Reel lawn mowers can be viable alternatives for relatively flat, well-kept lawns measuring up to one third of an acre. Manual reel mowers are especially useful for grass that's fine in texture, or for lawns kept at a low height. Since twigs can get caught in the blades, and reel mowers don't mulch leaves well, this type of mower works best on lawns with few trees -- unless lots of raking is done.
Manual reel mowers need little maintenance, and some are made with blades that only need sharpening every five to 10 years or so. Repairs are usually simple. According to U.S. manufacturer American Lawn Mower, sales have demonstrated steady annual growth. Users praise reel mowers for their quiet and minimal environmental impact, and for their advantages when it comes to health and safety.
In addition to providing good exercise, manual reel mowers emit no fumes, don't contribute to noise pollution and don't stir up dust or pollen. All these also make for a healthier environment for the mower's family and neighbors. Manual reel mowers also have the best safety record of any type of lawn mower. By contrast, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that in 2010, more than 89,000 people were treated for lawn mower injuries.
It's tempting to pick the widest reel mower you can afford, because this makes the mowing job go faster. For example, a reviewer at the Reel Mower Reviews blog calculates that mowing with a 16-inch model takes 40 percent longer than mowing the same area with a 20-inch mower. The catch is that if your grass is thick, tough or tall, the wider mower will be a lot harder to push. Narrower reel mowers are also easier to maneuver around obstacles.
Manual reel mowers also pose tradeoffs when it comes to weight -- which ranges from as low as 15 pounds to nearly three times as much. Owners say manual reel mowers can be fun to use, but that the first few mowings take a lot longer than later ones. Some users report having a tall lawn mowed initially with a gas mower, and then mowing regularly with a reel mower. Reel mowers don't work well on bumpy lawns, long grass or weeds, however, and of course they're harder to push up a slope.
Flat edgings are no problem, but most reel mowers can't mow very close to raised edgings -- which means more trimming is needed -- though the top-rated Fiskars StaySharp Max 6201 handles that just fine. Reel mowers can't mulch leaves the way a gas or corded electric mower can. As noted earlier, twigs are apt to get stuck in the blades; again, the Fiskars reel mower is the exception. Some users are satisfied with the way a reel mower leaves clippings on the lawn, but if you don't mow often enough to keep the clippings very short, then the lawn can look messy.
See our section on the best reel mowers for the more on the top picks.
For a small, relatively flat lawn, a corded electric mower can mulch clippings with its rotary blade. The motor provides more cutting oomph than a manual reel mower, though it may not be enough to tackle tough weeds or very tall, wet grass. Corded mowers are too heavy to push up slopes with ease, but are much quieter and better for air quality than gas mowers. For those reasons, some communities offer rebates for switching from a gas mower to an electric lawn mower.
All corded electric mowers start with the push of a button -- another plus. Electric mowers are cheaper to run than gas mowers, too -- about $5 a season -- and require less maintenance. Owners say they're happy to avoid all the hassle of buying and storing gasoline. Most electric lawn mowers let you adjust the cutting height with just one lever, another popular feature. Bagging is not generally a strong suit, because it adds more weight for the motor to haul around, but corded electric mowers are fine mulchers.
Electric mowers cut a slightly narrower path than most gas mowers. This is helpful for mowing in tight areas, but it does make most mowing jobs take longer. A 12-amp corded mower is about as powerful as a 5.5-horsepower gas mower -- not as powerful as the top-rated gas mowers, but powerful enough for most lawns.
Corded electric mowers do have some drawbacks. The entire lawn has to be within reach of a 100-foot extension cord, and even with a Ground Fault Interrupter (GFI) you should only mow in dry weather. Owners warn that it's crucial not to let the grass get too tall between cuts. Overall, too, electric mowers don't last as long as gas mowers, and it can be harder to get repairs.
For more information, and the best choices, see our discussion of the top electric mowers.
Though more expensive than a corded mower, a cordless lawn mower gives you more flexibility and range because you aren't tethered to an electrical cord. Some cordless mowers use lift-out batteries that can extend mowing time. You can insert a freshly charged battery and keep mowing beyond the usual 30- to 45-minute mowing time per charge. The best cordless mowers are self-propelled -- ideally variable-speed -- moving forward under their own power with only guidance needed.
Cordless mowers offer push-button starting, quiet performance and clean air, plus low maintenance and operating costs. Run time per charge ranges from 30 to 60 minutes, enough for yards of about a fourth to a third of an acre. As with corded electric mowers, cordless mowers work best if you don't let the grass grow too tall between cuts.
Cordless mowers do have some drawbacks. They're heavy, and even a self-propelled mower may need pushing when the battery runs low. As with corded mowers, some owners report difficulty in finding local repair centers and replacement parts.
The NiCd or lead-acid batteries pose some additional problems, since both their production and disposal raise environmental concerns. Some experts calculate that manufacturing this kind of battery contributes as much to air pollution as does using a gas mower -- canceling out any zero-emissions benefit you get while mowing. Battery disposal is another concern; they need replacement every couple of years, and proper recycling (as with auto batteries) is crucial to mitigate environmental hazards. The 36-volt Recharge PMLI-14 (*Est. $400) uses lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, which are a little more environmentally friendly, but this mower has earned mixed reviews from owners.
See electric mowers for our take on the best cordless electric mowers.
Gasoline mower engines can provide plenty of power for cutting tough weeds and tall grass. The downside is the emissions from both the engine and fuel systems -- which can negatively impact the environment, local air quality and the health of the user and family. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a typical gas mower emits as much air pollution per hour as 11 cars.
Gasoline is risky to store around the house, since it's highly flammable. Spills are also a hazard, polluting the soil and groundwater. California calculates that users spill 17 million gallons of gasoline and oil each year while refilling lawn equipment.
Gas engines are also noisy; even the quietest require using ear protection and pose some additional health risks. Safety is also a concern; most lawn mower accidents each year involve gas lawn mowers. The extra power speeds mowing but can also shoot out rocks and other debris at high speed -- or cut a hand or foot in a flash.
You can minimize both noise and emissions by choosing a model that uses a four-cycle overhead valve (OHV) engine, which also adds fuel efficiency to reduce operating costs. Experts say these engines also last longer. Each year, more gas mower manufacturers use OHV engines in at least some of their models.
In 2012 all new mower models are required to meet the Phase 3 emissions regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This brings emissions down to the level that California set earlier in its CARB III requirements. These cover emissions from the entire fuel system, not just the engine. Honda is the only mower company that makes all its mowers this low in emissions, nationwide. You'll still find, in 2012, mowers that can't be sold in California. This means they don't meet the strictest emissions standards; look for mowers that are "50-state compliant" instead.
A gas mower that's fuel-efficient, with low emissions, will inevitably begin polluting more if it's not maintained well. Experts advise that regular maintenance is crucial. Follow the owner's guide carefully. See our Useful Links section for additional resources, including information on relatively new consumer-level propane mowers, a safer alternative to gas mowers.
Generally the most expensive type of mower but also the most popular, self-propelled gas lawn mowers are moved by their motors without being pushed by the operator. Variable-speed rear-wheel drive lawn mowers are easier to handle than single-speed or front-wheel drive mowers. Hydrostatic drive is smoothest. Cruise control is a luxury feature found on some models.
Recommended for lawns up to half an acre, the top-rated self-propelled mowers cut more evenly than other types of lawn mowers. The best models are equipped with a blade brake clutch, sometimes called a blade override -- important for both convenience and to prolong engine life. This means that you can safely stop to pick up objects or empty the bag without having to restart the engine. You can also find models with a battery-operated electric starter, with a traditional recoil starter as backup.
Experts recommend paying more for a rear-wheel drive mower. This type handles slopes better, and has also proven more durable. We found many complaints about front-wheel drive mowers.
Self-propelled gas mowers do have significant drawbacks in addition to noise and emissions. They're heavy, so it can be difficult to push them or pull them back. Since they include a drive system, they're more apt to need repairs than a simpler push mower.
For top self-propelled mowers, see our separate discussion.
Recommended for flat lawns of up to about a third of an acre, gas push mowers take more muscle to operate, so they provide better exercise. Push mowers are simpler than self-propelled models, so they tend to cost less initially and also need fewer repairs. However, they don't last quite as many years, on average, so there's a tradeoff for the overall reliability.
Experts suggest looking for ball-bearing wheels to make the mower easier to push. Although push mowers can bag clippings, that adds 30 or 40 pounds to the weight you have to push. For this reason, experts suggest using a push mower in mulching mode (best for the lawn) or side-discharging mode.
ConsumerSearch has a separate discussion of the top-rated gas push mowers.
Overall, experts recommend considering these factors in choosing a lawn mower:
Even within types, mowers vary in how they handle clippings. Most manual reel mowers just drop the clippings on the lawn. As long as you mow often, and the grass is fairly fine (not tough or weedy), just letting the clippings drop works well. You can buy grass-catching bags for manual reel mowers, but they add to the weight you have to push, and users say they don't work very well.
Most lawn mowers come with a slightly dome-shaped deck that, in "mulching mode," circulates the clippings for a while so the blades chop them into finer pieces. This is the mode lawn experts recommend using, because the mulched clippings serve as fertilizer. In fact, experts say you can cut fertilizer needs by a third this way.
Side-discharging clippings also fertilize the lawn, but the pieces aren't cut as finely, so they take longer to disintegrate into the lawn. This mode leaves messy rows of clippings, which may not bother you; you can rake over clippings to make them less noticeable. Experts at the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse also note that side-discharging mowers are noisier than mulching or bagging mowers. The least expensive and most basic gas mowers side-discharge their clippings.
Bagging clippings looks neater, but the bags get heavy, and emptying them means extra work. In the autumn, though, bagging is useful for collecting leaves. Reviews indicate that the best lawn mowers not only perform equally well in all three modes, but also make it easy to change from one mode to another. Look for mowers described as "3-in-one" with a tool-free switch from one mode to another.