News from the power-equipment frontlines

Consumer Reports News: November 08, 2007 03:11 PM

While the International Lawn, Garden & Power Equipment Expo got a name change in 2007, for those of us who write about yard and garden gear, the show remains a candy store of cool machines aimed at consumers and pros.

The event, which has been held every year since 1983 in Louisville, Kentucky, is now called the Green Industry and Equipment Expo. The moniker reflects a new partnership between the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, the primary trade group for power-equipment manufacturers, and the Professional Landcare Network and Professional Grounds Maintenance Society, which cover landscape pros.

Over the show’s October 25-27 run, some 650 manufacturers presented the latest mowers, tractors, blowers, trimmers, and other homeowner-oriented lawn-care tools and heavy-duty mowing and earth-moving gear aimed at pros. Some of the highlights I saw while walking the aisles at the Kentucky Exposition Center:

Mower companies romance “prosumers”
This year, mower manufacturers have targeted “prosumers”—homeowners who enjoy mowing the lawn, have several acres to cut, and want pro-style features without a pro-style price.

• Several companies are introducing zero-turn-radius mowers, or ZTRs, priced between $4,000 and $6,000—higher priced than the typical consumer versions we test but less than true professional versions. The premise: Blend heavier-duty construction and wider decks with less-pricey, non-commercial-grade engines. Models touting those features include Ariens’ XL and HD models (about $3,000 to start), pro-brand Dixie Chopper’s new Iron Eagle line, and Husqvarna’s new M-Series versions, along with John Deere’s new Estate series, which features a rollover bar like the ones on larger, professional machines.

• Beefier tractors are also hitting stores as manufacturers and dealers chase “premium” customers and added profits. Husqvarna’s new LS-series lawn and garden tractors begin at about $1,800 for lawn versions ($2,800 for heavier-duty garden versions) and feature high-backed seats, reinforced mowing decks that promise added damage resistance, and a hose port on top of the deck for easier clean-out after mowing. Husqvarna also touts the locking differential on its $2,600 2346XLS lawn tractor (for added traction), while Simplicity talked up the full-time four-wheel drive on its $7,000-and-up 4 x4 Prestige tractors (no lawn-tearing when turning is the promise).Bob Markovich

Marketers push more convenience, less work
Manufacturers are also wooing anyone who doesn’t particularly relish mowing and other yard work.

• Echo says the rotation gyro control on its new handheld PB-251 gas leaf blower (shown, about $160) prevents it from twisting in your hands as you rev its engine—a problem with some leaf blowers. It also promises the new blower will emit just 65 dBA at 50 feet, the usual limit allowed by blower-noise ordinances around the country. Locking blower tubes are another talking point for the new blower.

• Simplicity and Snapper claim their newest ZTRs are the shortest (just 61 inches) to help ease maneuvering and storage. Price: about $2,600 to start.

• John Deere’s Estate series of zero-turn-radius mowers touts a simple pedal-lock starting system that allows starting regardless of tiller-handle position. The tiller handles include recessed buttons to lift the deck and stop the blades.

• Kubota’s new T-series lawn tractors (about $3,000 to start) use the same two blades for mulching, side-discharging, and bagging clippings. The twin blades also turn in opposite direction, a setup Kubota claims improves performance.

• Toro and Lawn-Boy claim to make starting their walk-behind gas mowers less mystifying by eliminating the usual choke and fuel-primer bulb. A temperature sensor automatically richens the fuel mixture when starting a cold engine, according to Toro. A redesigned bag that’s designed to be easier to remove and reattach is also new on Toro walk-behind mowers.

• Toro has redesigned its single-stage snow throwers this year; these rely on rubber-tipped augers to scoop and throw snow as well as move the machine. Six new models include two- and four-stroke engines with manual or electric starting and begin at about $550. Talking points include a square, polymer chute said to better resist clogging and aim discharged snow in a narrower stream; a one-handed, lift-and-lock control for the chute-deflector angle; and a unique sliding control that spins the chute without the usual crank. Clearing width, at 21 inches, is also larger.

• Lawn-Boy’s new single-stage snow throwers share their design with Toro’s but have manual chute rotation and come four-stroke only.

• Ariens is reintroducing tracks on its larger, premium-level two-stage snow throwers, which these combine an auger and impeller that scoops and throws snow with wheels or tracks to move the machine. Better traction has been the claim for tracks, though some have tended to ride up on compacted snow and ice rather than through it. A unique feature: Models with tracks can be switched to wheel-drive and vice versa. The company also has a new 520E single-speed, two-stage snow thrower for smaller driveways (about $600) and a similar, variable-drive 624E version (about $700).   

Power tools clean up their act
Exhaust-emissions rules for gasoline-fueled outdoor power equipment got tougher in 2006 as California and the federal EPA adopted more-stringent limits. Engine and power-equipment makers are bracing for still-tougher rules arriving for 2011. Many two-stroke engines now use a catalytic converter like the ones on cars to help clean up the exhaust from their inherently dirtier fuel mix of gasoline and oil. Several companies are also pushing new cleanup technologies:

• Redmax and Husqvarna use a stratified-charge design on their two-stroke leaf blowers. Dubbed “Strato-Charge,” it incorporates a dual-throat carburetor that takes air and fuel in one throat and air alone in the other. The idea: Fresh air prevents unburned fuel from escaping with the exhaust, eliminating the added heat and weight that go with catalytic converters. New this year: A “Maxellerator” valve claimed to improve throttle response by richening the mixture only when the throttle is pulled.

• Stihl will also use a stratified-charge design on all of its two-stroke engines. The company also markets a hybrid, “4-Mix” engine on some of its backpack blowers. The idea: Combine a gas-and-oil fuel mixture that allows extended running in any position with a four-stroke engine, complete with intake and exhaust valves, for cleaner running.

• Manufacturers are also debuting electronic carburetors and predict an inevitable move to carlike fuel injection as emissions rules toughen and the race to save weight heats up.Bob Markovich

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