Riding lawn mowers are great for making quick work of lawn care. But they’re loud, jerky, and chug through oil and gas. An electric riding lawn mower promises to solve all of that. But after two years of owning one, I’m here to say don’t make the mistake of buying one. At least not yet.
I’ve owned a variety of lawn mowers, both of the push and riding variety, and have tried both gas and electric options. I switched over to electric mowers years ago, first with my push mowers and then my rider. And while I absolutely loved my electric riding lawn mower in the beginning, now I’m sorry I bought it. The purchase feels like a mistake, and it’s all down to using old technology.
The Benefits of an Electric Mower
Although it’s easy to think an electric mower sounds like a dumb idea, that’s not true. Range really isn’t as much of an issue as you might assume. While corded electric mowers were once a thing, battery tech has come a long way. If you have an electric push mower, chances are a single battery can get through the average 1/4th acre yard found in the US, and if not, you can swap it out with another battery on the fly.
It helps that companies selling electric push mowers also typically sell other yard tools, like weed whips, that use the same batteries. It’s a lot like power tools at this point—stick with a brand, buy more batteries, and you’ll have plenty of juice for the job. And you get other benefits along the way.
For one, whether we’re talking push or riding, electric mowers are much quieter thanks to skipping the traditional engine. Depending on your machine, the loudest part will be the blades themselves; you may not even need hearing protection as you do with conventional mowers. In the case of my riding lawn mower, I once helped out a neighbor who ran out of gas partway through a mowing job. When I started moving, she grabbed my attention as though something was wrong. It turned out she thought I hadn’t started the blades on the machine because it was so quiet.
An electric mower is easier to use, too. No seriously. Think about all the times you’ve pulled the chain of a gas mower only to have to pull it again and then a third time. If you’re lucky, that’s all it took. Even with a riding lawn mower, you’ve probably dealt with getting everything set just right, so it starts when you turn the key. Electric mowers are nothing that. You push a button, and it just goes. Every single time, assuming you remembered to charge the battery.
On top of all that, while an electric mower is typically more expensive to purchase than a gas mower, it’s also less costly to use. Electricity is cheaper than gas, especially right now, and you won’t have to deal with oil. Depending on where you live, it’ll cost you pennies to mow your lawn with an electric mower.
When I first purchased my electric riding lawn mower, I loved it for all these reasons. It starts quickly, it’s quiet, it doesn’t cost much to run, and it felt like I finished mowing the lawn faster than with my old gas-riding lawn mower.
But two years later, I’m not so in love with it anymore.
The Problem With Most Electric Riding Lawn Mowers
The first year and a half I owned my riding lawn mower, I loved the thing. But starting this summer, I changed my mind. In fact, I can’t in good conscience advise anyone to buy an electric riding mower right now. You should not buy one at all. You’re better off with a gas mower, at least for the next few years.
Why did I change my mind so much? The batteries. When you buy an electric push mower, you get a nice set of easy-to-change long-lasting lithium-ion batteries. But that’s not the case with an electric riding mower. Instead, most currently use a Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) battery. You’re probably already familiar with SLA batteries—there’s one in your car. Yes, it’s the same kind of battery your car uses. And chances are, if you have a gas riding mower, it also uses one as well!
But there’s a big difference between how your gas riding mower, your car, and an electric riding mower use that battery. In very basic terms with the former two, the battery starts the engine before the gas components take over to keep things going. After that, the battery powers other electrical functions, like those useless headlights on your mower.
Electric riding mowers are entirely reliant on SLA batteries. In the case of my machine, it houses four SLA batteries under the seat, and they all work together to provide 48 volts or about an “hour of run time.” My mower promises to get through an acre before needing a recharge, but I can tell you from my experience that’s inaccurate. It’s probably something closer to 3/4ths of an acre.
So what’s bad about that? Well, SLA batteries are, frankly, terrible. They don’t last long at all and are easy to damage. They work well enough in a car (though some people might disagree) because most people drive their vehicles daily. But you probably don’t mow your lawn every day, and you definitely don’t during the winter.
And therein lies the problem. Buy any electric mower with an SLA battery, and you’ll find heavy warnings:
Always connect the mower to the charger when the unit is not in use. If it is not possible to leave the mower charger connected, make sure to charge the batteries fully at least once a month.
Unlike other battery tech, SLA batteries need to remain charged, and letting them drop below 50% can damage them. They don’t do well with cold either. Ignore those warnings, and you can kill batteries. Or the batteries may not hold a charge anymore. We tried our best to keep to those rules, but our batteries aren’t working correctly two years later.
I think range issues ended up killing the batteries. Our mower is rated for a full acre before needing a recharge, but it’s realistically closer to 3/4ths an acre. We have a half acre of land, so just mowing the lawn regularly drained the battery below 50%. Again, going below 50% can deplete an SLA battery’s recharge life.
From the information I’m now getting from the battery indicator display, I can tell two of the four batteries are dead. That tracks, as when I get the mower to start (it now takes several tries), I only get half the range I had when I first bought the mower. Two years in, and my electric mower needs two new SLA batteries—that’ll cost around $480 to swap out. And doing so requires a tricky procedure that entails taking apart the mower, dragging a heavy tray back, avoiding toppling the mower over in the process, then avoiding shorting out the system since the four batteries are tied together. It’s not pretty.
I spent over $2,000 on a mower that’s now half as useful as it once was, and I’ll spend hundreds more getting it back into shape. Only to have to repeat the process two years from now. That same mower now costs even more than when I first purchased it. A gas mower would be better. You might be wondering if better electric riding mowers are on the way, and the answer is yes. But it’s not all good news.
The Future of Electric Riding Lawn Mowers
Obviously, the biggest complaint and downfall of most current electric riding lawnmowers is the reliance on SLA batteries. And if that’s the case, the solution is, in theory, pretty easy—switch to Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. You probably own devices that already use Li-ion batteries. Do you have a smartphone, cordless drill, true wireless earbuds, or an electric vehicle? All of those use Li-ion batteries.
It’s not surprising that so many gadgets made that choice either because Li-ion solves many of the problems plaguing SLA batteries. It doesn’t damage them to drain the battery to zero (at least not as much), you can keep them charged all the time (modern tech prevents “overcharging”), it doesn’t suffer from “memory issues,” and as much it’s generally longer lasting. With a Li-ion battery-powered electric mower, you won’t have to worry about maintaining charge as much or plugging in over the winter.
So what’s the catch? Price. Electric riding mowers are already expensive. You’ll pay over $2,000 for a model that promises to mow just one acre on a charge, more if you need something that can handle a bigger yard. Compared to other similar riding mowers, that’s a 20% premium. But if you want to buy a Li-ion electric riding mower, the price goes way up.
Ryobi only recently started selling its first Li-ion options, and the starting price is a wallet-busting $6,000. That giant price gets you a mower that only promises to mow around an acre of land on a single charge. And remember, companies tend to overpromise and underdeliver on charge claims. When it comes time to recharge, you’ll need to wait an hour and a half to get back to a full charge. You can buy a model with more range, but each step up adds another $1,000 to the price.
Other mowers either go for a similar price or come from lesser-known manufacturers. The most affordable entry I can find is a Craftsman, tipping the scales at $3,000. But scroll through the reviews, and any comments not tagged as a promotion are pretty negative.
For that kind of money, you can buy professional-grade gear that’ll cut your lawn in a fraction of the time.
The bottom line is until prices come down and enough time has passed to prove reliability; you probably shouldn’t drop a ton of cash on a Li-ion electric riding mower. Push mowers, on the other hand, are a solid bet. Those work well and won’t break the bank. For now, electric riding mowers just aren’t worth the money, despite their benefits. They’ll either cost way too much up front, or cost too much down the road as you replace batteries again and again.