By Jessica Schwartz
From the February 2023 Issue
With all the battery-powered introductions in outdoor power equipment (OPE), some may be tempted to see 2023 as the beginning of a “farewell tour” for gas-powered OPE. And numbers don’t lie. From roughly 32% of the market in 2015, electric OPE reached 44% in 2020, according to Stanley Black and Decker. In that same time, the volume of electric OPE shipped by North American manufacturers jumped from about 9 million units in 2015 to over 16 million in 2020—a leap of more than 75% in only five years, estimates Stanley Black and Decker as reported by the Washington Post. (And those numbers don’t take into account the last two years!).
Yet many OPE manufacturing experts agree that gas power shouldn’t be counted out just yet, especially when it comes to commercial mowers. From lower price points and higher power outputs, to longer runtimes and proven track records with turf of all types and heights, gas-powered mowers are still considered the go-to machines for many in the Green Industry. Here’s what some experts had to say.
Market Maturity & Performance
“Gas-powered commercial mowers will continue to be relevant until the technology and infrastructure needed to support viable alternatives are developed. Although we’ve seen major strides made in battery [power], the reality is the industry has a long way to go with ride-on products,” comments Sean Dwyer, wheeled product manager for Husqvarna. “Powering a high-performance zero-turn without gasoline for a full day of commercial mowing requires a rethinking of how these machines are designed and constructed. Until these challenges are met, gas-powered machines will remain relevant, specifically for mobile landscapers.”
Whereas the battery-powered commercial mower industry is still in its early stages, gas-powered engine design for OPE is at an advanced stage, points out Steven Benedict, turf care product line manager at KIOTI Tractor. “Gas-powered mowers have been a staple since the inception of the industry. The processes and designs for gas engines have been optimized to the point where reliability and performance are at their best,” he says.
“Gas-powered mowers have been a staple since the inception of the industry. The processes and designs for gas engines have been optimized to the point where reliability and performance are at their best.”
— Steven Benedict
Brian Schoenthaler, marketing specialist at Grasshopper Mowers echoes the sentiment. “Gasoline- and diesel-powered zero turn mowers continue to lead the landscaping industry in power and reliability… Nothing [battery-powered] today matches the kind of run times that a landscaper needs to operate all day. An electric mower’s run time will diminish due to a variety of mowing conditions including heavy or wet grass and hilly terrain.”
“A gasoline lawn mower isn’t affected by how long a battery will last on a single charge and the downtime to recharge it,” says David Bush, senior marketing strategist, Honda Power Sports & Products. “Engines can provide peak power for long periods resulting in an excellent performance in cutting, mulching, and bagging grass in a wide range of mowing conditions.”
Another advantage of gas? “The standardization of power ratings across engine manufacturers makes it easy for everyone to speak the same language,” says Benedict. This need for everyone to “speak the same language” is essential to an industry that generated $114.6 billion in revenue in 2021, according to JOBBER statistics.
Speaking the same language doesn’t just relate to manufacturing and marketing though. It also relates to the infrastructure supporting all-day use of OPE. “Another benefit of gas is the robust infrastructure, which makes it easier to access service and parts, as well as gas stations to secure fuel,” adds Benedict.
Another factor currently tipping the scales toward gas power is the cost of batteries. At this point in time, the difference between gas- and electric-powered equipment is still significant. “Electric commercial cutting equipment can be two to three times the price of gas-powered counterparts. This may limit adoption until price points are driven down by advances in battery technology and manufacturing capabilities,” comments Briggs & Stratton VP of Sales and Marketing Dave Cluka.
“Gasoline mowers typically have the lowest upfront cost compared to their electric counterparts and manufacturers are constantly improving their fuel efficiency and extending or reducing service intervals,” says Schoenthaler. “Diesel engines are even more fuel efficient and powerful thereby reducing run times and fuel costs.”
“Cost, convenience and availability should be considered when weighing the decision to purchase gas versus electric equipment. Right now, electric equipment is quite expensive and difficult to get a hold of. Most commercial landscapers are likely to stick to what they know is readily available – which is gas,” says Benedict.
Concern over the costs of electric OPE is highlighted by a California law which effectively bans the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment in the state starting in 2024. While the legislation comes with $30 million in funding to aid the transition, many believe it is not nearly enough to cover upgrade costs for the 55,000 small land- scape businesses in the state. “The current funding level equals a $15 reimbursement for each piece of commercial landscape equipment currently in use – when new battery-powered mowers can cost over $20,000,” points out the National Association for Landscape Professionals (NALP).
Unfortunately, the true cost of battery power often isn’t complete with the purchase of a mower or tool. Any additional batteries required for all-day runtime compounds the expense. With gas, “…users will not need to spend additional money on expensive batteries to extend runtime or a possible replacement should it stop working,” says Bush.
Batteries also need to charge, requiring time and a power source. This leaves pros with multiple questions:
- “How often will I need to charge batteries?”
- “How many batteries will I need?”
- “How can I charge them when on the road?”
- “How will it change my infrastructure needs?” and most importantly,
- “How can I do that without losing productivity?”
Dwyer of Husqvarna cites charging issues as one of the largest factors to consider.
“Sustainability and environmental discussion aside, the biggest factors commercial landscapers need to consider when thinking about a switch to battery is whether they have sufficient infrastructure and budget to do so. Switching to battery requires the capability for charging many batteries at a time. This may mean significant and expensive upgrades to electrical infrastructure. Hand- held landscaping tools like edgers, trimmers, and blowers have seen accelerated growth as they require less infrastructure than wheeled products,” he states.
“Sustainability and environmental discussion aside, the biggest factors commercial landscapers need to consider when thinking about a switch to battery is whether they have sufficient infrastructure and budget to do so.”
— Sean Dwyer
In agreement, Benedict adds: “It’s important to note that electric batteries take time to recharge and if you do happen to run out of battery, you’re going to face delays. At the end of the day, gas- and electric-powered mowers have similar capabilities, so buyers must consider what makes the most financial sense for their business.”
When To Go Electric?
While there are factors that still favor gas-powered mowers from a business perspective, electric is where the future of the industry lies. A recent report by Arizton Advisory & Intelligence predicted the U.S. Electric Lawn Mowers Market will reach $2 billion by 2027. (The report included residential and commercial.) Another Arizton report projects the revenue from battery-powered ride-on mowers alone is expected to reach $1 billion by 2027 due to the increasing developments in the battery run time and declining cost due to better economies of scale.
Given this, when will electric be right for your business? Or is it already? In order to make the most informed decision, factors such as price, fleet size, customer base, area regulations, labor pool, the length of an average work day, and personal preferences (environmental commitment/risk tolerance) all need to be considered.
Legislation, Ordinances, HOAs. Within the U.S. commercial market, the aforementioned California law is driving much of the momentum towards electric mowers. This is because California environmental legislation has historically been a harbinger for future Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations—or copycat laws in other states. Factor in local ordinances, government contracts, and even the amount of HOAs serviced by a landscape business, and all these authorities could affect decision-making.
Pointing out the significance of keeping businesses compliant with such regulations, Cluka of Briggs & Stratton comments, “Commercial landscapers need to think about what their motivations are for the purchase. Are they up against local government ordi- nances including noise levels or restrictions on gas-powered engines? Have customers such as HOAs or commercial properties imposed their own restrictions? Then obviously, electric equipment has to be a focus.”
Automation. While electric is increasingly being favored for its zero emissions and low noise, automated electric mowers can also help address the need for productivity in the face of the ongoing labor shortage. Cluka adds, “We’re seeing the industry continue to adopt electrification and autonomous mowers at an increasing rate driven by a range of reasons including social consciousness, regulations, or convenience. Autonomous mowers, specifically, solve two issues facing the industry, maximizing productivity and managing the labor shortage commercial cutters are facing. I expect more and more OEMs will develop their versions of either fully autonomous or man-on/man-off machines to help commercial cutters maximize productivity.”
Business Priorities. The decision to transition to battery powered mowers may also depend on your primary business tasks. Landscapers who do a lot of hardscaping or tree care, and only minimal mowing, may be in a better position for early adoption. “We’re seeing growing interest and demand for electric-powered, zero-turn mowers. Our newest release, the NEMESIS, brings commercial mowing to those who don’t require all-day battery power. With a battery life of up to 2.5 hours, the mower can cut up to 5 acres on one charge with the power equivalent of a 28 HP gas mower,” says Brandon DeCoff, vice president chore marketing at Generac, which oversees the Mean Green Mowers brand.
Types Of OPE. Some landscape pros may not be ready for electric mowers, but are already using handheld electric equipment. Dwyer believes that “timelines [for electric adoption] are relative to the product in question.” He adds, “For handheld products, there are a number of battery options that perform as good or better than their gas-powered counterparts. Because infrastructure requirements are also simpler, the timeline for switching to battery handheld could be condensed or accelerated. On the wheeled side, switching to battery is likely on a longer timeline as there are more hurdles to overcome like charging methods and run time when compared to gas-powered product.”
Risk Tolerance. For some the decision on adopting battery power may ultimately come down to personal comfort level. “That timeline will vary among individuals but should be centered around cost and ROI. Some folks are curious and willing to give electric machinery a try, but others feel there needs to be more time to properly analyze the cost benefit,” adds KIOTI’s Benedict.
While the future may lie in battery power, most agree that gas is still a big industry player. “Electric handhelds and consumer products will continue to grow, but gas mowers will remain the dominant piece of equipment for landscapers,” comments KIOTI’s Benedict. He adds, “Gas-powered mowers are what the industry knows and feels comfortable with and remains the staple of the industry. I do not see them going away anytime soon. Battery has some improvements that need to be made before we start to see a big shift in that direction. I’d also keep an eye on the diesel market, as viable diesel options are on the rise.”
Schoenthaler of Grasshopper agrees. “Diesel engines run much longer than their gasoline counterparts. When running your commercial mower day-in and day-out, don’t overlook the fuel efficiency and longer engine life of a diesel mower.”
Husqvarna’s Dwyer says productivity and efficiency are key. “Right now, the biggest trend we’re seeing in gas-powered mowers is a movement toward larger engines and larger cutting decks to maximize productivity. Landscapers are looking for tools that enable them to work efficiently in response to continued labor shortages. Productivity remains a top concern in equipment of all types.”
“Many lawn and landscape professionals will be looking to grow their businesses in 2023 and to do so, they will need to determine what upgrades are needed to take on new and more jobs,” says Aaron G. Griffith, director, Cub Cadet Professional Dealer Sales. Be it electric, gas, or diesel, “when evaluating new products and equipment, prioritize efficiency, reliability, and comfort to help take your business to the next level. And always be willing to try something different. Whether it’s new mower products or even manufacturers, demo different machines and get a feel for how they operate to ensure you’re investing in something that works for your business.”
Schwartz is the assistant editor at Turf.
Check back soon for new gas-powered mower introductions.