The green industry is experiencing the same sort of exciting environment that is taking shape in the automobile and housing industries, where alternative energy innovations are competing for attention. Similarly promising technologies are becoming available in the mower market. Starting with Dixie Chopper, a number of manufacturers and aftermarket companies have unveiled propane-powered commercial mowers, and Grasshopper is promoting its clean diesel zero-turn units. Other new innovations include Hustler’s Zeon, the first all-electric zero-turn mower.
One of the first Hustler Zeon sales in the nation was in Vermont over the winter, when Spear Street Mower Specialties in Charlotte sold a unit to a local homeowner. “In this area, we have a lot of customers who are really interested in ‘green’ products,” explains sales specialist Robin Ellwood, who sold the unit before it had even arrived at the store. “We started getting inquiries about the Zeon in fall 2009.”
Ellwood says, “I have a list of customers to call, because when more mowers arrive they want to come in to see them. And, I’ve had two commercial customers ask questions about the Zeon; they’re interested in the concept and want to know how it works.”
Lambert Lussier, owner of Spear Street Mower Specialties, took Hustler’s special certification test and obtained the necessary diagnostic tools to sell and service the Zeon. “To be qualified to sell the Zeon [not all Hustler dealers will carry the unit], you also need to have the data plug-in for the two onboard computer systems. It’s very futuristic. It has a self-diagnostic system that we plug in, and it tells us what to look for if there’s a problem,” he explains.
The unit does provide the operator basic diagnostic information and service advice, which might eliminate a trip to the dealer for service, and it is easier to service than a traditional gasoline-powered mower since there’s no carburetor to adjust, etc. “Electric mowers power each of the drive wheels and the blades. That means there are no belts,” explains Ellwood.
“Hustler has worked very closely with Hydro-Gear on the computer system,” says Lussier, which controls everything from wheel speed to blade speed, constantly seeking the best combination of performance and energy management. He adds that the unit has built-in features to help operators avoid mistakes, such as the feature that automatically shuts off the mower deck when power is low to give the driver time to return to the charging area. “They really thought through everything,” says Lussier.
Ellwood says the Zeon does cost more than a comparably sized gas-powered zero-turn mower, but the extra money spent upfront (roughly 15 percent, she estimates) can be recouped over time. “If you look at operating costs of this machine versus a gasoline-powered mower, where you’re buying gas and oil, etc., Hustler estimates that over 10 years you’ll save $1,050,” she says.
“They’re unbelievably quiet to operate,” says Elmwood. The only real noise is the whir of the blades. The electric motors also don’t produce any of the fumes, or the excess heat, of an internal combustion engine.
“This is the first step of many different electric designs that Hustler is working on for the future; you will see more of this type of technology in mowers,” predicts Lussier, adding that hybrid technology, similar to that found now in automobiles, is another potential step that will combine electric motor benefits with the increased run times provided by gas engines.
Southern Pride Lawn Care in Mobile, Ala., also offers the Hustler Zeon. In addition, President Mike Lawrence also operates a lawn maintenance business and in March put a Zeon into his own fleet of commercial mowers. “There’s no gas, no motor, no belts, so there’s no chance of an employee forgetting to check fluid levels or anything and destroying an engine.” He says maintenance consists primarily of greasing the front wheels and deck-lift hinge points every month or two.
The noise-free attributes are another factor that made Lawrence want to use the unit. “You can pull up to the job early in the morning and get a head start on the day without disturbing any of the neighbors,” he says. The crews also benefit. Lawrence says, “They can talk to and hear each other when the mower is running, and they can even hear when I call them on the radio.”
The Zeon offers a 42-inch cut and Lawrence says that, in addition to the benefits of the electric power plant, the size is proving to work well on tight jobs. “We use it to get through gates into backyards, and then it only takes a few minutes to get the backyard mowed,” he says. Lawrence is seeing run times of 80 minutes, enough to mow about 1.5 acres on a single charge. At night, the unit is plugged in and is recharged by morning. Charge times take about 12 to 14 hours, and Hustler offers an optional quick-charge pack that speeds that time to three hours. Lawrence says the four large Trojan batteries powering the unit are located under the seat in a way that helps lower the center of gravity of the mower, improving stability on steep slopes.
Like Lussier, Lawrence feels that the Zeon is just the start of more electric-powered zero-turn units to hit the market. “I think we’re going to start getting 60-inch and larger size electric mowers, and also lithium batteries with longer run times,” he says.
Lawrence is also finding interest from fellow commercial cutters. “At first, some of them aren’t sure about an electric mower, but we have about an acre of grass here at the shop that I let them take it out on. Once they go out and cut some grass with it, they think it’s the neatest thing they’ve ever been on. They especially like the fact that there’s no noise. And, they can’t get over the power; I think it has more power than the same size mower with a gasoline engine.”
The fact that some commercial contracts are beginning to require the use of alternative-fueled mowers is likely to speed adoption of the Zeon by commercial users, he adds. “It’s a really exciting development for the industry,” says Lawrence.
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.