Battle hymn of the suburbs

Times Staff Writer

EVERY city has its soundtrack. Venice has the slapping of water against stone, New York has car horns, Madrid has the vroom of mopeds. Here in our green, green city, one sound dominates life. No matter where you are, Bel-Air or Bellflower, you hear it intermittently from 7 a.m. to nightfall. It’s there on Christmas, on the Fourth of July, on Halloween and Thanksgiving, and every day in between. It’s the lawn mower.

If you want to buy one, read on. If you’d rather see it banished to the moon, keep reading too. No garden tool is so loved by operators and hated by bystanders. Why do they roar? We asked engineers. How much of the yellow tinge do they add to our smog? We asked regulators. Which ones are best? We asked Consumer Reports. Are they safe? We asked the Consumer Safety Products Council. What color is most popular? We asked Toro. Where are they going? We asked Honda, Toro and Home Depot. Where did they come from? For that, we went to the British Lawnmower Museum of Southport, England.

First, says the museum’s curator, Brian Radam, we should get the terminology right. Lawn mowers are used on lawn. We may think that we have lawn, but most of us don’t, says Radam. We have “cut grass.” We don’t have lawn mowers, we have “grass cutters.” Lawn, he says, is the product of grass being trimmed by the scissors action of an old-fashioned reel mower whose turning cylinders make a comforting click as they are pushed around the garden.


At their most elaborate, they have many reels, which might be turned by motors from Rolls-Royce, or Daimler. These machines groom the most famous sports grounds in the world. At their most modest, lawn mowers are the little unmotorized push-jobs beloved by environmentalists and the chronically nostalgic. These do our front yards.

As for our gas-powered grass cutters, “the type that you use is a rotary mower,” Radam says. Its blade whirls in a helicopter action, lifting and thrashing grass. To Radam’s mind, this damages the grass and the cut is inferior.

The original lawn mower was the invention of Edwin Beard Budding. As a young engineer, he worked in the textile industry in the English West Country. He noticed that grass had to either be grazed by livestock, or cut by scythe. However, at the mills, nubs were trimmed off fabric and carpet by running a bladed reel over the newly woven cloth. Adapted for grass, this kind of technology meant that meadow could be cut with scissor-like precision. The perfectly smooth lawn was born.

The original mower was so heavy that it took two men to turn it. As the Victorian machine evolved, there were horse-drawn versions, then steam-driven ones, then gasoline, and later electronic. However, in 1939, the Missourian Leonard B. Goodall exchanged the carpet-cutter design for a single blade, which whirled like a helicopter propeller underneath a protective shell. Golf course groundskeepers paled at the thought of their tender blades of grass being threshed and bruised, but by the 1950s, gas-powered rotary mowers were the American standard for home gardens.

To the chagrin of English purists, Americans insisted on calling these new machines “lawn mowers.” The first serious critics of the mowers weren’t concerned about bruised grass, but cut people. An epidemic of mowed toes, along with injuries caused by flying objects hurled out of the discharge chutes, followed the introduction of the machines.

Estimates as to the numbers of lawn mowing accidents in the U.S. ranged from 140,000 to 160,000 injuries per year in the 1960s and ‘70s. Since the introduction of foot guards, brakes and shut-off systems, the latest calculations are close to 20,000 injuries per year from walkbehind mowers.

Not all the improvements were welcomed. A handlebar sensor that shut down the mower every time an operator stopped to empty a clippings bag or move a hose required so many restarts that homeowners started over-riding the safety feature. Honda turned around and designed an engine whose blade can be stopped while the engine is left running.

Flying objects

According to Peter Sawchuk, the engineer who tests mowers for Consumer Reports, a remaining danger is flying objects. Operators should check the discharge chute before turning on a mower. One knock on the side of a garage door and the chute that directs the bottle cap out of the mower at more than 100 miles per hour might be aiming up instead of down, at the operator instead of the ground.

In our darkest moments, some of us wouldn’t mind maiming neighbors using lawn mowers, or, more typically their mow-and-blow teams. There is nothing quite so rude at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning as the 90-decibel roar of a gas-powered lawn mower. There is no improvement in earshot.

Sawchuk thinks that Americans have a long way to go in terms of labeling for sound levels, particularly when it comes to recommending earplugs. However, within engineering circles, there is noise and there is intolerable noise. “A Honda lawn mower engine sounds quieter than a Briggs & Stratton, though in the decibel reading, they’re pretty close,” he says.

Over at Honda, Rock Reed, a senior manager of planning, explains that indeed, not all decibels are equal. Half of the noise comes from the blade, not the motor, so a well-designed deck can improve the tone. “The worst for tone are the two-stroke engines,” says Reed.

Two-stroke engines were typically used in mowers and cheap economy cars because they are light. Yet as anyone who tried to breathe the air in 1980s Budapest can attest (or any Eastern Bloc city when traffic was composed of Soviet-era Ladas and Trabants), with every other stroke, raw gas is pushed out with the exhaust. This “evaporative emission” contributes directly to the soup of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen that we know as smog.

As cars have become clean and mowers have stayed dirty, the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Assn. of Local Air Pollution Control Officials estimate that as much as 10% of urban air pollution in Los Angeles comes from lawn equipment. The car-to-mower comparisons can be shocking, with one two-stroke mower polluting more than a fleet of cars. “Let’s put it this way,” says California Air Resources Board engineer Walter Wong, “old lawn mowers are really, really dirty.”

The good news is: As old mowers age and two-stroke engines are retired, new models are coming out with cleaner four-stroke engines. Honda so outstripped industry standards for cleaner four-stroke engines that other brands, including Toro, Lawn-Boy, Snapper, Troy-Bilt and Husqvarna mowers now use its motors. In the next five years, improved standards for fuel lines and gas tanks should cut evaporative emissions by half.

The bad news: Most American gardens are still a routine source of gasoline pollution. So for the last decade around the state, local air quality management districts have sponsored regular spring trade-in programs, taking in gas mowers and giving out electric models. These produce no emissions, and produce only 65 decibels, far quieter than the gas mowers at 90.

The cord problem

If only they sold. When Toro designer Chris Wadzinski worked on an electric mower in the early 1990s, it was an exercise in rue. The mowers got plenty of power to the corded versions, but customers mowed through the cords. When they exchanged the cord for a battery, weight became a problem. The 24-volt model mower was 75 pounds and the 36-volt one was closer to 90.

In lieu of electric mowers, in a bout of borderline delusional optimism, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District even tried offering unmotorized reel mowers in exchange for gas, but went back to electric. Folks wanted power cuts. Another year, the exchange had to be canceled because the electric mower concerned had a tendency to overheat and catch fire.

Still, as the sponsoring air quality management districts tell it, the electric-for-gas trade-ins have been runaway successes. In Los Angeles during the last three years, 4,000 gas mowers were exchanged.

Moreover, for Consumer Reports, Sawchuk says that he likes some of the advances in electric mowers he’s seen since the 90-pound disappointments of the early 1990s. He commends them for urban yards a quarter acre and smaller. The problem, he thinks, is our reticence to switch from gasoline. “We need to improve demand.”

That sounds good until you count the total population of mowers. Even if California halves the emissions in the next five years, the number of gas mowers has already doubled, from an estimated 2 million in 2000 to 4.5 million last year.

According to Home Depot’s senior merchant for power equipment, Glenn Ubertino, the most important new selling point isn’t the croquet-perfect lawn, but the ability of a mower to turn yard waste into mulch. Surprisingly, color matters. Lawn mower collectors take the Toro red every bit as seriously as car collectors treat Alpha red, even though the paint is the most expensive and it adds cost to the machine. Ride-on mowers are coming out with all the trimmings: cup holders, cigarette lighters and sensors in the seats.

Back at Consumer Reports, Sawchuk is about to head from the Consumers Union offices in Yonkers, N.Y., to Fort Myers, Fla. where every year he tests the new batch of lawn mowers. He will be looking at mulching, bagging, side-discharge, construction, ease of starting, the cleanest possible engine, the better sort of noise, quality of cut, ability to cope with tall grass, wet grass and ease of use.

At the time of writing, his favorite models are: the mulching and bagging Honda HRX. (“It’s our top-performing mower.”) The runner up, the Toro Super Recycler, “does an excellent job too,” he says, and for under $400 he likes the Lawn-Boy and standard Toro Recycler. For electric, he commended the Black & Decker cordless for $445 and Bolens corded.

The unmotorized reel mowers rated high for nostalgia, but only the Scotts brand got “fair” for evenness of cut, and “good” for dispersal, or was deemed fit to cut more than 1 1/2 inches of grass. For small yards, however, it had two things over all the ride-on, the rotary, the walk-behind grass cutter models. It was a clean machine. Moreover, unlike all of the dirty successors, it is a true lawn mower, made much like Edwin Beard Budding envisioned it 176 years ago, back when lawn was lawn.

John Jackson and Penny Love of The Times library contributed to this report.