Is Now the Time to Switch to Electric Outdoor Tools?
Gas-powered yard machines rule for large properties. But electric versions offer their own advantages, including cleaner operation, less smell, and less noise.
In neighborhoods across the country, a quiet—or at least quieter—revolution is taking place.
The roar of gasoline-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, string trimmers, and other outdoor power tools is being replaced by the less-punishing whir of their electric counterparts.
Joining this revolution is a choice for many consumers, and a decree for others. Some 100 municipalities, including big cities like Boston, New York, and Seattle, and smaller communities like Montclair, N.J., and Sanibel, Fla., have banned gasoline-powered leaf blowers or restricted their use.
Should You Switch to Electric Outdoor Tools Now?
Electric outdoor tools offer other benefits. They don’t emit smelly fumes. Larger electrics don’t require the messy maintenance—oil and spark plug changes, and winterizing—that gas models do. You don’t have to run to the gas station to get fuel. And the power source—typically, lithium-ion batteries—can often be shared among tools of the same brand.
But for consumers with a choice, an electric future is a potentially costly commitment. So if your community isn’t requiring you to change, should you switch now to electrics or just maintain your gas power tools until they die? Will those electric products perform as well? And with battery technology still evolving, is it wise to invest now or wait?
Here’s the best advice Consumer Reports can offer right now on going electric outside.
Do Electric Power Tools Work as Well as Gas?
When we analyzed performance data on leaf blowers, string trimmers, and walk-behind lawn mowers, we found that gas models still rule for large yards. That’s because they can go on forever, as long as you have fuel on hand. But electrics perform well for many other situations.
String trimmers: If you had to choose one type of trimmer blindly off the shelf, gas gets the edge. But if you do some research, you can easily find an electric string trimmer that matches or beats the performance of gas models.
Leaf blowers: At first glance, it might look like a draw, but when you look closer, electric leaf blowers are the clear winners. The only scenario in which a gas leaf blower truly makes sense is if you’re not ready to go electric and you have a big yard filled with leafy, deciduous trees.
Lawn mowers: On average, gas walk-behind mowers slightly outmatch electrics purely on cutting performance. But the best electrics and gas compete evenly on the measure. And for noise, maneuverability, and ease of maintenance, electric mowers have the advantage.
Which Brands Get More Top Reliability Scores: Electric or Gas?
For top-tier reliability, you have far more choices among battery and corded electric leaf blower and string trimmer brands. But our survey-based reliability ratings of walk-behind lawn mower brands show gas-powered brands have a slight edge.
Leaf blowers: Not a single gas handheld brand earned above a middling reliability rating. In contrast, nine out of 10 corded electric and 12 of 16 battery handheld brands earned favorable reliability ratings.
String trimmers: Nine of the 17 battery-powered string trimmer brands earned the highest reliability rating. No gas string trimmer brand could claim that distinction.
Walk-behind lawn mowers: In a field of 11 gas-powered push mower brands, three got the highest possible reliability score, compared with one of nine electric (battery) push mower brands. One gas self-propelled mower brand among 10 in our ratings earned the top reliability rating, and no self-propelled battery mower brand did as well.
Are Electric Outdoor Tools a Good Investment?
When we analyzed the costs of choosing an electric push- or self-propelled mower over a gas one, we found that generally, you’d save money with an electric mower within a five-year ownership period—if not significantly earlier.
The exceptions: If you buy a super-pricey electric push mower, you may not come out ahead over an expensive gas model. In fact, you could lose money over the long term. And if gasoline prices were to ever drop super-low—a few cents a gallon—an electric mower offers no purely financial benefit.
We haven’t done the same analysis for other lawn and garden tools. But in general, the higher the gasoline price, the more the math would favor electrics. "The initial investment can be higher for an electric mower," says Misha Kollontai, the engineer who leads testing of outdoor power equipment for Consumer Reports. "But after that point, a gas mower costs significantly more to maintain and run."
One factor we did not include in our analysis was the cost of buying a replacement battery. You’ll eventually need to buy a new one—something you won’t need to do with gas outdoor tools. A typical battery can cost $100 to $300, with some running above $400.
One way to deal with that concern is to choose a higher-rated product with a longer battery warranty; most last three years, and a few go as long as four. But, Kollontai says, realistically it can be hard to predict when you’ll need a new battery. "Following manufacturer recommendations on the use, charging, and off-season storage of your battery will help maximize its life," he says.
Should You Wait for the Batteries to Improve?
CR’s experts and others we consulted say VCR-style obsolescence isn’t in the near future for battery technology.
To be sure, newer lithium-ion batteries are developing rapidly, lasting far longer between charges. The amount of energy they put out relative to their volume—their “energy density”—has improved by a striking 19 percent annually between 2008 and 2020, estimates Simon Mui, an expert in battery technology who works for the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in New York City.
But makers aren’t going to just leave consumers in the lurch, Kollontai says. Manufacturers have already gone through a few iterations of their batteries and they are all still doing so, he says. “More likely than not, any battery you buy today will continue to be supported for years to come,” Kollontai says. “If a new technology emerges, it will likely be phased in slowly, and not replace an existing battery design overnight."
Toro, an outdoor power equipment maker, is designing its chainsaws, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, string trimmers, and other electrics to house more-powerful, future batteries that are the same dimensions as current batteries, or to house more than one size of battery. “We always wanted customers who bought into the platform to stay in the platform,” says Adam Russell, marketing manager for Toro’s residential landscape contracting division.
And because consumer-level battery technology isn’t very complex, an increasing number of third-party manufacturers will sell lower-cost, generic batteries to fit a variety of housings, Mui says.
When Should You Buy Electric Outdoor Tools to Get the Best Value?
If you’ve decided to commit to electric outdoor tools and are in the market now, don’t wait, says Courtney Pennicooke, the Consumer Reports market analyst who covers these products. While prices are on the high side due to continuing inflation from labor, raw materials, and transportation costs, higher demand caused by California’s mandate could make electrics even more costly in the near future.
“If you’re ahead of the game and buy now—or in early September when the sales usually take place—it might benefit you in the long run,” Pennicooke says.