I have various little jobs here on the Ireland estate in beautiful, cosmopolitan Millinocket. One of them is groundskeeper. In this capacity, I’ve been grumbling mightily for the better part of this year that our old 4.5-horsepower gasoline-powered lawn mower is getting a bit worn out. I was hoping that this campaign would eventually culminate in the acquisition of a new riding mower, to replace the one my mother gave to her father a couple of years ago. That would have made the Giant Rear Lawn so much less… daunting.
Instead, the head office acquired this little gem: a Neuton CE 6.2 electric lawn mower.
I was, I’ll confess, not sanguine about this. I’m of the generation that grew up knowing in our hearts that battery-powered versions of things customarily powered by gas engines (or mains electricity – cf. cordless drills) would forever be disappointing. They would also promise all kinds of cool freedom from starting rituals and/or umbilical connections, and they would always turn out to be pathetically underpowered, with no useful endurance, and thus they would actually waste more of our time and energy because we’d have to start out with them, then go get the real tools when they crapped out halfway through the job or simply proved unable to cope in the first place. This always happened and always would. This was simply understood.
But hey, the masters in the Big House paid 500 bucks for this thing, so I was obligated to give it a spin. I unpacked it from its shipping container (carefully saving the box and whatnot, as the instructions encourage, so that it’d be easy to send back when it failed to live up to even the most generous expectations), hooked the battery up to the charger, and left it overnight to gather its strength, then stepped forth the following morning prepared for disappointment.
My first inkling that I might like the beast came when I installed the battery, an operation which consisted of – I’m not kidding here – dropping it into a socket and turning a little plastic thumb-like device 90 degrees to steady it a little. Despite the fact that it’s a lead-acid battery – the same technology you’ll find under the hood of your car, unless you have a MINI Cooper S, in which case it’s in the trunk, or an original VW Beetle, in which case it’s under the back seat – there are no cables or terminals to screw around with and no tools required. It’s got contacts on the bottom of it that mate with contacts in the bottom of the place where it sits, just like a giant cellphone battery.
In fact, the whole design of the mower is like that – smooth, sleek, rather clever. It’s more like something you’d find in a kitchen than a piece of yard equipment. The only thing I’ve found on it so far that could be considered a design flaw is the socket that the little circuit-completing “safety key” device fits into – the contacts are a bit fragile and it’s easy to damage them by bunging the key in without knowing what you’re doing. (In fact, the mower comes with a piece of paper noting that they have been known to get damaged in shipping, though how that’s possible when they’re in a recessed socket inside the mower’s closed casing I don’t know.)
Apart from that, it’s all just… intuitive. There’s the key gizmo, there’s a three-position rocker switch that sets the operating mode (more on this in a moment), and there’s a deadman’s-handle squeeze affair at the top of the guide bar, which has a bit you have to slide sideways on purpose to get it to engaged… and that’s it. Those are the only electrical controls it has. In fact, it has only one other control, a four-position ride-height lever that works just like the one on a vacuum cleaner.
It’s also got three different ways of disposing of the cut grass: a side ejection chute, a bagger attachment, and something called a “mulching plug”, which looks like it just plugs up the hole where the chute or bagger would go and makes the grass recirculate back into the blade. I’m not a believer in baggers and our old mower has been fitted with a mulching blade forever, so I stuck the mulching plug in first thing. This may not have been my best plan, but we’ll see.
The Task at Hand
I should step back for a moment here and explain that there are three lawns here on the estate. There’s the one in front of my house, which is small and rectangular and has only one moderate slope, making it the easier of the three by far to mow. There’s the one out back of both houses, outside the fence we must, by law, have around our pool, which is large (the lawn, not the pool) and has some annoying cornery bits where trailers and fence angles have to be mown around, but is mostly rectangular and mostly flat. And there’s the one inside the fence, beside my house and in back of Mom’s, which is insanely shaped and studded with things that must be avoided, all on a 10-15° slope. I hate the inside lawn with an incandescent passion. One of these years I’m going to have the whole thing replaced with crushed rock while Mom and her husband are in Arizona. But I digress.
Shaves as Close as a Blade
For the Neuton’s first test, I decided to throw it an easy fastball over the plate and mow my own front lawn. It’s the smallest and simplest of the three and it’s generally the least shaggy. So I made sure the mulching plug was secure and out front we rolled.
As you might expect, starting the thing up is simplicity itself; you just flip the rocker switch from “off” to “mow”, slide the interlock you have to slide to make the deadman’s grip work, squeeze said grip, and voilà. And there’s another similarity the Neuton has to a vacuum cleaner: It sounds eerily like one. I suppose they both are, at heart, electric devices that spin a blade rapidly.
In retrospect, I think I may have made a serious error here, but I didn’t realize it until I was partway done and by then I was committed. I left the mower set on the height setting it shipped on – 1 – and pretty much scalped my lawn. I kept finding the thing impossible to push, lifting it up a tad to see what the problem was, and having it eject enormous wads of cut, but not particularly mulched, grass onto my shoes, I think simply because I was having it cut off too much in one pass – which should have been a clue, since the grass wasn’t crisis-level long to start with. When I was finished, the lawn looked like a Marine’s hair (except green). I’ve never seen it that short in my life.
Here’s the thing, though: despite being asked to cut more grass than it could mulch at walking speed, the mower itself never bogged down. I bogged down, as the grass built up at the back edge of the machine to the point where I couldn’t push it any more, but it kept whirring at full power the whole time. One of the, er, beloved hallmarks of our gas mower is that if it’s pushed into a particularly dense patch of longish grass, it will tend to stop running, and won’t start again until it’s dragged up onto the sidewalk and the top deck is banged on to release the grass. The only thing the Neuton seemed to care about was that the stuff was eventually piling up enough to interfere with the wheels. The blade did not, apparently, give a crap.
(So that’s my project for tomorrow – take it around back, set the ride height to something a little saner, say 3, and see how it does. And maybe put the ejector chute on, if it turns out the mulching plug just isn’t up to the job.)
It Does Tricks, Too
Or, well, a trick, but it’s a pretty good one. After I gave it its first test run and reported the mixed but surprising results (and my suspicion that most of the problems were because I wasn’t doing it right, see above), Mom remembered that she’d also bought the accessory pack. Most of the stuff in said pack is pretty mundane – its biggest-ticket item is a spare battery – but it does come with a Clever Attachment. This is another thing that reminds me of a kitchen appliance. I’m not used to yard tools with Clever Attachments.
In this case the Clever Attachment in question is a trimmer/edger gadget. Like the battery, this is dead simple to install – you just plug it into a little slot on the front left corner, where one of the headlights would be if it was a car, and away you go. No tools required.
The trimmer/edger is basically a string trimmer – a weed whacker – that mounts on the front of the mower instead of having to be wielded by a man with better biceps definition than I have. To use it, you flip the rocker switch on the mower to AUX, which diverts power away from the main motor and out to the trimmer socket, and then operate as before. Instead of mowing what’s under it, the mower will instead whack the hell out of whatever’s within a few inches of the left front corner. This is utterly handy for doing things like getting that grass that grows just under the edges of the raised timber boardwalk crossing part of my lawn, where the sun gets to it but the regular mower won’t reach. If you press a button on top of the Clever Attachment, it flips upright, which is supposedly good for edging, but since I don’t give a crap if the edges of the lawn are neat, I probably won’t use it much, if at all, in that mode.
In the interests of full disclose, you can also get a striping roller that attaches to the back of the mower, but since I care even less about giving the lawn that crosshatched Fenway Park look, I’m even less likely to ever use one of those. The head office didn’t buy one and I’m certainly not going to agitate for the purchase of a tool that would require me to make multiple passes over the same lawn in differerent directions just to make it look cute.
So… Is It Worth It?
Let me just say up front that I’m not much for ecological consciousness. I may have mentioned this before around here. I like cars that burn gasoline and I do not lie awake at night reproaching myself for my colossal American carbon footprint. So I’m not particularly interested in whether the Neuton is going to Save the Planet or anything like that, which happens to be one of the selling points the manufacturer really leans on.
However. I have no sentimental attachment to lawn mowers that burn gasoline; in fact, I hate them. They’re loud, they make me smell like I’ve been hanging onto the back of a bus, they’re heavy, and their little gas motors like to be Difficult. All other things being equal, I’ll take the Neuton’s “drop in the battery, squeeze this bit here, Bob’s your uncle and the grass is cut” action every time.
So the question is: Are all other things equal?
Well, I haven’t performed a complete analysis yet, since I haven’t done the other two lawns nor entirely divined the correct ride height or the full limitations of the mulching plug, but right now, as a preliminary finding, I would have to say… yeah, I think on balance they are. In fact, a quick poke around the Interwebs seems to indicate that the Neuton may have some actual advantages. Consider:
Here is a conventional lawn mower from a well-regarded manufacturer for the same money as a new Neuton 6.2 (assuming you have the Neuton shipped to you, but you go to Sears and collect the mower yourself, and leaving the Clever Attachment out of the picture). Now, on the face of it, the gas mower looks like a better deal. It equals or exceeds all the Neuton’s mowing capabilities: it has all three grass disposal modes, it’s two inches wider, and it’s self-propelled, which the Neuton isn’t.
But! Well, for starters, it better be self-propelled; it weighs 108 pounds. Even with its great honking 23-pound lead-acid battery in it, the Neuton comes in at 69. And in the real world, those two inches of extra cutting width aren’t going to amount to anything discernible unless your lawn is so big you should man up and buy a riding mower anyway. Also, if you’ve got anything a bit low-slung in your yard – I have a couple of trailers to mow around, for instance – the Neuton’s lower profile, without that big motor sitting on top, is going to be your best friend. (I’m expecting the Clever Attachment to come in awfully handy there too.)
Okay, so we’ll do a more apples-to-apples comparison, the Neuton against a non-self-propelled three-mode gas mower. Like this one. Now you’re looking at about half the money (again, mower-to-mower, not including the Clever Attachment; if you bought the gas mower you’d have to buy a separate weed whacker anyway, and there’s no need to get into that here)… but you’re still going to be yanking that ripcord to get the thing to go. You’re still going to be faffing around with gas and oil (though not combining them; two-stroke lawnmower motors are strictly for suckers), and probably getting gas on your hands. You’re still going to have numb fingers from the vibration when it’s all over, you’re still going to have to wear earplugs, and you’re still going to smell like you’ve been hanging onto the back of a bus all afternoon.
Some Parting Thoughts
Me? Even with the Environmental Concern thing pegging a solid zero on the motivationometer, I’m still going with the Neuton, unless something catastrophic comes up in the rest of my evaluation that eluded me in Phase I. (If it does, I’ll let you know.)
The one significant issue on my mind right now is the socket that the safety key widget plugs into. I’ve already managed to bend the contact tabs in mine, and though they straightened out again with a judicious application of the key (no pliers or anything were required, just the key itself), the documentation warns that, once bent, the assembly should be replaced outright. I’ll be calling them up and inquiring about that tomorrow. For the moment, though, that seems to be the only significant flaw in what is otherwise a damned clever, user-friendly, streamlined design. I honestly believe that the small problems I had during the first mow test were the result of improper handling, and I hope to have a follow-up tomorrow confirming this after a second test run.
So there you are. My assessment, from the guy who thinks electric cars are a meaningless political/fashion statement that should be subject to a pretention tax: Yes. You should get an electric lawn mower, if you can afford it. Specifically, you should get this electric lawn mower. You should even consider paying more for it than you would for a comparable regular one. Just be careful with that key socket.
Benjamin D. Hutchins is an author, public relations writer, and semiprofessional muser upon the random. His other nonfiction writings can be found here and here.