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Reel mowers: Saving the earth while saving you

For many people, mowing the lawn is a total chore. To make things worse, filling your mower's gas tank all summer can now cost more than the mower itself. How can you keep your grass, your costs and your fuel emissions low? It's time to go back in time, all the way back to 1870. That's when a man named Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana starting selling the first commercially viable human-powered reel mower. Thanks to their low cost, zero carbon emissions and plain old vintage charm, the old-school mowers are becoming new again.

So, why the steady increase in popularity? For one, these mowers consume zero petroleum-sourced energy and have zero emissions. That's right, zero. Think about all the gasoline consumed by traditional mowers; they are as environmentally unfriendly as they are expensive to operate. And while electric mowers are a step up from gas, they still consume electricity, the production of which contributes to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. A reel mower only consumes your energy, which also means you'll get a great workout.

Second, they are inexpensive. Most gasoline-powered lawnmowers start around $250 for a standard push mower and go up from there; high-quality self-propelled mulching mowers start from $400 to $600. When you combine that with the price of gas, the $65 to $100 reel mower price tag looks better and better. Even a low-cost small electric mower runs about $150 to $200, plus it adds to the cost of your monthly electric bill.

Then consider the cost of maintenance. With so many features and parts, gas and electric lawnmowers tend to break, leaving you with potentially hefty repair bills, and gas mowers need annual maintenance that includes oil changes, spark plug replacement and air filter replacement. You'll also need to purchase a fuel stabilizer additive to keep the gas left in the tank from gunking up over the winter, as draining the tank is no longer recommended. Maintenance for a reel mower, however, is minimal. A little bit of grease and a good sharpening every year, and your costs remain low for the mower's lifetime.

Although the reel mower wins in many categories against its mechanical counterparts, it does have some drawbacks. You'll have a harder time if you let your grass get long, or you try to cut it when it's wet. As Bill Turner, a recent reel mower convert from Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Overall, I love it. Yes, if the grass gets too tall, it may not cut it very well, or may take several passes...but it makes mowing the yard a little more relaxing without having to hang onto a loud, vibrating power mower."

Another thing to note is that where you live dictates what type of reel mower you should buy. In the South and Southwest, grass tends to be thicker due to all the sun and heat. If you live in those areas, you'll want to look for a heavier weight mower. If you live on the East or West Coasts or the northern half of the country, your best bet is to opt for a lighter mower. These are not steadfast rules, so assess your grass before purchase.

Reel mowers are now available at most major retailers, and with winter on its way, you can expect even better deals. If you have questions or want more information about this topic, visit

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