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The pros and cons of electric lawn equipment » Yale Climate Connections

Maintaining a well-groomed lawn can be noisy, with gas-powered lawn mowers, string trimmers, and leaf blowers raising a racket.

But in Chicagoland, one lawn care company is cleaning up lawns at a much lower decibel level — and without burning fossil fuels to power its machines.

It all began with the COVID pandemic in 2020, when people were suddenly working from their suburban homes.

The noise from lawn crews working with GreenWise Organic Lawn Care, owned by Austin Hall, was disrupting people trying to participate in Zoom calls.

Because electric equipment is quieter than traditional gas-powered machines, Hall put two electric lawn mowers into service and began testing other electric equipment. It took some trial and error, but now, crews use electric equipment to perform yardwork for 250 GreenWise clients in one neighborhood.

Yale Climate Connections spoke with Hall about that transition and his plans to expand the electric service to his other clients.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Yale Climate Connections: Can you start by telling us a little bit about your company and the services you offer?

Hall: We started as an organic lawn care company, putting down organic fertilizers, natural weed control products. We’ve gotten into landscape maintenance, which includes mowing and pulling weeds, pruning plants, landscape design, and installation. We install trees and hardscapes and perennial beds, native plantings. We do snow removal, and we also provide some mosquito and insect control services. We have roughly 95 employees, about 30 full-time, and the balance is seasonal.

YCC: When did you begin offering electric mowing and other electric services?

Hall: In 2020 we piloted this service with a single client. The idea there was just to work out the kinks, to understand how effective the equipment was, how to price it, how to estimate how long it might take for the guys, and then also get feedback from our crews on what their limitations were and what their experience is.

And candidly, there’s a learning curve with using this different type of equipment — or there was at least at that time. And there’s a cultural shift. Folks in this industry are generally used to using the highest-powered equipment, and that’s not what electric equipment is. Not yet, at least.

Over the last four or five years, we’ve really gone through an experimentation phase where we’ve tried to determine what equipment is effective. How powerful is it? Does it work in a commercial setting? And we are of the belief that over the last probably 18 to 24 months, we’ve started to turn the corner on the efficacy of that equipment. At the outset, some of this equipment was designed to be used in more of a residential or prosumer setting. And we’re seeing more and more of the manufacturers really get smart about the life of the batteries, how powerful they are, and how you charge them throughout the day.

YCC: Do you offer all of your clients this option?

Hall: We spent basically a full season working out the kinks [with one client]. We experimented with different manufacturers of the electric equipment. And then the following year we opened up that service, so we may have had anywhere from 20 to 30 residential accounts on that route. And then in the subsequent year, we basically transitioned our territories in Evanston to fully electric maintenance. We felt at that point like we had purchased enough equipment, we had a good understanding of how it worked, we had gone through the cultural changes and education and training internally.

So we transitioned roughly 250 of our maintenance accounts to fully electric services. And our plan is just to continue to do that within specific villages over time as we think about where we have density. We’re going to transition from propane mowing and conventional leaf blowers and line trimmers to fully electric. My guess is that about three years from now, by 2026, we’ll be pretty much fully electric across all of our maintenance crews.

YCC: Can you tell me a little bit more about the size and scale of the electric gear that you have?

Hall: A typical crew is outfitted with between two and three mowers that could range from a 21-inch small walk-behind self-propelled mower to a 36- or a 48-inch mower. They’ll have a couple of battery-powered leaf blowers. We have these large batteries that can last basically a full day on a single charge and we have attachments that plug into those batteries. And that could be a leaf blower, could be a line trimmer, it could be an extension pruner. And the vehicle is electric as well. We have a couple of Ford Lightnings in our fleet, we have one Ford E Transit, which is an electric cargo van. And that’s most of the equipment that would be covered in a traditional maintenance crew.

There are certain applications that we do, like an aeration, for instance where we’re pulling plugs out of the soil. Some of this equipment hasn’t transitioned to electric quite yet. We’re waiting for that to happen, but on the maintenance side, whether it’s mowing, pruning, edging, trimming, most of that work can be done with electric equipment nowadays.

YCC: How often do the batteries need to be charged, and how does that impact the way you plan your services?

Hall: The mowers generally — all they need is a single charge overnight. We’ll charge those mowers once overnight, and when our crews arrive in the morning to load up their trucks, those mowers are ready to go. A day for us is generally between seven and nine hours, but of course, we aren’t mowing that entire time — we’re driving, we’re loading up, we’re doing other work while we’re on-site — we’re not just mowing. We found that we’ve had pretty good success with a single charge powering the mower for a full day, especially the larger mowers. The smaller mowers will take smaller batteries, so you might need two or three batteries or four batteries in a mower, and depending on the number of batteries you use, that mower may or may not last the full day.

The handheld tools — it’s a little more difficult when you have these smaller batteries that might have 30 to 60 minutes of runtime. We generally charge them overnight. We have an infrastructure where we plug in the trailer to our facility, and the trailer is hooked up to a number of chargers inside the trailer to charge the batteries overnight, so we might have 10 batteries being charged.

We were running into the issue where we were just simply running out of power throughout the day, depending on the time of year, especially in the fall when you’ve got leaf debris that has to be cleaned up. What we’ve actually found with these electric vehicles is that they come equipped with outlets in them, so we’ve been able to use the battery of the Ford Lightning, for instance, to charge the batteries for the hand tools throughout the day. So while the crew is on-site using some batteries, and those batteries are obviously being drained as they’re being used, other batteries can be charged while they’re on-site. That’s actually been a really nice feature of having electric vehicles in our fleet. And it requires us to purchase fewer batteries for any individual crew.

YCC: What feedback have you had from clients?

Hall: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve seen a lot of interest from both existing and new clients in this service. I think it’s mostly because of the noise. If you walk around the northern suburbs of Chicago in October and November, all you hear is the buzz of leaf blowers. It’s not a pleasant sound. You can hear them from quite far away. So I think that’s been most of the sort of momentum is people just realizing, “Gosh, this service doesn’t have to be as noisy as it’s always been and it can be as, or nearly as, effective.”

From a cost perspective, it tends to be a slightly more expensive service for the client. The services tend to take longer because the equipment is less powerful. And the equipment is very expensive — the upfront investment is quite significant.

We’re talking batteries that can be in the range of $1,500 and mowers that can be $25[,000] to $35,000 each. You compare that to a conventional mower that might be $8,000. There are federal tax incentives out there to purchase these mowers, but still, it’s a sizable upfront investment. So that’s all to say that it’s a more expensive service for us, but our hope is that as the technology continues to improve, as more competitors are coming into the market, that the pricing will come down on the products, the efficacy of them will continue to improve, and that we can basically be on par with what a traditional mowing or maintenance service might be. We don’t want to charge more than we have to, but at this stage, just to get the work done and the time frame it takes, it tends to be a premium service.

YCC: Do clients ever mention the benefits in terms of air pollution and climate pollution, or are they really just focused on the noise?

Hall: We definitely hear both. It’s been well demonstrated that leaf blowers — and a lot of this conventional equipment — is pretty bad for the environment and also pretty bad for the people that are using them. We’re talking about staff that have to regularly breathe in the fumes and everything else that is generated from that equipment. So from our clients who tend to be people that have pets and children [and are interested in] organic fertilizers and the safe aspect of our lawn care products, to people that really have concern around climate change — those are the people that tend to gravitate towards our company and working with us. I would say the majority of folks are focused on the noise and then some folks are also focused on the emissions component as well.

YCC: How does it feel to see this transition to electric and a more sustainable focus for you?

Hall: It’s been part of our plan from the outset. We were pretty early on in investing in a lot of this equipment, some of which we had to literally throw away because it wasn’t as effective as we needed it to be or it didn’t hold up. And it’s been really interesting to see the growth curve and the investment that a lot of the manufacturers have made that have really benefited us.

We view the transition to electric equipment as something that’s coming and we want to be on the right side of that. We don’t want to fight it, we want to embrace it. And we view it as something that we can use as a strategic advantage.

It’s moved a little faster than I would have expected, mostly because the equipment has improved faster than I would have expected. But my expectation for the future is that there’s going to be increasing demand for these types of services and that other people will adopt them as well, but we’re pretty proud to be on the forefront of it.

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