This or That: Electric vs. Reel Mowers

Once you decide to forgo that polluting, noisy gas-powered lawn mower, what should you replace it with?

May 12, 2009

Gas mowers are loud and pollute the air, but there are other options besides this one.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It must be spring: the chirping birds, the budding flowers…the roar of your neighbor’s gas-powered lawn mower at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. Between the noise and the pollution, it’s easy to see why gas mowers aren’t popular with sleeping neighbors or anyone who likes clean air. But if your muscles start to moan when you consider replacing an easy-to-maneuver gas mower with an eco-friendlier, but human-powered, reel mower, you may not realize that electric mowers offer another alternative. On the other hand, different lawns respond differently to different types of mowers. So for this week’s This or That, we approached Paul Tukey, founder of the Safe Lawns Foundation ( and author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual (Storey Publishing, LLC, 2007) to help us break down the choices.


This: Reel Mower

Pros: You can’t get much less polluting than a reel mower, and they give you some extra exercise while you trim your turf. Plus, they can leave you with the healthiest, greenest lawn you’ve ever had. “Golf courses all use reel mowers to get that even green look,” says Tukey, “and baseball fields use reel mowers because they’re the best machines for mowing.” Reel mowers, he explains, cut blades of grass cleanly. That allows the grass to grow back healthier than before it was cut, whereas electric and gas mowers tear the blades, which can cause the new tips to turn brown. And newer models are more lightweight than the ones you may remember from the summers of your youth, so they don’t take much more effort to push than a non-self-propelled gas or electric mower.

Cons: They’re best suited to lawns that get mowed often, says Tukey, and therefore aren’t great for people who save their mowing for Saturday afternoons. “During the spring, grass may grow to 4 or 5 inches in a week’s time,” he says. At that point, a reel mower begins to push the blades of grass over rather than cutting them back. You can compensate for that by mowing in different directions in order to get the grass down to the ideal growing height of 2¾ to 3 inches, he says.

That: Electric Mowers

Pros: Sure, they require carbon dioxide–generating electricity to operate, but electric mowers are still 90 percent less polluting than gas mowers, says Tukey. “Electric mowers are also more versatile in terms of taller grass, thicker grass and weeds” than reel mowers, he adds, noting that reel mowers don’t handle weeds well.

Cons: Batteries run down, which can make battery-powered models frustrating for long mowing sessions, and corded mowers limit the distance you can travel to the length of your longest extension cord—neither of which are problems associated with reel mowers. And as stated, their power does ultimately come from burning fossil fuel (unless your electricity comes from solar, wind, or other green sources).

This or That?

It depends. Go with a reel mower for a small yard, an electric mower if your yard is large and/or has a challenging terrain. Tukey, who owns both kinds of mowers, says that if reducing your environmental footprint is a major concern, both choices are better than a gas mower, not only because of the reduction in air pollution, but also because you don’t risk spilling gasoline everywhere. (Even the electric mower is quieter than gas mowers, so you’ll be cutting down on noise pollution in either case.)

That being said, he adds, go with a REEL MOWER if…

• Your lawn is smaller than 5,000 square feet.
• You have even terrain.
• You want the best-looking grass possible.
• You’re willing to mow every few days rather than once a week.

Go with an ELECTRIC MOWER if…

• Your lawn is larger than 5,000 square feet.
• You have uneven terrain.
• You have a varied landscape with different types and heights of grass.
• You can commit to mowing only once a week, or there are sections of your lawn that you mow just a few times a year.