By Derek May:
Keeping a neat and tidy lawn is a general expectation of homeownership. Some people take it as a point of pride, others as a chore forced upon them by a nosy HOA. But I think most of us enjoy a decently kept lawn, but also don’t stress a bit of unruliness. We get around to it when the weather’s right and time allows or when we expect company over. I realize now that’s pretty much how I treat my haircuts, too.
Believe it or not, after almost 20 years of some form of homeownership, I’d never had to buy a lawnmower. I’d inherited a couple from my father over the years and at least one other from a friend. All were standard gas-powered, oil-guzzling metallic machines that did the job. I had no real complaints other than when they broke down. I’d taken several into local shops, had them repaired, got a few more seasons out of ‘em. But a few months ago, the last of my workhorses finally went kaput, and rather than dumping more money into a dying contraption, I decided it was time to buy my first lawnmower myself.
Your personal lawn-care preferences will obviously lead you to the equipment best suited for your needs, but there are other considerations in this day and age. Gas-powered cutters are still very much the go-to standard. The prices generally range from around $250 up to over $600 for a typical push mower. Being self-propelled is probably the most attractive upgrade, but I’ve always found that feature more of a convenience than a necessity, though I think that depends in large part how you view the act of lawn care. Personally, as a pretty active guy with a small-to-medium-sized lawn, I treat it as a workout. So I never minded a little extra effort, but I certainly would never begrudge anyone who needed (or just wanted) the help.
But as climate change wreaks ever-more havoc each year and gas-prices soar, it seemed like maybe the writing was on the wall to start weaning off fuel-based equipment. I can’t afford a Tesla, but an electric mower was an enticing prospect. I’d kept my eye on their development on and off the past few years. Most of what I’d seen were corded models, and I knew there was no way I’d go for that. I use my corded weed-whacker maybe once a month—less because of the chore of trimming and more because of the pain of unspooling/respooling/constantly adjusting that 50-foot cord. Do that for a mower? No, thank you.
Finding the Right Mower
So when I started researching electric mowers I gritted my teeth at how much the convenience of cordlessness might cost me. But to my surprise, the de-tethered models weren’t that bad. In fact, they were often either comparable or cheaper than their corded or gas-powered brethren. A good sign!
I began my search for the most-suitable cordless mower at my usual haunts: Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Home Depot, etc. I couldn’t believe the options available nowadays. These electric mowers had come a long way, and across the board reviews were generally positive.
As much shopping as I do online, I’m still a stickler for getting my eyes on a product directly before buying. So I was a little dismayed that while all my local retailers HAD electric models in stock, none had the particular models I was most interested in. It looked like I was going to have to trust my digital senses alone and in the availability of a return policy (just in case).
I concluded that the best course of action for me was to go as inexpensive as I could. I don’t mind spending money for quality, but I’ve bought enough expensive new stuff that crapped out RIGHT after the return window or repair warranty expired to not want to be saddled with a third giant bladed paperweight. I figured if I kept my cost low, even if it turned out to be a dud I wouldn’t be out much, and if I liked the lesser model, a more expensive one down the road would be justified.
As far as manufacturers, my research determined that the Sun Joe company looked like a safe bet. They’d been around a while, had good ratings, and a nice variety. They had a very basic cordless model, the MJ401C, that might work. It was only $140 shipped from Wal-Mart (yeah, I couldn’t believe that either!). It has a 14-inch diameter and a 28V battery. Now, the latter there got me a little turned around. I’m no expert in the electric world, and I’m ashamed to say I can’t recall much from my high-school science classes demystifying the differences between amps and volts in terms of powering a small engine. And I think these companies take advantage of that, because each model tended to promote one or the other, but rarely both. So while I could safely assume the 13 amp mower was better than the 12 amp one, was it better than the 28 volt one? Heck if I knew!
What I did make sure of was that the battery was replaceable. Too many electronic devices either become worthless once the battery dies or require you to pay as much as buying an entirely new device to replace it. The Sun Joe MJ401C carried a battery that was both easy to swap out and generic enough I could find one online pretty cheap. Check and check.
Put to the Test
I’ve had my Sun Joe for a few months now. In general, it’s worked out well.
When it arrived, I was SHOCKED at how light the box was. The whole thing weighs about 20 pounds. This was often a point I saw extolled in reviews, as it makes it perfect for older people or those with physical limitations. But I’ve found there’s enough heft that it doesn’t feel cheap or flimsy. It’s a nice balance.
It was a bit of a pain to put together, not because it was complicated but because some of the fittings were not quite sized right. It took me about twice as long as it should have to screw in a bolt, but once I got it there were no other issues.
Charging is not difficult—it’s a standard plug you can add to any outlet or extension cord—but it is SLOW. It takes about 4 hours to fully charge. But once it’s ready, the machine is simple and convenient to use. No throwing your shoulder out cranking to start. You simply squeeze the lever on the handle and press the start button. Easy-peasy. Releasing the lever stops the engine, and there’s even a safety key should you want to use it.
The mower has two speeds, an average sort of “coasting” setting that automatically bumps up to a more robust gear to get through troublesome spots. It was advertised and reviewed as being able to go about 10,000 square feet or about 25–30 minutes on a charge in the first gear, less in the second. However, in my experience, things haven’t quite worked out that way.
As I said, I have a small-to-medium yard; the front and back are roughly the same size. I never let my grass get more than a few inches high on either side, but even with that I find this Sun Joe will always kick it up to the second gear after only a few seconds. At that rate, I have never been able to mow both the front and the back yards on the same day, as I could with my gas mower. I have even experimented with trying to manipulate the gears. The shift in RPMs is automatic; there is no lever or knob to manually control it. The only way to get it back down to “coasting” is to release the start lever and kill the engine. Then when you start it again, it’s back to the first gear. Doing this constantly in order to keep it in first gear DOES seem to extend the battery to the point I can MAYBE do a yard and a half, but it’ll never do both. Either way, I generally get only 20 minutes out of the battery on a mow.
Another drawback is that the battery life indicator is not visible from the outside; it’s hidden under a spring-loaded hood. This means you have no idea where your power level is as you mow (unless you stop to bend over and look). And once the battery is done, the mower simply shuts off. I’ve tried plugging it in for a half-hour or so while I trim and edge to see if it’ll charge just enough to let me finish my mow on the same day, but alas I’ve gotten only a few minutes more at best.
What that all means is I’ve had to change my routine from a single mow day to a double. Since I live in a hot, dry area, I can mow the front one week and the back another, alternating so that it doesn’t feel like double the work. It’s an adjustment for sure, but it hasn’t been as bad as I imagined.
As far as other features go, the mower came with a 10-gallon rear bag attachment to collect your clippings, but I’ve never used it. Many reviewers complained about how quickly it filled and the inconvenience of dumping it out several times a mow. I never collected mine anyway. If you don’t use the bag, then the back end is open, and everything shoots out toward your feet . . . which isn’t great. For an extra $20, you can buy a hard plastic attachment that will direct the debris off to the left, which is what I did, and that seems to have worked out fine.
For a $140 lawnmower, it performs more than adequately. It has enough power to trim the grass to a clean, presentable appearance without issue. It’s lightweight, environmentally friendly, and easy to use. If the battery charge lasted just twice as along, it’d be just about perfect. And Sun Joe (as well as other companies) certainly provide more substantial models that can do that, and I very well may upgrade to one of those at some point.
Which leads me back to where I started. I have 3 lawnmowers in my house, and only 1 of them (my Sun Joe) works. I’ve spent more time than I ever cared to trying to figure out what to do with those other two. Nothing I have found has been particularly helpful. Some sites suggest using bulk-pickup or other specific waste-management services. But everything I have found in my area has said they don’t/won’t take lawnmowers. You can apparently dismantle them yourself and recycle or even sell the scrap metal, but again this has proven to have its own issues. Goodwill and other donation places won’t take them either, especially if non-working.
Thus far I have found no way to get rid of these things, and now I’m curious how it will go once I need to part with my new Sun Joe. But I suppose that’s a problem for another day.
I suppose there’s always the tried and true method: anyone have kids I can pass these down to?
Derek May, of San Antonio, TX, is Editor-in-Chief and occasional writer for Flapper Press. He has written nearly 50 movie reviews for movieweb.com and completed 13 original feature film and television screenplays, many of which have been winners or finalists in such prestigious competitions as the Walt Disney and Nicholl Fellowships, the Austin Film Festival, and the Creative World Awards. He served as a judge for 10 years for the Austin Film Festival and Texas Film Institute screenplay competitions. His latest project has been the highly acclaimed stop-motion animation fan series Highlander: Veritas, which will release its second season in July 2022.