From pumping to pushing

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 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.

“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 Co., a Shelbyville, Ind., manufacturer of manual and electric lawn mowers, says sales are up more than 60percent 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 300,000 push reel mowers are sold annually in the U.S. That's about the same as the number of electric mowers sold. Though growing, sales of both still are dwarfed by the roughly 6million 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 nonriding, self-propelled variety can go from $200 to $900.

Clean Air Gardening, a Dallas retailer that sells push reel and electric lawn mowers as well as composters, rain barrels and organic fertilizers, said sales are up 27percent this year. 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 outdoor division.

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 5 to 6 gallons of gasoline a year to mow a quarter-acre lot.

Lawn-mower 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.