All About Push Lawn Mowers
A mower is essential equipment for anyone who wants a trim and tidy lawn. This Old House's experts tell you how to choose the best one for your grass-cutting needs
Come summer, no other tool in your shed sees more action than the lawn mower. It's what tames turf's wild-and-clumpy nature, turning it into a living carpet that's host to family picnics, ball games, and lounge-chair lazing.
But like any machine that gets used a lot—about 30 times a season—it wears out and needs to be replaced. If it's been a while since your last mower purchase, you might be surprised at what's available. Those noisy, exhaust-spewing 2-cycle gas engines have been replaced by quieter, cleaner, 4-stroke machines. Mower decks have been reshaped so that mulching blades can slice and dice clippings with maximum effectiveness. Plus, you can now get no-pull-cord electric starting, one-touch height adjustment (no fiddling with each wheel), and safety controls that stop the blade but not the engine.
If refueling isn't your cup of tea, new battery-powered mowers, including a few robotic ones, have largely replaced electric models that left you tethered to an extension cord. And for you energetic types, even the old-fashioned push-reel mower has been updated, so it's easier to operate and the blades don't need to be sharpened as often.
We're here to help you make your pick and offer guidance from the pros on how to use it safely and without harming your grass. Before you head out for another round of grass shearing, check out the latest in lawn mowers and mowing techniques.
Rotary or reel?
A rotary mower spins a blade on a vertical axis. A reel mower's blades spin on a horizontal axis. Reels cut cleaner than rotaries but aren't suited to large lawns.
How much do they cost?
Push reels are the least expensive, starting at $80. Gas-powered mowers start at $130, battery-powered at $300, and robotics at $700.
How long do they last?
Most mowers will run 10 years or more with regular maintenance. Warranties are two to five years.
How much maintenance?
Most mowers need new or resharpened blades at the start of each season. Gas mowers require the most upkeep; push- reel mowers need the least.
Push it or let it propel itself?
The self-propelled option makes mowing about 20 percent easier but adds nearly 50 percent to a mower's cost.
Versatile 3-in-1s that mulch, bag, or shoot clippings out the side are the new standard. Here are the features that make lawn care less of a chore.
Handle: Folding ones like this take up less space in the garage.
Starter: A pull cord (shown) is most common, but push-button and turn-key electric starters are gaining popularity.
Power: It's measured by foot-pounds of torque or cubic centimeters (cc) of cylinder size, depending on the maker. The higher the number, the better. Torque ranges from 5 to 7½ foot-pounds, cylinder cc from 125 to 190 (shown: 139 cc).
Engine: An overhead-valve engine (shown) is more fuel efficient and powerful than an L-head one. An autochoke starting mechanism opens and closes the choke for you.
Deck: Unlike a flat deck, a domed "donut-shaped" one (shown) provides room above the blade to chop clippings into fine bits for mulching.
Side Discharge: If bagging is too much work and the grass is too tall to mulch, open the chute's cover and deposit clippings to one side. Also a good way to round up leaves in the fall.
Wheels: Most maneuvering is done by pushing down on the handle and turning the mower on its rear wheels. Twelve-inch wheels make it easier to pivot the mower than the typical 8-inch wheels (shown).
Bag: Use it only when cutting seedlings or after a rainy spell, when clippings are too long for a mulching blade to properly dice them into small bits.
Bail Bar: Squeeze this and pull the starter cord to turn the engine on; let go to kill it. This safety feature is standard on all rotary mowers. Some high-end models have a blade-brake clutch instead; it stops the blade but not the engine, saving time and engine wear.
Height Adjustment: A single lever alters the blades' cutting height—you don't have to raise or lower each wheel individually.
Blade: The winged edges on a mulching blade (shown) lift cut grass up inside the deck, where it's diced again before tiny, imperceptible bits are blown back onto the lawn.
Shown: Cub Cadet CC 500, $300; cubcadet.com
Here are the signs that it's time to start shopping:
Hard to start: A gas mower that takes too many pulls to start or that stops running shortly after starting may need fresh gas, a tune-up, or a thorough carburetor cleaning. If none of those fixes the problem, your mower is a prime candidate for replacement.
Inefficient: Compared with engines made in the '90s, today's gas mowers run 10 to 15 percent longer on the same amount of fuel. The current crop of battery-powered mowers runs 30 percent longer per charge than models from the '70s.
Full of fumes: Newer gas engines release 70 percent fewer emissions than their counterparts of just 15 years ago. Battery- or muscle-powered mowers are the healthiest alternatives for you and the environment.
Consider these important factors before you invest in a new mower.
Lawn size. Gas-powered mowers with standard-size 19- and 22-inch cutting decks can tackle yards up to one-half acre, so you can finish the job in about an hour. Battery-powered ones top out at about one-third acre before needing a recharge. Eighteen-inch push-reel mowers are ideal for tiny yards up to 2,000 square feet. Areas larger than one-half acre are best handled by lawn tractors.
Upkeep. All mower blades require sharpening. For gas- or battery-powered rotary mowers, that's twice a season. New push-reel mowers go about three years between resharpenings. A gas-powered mower also needs its oil, spark plug, and air filter changed annually, and its fuel drained or stabilized with an additive at the end of the mowing season. The rechargeable battery in battery-powered and robotic mowers lasts about two years; a replacement costs $100 to $160. The only annual maintenance a push-reel mower needs is gear or chain lubrication.
Storage. Most gas mowers take up about 4 square feet. Battery-powered, push-reel, and robotic mowers can be hung on a wall if space is limited. Keep all mowers dry to prevent metal parts from rusting.
A 4-cycle engine turns a rotary blade at 3,600 rpm; $130–$900. Shown: Craftsman 38814, $180; craftsman.com
Pros: Has the most power, features, and options; no limit on running time as long as the tank has fuel.
Cons: Noisier than other types; heavy; needs the most upkeep; difficult to start if not maintained; storage-space hog.
A 24- or 48-volt lead-acid battery spins a rotary blade at 3,500 rpm; $300–$460. Shown: Black & Decker 24V CMM 1200, $400; blackanddecker.com
Pros: Quieter than gas-powered engines; little maintenance beyond blade sharpening; rustproof plastic deck; no emissions; easy to start.
Cons: 12- to 24-hour charge times; cuts for only 45 minutes on one charge.
A battery-powered blade cuts the grass in a random pattern within a boundary defined by a buried cable; $700–$4,000. Shown: Robomow RM200, $1,300; friendlyrobotics.com
Pros: Programmable; works on any day you want; recharges itself when low; stops cutting if it rains or the grass is wet; quiet.
Cons: Expensive; has only an 8-inch cutting width, so it can take a while to finish the yard.
Five steel blades rotating on a horizontal axis snip the grass cleanly, like scissors, against a stationary cutting bar; $80–$200. Shown: Scotts 2000-20, $140; scotts.com
Pros: Quiet; inexpensive; no fuel to buy or exhaust to smell; low maintenance; easy to store.
Cons: Most have a narrow cutting width, 14 to 18 inches, and a cutting height of less than 3 inches; can't mulch or cut grass that's tall or lying down.
A rechargeable 48-volt lead-acid battery runs this self-propelled mower for about 45 minutes. One lever raises and lowers the 20-inch deck from 1½ to 4 inches. RY14110, $400; ryobitools.com
A propane canister—the same kind used for camp stoves—powers this mower for more than 1 hour. Propane emits 96 percent fewer carcinogens and up to 50 percent fewer hydrocarbons than gasoline, and there's no need to drain or stabilize the fuel at the end of the season. Cutting height: 1 3/10 to 3 inches. Eco Mower, $300; golehr.com
The blades on this 18-inch reel don't touch the cutting bar, so you don't have to push as hard or sharpen them as often. The front wheels, adjusted with a side lever, allow a cutting height of 4 inches, unequaled among reel mowers. Momentum, $200; fiskars.com
An onboard solar panel boosts the battery, so this robotic mower can run for 60 minutes and cut up to one-half acre before returning to its base for a 45-minute recharge. Cutting height: ½ inch to 2½ inches. Automower Solar Hybrid, $3,000; husqvarna.com
Two offset blades slice clippings into finer bits than a single blade. Honda's HRX series also features self-propelled rear wheels with gearless variable speeds, rustproof plastic decks, and mulching and blade-brake controls. Cutting height: ¾ inch to 4 inches. Model HMA (shown), $900; hondapowerequipment.com
Getting whacked by a heavy machine stresses grass. Follow these tips to limit the trauma.
Sharpen the blade. A dull blade rips grass, leaving jagged edges that turn brown, are slow to heal, and invite disease. Start each mowing season with a sharp-edged blade, and resharpen it in July or any time you nick a rock, root, or large branch. To hone your sharpening skills, visit thisoldhouse.com/bonus.
Don't cut too much at once. Trim no more than one-third of the grass blades' overall height at a time; that's optimum for mulching and won't slow down the engine. Sticking to a weekly mowing schedule helps you stay on that one-third target, but after a growth spurt or missed week, raise the deck and make two shallow passes instead of one deep cut. If clippings are too long to mulch, collect them in a bag.
Leave the grass long. A lawn with 3- to 4-inch-long grass blades does a better job of blocking weeds, keeping the soil moist, and growing deep, drought-resistant roots. A shorter cut in the fall makes leaf raking easier.
Rotate the patterns. To avoid compacting the soil, vary your mowing pattern. If you mow left to right one weekend, go up and down the next time and diagonally after that. If you go in a circle, reverse directions each week.
Shown: The TB210 TriAction has a rake bumper in front that combs the grass upright for more uniform cuts. $270; troybilt.com
Wisdom on avoiding injuries, from the TOH landscape contractor:
1. Cut when the grass is dry. You can slip on wet grass, and the blade can't cut or mulch it well.
2. Stay off hills. Mowers shouldn't be operated on slopes of more than 15 degrees—a rise of 1 foot in every 4. On shallow grades, mow across the slope. Mowing up and down hills invites an injury if you slip.
3. Protect eyes and ears. Don't take a chance that something will rocket out and hit you. Safety goggles are a must. And when using a gas mower, so is ear protection.
4. Mind the plug. Always take off the spark plug wire before working under the deck of a gas mower.
Tip: Pushing a rotary mower over flat terrain for an hour burns about 374 calories. Switching on the self-propelled option reduces the effort to 306 calories. Push-reel mowers deliver the best workout: 408 calories per hour.