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Hate mowing? A robot can cut your lawn
Every spring, Don Osborne brings his 5-foot-wide zero-turn mower out of hibernation to keep a few acres near the house looking tidy.
"My wife has flower beds and so forth," Osborne says. "With the big mower, I was all the time blowing grass into her flower beds. She would get upset with me doing that."
So he searched for a compromise.
Now his robotic lawn mower mows about an acre daily. Because it cuts the grass so often, the clippings don't fill the flower beds, and Osborne's mechanical helper mows 24-7, even in the rain.
It wasn't an easy decision for someone who had never before heard of robotic mowers to buy one. He struggled at first with the idea of paying for a 30-pound robot when, for the same amount of money, he could buy a garden tractor. He's now at peace with his decision.
"Hey, as long as it does what I'm intending for it to do, I'll be perfectly happy with it," Osborne says.
Robotic lawn mowers are battery-powered machines that cut with razor-sharp blades. Sensors help them to avoid pools and pets, and chargers power them up. People buy the mowers because they hate mowing and love gadgets, or see this as an alternative to paying for a lawn service.
Robotic lawn mowers have been an option in Europe for decades. Today, about 70 percent of automatic mowers are sold in Europe, says Dan Kara, robotics research director at ABI Research. That's partly because lawns there tend to be smaller.
In the U.S., robotic mowers have been expensive and unable to handle larger lawns or tough grasses common in the South.
"There's also this notion that people like doing their lawns," Kara says. "My wife is like that. She does that just like she likes to garden."
The mowers are not common, with fewer than 60,000 shipped worldwide in 2016, Kara says. But more people will buy robotic mowers in the next decade in the U.S., he believes. ABI Research expects sales to double by 2025 as technology improves and more companies offer robotic lawn mowers.
Robotic mowers can be purchased online and at dealers like Buck Hardware and Garden Center in Quarryville.
Husqvarna makes several models and two versions of Honda's Miimo mower ($2,499 and $2,799) are expected to be available in the country this month. John Deere also has an automatic mower, but it has not been introduced in the U.S.
Buck Hardware sells the full line of Husqvarna mowers, from zero-turn mowers with 72-inch decks to reel mowers, says Dwight Eshleman, auto mower sales, service and installation manager.
The hardware store sells three of the company's automatic mowers, ranging from the 315 ($1,999), which can handle one-third of an acre, to the 450x ($4,500), which can cut up to two acres. Installing perimeter wire to contain the mower varies in price, with a simple layout costing $800 to $900. The wire can be installed by the customer. The mowers move in a random pattern within the perimeter.
Last year, when the hardware store staff started talking about the robotic mowers, customers were skeptical, Eshleman says.
Since then, he's heard from older customers who don't want to mow, two-income families pressed for time and people who want the latest technology.
"The more people started talking to us, you could see the light bulbs coming on," he says. "Where it was, like, 'I have a grandfather who can't mow any longer and I have to mow for him. If I put this at his house, I wouldn't have to go there and do that.' "
Dave Dagen was planning to buy a new mower for the acre he mows at his Lititz home. The mower he wanted was well out of his budget. A friend of his parents mentioned robotic mowers, which he said were less than half the price.
Once he realized it could handle his home's hills, he bought one.
"No gas. Extremely low energy it takes. Very little electricity," Dagen says. "I can be in Europe and I can mow."
On a recent trip to Florida, he planned to have the mower continue cutting the lawn. However, it didn't look like the weather would cooperate so Dagen kept the mower docked. When he returned, it took a few days of nonstop mowing for Patsy to catch up. (Dagen named the mower Patsy after seeing the musical "Always . Patsy Cline" at the Fulton Theatre.)
Holes can be a problem. The small machines can fall in and get stuck. At the Dagen house, Patsy fell into a groundhog hole and had to be rescued.
On wet, steep areas, mowers have slid outside the perimeter and stayed there until put back on course.
A complaint Eshleman has heard from customers is they expected the mowers to cover more ground.
For Osborne, the manual has been a little difficult to understand. Debbie, the name given to the mower by his granddaughter, also got stuck underneath a seesaw and shut off until someone freed it.
Otherwise, Debbie has worked out well and hasn't caused any problems with the grandchildren or the dog.
The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission does not have guidelines or standards for robotic mowers, says Elizabeth Klinefelter, a public affairs specialist. Outdoor Power Equipment Institute has a committee that maintains a voluntary standard on robotic electric lawnmower equipment.
The federal agency has issued one recall for robotic mowers. In 2008, four models of LawnBott Lawn Mowers were recalled after the Italian machine's importer, Kyodo American Industries Co., received a report of a consumer lifting the mower from the ground and suffering minor lacerations from the moving blade. Kyodo offered to make repairs to the mowers.
The agency has not received any other complaints about robotic lawnmowers.
These mowers are mostly being used at private homes and are small enough that passers-by don't see them. In about a week, a higher-profile venue is getting a robotic mower: Clipper Magazine Stadium.
"We wanted to be on the cutting edge," says John Erisman, community partnerships representative for the Lancaster Barnstormers.
The move will save time for the operations team and is unique for a stadium, he says.
Dagen says his mower, Patsy, saves him a few hours a week as well. That's time he now spends on his vegetables, perennials and flowers.