Have you met the newest addition to the city of Newport Beach, California’s landscaping crew? She’s always on time, mowing away at the front lawn of the civic center building from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every weekday. Though she might be a bit shorter and quieter than the rest of the crew, she sure can manicure a lawn and knows just where it needs cutting. Her name is “Mow-ana,” and she’s not your ordinary employee. If you haven’t guessed it yet, she’s a robotic mower.
Anthony Petrarca, the city’s landscape supervisor, couldn’t be happier with Mow-ana’s performance. A few months back, he was out at Allen’s Lawnmower Service, a local Husqvarna dealer that the city’s been working with for years. The owner, Paul Sullivan, suggested the city test out one of the new robotic mowers he was selling.
“We met and came up with a spot that would be a good pilot test site because it is kind of a flat area and there’s not much turf there,” Petrarca says. The area is made up of four 50-foot-by-30-foot sections of grass in front of the civic center where many of the city employees work and where the public goes to conduct usual civic business such as paying parking tickets and obtaining contractors’ licenses.
Mow-ana has been doing her thing for the past few months. “We did a trial there, and so far, it’s doing its job, keeping the lawn mowed,” says Petrarca.
Doing its thing
He describes the mower as being similar to the little unattended Roomba-style vacuum cleaners that roam around inside homes sucking up dirt. Instead of chasing dust bunnies, this device, the Automower 450X, runs around the yard mowing grass all day.
And Mow-ana is quite the conversation piece around city hall. “Our mayor loves it,” Petrarca says. “Every time I go to check on it and see how it’s doing, there are always people taking pictures of it, standing around looking at it.”
If you’re wondering where the name Mow-ana came from, that was Petrarca’s brain child. He had recently watched the Disney film Moana with his granddaughter and thought it seemed fitting.
The mower uses GPS to find its way around. A cable-laying machine buried a wire underground outlining the area in front of the civic center. This gives the mower its boundary, outside of which it will not stray. Another underground guidance system runs down the middle of the designated area to help the mower find its docking station when it is ready to charge.
Watching the mower in action, its movements seem random; it’ll mow one area, then scoot across to another section and mow there for a little bit. Rest assured, it knows what it’s doing. “When all is said and done, it all gets mowed and we’re really happy with it,” Petrarca says.
After a hard day’s work, it’s 2 p.m., and time for Mow-ana to recharge her battery, literally. No, she doesn’t grab an energy drink; she finds her docking station behind a ficus tree where she’ll stay all night, and at 9 a.m. the next morning, she’ll be at it all over again.
Petrarca isn’t too concerned that any passersby will mess with the mower. The area is highly trafficked, and city employees can keep watch from their windows. Plus, the mower is hooked up to the Automower Connect app with an alarm that goes off on Petrarca’s smartphone should anyone try any shenanigans.
The alarm went off a couple of weeks ago when some kids decided to lay down in front of it. Don’t worry; the mower detected it and automatically shut itself down. It also doesn’t have a typical mower blade; instead, the cutting system is made up of several tiny blades designed to stop at the slightest interference, so the risk of injury is slim. The app also allows the monitoring and programming of every aspect of the mower, such as schedule times, operating time and mowing height. The GPS-assisted navigation system maps the yard and is smarter than we are about where it should be mowing.
Aside from Mow-ana’s “cool factor,” Petrarca has noticed some additional pluses since he put her to work. “It saves us from a contractor having to mow, so it saves us money and labor. The landscaper can spend more time focusing on other stuff that needs attention more than just mowing the grass.”
Landscape workers still have to come in and edge, says Petrarca, “but other than that, they let the mower do its thing.”
Another way it has proven beneficial to the city of Newport Beach is that the mower creates a thin layer of “minimulch” out of the grass as it mows, which helps keep moisture in the turf. “I’ve actually cut the water back since we’ve had it,” Petrarca says.
“All and all, it is a fun little mower that is efficient. We are happy with it,” he says.
Not out of the ordinary
While a robotic mower may seem like a rarity, devices that use GPS and battery power are becoming more commonplace, says Nick White, Husqvarna’s Automower sales manager for the west region.
“This is by no means a new technology. It seems new to us because we haven’t seen it in the U.S., but this has been an ongoing trend in Europe since the late 1990s. We sell hundreds of thousands of these every year in Europe.”
According to White, the ideal space for an Automower is a large open grass area, “but we can get very creative and do very complex installations if needed.”
Because California residential properties are typically small and gated, it isn’t the hottest U.S. market for the Automower. “The biggest area for us right now would be the Southeast: Georgia, the Carolinas, Florida; and also the Midwest: Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Tennessee. These are huge markets.”
Two major benefits of the technology that White sees are the reduction in watering because of the minimulch layer the mower creates and of course, the reduced need for human labor.
“You can dedicate labor to more detail-oriented pieces,” he says. “The majority of the profit margin in landscaping work is in the higher detail-oriented work. If you take the piece that takes a lot of time out of the equation, you can focus on higher margin tasks. It is much more profitable for them.”
White says the owners of commercial properties are looking at the Automower because of the noise reduction. Rather than the roar of a motor, “all you hear are blades of grass being cut.”
The advantage of reduced noise benefits not only the customer but the operator who no longer needs hearing protection. White says it won’t be long before California starts requiring battery-powered equipment for that reason.
The Automower is Husqvarna’s alternative to a battery-powered zero turn mower. But the company’s battery-power technology isn’t reserved for just the Automower; the company offers battery-powered versions of all its traditional pieces of power equipment, including chainsaws, hedge trimmers and push mowers.
White says it is only a matter of time before battery power starts booming in the U.S. “We have no doubt it is going to take off because we’ve seen it elsewhere in the world.”
Leading the charge
And White isn’t alone in his view. When Greenworks Commercial, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Conniff Sales Inc., Richmond, Indiana, announced their exclusive partnership in April, Tony Marchese, Greenworks’ director of independent retail said, “We continue to hear people in the industry say, ‘Battery is coming,’ but they’re wrong. Battery is already here!”
Conniff will now offer dealers a broad line of lithium-ion, battery-powered outdoor equipment, including a selection of stand-on and ride-on commercial grade zero turn mowers later in the year.
Marchese’s sentiment seems to corroborate Scott Jardine’s observations. The president of Calgary, Alberta-based Arns Equipment and member of the Clayton, Missouri-based Equipment Dealers’ Association’s Outdoor Power Equipment Council, says, “This is probably the first year where we’re really going to start seeing battery being used by some of the commercial guys.”
He says trimmers and hedge clippers are among the units that are gaining traction in battery power. And while battery power is not yet a huge draw, it’s popularity is increasing. “It is still not widely accepted by everybody, but I think we are going to start to see that. It hasn’t been the freakish exception that we’ve seen in the past.”
Jardine has had three or four contractor customers decide to equip one of their crews with battery-powered trimmers to “see how it goes.” He says, “I think there’s going to be much wider acceptance if these experiments work well.”
There are some valid arguments for making the transition. “To me it makes a huge amount of sense,” Jardine says.
His reasoning is that a crew can start off in the morning without having to stop for fuel, and there is no need to mix fuel or carry cans of it. In addition, there’s no chance of accidentally putting straight fuel into a piece of equipment that requires oil in the mix. “And,” Jardine says, “they start every single time.”
The equipment is not only quieter, it produces no emissions, something that’s important to environmentally conscious customers and municipalities. In some areas, clean-air ordinances restrict the use of gas-powered equipment to certain hours of the day or ban it entirely.
“The only downside I can see is they’re a little more capital intensive on the front end, but then you have no gas and no maintenance over the life of them,” Jardine says.
Arns offers Stihl equipment. Jardine says the manufacturer has told him the batteries will take 500 charges before any diminished performance is noticed.
He estimates a battery-powered trimmer could last four to five years without needing a replacement battery if you ran it 25 weeks per year. After four years in service, most commercial landscapers are ready to replace equipment anyway.
Jardine also predicts that customers’ initial foray into battery-operated equipment will be with trimmers. Then, since the other attachments use the same battery, buyers will start to expand into chainsaws and pole pruners. “But the trimmer is going to be the one to get them started.”
A slow shift
The manufacturers of battery-powered equipment agree that it’s starting to gain some traction with professional landscapers, but the demand for gasoline-powered maintenance equipment still dominates.
To understand the coming shift, Mike Poluka, product manager, battery-related products for Stihl, with U.S. offices in Virginia Beach, Virginia, says all you need to do is take a look at how smart technology is becoming a norm inside people’s homes.
“When you think of inside the home, you think of people on their smartphones being able to connect to the lighting in their houses and the heating and cooling systems. That’s becoming a trend inside homes, and that’s also becoming a trend in the landscaping industry.”
The company’s recent product launches include a robotic lawn mower, the Stihl iMow. It also introduced 40 new model designations in 2017 using the Stihl Lightning battery system, among them, the BR 700 X backpack blower and the AP series for professionals. Stihl’s BGA 100 handheld blower is among the most popular battery-powered pieces of equipment.
“More and more we continue to see a shift toward landscapers adopting these technologies,” says Poluka. “One of the biggest industry trends is the influx of battery-powered products into the professional landscaping market, particularly for pros in municipalities requiring low- to no-exhaust and lower-noise equipment or for indoor projects.”
He does not consider battery-powered equipment to be the proverbial disrupters to the industry just yet. “Although battery power is growing and landscapers are adopting it, there is still a strong professional presence on the gasoline side of the marketplace.”
As the price of battery-powered products continues to go down and their power and technology continues to improve, more landscapers will adopt it, Poluka predicts. Over the life of the products, battery-powered equipment usually ends up costing less.
Just when the pendulum will swing more definitively toward the battery-powered and robotic side of the equipment market is yet to be seen, but early success is an indicator that the landscaping industry is headed in that direction.
It may be taking its time, but it’ll find its docking station someday, probably sooner than we think.