What Are Robotic Lawn Mowers And Why Do We Love Them?

By Terren Landscapes

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We’ve found the easiest way to describe a robotic lawn mower is to say “it’s like a Roomba that cuts your lawn.” That sells the grass-cutting powerhouses a bit short, but you get the idea. At root, robotic lawn mowers like the Husqvarna Automower® above are autonomous, grass-cutting machines that maintain the lawn for you. Like their floor-cleaning cousin the Roomba, robotic mowers also self-charge and run on their own, so that you can “set and forget” them just the same. And much like Alexa-based “smart” technologies for your home, most robotic lawn mowers are controllable remotely from anywhere in the world via an app on your phone or tablet—provided you have internet connection there, of course.

Beyond that, the parallels begin to fall apart. While both machines are obvious time-savers, robotic mowers go above and beyond Roombas by performing their task even better than a human could, while also saving time, money and reducing pollution. In addition, their heftier construction is specially engineered to handle obstacles and inclement weather their floor-cleaning cousins never could. So while comparing a robotic mower to other household robots might help someone get the gist of what we’re talking about, in the end it really undersells how much more advanced and capable they are, which is exactly what makes them so exciting.

The demand for “lawn roombas” has become especially prevalent in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic keeping everyone at home, as they eliminate most of the noise pollution landscapers would normally make cutting your grass. In a world of Zoom meetings and virtual classrooms, peace and quiet is more valuable than ever, and no one gets much done with a mower passing outside their kitchen window.

How Do Robotic Mowers Work?

Whether you do it yourself or use a local landscaping company like us, grass cutting is generally a weekly or bi-weekly job. But taking off one to two inches each week isn’t actually the best for your grass. While it keeps your lawn neat, removing a third to a half of the grass’s height each week stresses it and stunts growth, just like consistently cutting that much off any other plant would do. What’s more, if you don’t bag the clippings or blow them off your lawn afterwards, large clumps left on top can damage the grass beneath. There’s no way around this lawn maintenance conundrum with traditional landscaping equipment, because riding over grass multiple times a week will lead to visible tire tracks and excessive foot traffic doesn’t help either. Thankfully, robot lawn mowers are here to solve the issue once and for all.

Instead of removing 1-2 inches weekly, robot lawn mowers work by cutting a tiny bit off the top, every day, so that the grass stays healthy as possible and never loses its “freshly cut” look. Unlike traditional mowers, robotic lawn mowers won’t leave ruts traveling over your lawn, as they cut in random patterns instead of retracing the same paths. And with only a fraction of an inch removed each cut, the resulting grass clippings are small enough to filter to the ground, where they act as a light mulch and fertilizer instead of clumping on top.

“… Robot lawn mowers work by cutting a tiny bit off the top, every day, so that the grass stays healthy as possible and never loses its “freshly cut” look.”

Those horticultural benefits for your grass are great—and having a freshly cut lawn 24/7 is very appealing—but it’s the hands-off operation and overall convenience of robot lawn mowers that draw the most attention. Once set up, there’s little you’ll have to do to keep them working as intended. Unlike battery-powered, handheld appliances, robotic mowers return to their “charging docks” to recharge automatically after every cut, so there’s no need to switch out batteries or run an extension cord. And so long as your machine is given enough time to do its job, it can be scheduled to run whenever you want—even at night! Beyond that, all you’ll need to keep it going is a little cleaning here and there and some blade replacements down the line, but those are negligible, easy-DIY tasks that don’t even begin to compare to the maintenance required for traditional mowers.

For more about the specific features of the Husqvarna Automower® we use, check out their video below:

Installing Your Robotic Lawn Mower

Outside of configuring the settings (run time/cutting height/etc…) and connecting your bluetooth devices, installing robotic mowers is all about establishing the perimeter of your cutting area. Despite all the advanced GPS technology being developed now, even high-end models like the Husqvarna Automower® still require the use of boundary wires to contain them within the designated cutting area. These wires run along the perimeter, starting and finishing at the charging dock, where the machine stays between cuts. Some manufacturers suggest you leave the wires fully-exposed on top of the ground, but we imagine that greatly increases the odds of damage over time. For this reason, we always bury the boundary wires at least 3-4 inches deep, even if it is a little more labor intensive than the alternative.

“Landscape companies like us are happy to help with installation and maintenance, so consider getting in touch beforehand to discuss your options and plan the best course of action.”

Generally, the perimeter installation is very manageable—provided you have a simple, square lawn area. If there’s a variety of obstacles (garden beds, trees, etc), or a hardscaped area to cross over, the process gets a lot more complex and may require a professional contractor or landscaper. You could hypothetically run the wire around your entire landscape and let the machine loose to cut it all. But doing so will lead the robot mower to view hardscapes within the perimeter as more grass to cut, meaning it will run over them just like it does your lawn areas. The mower’s blades won’t damage—or even reach—those hardscape surfaces, but having a lawn robot operating on your driveway and walk can easily lead to it being run over or tripped on—neither of which sound very fun. Likewise, any garden beds within the perimeter will also be seen as grass and included in the cutting path, leading your machine to mow down begonias and get stuck in your shrubs over and over—also no fun!

Here we are connecting either side of the perimeter wire to the Automower charging dock

If there is a hardscape separating two lawn areas, your best bet is to cut through or bore underneath and run the boundary wire through as a single file line opening up on either side, like an hourglass or infinity symbol does. If this sounds complicated—it is; just cutting through asphalt or concrete and lifting walkway sections can require special tools and masonry experience to do right. And obstacles in your cutting area may require splicing the perimeter wire, running it out and around the obstacle, and splicing back into the perimeter. If you can do all of that, and are ready for some trial and error with the layout itself—you should probably be working for us!

In reality though, most homeowners are not able to handle something that complicated without help, and you should keep that in mind as you consider tackling the installation yourself. Lucky for you, a number of landscapers (including Terren!) now offer installation and maintenance services and are happy to discuss your options and plan a course of action for you beforehand. So if you’ve got a lawn that’s anything but simple and square, we suggest you give someone a call; it’ll make life much easier in the end

We decided to start with a Husqvarna Automower, which has been a hit in England for years already. We’ll keep you updated on how we feel about it after a season of use.

If cutting into and crossing a hardscape between lawn areas is out of the question, or if you have more lawn area than one mower can handle (about 1.25 acres is the maximum we’ve seen so far), your only option will be to purchase a separate machine for each lawn area you want cut. The cost of doing so will likely stop any budget-conscious homeowners in their tracks. But those who can afford the upfront investment will find it’s much easier than jumping through hoops to wire one continuous perimeter for one machine. As the prices drop and GPS technology improves to the point of eliminating the need for a physical perimeter, we expect this issue will become obsolete, as automowers will be able to cross hardscapes and avoid obstacles without issue. For now, that’s not quite the case—but soon!

Everything we’ve talked about so far has been based on our experience with the Husqvarna Automower®, which we feel is one of the best robotic mower models out right now. Most others have the same general features, like everyday cutting, smart controls, app connectivity and boundary wires. But some do things a little differently, and all have different maximum lawn sizes, cutting heights and steepness ratings to take note of. Some smaller options might not make it up a hill the same as an Automower® for instance, and that same automower might be more than you need for a 10’ x 10’ patch of grass out back. So it’s important to make sure the one you purchase is right for what you need.

Top Five Benefits Of Using A Robotic Mower:

At this point it should be obvious why we’re excited about them. They cut better, quieter and cleaner, all the while saving you (and us) valuable time and energy better spent doing what you love. But there’s a lot more to say about what they can offer us. Below is a straightforward list of what we believe are the top five reasons to purchase a robotic lawn mower:

• Zero emissions and Low Noise:

Without the gas motor, there’s nothing making high-decibel noise and spewing polluted air throughout your property. This means little to no disturbance as your lawn is cut, and no foul-smelling, smoky air afterwards. Some robotic mowers are even quiet enough to run at night while you sleep, which is 100% impossible with your gas-guzzling Briggs & Stratton mower from 1985. As municipalities across the country ban loud, high-polluting landscaping equipment (many to help facilitate remote work during Covid-19), low-impact alternatives like these are increasingly important. Just as other green energy options, like battery-powered string trimmers and blowers, robotic lawn mowers are poised to fill a huge niche once the days of old-school landscaping equipment are done.

• Low Maintenance and Increased Durability:

With no fuel lines, spark plugs or pull cords to worry about, lawn robots like the Husqvarna Automower® require little maintenance, lasting far longer than traditional, gas-powered mowers. Their lack of moving parts and easy-to-replace components make fixing any issues a breeze, and a replaceable blade system takes away the need for regular sharpening. Those already familiar with handheld, battery-powered equipment know that’s often the case with gas-free engines, and probably won’t go back to using old-school fossil fuels any time soon. Though it might take a couple years to confirm this is the case with Automowers too, we’re pretty confident they’ll hold up just as well.

• Perfectly Cut Lawn, 24/7:

Let’s say your landscaper mows your lawn every Monday morning. The grass looks great all week while you’re at work, but when you want to enjoy it on the weekends it’s already long again. If you’re lucky, you might get your landscaper to cut Friday instead. But no matter what day they come, a few days later your lawn has lost the neat and tidy look you like. This issue has caused headaches for as long as there’s been landscapers, but robotic lawn mowers are here to change that. Their daily, randomly-patterned cuts keep your lawn looking fresh and tidy all day, everyday. And by removing only a little from the top each time, your grass is encouraged to grow in thicker and healthier than it ever could with more drastic, weekly cuts. Better grass that’s always maintained? Sign us up.

• Set It and (mostly) Forget It:

Yes, you can control it with an app. You can tell it when to run, where to run and for how long. You can tell it to get back to its “dock” before a big storm (even though many will cut in the rain, too). And you can even pick it up and move it by hand if it wanders into a part of the lawn you’re busy sunbathing on. Best of all, you can simply automate all of that and get back to your busy life. We say “mostly” set-it-forget-it because they can get stuck in mud after a big storm or encounter an obstacle they can’t get around. But once you have the perimeter line set correctly, this shouldn’t happen too often, and you can always adjust the perimeter wire to eliminate any hang ups that reveal themselves over time.

• Far, Far Better For The Environment:

This might not matter to everyone, but in our opinion, it’s number one. Simply put, electric motors have only a fraction of the carbon footprint that gas-powered motors have, and their low-noise is less disruptive to both local wildlife and your retired neighbors. For environmentally-conscious, community-oriented folks like us, that’s reason enough to switch on its own. But if you’re still not swayed, keep in mind your municipality will likely institute a ban on gas-powered equipment (leaf blowers especially) sometime in the next few years if they haven’t already. With a robotic lawn mower set up, you’ll be ahead of the game and ready for that day, whenever it arrives.

The Bottom Line:

All these advantages make automowers seem like the future of lawn mowing. Unless they become self-aware like an army of robots in a science fiction movie, we don’t see any reason that won’t be true. As landscapers, it might seem counter-intuitive to cheer along the automation of lawn mowing when it makes up such a large part of what we do. But we’re excited—not worried—because we do so much more than mow lawns around town: everything from special horticultural services to landscape architecture is part of our wheelhouse, and those services won’t be automated any time soon. Installing and maintaining robot mowers will also become a common service over time, and landscapers will be the ones to take on those tasks—as well as the light string trimming and weekly weeding services that will need to accompany it.

Though getting a jump on an eventually wide-scale transition to automowers is a smart business decision, there’s more to it than that. As you may have read in our Quest for Green Alternatives: Part 1, this is all part of a larger initiative to reduce our environmental impact as landscapers. While battery-powered equipment does a lot to reduce off-road emissions already, automowers will also reduce on-road emissions as the need to haul big machines in big trucks with big trailers lessens. We consider this very good news and look forward to breathing in the cleaner air when the transition is complete; You probably should, too.

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