Cordless battery-powered landscape maintenance equipment isn’t as new to the industry as you might think. How many of you are old enough to remember the General Electric (GE) E20 Elec-Trak mower? This squat, yellow, 900-pound tractor entered the market in 1970 and came equipped with a 42-inch, three-blade, out-front mowing deck.

The E20 was a rugged little beast and could also handle a snow blade, loader or forklift. From 1970 to 1974, GE manufactured more than 33,000 Elec-Trak mowers and lawn tractors of various sizes at its Scotia, New York, plant, according to myelec-traks.com. Elec-Trak collector and enthusiast George Beckett describes E20 as “rock solid” and having “enormous torque.” A few E20s are still operable. The unit came with a price tag approaching $2,000.

When GE got out of the electric mower business, Wheel Horse stepped in and began producing the Elec-Trak. Wheel Horse added other models and eventually branded them with its distinctive red color. In 1983, it also ceased production of battery-powered tractors and mowers.

What’s old is new again, but the question remains: Has battery technology advanced enough since the Elec-Trak days to make cordless, electric equipment an attractive alternative to internal combustion engines (ICE) in the landscape/lawn services industry?

Manufacturers claim the latest generation of batteries provides power enough to match the performance of gasoline equipment.

Joe Conrad, president of Mean Green, which manufactures commercial- grade, battery-powered mowers, says advances in battery technology and engine design now make electric mowers worth more than a casual consideration by landscape professionals.

PHOTO: STIHL

Manufacturers tout lithium-ion

“With the introduction of the latest lithium battery chemistry in recent years, battery-powered equipment has seen significant increases in run time compared to just a few years ago,” says Conrad. He adds that Mean Green Mowers are being used in typical residential yards and also in many high-end areas, such as resorts and corporate headquarters. He says contractors appreciate their ability to get the work done “in a ‘green’ and quiet fashion.”

Claims Conrad: “If lawn service companies plan to compete, more and more commercial electric mowers will take over most mowing operations in the years to come.”

Mean Green is, by far, the most ambitious entry into the battery-powered lawn equipment market in recent years. The company manufactures a full lineup of mowers—walkbehind, trim and commercial mowers and also commercial standers and zero-turns. It also produces battery-powered hand-held landscape gear, such as edgers and debris blowers.

While Hustler and Cub Cadet introduced battery-powered zero-turns this past decade, both companies targeted their models mostly to the consumer market. Mean Green is promoting to both the consumer and commercial markets.

Lithium-ion battery technology has largely replaced NiCad batteries in hand-held tools, as well. Lithium-ion batteries are smaller, lighter and provide more energy than NiCad batteries. Another advantage to Lithiumion over NiCad is that it does not suffer from “memory effect” if it is discharged and charged at the same state of charge several times. Lithium-ion batteries also offer the advantage of operating at full speed until depleted so there is no gradual drop in power during use.

The leader in the Lithium-ion hand-held category is STIHL with its full lineup of STIHL Battery KombiSystem handhelds. While the Virginia Beach, Virginia-based company sells significantly more gasoline-powered chainsaws, trimmers and other handhelds than battery products, its Lithium-ion products are gaining traction in the commercial market.

ALTERNATE FUEL CHARTSOURCE: www.afdc.energy.gov

Cordless product choices expand

Other prominent work tool manufacturers are looking to gain the favor of commercial users, as well. Relative newcomers to the professional lawn service industry, such as DeWalt and Black & Decker, join familiar names like STIHL and Oregon. All of them see issues such as noise and emissions as driving increased acceptance of battery-powered equipment by the contractor crowd.

“As municipalities across the country enact ordinances that restrict or outright ban the use of gas-powered outdoor tools because of noise and air pollution, there will be more and more professionals in need of a viable cordless alternative,” claims Gray Abercrombie, director of global marketing, Green Work Tools, Mooresville, North Carolina.

Green Works touts its 80V Lithium-powered tools equipped with brushless motors as providing power “comparable to a gas product.” The company is launching an 80V backpack battery that will provide more than four hours of continuous run time for its string trimmer and more than two hours of continuous run time for its blower, Abercrombie adds.

“For performance, there are definitely hand-held tools that can match pro-grade gas-powered equipment,” adds Jola Wodka, product lead for DeWalt Outdoor. She predicts even greater things for the product category in the future. “As the performance and durability of cordless equipment keeps getting better, the level of acceptance is going to grow exponentially.”

Wodka says one of the biggest challenges for battery-powered products “is getting past the attitude that nothing can match gas performance.

“Another challenge is breaking the typical patterns of gas users,” she adds. “They (company owners) aren’t used to paying a higher price for their equipment upfront, putting all of their equipment on chargers at the end of the day and then reaping the savings on a daily basis in small increments.”

The nation’s largest maintenance company, BrightView, and other commercial cutters are trying Mean Green battery-powered mowers. PHOTO: MEAN GREEN

Base your decisions on numbers

Wodka continues that many lawn service companies don’t do a good job of tracking equipment usage or their fuel costs. Consequently, they can’t calculate accurately how much they could save over the life of their equipment by switching from gasoline handhelds to battery-powered units. And remember, Wodka adds, battery-powered tools do not need the same regular maintenance that gas-powered tools require because there are no air filters, spark plugs, fuel lines or ethanol issues to deal with.

Performance and price were the two biggest hurdles that cordless electric landscape/ lawn service units had to overcome four decades ago. They’re the same hurdles they must jump today. Only, those hurdles are higher in today’s professional lawn service market.

User testimonials (especially from contractors who sell on promises of delivering environmental landscape services) suggest the performance of battery-powered landscape equipment has improved to the point where it provides satisfactory service.

The price issue—at least to get up and running with cordless equipment—may be the bigger issue with landscape company owners. Some owners may suffer sticker shock after adding in the cost of batteries (including extras) and chargers to the price of the units themselves. Yes, they may recover these extra costs and more over the life of these units. However, unless owners are carefully tracking equipment usage and costs they will not know if buying and using cordless equipment will work for them financially.

Will battery-powered equipment overtake ICE units anytime soon? No. Cordless equipment sold to the commercial lawn service industry is tiny compared to gasoline- fueled equipment, which dominates the professional landscape services space. Contractors built the estimated $74 billion industry (IBIS World Market Report) on gasoline. Two-stroke gasoline engines reign supreme in the hand-held segment of the industry. Four-stroke gasoline engines dominate in commercial mowing.

Even so, other factors, mostly related to the environment, are growing in importance in the landscape services market. These factors are casting a brighter light on equipment that runs quieter, produces less harmful emissions and is perceived to be more environmentally friendly.

“We are already seeing companies, ranging from one-man operations up to the largest landscape company in the country, using commercial electric equipment,” says Mean Green’s Joe Conrad.

COVER PHOTO: GREEN WORKS