmowers, you're lucky if you can push them a mile without something going wrong.

Now, if you own a vast estate and a high-powered ride-on machine, the fast results are worth the bother.  Most of us, alas, are not members of the landed gentry.

For example, your humble correspondent resides in a townhouse, where the local community mows the bulk of the lawn, but not quite all of it.  Each resident must take care of the few feet around his house: too much for a weed-whacker, but so little as to make owning and operating a lawnmower far more trouble than it seems to be worth.  Yet it's required - if you don't mow it, the homeowner's association will be on your case.

As you might expect, the environmentalists have had their evil eye on the humble lawnmower for quite a while.  California has regulated small engine emissions for some years, and there's been a push for nationwide regulation just as long.

This isn't totally wrongheaded - per gallon of gas, lawnmowers pollute 93 times as much as a car - but as fussy, cranky, balky, and idiosyncratic as small engines tend to be, the last thing they need is additional complexity.  We've all heard some neighbor cussing at his mower that won't go; one shudders to think of the verbal pollution brought forth by a "Check Engine Soon" light on a new environmentally correct model.

The ubiquitous lawnmower is a microcosm of the challenges we see in the automotive world.  The old fashioned device is not terribly reliable or efficient and pollutes like a fiend, but it's cheap.  A new, fancier design would solve some of those problems but at vast expense.

As with trendy new hybrids and electric vehicles, you can avoid the frustration of petroleum altogether with an electric lawnmower - but again, at vast expense.  I've driven Honda and Toyota hybrids, and used my neighbor's electric lawnmower - excellent machines all, which I'd be happy to own if I had the money, but I don't.

Perhaps Al Gore would send me one?  His son has a hybrid he may not be using for a while.

How is it helpful for the government to ban machines that are affordable?  There are plenty of reasons to buy an electric gadget if you can afford one; if nothing else, they seem to be so much less fiddly.  They may be a small market now, but the price will surely come down over time, and with the natural advantages of a mostly silent, more reliable, clean power source, who wouldn't want one if they could get it?

The incentives are already there, in the long term, for new technology to replace old; trying to force things with intrusive regulations is not helpful.  Banning existing technology will only result in smuggling, or keeping ancient equipment running forever.

My friend who works for the county dump assures me that discarded lawnmowers are in high demand; the trash guys grab anything that looks like it can be made to work again and throw it back into the market.  "Reuse" is the middle component of the environmentalist mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle", so you'd think they'd be pleased by all this recycling; of course they aren't, since these oldies are also the dirtiest.

In my case, I have finally found an effective solution: a hand-operated push-mower whose blades are spun by gearing from the wheels.  No motor of any kind, nor maintenance beyond occasional lubrication and sharpening - and it was the cheapest answer of all.  Now that's the way to bring about environmental change: win a fair victory in the marketplace through improved performance and a lower price.

I didn't set out to save the planet when I went shopping for a new mower, but it looks like I will anyway, simply by pursuing my own best interests.

There's a lesson to be learned here for greens, manufacturers, and politicians alike, but it seems that they'd rather not learn it.