Spring means mowing the grass -- again and again and again. For users of gasoline-powered lawn mowers, it is a noisy, nasty chore, and one that produces more pollution than the family jalopy.
Now, there's an alternative for those who want to be environmentally correct and stay on speaking terms with neighbors: a solar mower.
That's right. Let the sun cut the grass -- or at least power the mower. No exhaust emissions, no gasoline or oil to buy (and spill), no electric cord to cut or tangle. And blessedly little noise.
For those who dislike even the task of putting the mower back in the shed or garage, this machine is meant to be left in the yard. Three solar panels built into the top of the mower recharge the battery in 10 hours of direct sunlight.
All that is promised by the manufacturer of the Solar Mower, billed as the "world's first walk-behind solar lawn mower." Made by Solar Power International of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the sun-charged grass cutter seeks to cash in on the conservation ethic -- and on its convenience.
"It's really slick," says Chris Fanning of Columbia. He is co-owner of C&P Small Engine Repair, which has the franchise to sell the mower in the Baltimore area. "No pull cord to start it. In spring, you get it out and then go."
The Solar Mower has a hitch, however. It costs $900 -- about $200 more than the priciest gas push mower. Cost aside, the solar mower hits the market at a time of increasing concern about pollution from lawn and garden equipment. A gas mower lacks pollution controls, and it can spew more smog-forming exhaust and fuel fumes in one hour than a car driven 250 miles. The Environmental Protection Agency, saying gas mowers are responsible for 5 percent of the nation's air pollution, has required new mowers to reduce emissions, starting with this year's models.
Electric mowers don't emit anything, but they pollute indirectly. The electricity they require often is generated by coal- or oil-burning power plants.
The Solar Mower is really just a cordless electric grass cutter, with the ability to use the sun to recharge its 12-volt battery. The battery, adapted from one used in F-16 jet fighters, can run the mower's 5-horsepower electric motor for about an hour.
The mower is ready to go again after recharging for 10 hours in bright sunlight -- or after 24 hours, if stored indoors where sunlight filters through windows.
For those whose lawns are too big to cut in an hour, the battery can be revived in just three hours the old-fashioned way, with a retractable plug and cord.
Start it with the flick of a switch, and you notice the quiet, electric hum -- only 72 decibels, at least 20 decibels less than the roar of some gas mowers.
However, the price has deterred some buyers.
"We've had a lot of people call up about it, and a lot of people come look at it," said Paula Fanning, C&P's co-owner and Chris Fanning's wife. But no one has plunked down a check or a credit card. "They're going, 'Ooh, that's a lot of money.' "
It's money well spent, the Fannings contend.
A gas mower owner will spend more than $2,000 for fuel and maintenance in 15 years, Chris Fanning estimated, while the Solar Mower should cost practically nothing to keep up.
"There really isn't much to wear out," he said. The battery is sealed, and the electric motor runs on magnets, rather than mechanically. The only thing that might need regular maintenance is the 21-inch mulching blade.
The price gap between solar mowers and their competition should narrow in the next few years, said John M. Magel, acting president of Solar Power. Gas mowers likely will become more expensive as they are retooled to meet EPA's emission limits, and Magel said his firm hopes to reduce its mower price then.
"We realize there's a lot of things we have to tweak," said Magel, who would not say how many mowers the firm had sold. "We're working on higher performance, less weight and lower cost."
The machine seemed to work, at least on a reporter's five-minute trial swath across the Fannings' lawn. Chris Fanning would not permit a more extensive field test, saying the mower is his show model and he did not want to get it scratched.
Meanwhile, Magel said the manufacturer is working on an even more ambitious project: a solar-powered lawn tractor.
For those who can't spare the time -- or energy -- to cut the grass themselves, there is even a self-propelled solar mower. Poulan/Weed Eater's robotic mower will crisscross a yard all by itself, kept in bounds by a wire strung around the perimeter it is to cut. At $1,995 retail, though, this machine's price tag eclipses even that of the solar push mower.
Pub Date: 5/27/96