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Push Mower Makes Comeback as Gas Prices Rise

When Eric King moved from his apartment in Pittsburgh to a single-family home with a lawn, he bought a manual lawn mower instead of the usual gas-powered kind. He figures he's putting money in his pocket and saving trips to the filling station.

He's got plenty of company. Sales of manual -- or push reel -- mowers with the cartwheeling blades are on the rise this year. Officials attribute the surge to increased environmental concerns because of emissions from gas-powered mowers, the faltering economy that makes the generally less expensive push reels more attractive, and $4-a-gallon gasoline.

M. Spencer Green

"With the way gas prices are going through the roof and are going to stay there or increase even further, that was the main reason I considered one," said King, 29. "I don't consider myself an environmentalist; I consider myself an economist."

American Lawn Mower, a Shelbyville, Ind., manufacturer of manual and electric lawnmowers, says sales are up 60 percent to 70 percent over last year.

"It's unbelievable," said Teri McClain, inside sales administrator. "I think gas prices are playing a part in this."

McClain estimates that about 300,000 push reel mowers are sold annually in the United States. That's about the same number of electric mowers that are sold. Though growing, sales of both still are dwarfed by the roughly 6 million typical gas-powered, walk-behind mowers purchased every year.

Push reel mowers have evolved from those heavy iron beasts of the past into lighter (19 to 34 pounds), easier-to-push models with widths up to 20 inches and cutting heights that can be adjusted quickly. Accessories include grass catchers and sharpening kits.

Prices for push reel mowers usually range from nearly $100 to $250. A sampling of Web sites show electric mowers selling for about $145 to $430. Walk-behind gasoline-powered mowers usually cost $150 to $400. The non-riding, self-propelled variety can go from $200 to $900.

Clean Air Gardening, a Dallas, Texas, retailer that sells push reel and electric lawn mowers as well as composters, rain barrels and organic fertilizers, said sales are up 27 percent this year, while sales of electric mowers made by Towson, Md.-based Black & Decker Corp. have increased more than 20 percent this year.

"We're not keeping up with the demand," said Joseph Newland, group product manager for the company's outdoor division.

People Powered Machines, an Ipswich, Mass.-based Internet store, has seen a 25 percent rise in the sale of push reel and electric lawn mowers so far this year.

"The increasing price of gasoline is one of the bigger factors," said spokesman David Temple.

At Remington Power Tools, based in Bowling Green, Ky., which began selling electric lawn mowers this year, customers giving their reasons for buying an electric mower often end with the words: "And with gas prices, it only makes sense," spokesman Alex Wrinkles said.

Lars Hundley, Clean Air's owner and president, said sales of electric mowers are much stronger, in part because he has begun carrying several new cordless models. He said lawnmower cords can be a "deal killer" for some customers.

Hundley said female customers seem to prefer push reel or electric mowers. They dislike the noise of gas-powered mowers and the cord-pulling required to start them, he said.

Kris Kiser, spokesman for the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, acknowledges that sales of gas-powered mowers were down slightly in May compared with a year earlier, but attributes that to a decline in housing starts and last year's drought in the Southeast.

Kiser does not believe high gasoline prices will cause a significant reduction in the sale of gas-powered mowers. According to the institute, the average homeowner uses only five to six gallons of gasoline a year to mow a quarter-acre lot.

Lawnmower and landscaping equipment company Toro declined to say how sales of its gas-powered mowers were faring. But spokesman John Wright said the faltering economy and the cool, wet spring that delayed lawn mowing is probably having a bigger effect than high gas prices.

"For the average homeowner, putting a little gas in their mower is not going to be a big deal," Wright said.

Instead of trading in gasoline mowers, other people have opted to cut back on how often they cut their grass.

Randall Fullam now mows his lawn in the Dayton suburb of Riverside once a week instead of twice, primarily as a symbolic gesture to protest U.S. dependence on foreign oil since he estimates it will save him only about $14 a year. Fullam takes pride in his lawn and thinks mowing it twice a week kept it looking good.

"Now, we're waiting until the weekend and mowing it just once," said Fullam, 53. "The downside is when the grass comes blowing out from the mower it's a lot thicker. It tends to leave a lot more cut grass, clippings."

In King's neighborhood, his push reel mower has become an instant hit. One neighbor told him she is buying one for herself and for her father. Other neighbors and passers-by can't resist trying the mower out.

"The way people are reacting you'd think it was the newest technology," he said. "They end up mowing half of my yard for me."