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Saving the earth, one lawn mower at a time

It turns out electric lawn mowers are better for the environment and would take some hassle from my schedule.

I have a small yard, with a lot of shade – depending on the weather, I only really need to mow every two to three weeks. When I bought the house, it seemed silly to buy a new lawn mower for such a small yard, so I accepted a hand-me-down instead. The hand-me-down has always been hard to start, and now no amount of cord pulling seems to help.

What could be wrong? Simple. It could be bad gas, old gas, water in the gas tank, sediment in the fuel filter or the bottom of the tank, a gummed up carburetor, not enough air, too much air, a dirty (or just dead) spark plug, a problem in the ignition system, or it could need an oil change. Of course I should have done more regular oil changes, changed the filters, and drained the gas before last winter.

Add to all that the time I spend pushing this loud, heavy thing around and this does not sound like an appropriate amount of effort for my tiny, wimpy lawn. Buying a new gas-powered mower will only alleviate the immediate problem, not the gas, oil, filter, etc., hassles.

And guess what? Gas-powered lawn mowers are horrible polluters! Apparently cutting for one hour is about the same as driving for 100 miles! I have a hippy-treehugger hybrid, so I can probably drive two hundred miles on that emissions budget. There have been moves to add pollution controls to small engines, but they are often blocked by industry lobbyists, or valiant crusaders against evil regulatory expansionism, depending on your point of view. I'm always interested in living more efficiently, so I think it's worth considering.

Let's add this up:

Things I like/don't mind:

  1. Being outside, even if it's cold.
  2. Walking
  3. Pushing things

Things I don't like:

  1. Adding maintenance of some device to my already busy schedule
  2. Polluting, apparently much more than I would have guessed
  3. Pulling and pulling and pulling and goddamn you why won't you start!

As I see it, I have three options:

  1. A manual push mower, just like grandpa used to have. Apparently modern reel mowers are not like grandpa's, since they are light and easy to use in many yards.
  2. A corded electric mower, just like that one neighbor used to have in the 80s. Corded mowers are apparently about as good as gas mowers with the drawback being the cord.
  3. A battery-powered mower. Although they don't last long enough for big lawns (not a problem for me), there are even robot models available.

I haven't had a chance to really look into manual reel mowers, but I did a little searching about electric mowers and came up with some ideas.

Anyone have first-hand experience with these, or other manual and electric mowers? I might even buy one just for the emissions savings, I'm that lame. But it sounds like any of the choices above would be more convenient, too. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

People who oppose wind turbines are lame

I'm a big fan of wind power. No, it's not a magical solution to all energy problems. Wind turbines are a worthwhile component of a cleaner, more efficient energy grid.

As large-scale wind turbines become more popular, cost is going down and efficiency is going up. As far as I can tell, the main argument against the big windmills is that they despoil the landscape. It turns out they don't really kill that many birds.

After seeing a few in action in Mackinaw, Michigan and on a trip to New York, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. They're actually pretty graceful – the new ones are so large that they don't need to spin like a propeller to generate a lot of power.

In any event, if the biggest problem is a matter of personal aesthetics, wind has a leg up on, for example, burning coal. So to those opposing the turbines, I have to say the argument against is pretty lame.

I've toyed with the idea of installing solar panels on my roof, but at my latitude, it's hard to justify. But what about installing a personal wind turbine? Rather than a familiar windmill-style turbine, a vertical axis wind turbine might just do the trick.

It looks like it's possible to build a small one, but I'm not sure how well the design (or my skill) would scale. I did run across a company called Mag-Wind that produces a really cool looking rooftop mounted vertical turbine . In addition to the advantages of vertical turbines, they claim that situating it on the ridge of a pitched roof offers additional benefits.

I'm not really sure I can buy one, though. The only dealer I can find is on Ontario, Canada. Maybe I'll drop them an email. I would be a little less skeptical if their site has photos of a working installation.

There are a lot of companies out there selling personal, home-sized or farm-sized wind turbines. I guess I'll have to do some more looking, and then a bunch of angry math to see if it's affordable—I'm not as worried about making a profit in the long term as I am being able to afford such a cool tech toy in the first place.

Of course, we could always cover the world's deserts with solar panels.

Save the world, one light bulb at a time

Are you one of those people who cares about things like energy efficiency and global warming, but you don't go around hugging trees? If so, you're in a tough spot – other than opting for a reasonably-sized car, there are very few things you can do to personally make an impact.

Add compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs to the list of ways you can make the world a better place. Fast Company recently had a great article about how if every household in the United States replaced just one regular bulb with a CF bulb, we'd save enough power to run a city of 1.5 million people. Slashdot followed with some great commentary.

There are two really big problems that make it hard to be an environmentalist right now:

  • Associating yourself with knee-jerk, pseudo-scientific “environmentalistsâ€? who believe in healing crystals and other claptrap, and
  • Finding things you can actually do that don't do more harm than good or require a huge, expensive sacrifice.

This is the real deal. I've been using CF bulbs since I got my own place a few years ago. They plug right in like regular light bulbs, most of the time you can't tell the difference, and the prices have gone down too. They're available at all the major retailers, and your power company has probably been recommending them in that literature they send along in your bill. But surprisingly few people seem to be using them.

Some pamphlets and web sites recommend simply replacing regular bulbs with CF bulbs as they burn out, but really you're better off grabbing a bunch tomorrow and switching them out with any regular bulbs that you use often. You can keep the old bulbs around as spares – these things will make a dent in your electricity bill immediately, so why wait? Retailers often have sales where you can pick up a 4-pack for less than $2 per bulb.

Most bulbs will give you a lifetime savings estimate right on the box, and in my experience they are pretty accurate. As a geek who stays up late with a lot of computers running, my electricity bill rarely hits $50 a month, even in the summer.

There a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Cheap, off brand CF lights are often crappy. Sometimes you'll run across people who have sworn off CF bulbs because they bought one that buzzed, flickered, or died quickly. There's a very good chance they bought a cheapy random off-brand CF bulb. To be safe, the big three (Philips, GE and Sylvania) are pretty reliable. I haven't had the best experience with Lights of America bulbs, but that's just anecdotal evidence.
  2. If you have a dimmer switch, you need a special CF bulb for dimmers.
  3. Watch out for lamps and fixtures that are a tight fit – you may need to buy an extension to get the CF bulb to fit, or just continue to use the old bulb for that particular lamp. Also, lamps that completely enclose the CF bulb may shorten it's life.
  4. If you have a room where color is very important, you might want to stick with conventional incandescent bulbs. Any new bulbs you buy now from a reputable manufacturer will make use of three colored phosphors to generate while light, somewhat like a television screen. The new ones are actually pretty good at rendering color most of the time – if you have seen fluorescent lighting that looked orange or pink, stark white, or made people's skin look like corpseflesh, chances are you're seen an old or cheap off-brand bulb that used just one phosphor.
On that last point, you really only have to worry if color rendering is extremely important. The bathroom might be a good place to keep conventional bulbs. In addition, an art studio or a room used as a gallery are probably exceptions. The best thing, really, is to just try it out.

Interested in learning more? In the near future I'll write a little more about how CF bulbs render color and which ones are the best.

Also, in the coming weeks and months I'll point out other ways to save money and save the earth (or at least the parts of it we want to drink and breath, the mantel and molten core are in no real danger).

Got any tips? Write about you experience with CF light bulbs below.