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Making the switch to electric mowers

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Photos: Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Joe Morgan a building maintenance technician at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens installs a battery in a rechargeable electric lawnmower used at the conservatory.
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Photos: Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
This rechargeable electric lawnmower is used at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
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Photos: Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Joe Morgan, a building maintenance technician at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, shows off a standing rechargeable electric lawnmower used at the conservatory.
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Photos: Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Joe Morgan, a building maintenance technician at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, shows off a standing rechargeable electric lawnmower used at the conservatory.
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Photos: Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Andy Amrhein, owner of Evey True Value Hardware in Bethel Park, folds loads a Black and Decker rechargeable electric lawnmower. It’s lightweight, powerful and quiet.
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Photos: Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Andy Amrhein, owner of Evey True Value Hardware in Bethel Park, folds up the handle of a Black and Decker rechargeable electric lawnmower. It’s lightweight, powerful and quiet.

Andy Amrhein has literally spent a lifetime selling and maintaining gas-powered lawn equipment. The owner of Evey True Value Hardware in Bethel Park has now become a champion of electric and battery-powered mowers, blowers, trimmers and more.

“The world is changing. More and more people every year are going to the electric and cordless lawnmower,” he says with his trademark smile.

It was about three years ago, he adds, that a revolution of electric-powered lawn gear began. It’s due to improved performance all the way around.

“The technology of the cordless lawnmowers in particular really advanced with the lithium ion battery,” he says. “They’re taking off like a rocket.”

The mowers are powerful and can be used early Sunday morning as they are whisper quiet. He offers many different styles of mowers at his store and explains one of the reasons homeowners are going electric.

Why switch?

“With the gasoline having so much ethanol included, it has destroyed the small engines,” he says.

Gas only stays fresh for 30 days.

“If you use bad gas,” Amrhein says, “it is melting the seals of the carburetor.”

Additives used to counteract the ethanol are even worse for the environment.

“The maintenance is just astronomical,” he says of current engines.

When asked about losing all that repair business, he says, “I don’t care. I’m thrilled to death to see the cordless technology take hold. You still need to sharpen the blades,” Amrhein adds with a laugh.

The same battery can operate many different tools, and they charge fast with many at 40 volts.

Get a rebate

There’s a special program for homeowners interested in trading in their gas-powered tool. The Pennsylvania DEP, in conjunction with the Southwest Pennsylvania Ozone Action Partnership and the Allegheny County Health Department, is offering a buyback program.

There’s a $150 rebate for a battery-powered mower when a gas-powered mower is traded in, and there are other rebates for electric mowers, blowers, trimmers, chainsaws and power washers when they are traded, too. The new electric or rechargeable equipment can be purchased from one of the 12 participating True Value locations in Allegheny, Butler and Beaver counties that are part of the program.

“If you would have asked me 10 years ago about cordless mowers,” Amrhein says, “I would have said you’re crazy. They are amazing machines. That’s what I use at home. I’ve got my choice of anything out there. I do love them.”

Catching on

Many of Pittsburgh’s universities, including Pitt, Duquesne and others, are making the conversion too, as has Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden.

The epiphany for Phipps president and CEO Richard Piacentini came while speaking about sustainability at a garden in Boston. They were testing different battery- powered machines for their landscape, and Piacentini used their research to begin his own. Piacentini and his team have spent nearly two decades on a green transformation that includes buildings that actually are zero net energy and water. They are constantly looking at every turn for new and innovative ways to make the campus more sustainable, which means they use battery-powered lawn mowers and other equipment.

“It’s fast, it’s quiet and there are no fossil fuel smells,” he says of the machines.

These commercial grade mowers are from Greenworks for the push style and Mean Green for a standing version. “You have to think about where that electricity is coming from,” says Piacentini, who is always concerned about sustainability. All of Phipps’ electricity is produced on site either by solar or wind or purchased as renewable energy from the grid.

Easy to use

Margie Radebagh, the director of horticulture and education, says the mowers have gone over well with the landscape crew.

“The people who use them really like them,” she says. “There’s no difference in the actual cutting other than that they are quieter.”

Radebagh says a battery-powered trimmer and blower are also in use.

The quiet factor was not lost on Piacentini either for mowers, trimmers and especially leaf blowers.

“When somebody is running one of those things in your neighborhood, everyone had to put up with it,” Piacentini says. “It’s really annoying. Noise is a big issue.”

Another piece of the puzzle at Phipps is the lawn itself, which is grown organically.

“Our front yard looks really nice, and we haven’t been putting any toxic chemicals on there since 2005,” he says. “It’s been organic for a long time.”

The lawn is actually made up of many different species instead of just grass.

“Monocultures do not exist in nature,” he says. “We have a very nice diverse mix of plants in our yard.”

It’s never watered and yet doesn’t turn brown in the summer as the combination of species and the way they are fertilized annually with compost give them a deep root system.

Landscaping training

As part of the conservatory’s outreach, the Phipps Sustainable Landcare program trains landscapers on how to take care of people’s property without using chemicals. A complete list of accredited companies is located at the Phipps website.

Piacentini is passionate about organic lawn care and has seen first hand how it can work.

“If you have kids, grandkids or pets, do you really want them rolling around in the grass after someone just spread pesticides all over it?” he asks. “It’s insane. Not to mention what it does to the good insects in the ground, all the birds and other animals that visit your property. It’s leaching into our groundwater and our rivers.”

He wants visitors to be safe, know Phipps is doing the right thing and to enjoy themselves.

“People come to places like Phipps to immerse themselves in the beauty of nature,” Piacentini says. “The beauty of nature does not include a roaring gas engine in the background.”

Article by Doug Oster,
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