Summer buzz: a quieter mower

Watchdog group hopes consumers will weigh noise levels when buying their next grass cutter.

In the rush to leave for summer vacation, Nancy Sherman suddenly realized the lawn had not been cut. With her husband still in the shower, she darted out and began mowing - at 6 a.m.

Ms. Sherman lives in a closely packed neighborhood in Montpelier, Vt., so her early morning antics might have drawn brickbats.

Peace was kept, she says, because she used a high-tech Brill reel mower, a German "human-powered" model that's almost as quiet as mowing gets: about the volume of a microwave oven.

But that's not the case for most of America, where about 34 million gas-powered push mowers and 14 million riding mowers buzz neighborhoods on summer weekends. The typical gas-powered model puts out about as much noise as an air compressor.

Enter Les Blomberg, who's on a one-man crusade to dampen America's lawn-cutting fervor - not in frequency but in decibels. Mr. Blomberg's organization, the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, has just released the nation's first noise rating and ranking of 37 push mowers (see chart).

"We're just trying to inform the public so, if they want to purchase quieter lawn equipment, they can," says Blomberg, whose organization also fights other ugly noise sources like car alarms, boom cars, and leaf blowers. "Right now if you go to Home Depot, you're probably buying a mower right out of the box - and there's no way to test or hear it."

Blomberg hopes ratings will make noise output as serious a factor in consumer purchases as price and horsepower. If it does, mower manufacturers will try harder to make mowers quieter.

With the average mower lasting only seven years, the switch to whisper lawn-cutting could prove relatively quick - if consumers can be sold on the idea. Admittedly, that's a big if.

Using sensitive sound equipment, Blomberg conduct his tests in cooperation with Consumer Reports magazine, which tested for quality and durability. The magazine's testers already check noise levels at the operator's ear - but not at a distance where neighbors are affected. That's why Blomberg ran his tests 25 feet from the mower discharge.

So what's the quietest machine? Predictably, the new generation of human-powered reel mowers, with helix-shaped blades, took top honors. Quietest was a 17-inch machine from reel-mower maker McLane - followed by an upstart Brill model.

Electric-powered machines were not far behind. The Neuton, a battery-powered model by Country Home Products in Vergennes, Vt., rated 59 decibels at 25 feet - about the level of a normal conversation. The quietest gas-powered mower - a 72-decibel Ariens mower - sports a Honda engine.

At the other end of the spectrum - and three times as loud as the Ariens - is the 82-decibel Husqvarna 5521CHV. That's about the noise level of a hair dryer.

Are Americans ready to tone down their lawn grooming?

Terry Jarvis, who has imported Brill mowers since 1977 for Colorado-based Sun Lawn, says sales of the reel model are strong - and the machine's quiet operation is a key feature. "In the last decade, gardening has taken over as the No. 1 leisure-time pursuit," he says. "People like these machines because it makes their gardening so much more enjoyable."

But a handful of other lawn-mower makers say few customers think about noise when buying a mower. According to the product manager for the quiet Neuton model, consumers' first questions are: How does it cut and what's the price?

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