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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lawn Mover Smog

Air Date: Week of

America's 50 million gasoline-powered lawn mowers cause a significant percentage of the nation's urban air pollution. Efforts are underway to design a cleaner mower. Wisconsin Public Radio Correspondent Chuck Quirmbach (QUIRM-bock) reports from Milwaukee.


CURWOOD: For years, some ecologists have complained about the modern lawn. They have told us to grow wildflowers instead of grass. Anything to avoid those water-hungry, fertilizer-dependent, monocultured fields of green. Now, air pollution officials are zeroing in on the lawn's evil twin, the gas-powered lawnmower. The Environmental Protection Agency says gas mowers are making it hard for people to breathe. So, the EPA and small-engine manufacturers are working to trim mower emissions. But tinkering with a product that has become an icon for so many isn't so easy, as Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio recently discovered in Milwaukee.

BAKEMEYER: The lawnmower is cast aluminum deck, and of course the lawnmower is basically all aluminum parts, too.

QUIRMBACH: Henry Bakemeyer feels his green and yellow mulching mower is a simple device, more of a Chevy than a Cadillac.

BAKEMEYER: You know, I don't have a Cadillac lawn, so I don't need a Cadillac mower.

(Mower is rolled out)

QUIRMBACH: But as Mr. Bakemeyer rolls his mower out of the garage, there is a special bond forming between man and machine. The mower is a perfect getaway vehicle for a weekly escape from the stresses of a business career. Like millions of red-blooded American homeowners, this 50-something suburbanite enjoys mowing the lawn.

BAKEMEYER: Early in my youth, it was a chore. Dad would say, "Oh, Henry, go out and mow the lawn," and I'd rather be playing baseball. And so, that was the alternative, so then it wasn't fun. Today, I think I'd rather mow the lawn than play baseball. (Mower starts up)

QUIRMBACH: One reason that mowing is fun is the four-and-a-half horsepower gasoline engine that spins the blades. The motor makes grass-cutting light exercise instead of hard work. The sound blasts away heavy thoughts. The problem, of course, is this isn't the only lawnmower on Henry Bakemeyer's block.

(Another motor starts up)

QUIRMBACH: A few doors down there's this three-horsepower model.

(Another motor starts up)

QUIRMBACH: And nearby, there's a 12-horsepower riding rig. The sound of the suburbs on a weekend afternoon. Nationwide, there are 50 million gas-powered lawnmowers.


QUIRMBACH: If the roar doesn't get you, the air pollution might. The Environmental Protection Agency figures that mowers generate five percent of the smog-producing hydrocarbons in American cities. EPA official Don Zinger says reducing mower emissions is one way to improve urban air quality.

ZINGER: Many of our cities -- New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles -- are looking for every possible reduction in air pollution they can get. And so, they're looking at the smaller sources like lawnmowers, and as long as we can do that in a cost-effective way, then that's an effort we're going to have to make.

QUIRMBACH: The focus on lawnmowers began nine years ago, when politicians working near the well-trimmed lawns of Capitol Hill updated the Clean Air Act. Manufacturers have already met one goal. By 1997, new mowers were required to reduce hydrocarbon emissions by 30 percent. But now the industry is being pushed further, toward another 40 percent cut in pollution by the year 2003.

(Mower motors)

QUIRMBACH: The current air war is being fought in places like this: the research center of America's largest maker of small four-cycle engines, Briggs and Stratton. Behind locked doors in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, engineers like Pete Hotz are trying to build a cleaner lawnmower.

HOTZ: We have probably no less than 20 to 25 engineers working, engineers, designers and technicians, working on emission-related issues. I mean, it could be anywhere from carburetor to improvements in our manufacturing process to keep tolerances tighter, to redesign of engines, and to new, lower-emission design. So, I mean, Briggs and Stratton is making a huge commitment.

(Mower motors)

QUIRMBACH: This facility looks like a cross between a science lab and a corner garage. At workbenches, technicians are carefully examining prototype parts. In a cluster of sound-insulated rooms, engines on metal stands are being tested at various speeds and loads.

(Motors continue)

QUIRMBACH: Engineer Marv Klowak looks at one of the larger motors and explains there is a wide range of pollution-fighting changes.

KLOWAK: In particular, we've done a lot of work on the head itself, the valves, the combustion chamber. We've done a lot of work on the piston, the piston rings, the cylinder structure, all targeted at keeping it more stable as the engine runs, burning cleaner.

(Motors continue; fade to fans)

QUIRMBACH: Above the test engines, small fans suck exhaust into a six-foot-tall computer. Pete Hotz says it analyzes everything: hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide. Just like an automobile's smog check.

HOTZ: At the end of the test, then you have a number that it all washes out to, and that number is whether we pass or fail the test.

QUIRMBACH: A lot is riding on the work performed here. Not every emissions problem has been solved yet, especially on cheaper mowers that cost $100 or so. And other companies are competing with Briggs and Stratton to build a cleaner, inexpensive engine. The entire industry is focused on preserving its share of the market. Firms know consumers might switch to electric or battery-powered mowers if the smog-fighting improvements to gasoline models push up the price.

(A phone rings)

QUIRMBACH: For now, though, it seems the gasoline mower is still king. It certainly is at Esch Economy Lawn and Garden Center, southeastern Wisconsin's largest lawnmower showroom. Two hundred shiny machines are lined up here, available in seductive reds, greens, silvers, and black. All but two of the models are powered by gas. In the world of landscaping equipment, just like the world of automobiles, you are what you drive. Salesman Joe Pope is a master of the smooth pitch.

POPE: It does have the hydrostatic drive, which is, in layman's terms, an automatic transmission.

MAAS: Right. That's what I was looking for.

POPE: The lever here, if you're going to use it, the wife is going to use it, makes life real easy. All you have is a lever. The further you push this, the faster you go...

QUIRMBACH: One customer here, Bob Maas, says he might pay more for a lawnmower that pollutes less.

MAAS; People are out there and they're smelling this stuff, and you don't want nothing to be -- I want to live as long as I can, you know.

QUIRMBACH: But the lure of lawnmowers is about power and performance, and other customers are more guarded. David Graff wants clean air, too, but suspects a cleaner-burning mower might be less durable.

GRAFF: Because if I have to make the assumption that I'm going to have to turn this motor over five years from now or ten years from now, and I wouldn't get fifteen years -- and I take care of my things, so I'd like to believe I can get a good, long life for it -- then I'm going to ask why I'm going to be spending so much more money for it. Even if it's only $20 or if it's $50.

QUIRMBACH: Industry officials say cleaner mowers will last just as long as today's models, and for now they're confident they will be able to meet the next round of emissions regulations. Of course, there are alternatives to power mowers. There is natural landscaping instead of grass. And, you can still find a hand-pushed manual cutter if you try. But engine companies are betting for the foreseeable future, most homeowners will want a lush, green lawn --

(Motor starts up)

QUIRMBACH: -- and a gasoline-fueled motor to help mow it. For Living on Earth, this is Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.



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