The change in season triggers familiar rituals for gardeners and farmers alike. As the days get longer and the ground gets warmer, it’s time to plan gardens, order plants and seeds, and clean up the ravages of winter. And, it’s time to perform maintenance on the gasoline-powered garden tools, whether it’s mothballing the snow blower, tuning up the tiller and mower, or trying to start that stubborn chain saw.
It’s a familiar routine, and preparing your tools can take a considerable amount of time. Then there are the parts, oil, filters, and gasoline that have to be changed, drained, and properly disposed of.
That’s only the beginning of the gasoline tool problem. Small spills in a yard or farm are common enough to warrant mention in an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, which says 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled each year refueling lawn and garden equipment. (Just for comparison, the Exxon Valdez was estimated to have spilled between 10 and 30 million gallons of Alaskan crude into Prince William Sound.)
No effective emission controls exist for small gasoline engines, with the consequence that they are among the highest-polluting of gasoline power sources, even when in good running condition. Several studies say that small gasoline engines account for 5% of U.S. air pollution. According to the EPA, just one gas lawn mower produces each year 88 pounds of carbon dioxide and 34 pounds of other pollutants. A gas mower produces eight times the pollutants as a new car driving 55 mph for the same amount of time, according to studies. Effects on climate change and plant life aside, you have to consider how much of this the tool operators are breathing.
Stricter standards will be in place for new equipment this year, but at best they aim to reduce emissions by about 30%. There’s one way you can reduce them by 100% immediately—stop using them. Electric lawn and garden tools, besides being convenient and quiet, are a very responsible and attractive choice.
Corded electric tools are often thought to be limited to small hand tools, like hedge and walk trimmers, leaf blowers, and small snow blowers or light-duty lawn mowers. Battery-powered electric lawn tools, with old-style lead-acid batteries, were notoriously heavy and often underpowered. Until recently, heavier-duty electric tools for farm and garden—corded or battery powered—were not available.
Today, with lithium-ion batteries in the mainstream, a new generation of far more powerful and practical cordless lawn and garden tools has emerged. We’re also seeing some truly professional-grade corded tools like wood chippers, firewood splitters, and snow blowers. Battery-powered lawn tractors and small utility vehicles (with speeds up to 30 mph) are also on the scene. And backyard mechanics are converting everything from rototillers to antique tractors (like the vintage Allis Chalmers G, which has a huge following for electric conversions) to electric motors.
It’s time to take a fresh look at electric tools as a serious addition to the farm and garden arsenal. We’ve put together some examples of what’s available as the latest generation of tools—far from a complete list, but intended to give a good idea of what’s the latest and greatest. There are also some things to keep in mind when considering your purchase.
Noise. An electric tool is significantly quieter than its gasoline-engine counterpart. But don’t expect tools that have high-speed spinning parts, like blowers and mowers, to be whisper-quiet. Something like a chain saw, though, will be remarkably stealthy—what we like to call “Sunday-morning quiet” in our neighborhood. An electric snow blower or utility vehicle can literally be run at any hour without fear of disturbing neighbors or your own household.
Power Ratings. Comparing a gasoline engine’s rated horsepower to an electric motor is difficult. A gasoline engine is rated by its peak horsepower, but an electric motor is rated as “constant” power—its power output is fairly even throughout its rpm range, and most electric motors are run near their top speed. It’s so difficult to get a handle on the comparison that it’s probably not a good idea to compare gasoline apples to electric oranges.
Manufacturers rate their products either by volts and amps or by watts. For example, most corded tools run on household voltage—120 VAC—and have a particular amp rating. When comparing similar products, a higher amp rating indicates that more power can be delivered to the task. For example, a heavy consumer-grade log splitter like a 16-ton horizontal unit will pull up to 18 amps, needing a 20 A circuit to operate. A smaller unit may be rated at 16 A or less.
With products like log splitters, pay attention to the amount of pressure they can deliver. For example, electric log splitters’ force ratings range from 4 to 20 tons, which indicates how effective they are. This force can be used to compare them to their gasoline counterparts.
A motor rated in watts can be directly compared with one rated in amps simply by dividing the watts by the operating voltage. A 120 V motor that pulls 16 A can also be rated at 1,920 W. It works in reverse, too. For example, a 120 VAC, 4-ton splitter rated at 1,500 W will draw about 13 amps (1,500 ÷ 120 = 12.5).
Batteries. For cordless tools, battery technology has improved greatly in the last few years—the most revolutionary being lithium-ion technology. Li-ion batteries are safe, lightweight, and long-lasting. They are half the size and weight of comparable lead-acid batteries with the same capacity—at usually twice the price.
Golf carts, fork lifts, snow blowers, and other applications where weight is an advantage, or lawn mowers and other large tools with attractive pricing a high priority, will continue using lead-acid batteries. They’re inexpensive, last long enough, are heavy, and can be recycled—just what you want on a tractor, for example.
Log splitters are a great example of a tool in which more power is better, and an example of electric tools breaking into a true professional-grade performance bracket. Small splitters can’t handle much more than what can be taken care of with a couple of good swings with a splitting maul. Any wood that won’t succumb to that needs a professional-grade log splitter.
A good example of one is the 3 hp, 240 VAC Ramsplitter, really nothing more than a standard 20-ton hydraulic splitter with an electric motor instead of gasoline. (And it’s a good example of the difference in horsepower ratings between electric and gasoline units discussed earlier. This 3 hp electric version would compare to a 6 hp, 200 cc gas engine splitter.) At 240 VAC, it’s not something you can plug into standard household receptacles, but could plug into outlets in a commercial shop or facility with other high-powered tools.
There’s no exhaust, so electric splitters can be run in a shed, barn, or garage that’s fully enclosed (and even heated). Ear protection is not needed. You can find a few gasoline-powered splitters for nearly 40% less than electric, but there are also several offered at comparable prices.
Chain saws are a particularly good use for electric power. Though corded saws are handy because they offer high power with unlimited use time, in a large yard or estate they may not be convenient. That’s where lithium-ion batteries come in.
As an example, I tested the PowerNow 40 V MAX line of lithium-ion battery-powered chain saws by Oregon Power Tools. The saw runs a 14-inch bar and weighs 11 pounds. The battery pack lasts long enough to cut up to 250 two- to three-inch-diameter branches on a single charge, according to Oregon’s literature.
I put the PowerNow to the test after a fairly violent storm took down a few branches as well as a 6-inch-diameter limb from a favorite maple tree. A 200-year-old oak tree in a neighbor’s yard also needed cutting and it was the first thing I took the saw to task on.
The PowerNow stood up very well to the 3-foot-diameter tree. Cutting without the ear-splitting whine and stench of a gasoline-powered chain saw was a joy. I went through two battery packs and, as is typical with lithium-ion batteries, they show little slowing down when they lose charge. The saw simply stops when the battery is completely discharged.
The saw is probably too heavy for rope or climbing work, and is not “professional” grade, but it’s perfect for occasional homeowner. Being able to simply grab the saw off the shelf, switch it on, and start cutting is almost unnerving. You don’t hesitate to switch it off and put it down, since starting it again is effortless, unlike my old gasoline-powered saw.
Are electric chain saws going to replace heavy-duty professional saws for cutting cords of wood every year? No, but they’re great tools for someone with a few acres to keep cleaned up, or a tree or two a season to buck up.
Chippers come in to play after you’re done with the saw. For a suburban yard and garden, a small electric chipper is just the ticket to mulch up twigs and leaves for the compost—but if you have branches, you need some power.
An impressive unit is the Patriot Products’ CSV-2515, 1.5 hp, 120 VAC 14 A, electric chipper and leaf shredder. It can handle branches up to 2.5 inches in diameter. Though you don’t have the engine noise, you’re still going to get considerable noise from the spinning blades and their impact on the branches.
This is a tool used infrequently, but the benefits of electric are the lack of preparation and starting effort needed, and not having to deal with fueling and engine maintenance. You just run a heavy-duty cord to it (long lengths require larger wire) and switch it on.
Electric snow blowers are a tool for another season. The Ariens AMP 24 Sno-Thro is respectable by any standard: it has the ability to shoot snow more than 40 feet.
A perfect application of affordable, heavy (for traction) lead-acid battery power, the AMP 24 claims an operating time of 45 to 60 minutes. The retail price is around $1,700 (at the top end of the scale, but not higher than some premium gasoline-fueled models), and they can be purchased at home center stores.
Electric tractors are a field that is surprisingly vacant. One riding mower, with a 27-inch cutting deck and 3-hour run time before recharging, is available from Recharge Mower. It costs about 2.5 times as much as its gasoline competitors, but is virtually maintenance-free.
This is an area where we’re seeing the DIYers converting lawn tractors and some folks offering complete conversion kits. Considering the now commonplace vehicles like golf carts and the affordability of lead-acid batteries, converting a lawn-tractor to electric seems pretty straightforward. Rather than a standard PTO (power takeoff) to run accessories, converters use another motor to drive the mower deck, tiller, or even a snow blower.
One company offers a kit for a remarkable, and unusual “host” tractor—the Allis Chalmers G model. With commercial batteries and a fork lift motor, a golf-cart controller system, and some fabricated mounts, you can take one of these vintage beauties and give it new, clean life.
The Niekamp Tool Company makes it easy, offering complete kits and tutorials for converting your own. The kit includes the bell-housing adapter plate, motor plate, stub shaft, and pulleys with bearings for $500. You can use lead-acid batteries, with weight that works in your favor, in the case of a tractor.
Like the electric vehicle market, the electric farm and garden tool market is starting to get a boost from advances in battery technology, increased awareness, and a booming interest in working and living with sustainable energy. Besides all that, though, electric farm and garden tools just make working and living on your land a whole lot more enjoyable.
Ted Dillard has been an avid gardener since childhood and is an evangelist for all things electric. He writes The Electric Chronicles (devoted to two-wheeled electric vehicles), and is the author of ...from Fossils to Flux, a basic guide to building an electric motorcycle. When he’s not in his garden or in his shop working on his next electric project, he can be found at www.evmc2.com.
Lawn & Garden (Small Gasoline) Equipment report • www.epa.gov/otaq/equip-ld.htm
Clean Air Gardening • www.cleanairgardening.com • Electric push & riding mowers
Driven by Solar • www.rechargemower.com • Recharge riding lawn mower
Logsplitters Direct • www.logsplittersdirect.com • Electric log splitters
Niekamp Tool Co. • www.niekampinc.com/electric-g-tractor/ • Conversion kit for Allis Chalmers G tractor
Patriot Products • www.patriot-products-inc.com • Electric chipper/shredder