Mar 29, 2016

Exceptional Lawnmowers: Taking Care of Your Turf   Walk-Behinds • Lawn Tractors • ZTRs • Manuals

Today’s battery-powered lawnmowers deliver more power than their predecessors do. Meanwhile, more lawn tractors have a continuously variable transmission (CVT), but consumers might find some easier to operate than others.

By Patrick White, Consumers Digest
Article Published: March 2016


Improvements that have been put forth by lawnmower manufacturers recently focus on cutting the time that it takes to mow and on making it easier to care for your lawnmower.

Meanwhile, battery-powered walk-behind lawnmowers are more powerful, which translates into more models that have increased cutting widths, and transmission technology on lawn tractors is being transformed.


WELL OILED? Lawnmower manufacturers want to reduce the amount of time that you spend on maintenance. In February 2015, Briggs & Stratton introduced a line of engines for walk-behind lawnmowers that it says never requires an oil change. The Just Check & Add EXi engines are in at least 13 different models of lawnmowers from seven different manufacturers. Rick Zeckmeister of Briggs & Stratton expects the number of models that have the engine to increase to at least 25 in 2016.

Because these engines have been on the market for just a year, in-field evidence that the engines won’t be damaged or that their durability will be compromised is lacking. However, an expert whom we interviewed believes that the convenience of not changing the oil isn’t worth the risk.

“Oil does two things: It cleans, and it lubricates,” says Tim Almgren of Pruitt Outdoor Power, which sells and maintains outdoor power equipment. “When it’s cleaning, it’s absorbing the dirt and byproducts of combustion, and then those are in that oil. So, once the oil is full of dirt, it isn’t lubricating correctly. Changing oil is so inexpensive and so worthwhile. I don’t care what a manufacturer says—I’m never going to recommend to my customers that they don’t change their oil.”

When he was asked about this concern, Zeckmeister says the proprietary design of the Just Check & Add EXi engines includes an automotive-style air filter that’s sealed tighter than is the air filter that’s in other lawnmower engines.  This prevents debris from making its way into the engine where it could contaminate the oil, he says. He says the engine also is designed to run cooler. “If you can keep the engine temperature cooler, and if you can keep the debris out of the engine, you don’t need to change the oil, because the oil won’t break down,” Zeckmeister says.

An independent expert whom we consulted tells us that that makes sense. “The EXi engines are designed to run cooler,” says Rankin Barnes, who is the author of an instructional book and runs an online tutorial on lawnmower engine repair. He says that fact combined with modern engine materials and manufacturing processes reduce piston ring wear that causes oil oxidation and oil sludge build-up. “Although these engines are relatively new, I do feel that they will outlast the older engine types,” says Barnes. “Can the EXi engines last without routine oil changes? Yes, if the oil filter is changed.”

Briggs & Stratton backs that view with its warranty: Just Check & Add EXi engines carry the same 2-year warranty as do the company’s other consumer engines.

Other maintenance, including changing the air filter and spark plug, still is required, and owners have to check oil levels regularly, Zeckmeister says. Briggs & Stratton tell us that these engines will consume about 4 ounces of oil during a typical mowing season—about the same amount that the company’s other engines for the consumer market consume.

BIGGER BATTERIES. The batteries that are on battery-powered walk-behind lawnmowers are becoming more powerful. Although the number of battery-powered lawnmowers remained constant over the past 2 years, more high-powered (and, thus, high-priced) models are available. Two years ago, only three battery-powered lawnmowers cracked the $400 mark; now nine do.

Battery-powered walk-behind lawnmowers that have a 36-volt or a 40-volt battery and cut up to a 20-inch swath were the previous benchmark, but now at least four manufacturers make batterypowered walk-behind lawnmowers that have at least 56 volts of power. One of those models, the Greenworks GLM801601 ($700), has an 80-volt battery. In practical terms, this allows these lawnmowers to have a mowing width of 21 inches, although you’ll pay at least $500 to get a batterypowered walk-behind lawnmower that has that capability. (Although cutting a wider swath means that you’ll reduce the number of passes—and, thus, the time that you spend mowing—increased voltage doesn’t guarantee that the lawnmower will run longer. That’s a function of amp-hours, which haven’t seen the same surge as have voltage amounts.)

Worx now claims “good as gasoline models” cutting power, but we weren’t able to evaluate that assertion. However, another model crossed into territory that previously was the sole domain of gasoline-powered lawnmowers: The 56-volt EGO LM2102SP ($600) is the industry’s first self-propelled battery-powered lawnmower. Joe Turoff of Chevron North America, which makes EGO lawnmowers, says it isn’t the battery size that’s responsible for this. It’s the company’s proprietary electronic system, software management and motor technology. “If it were only about pumping more volts in a battery pack, all the premium brands would be joining in,” he says.

Although EGO didn’t provide data to substantiate its claims, Turoff says the self-propelled model has a unique battery configuration—three parallel rows of cells, compared with other manufacturers’ one or two rows—that provide the run time that’s necessary so the lawnmower can be self-propelled and cut grass. We found multiple sources that show that parallel arrangement of battery cells increases amp-hours (which determine run time). Three manufacturers who responded to our queries—Earthwise, Stihl and Worx—say they have no plans to introduce a self-propelled battery-poweredmodel.

Meanwhile, stated battery-charge times have come down dramatically. Previously, only five battery-powered walk-behind lawnmowers had a battery that could recharge in 2 hours or less. Now, manufacturers make that claim for 10 models. Stated charge times of 12–15 hours used to be commonplace, but we found that claims of 1–4 hours now are the norm, although you’ll pay at least $300 for a battery-powered walk-behind lawnmower that is said to recharge that quickly.

DRIVING FORCE. The number of riding lawnmowers that are fitted with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) is increasing. This shift is exclusive to lawn tractors; we found no zero-turn-radius riding lawnmower, or ZTR, that has a CVT.

Every manufacturer with the exception of Snapper now makes at least one lawn tractor that has a CVT. You can buy a lawn tractor that has a CVT for as little as $1,000.

CVTs are easier to maintain than are hydrostatic transmissions, says Trevor Oriold of MTD Products, which includes a CVT in several Cub Cadet, MTD, Troy-Bilt and Yard Machines models. That’s because a CVT eliminates the pumps and fluid that can fail and that might require changing in a hydrostatic transmission. (You should know that the term “automatic transmission” might refer to a model that has a hydrostatic system or a CVT that operates without a clutch pedal.)

Will Clanfield, who is a spokesperson for Craftsman, says some consumers still perceive that models that have a hydrostatic transmission are superior.(We found no CVTs among premium models.) That perception exists, because old-model CVTs had problems, but he tells us that that’s changed.

“Notably, they are now sealed to keep dirt or debris out and are running smoother, and belt design has improved—based on advances in auto applications—to prevent the slipping that could occur on older CVTs,” Clanfield says. Clanfield anticipates more CVTs in high-end models, but when we pressed him, he says he sees it as a possibility within 5 years.

As with a hydrostatic transmission, a CVT lacks gears. However, we found that lawn tractors that have a CVT vary in their controls, and not all models are as easy to use as are the simple “forwardneutral-reverse” settings that are familiar to those who are accustomed to a hydrostatic transmission. Although a few CVT-equipped lawn tractors use a lever on the fender—as do models that have a hydrostatic transmission—most have a foot pedal to control direction and speed, and a few use both. In addition, some require a pedal to change between forward and reverse.

Wouter Barendrecht, who is the general manager of General Transmissions, which manufactures CVTs that are found in lawn tractors, says it can be difficult when you shop for a lawn tractor to tell whether the model uses a hydrostatic transmission or a CVT. Consumers might not know which one they have even when they buy a lawnmower, because the transmissions do the same thing, he says. If you want a particular type of transmission, then you’ll have to ask for it, he adds.

ROBOTS COMING. A handful of robotic lawnmowers exist, but Kris Kiser, who is the president and CEO of manufacturing trade group Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), believes that more are on the way.

OPEI and American National Standards Institute are completing a standard for safety and operation protocols for robotic lawnmowers, which start at about $1,000. According to Kiser, the standard concerns a robotic lawnmower’s safe operation in a defined work area and while it’s unattended. The standard also requires automatic shutdown of the machine when it detects “abnormal operating conditions”—although the standards don’t define what constitutes
“abnormal.”

Kiser says he expects the standard to be released early in 2016, although no one with whom we spoke could provide a specific date or when models that adhere to these standards might appear. However, when the standard arrives, more manufacturers will jump into the market, Kiser predicts.

“Lots of manufacturers, even companies that don’t currently have robotic lawnmowers, are involved with that standards development group, which seems to suggest that there’s very real interest in that market,” Kiser says. The creation of the standard will prompt more models, he believes, because manufacturers will have a standard by which to design. Kiser says many current models likely meet the standard, but because the standard wasn’t finalized as of press time, he declined to speculate how many do.

Because the introduction of standards likely will change what’s available, and how much those models cost, it doesn’t compute to rush into a buying a robotic lawnmower, particularly if the standards bring more competition—and, consequently, lower prices—to the market.