By Daniel Lovering, AP Business Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — For Terry O'Neil, buying a new lawn mower means more than simply finding a machine that will cut the grass.
The 62-year-old marble contractor says he wants a self-propelled, front-wheel-drive model that will ease the physical demands of trimming his quarter-acre yard about 12 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.
"I've had a heart attack and I'm tired of pushing," O'Neil said of an older mower he owns, as he eyed a row of gleaming new machines at a Home Depot store recently. "It's time to let it push me."
Consumers like O'Neil face an array of choices as they shop for a new lawn mower, whether they're upgrading from an older machine, battling tough economic times by taking a cost-saving approach to landscaping or tending to the lawn as first-time homeowners.
Selecting the right machine depends on various factors, from the size and contours of the lawn to a would-be owner's willingness to, well, push.
The market offers a broad range of so-called walk-behind mowers, some with gas engines, some with electric. Here are five questions consumers should ask before buying a new walk-behind mower:
1. WHY BUY A MOWER NOW?
People may be buying mowers amid the recession to save money on landscaping services. Sales of some walk-behind mowers, particularly high-end models with rear-wheel drive, have increased this year, said Barbara Rada, who selects lawn mowers and snow throwers for the retailer Sears.
"In the past, if they just had someone doing their lawn, they've decided it might be a better investment for me to buy it and do it myself," she said. "And that is a reversal in what we have seen in the trend before."
2. HOW BIG IS MY LAWN?
Walk-behind mowers — as opposed to tractor-type mowers — generally are built for lawns that cover a half-acre or less.
A large, rolling yard may require a more powerful mower, with a gas engine that drives not only the blade but also the mower's front or rear wheels. That allows the machine to climb grades and move without being pushed.
Self-propelled models with rear-wheel drive are better for sloping terrain because the weight of the machine rests on its rear wheels, providing greater traction.
Front-wheel-drive mowers, however, offer more maneuverability, allowing the operator to turn the machine simply by pushing its handle down, lifting the front wheels off the ground and swiveling it in a new direction.
"So if you have a flat yard with a lot of flower beds or whatever in it, you would want front-wheel drive," said Jim Kontul, seasonal manager at a Lowe's store in Homestead, Pa.
Smaller, flatter lawns may be cut easily with gas engine-powered push mowers or even old-fashioned reel mowers, which are manual and require some physical effort.
Lawn size also could determine whether someone purchases a plug-in electric mower, which may be limited by the length of its power cord. Experts say the electrical current could become irregular in cords longer than 100 feet.
Cordless electric models carry batteries, however, that may supply power for up to 45 minutes at a time.
3. HOW MUCH DO MOWERS COST?
Prices for lawn mowers range widely in price, depending on the type and model. Here are some examples:
— PUSH: These no-frills, gas-powered mowers may sell for as little as $100 or as much as $300.
— SELF-PROPELLED: These mowers — the most popular on the market — typically cost from $250 to $800 or more. They include rear- and front-wheel drive models. Higher-end versions have gears so the speed can be adjusted.
"It certainly takes less effort, especially if you've got hills," Bob Markovich, home and yard editor of Consumer Reports magazine, said of the machines. "It just gets rough otherwise."
— PLUG-IN ELECTRIC: Plug-in electric mowers may cost anywhere from from $175 to $250. Some people may find the power cords on these machines get in the way of mowing and limit mobility and range. But plug-in electric mowers are exceptionally light and don't require oil or gas, making them appealing to first-time mowers who may be unfamiliar with the workings of gas engines.
— CORDLESS ELECTRIC: Cordless electric models may cost upward of $400. Although they have been made largely from plastic in recent years, they are now available with steel decks. "People tend to be hesitant to spend $400 on an all-plastic mower," said Rada, the buyer for Sears.
— MANUAL REEL: Traditional reel mowers may sell for anywhere from $120 to nearly $300. Some buyers like them because, like electric mowers, they are environmentally friendly, emitting no pollutants. They also make mowing the lawn a form of exercise because the user must push the mower to rotate the blades.
4. WHAT FEATURES ARE AVAILABLE?
Engine-powered walk-behind mowers may have cutting decks with a "mulching" feature. That means grass clippings are trapped under the deck and cut repeatedly before being deposited as a kind of fertilizer.
"Mulching is great because it helps feed the grass," said Markovich of Consumer Reports.
Some mowers have bags that catch the clippings, which later can be dumped, though Markovich cautions that piles of grass clippings may attract rodents. Other mowers simply discharge cuttings from the side of the machine back onto the lawn.
Some mowers have electric starters in addition to traditional pull-starters, which provides some flexibility.
5. ARE THEY SAFE?
Since the 1980s, lawn mowers have been equipped with hand levers that must be clasped by the operator. If released, the mechanism will disengage the blade or shut down the motor. Mowers also have flaps designed to prevent feet from slipping under their decks.
Even with those safety features, though, experts warn against mowing wet, slippery grass. That can be dangerous because people can slip and fall more easily.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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