I, Robot: Will automatic lawnmowers win the lawn war?

Kya deLongchamps talks to the people in the know about robot mowers and crunches the numbers.

Robomow offers a wide range of tough, versatile robots. The entry point for a medium garden is a RC304 at €1,140 rising to €3240 for a Robomow RS635 with a large garden performance; dermotcasey.com.

The appeal of an automatic lawnmower is obvious — little or no time spent on the tedium, tramp and shove of the job. Still, with price tags for outsider-brands starting at €500, are they really a cut above?

Most robot handlers are messianic in praise, some building mini-me robot houses for their back saving buddy (trust me — look on Youtube). So, we’ve asked the experts to present their argument for taking on a grass-nibbling valet.

Green Rewards:

Niall Kelleher, sales representative at Atkins Garden World in Cork, stocks Husqvarna, a pioneering brand in the industry. “We are seeing a groundswell of interest. It seems to start with word of mouth — someone in the neighbourhood has one, and the results on the lawn are noticed.

“It’s worth keeping in mind that the regularity of the cut is what makes for a fabulous, manageable lawn. With no emissions they are also earth-friendly little machines.”

But — and it’s a big but — do the results compare to the earthly velvet produced by a traditional cylinder?

Tadhg Casey is sales manager at the family firm of Dermot Casey in Mallow. The firm stock Stihl Viking and the Robomow line of machines. “Absolutely,” he responds without hesitation “they are favoured by several of our customers who compete in gardening awards. Not only does the mower leave them free to do projects they prefer, but by cutting the grass daily, the machine ‘trains’ it down, and makes for a rich attractive sward.”

Sizing & features:

Niall explains that the right battery power is crucial.

“I would always advise someone to go up in the range of the machine for the acreage to save on the life of the battery.”

Robot mowers can cope with travel through multiple zones, mapped out in your garden, and top quality models will even allow you to lift up the machine and set them in a ‘separated’ or temporary zone that needs occasional attention. Consider recharging times for the mower you’re considering, if it won’t cut the area in one charge.

“I really like the Turbo Mow feature on the Robomows,” says Tadhg Casey. “if the grass is thick and neglected, this feature takes the power of the 2, 200w batteries and muscles through.

“This means you don’t have to borrow a push mower for that first difficult cut.” Rains sensors are an important feature too, as, given the occurrence of lashing rain in this country, the mower may think again before beetling out. “Viking Stihl offer Dynamic Programming, says Tadhg, “which reschedules the cut automatically if the weather changes.” And to be fair, most mower manufacturer make blades that can be raised for one-off long cuts at the start of the season.

Landscape preparation:

Do we need to suit our landscaping to the mower or choose a machine to deal with lumps, bumps, inclines, twists and turns. “It’s a little bit of both,” says Niall Kelleher, “homeowners are planning ahead, including rounded edges to their borders for example, and there’s no doubt that in larger, complex gardens, there will be areas that will still require strimming.

“A quality mower will deal with a 36-45 degree climb, but in wet weather, there can be some slippage if the power of the machine is not up to the job.”

It’s worth noting, too, that robots can and do fall into larger holes and from time to time need a helping hand on precipitous, rutted ground.

Cutting Edge Winners:

Why go for a top brand? “Husqvarna has a fantastic reputation for R&D, and their machine parts are all easily replaced,” says Niall Kelleher.

“The lifetime of these machines is therefore indefinite with proper maintenance.”

The entry point for a domestic Husqvarna is €1,120 for the Automower 105 (600sqm), rising through the range to €3590 for a 450X, capable of dealing with 45 climbs, 5000sq m and it also comes with the Automower Connect app.

This price closes in on the mid to top range ride-on tractor mower, which costs as much as €4500 and the usual choice for a large acreage.

Tadhg Casey favours the Robomow RC304 at €1,140 rising to €3,240 for a Robomow RS635, which is almost at commercial performance, he says, and one of the best on the market, capable of cutting heights up to 80mm with 56cm blades.

“What I would single out about our mowers is the solid blade which unlike the flail/ razor blade doesn’t need to be changed,” he says. “Irish grass has a wide leaf so a wider blade is much better suited to cope with moist, thick stems.

“Robomowers come with a blade as big as 63cm, compared to a more usual 25cm blade seen on cheaper machines. They also have the only floating deck currently on offer.”

Installation:

This part is quite self explanatory. “There’s a boundary or loop wire installed around the entire area to be cut. You can DIY it, or we offer a full set up service, says Kelleher.

“We start with a site survey to see what, if anything, needs to be altered — looking at the ground levels and soil conditions, examining any drainage issues — and then fix the best position for the base unit to be set up by a RECI qualified electrician.

“We need to ensure, for example, that the kerbs crossed from one zone to another are not too high for the machine to cope with.”

Site surveys are generally free and the installation work will take about a half day using a cable laying machine and comes in around €300-€360 for a standard 1/3 of an acre.

Running:

Once the garden is mapped out and the battery is charged, then the mower can take off — gliding under trampolines, and combing the lawn in a virtually silent, scheduled slow waltz.

Tadhg Casey explains that the weather can push back the expected mow times for a larger garden, as the sensor deals with heavy rain to protect the machine. Expect 2-3 hours for a midsized garden.

In terms of noise, many owners choose to run their mower at night.

“With low decibels, comparable to a dishwasher, you can stand three metres from a Husqvarna and not know it’s running,” explains Niall Kelleher.

Service costs:

Niall recommends an annual service for prime performance (about €100) and this includes stripping the machine down and upgrading software. Tadhg adds that maintenance on a ride-on is much higher. “As time goes on belts, pulleys and mechanisms on a ride on mower all have to be replaced,” he says.

If your robot has a standard flail/razor blade it will have to be replaced about three times a year, this comes in as around €35 for a pack of 9 blades (Atkins). Factor in c€10-€12 for the season if you don’t buy a solid blade system. Batteries (all batteries fall off in holding a charge) last for 2-4 seasons depending on hours of use. Replacement cost depends on the model, but approach €350 for a large robot — so get the numbers.

Operating costs:

Tractor versus mower: “A robot costs less to run for the year than any mobile phone!” says Niall Kelleher.

Tadhg Casey nails the number to around €15 for the season using their branded mowers. “Riding a tractor over three-quarters of an acre costs in the area of €8-€15 per run and that’s each time you use the machine.” So, robots are expensive, yes, but it’s all about what value you put on your time with a larger garden.

THEFT AND SAFETY

Pin protection is included with every good robot mower machine. Yes, the mower can be lifted, and the base disconnected due to its light weight — and it can be stolen.

However, with PIN technology, it’s impossible to make it work once the heist is electronically detected.

The thief would be faced with contacting Stihl Viking, John Deere, Flymo, Husqvarna (above) or whatever parent company the machine comes from, to have a PIN reissued for a machine registered to the owner.

New parts also have to be programmed into the machine during servicing. With GPS protection, the machine can even be traced – so along with an audible alarm if the PIN is not keyed in, taking a robot is not a good bet for a clued-in criminal. Still, for the sake of witless opportunist thieves, it’s worth putting your mower on your household insurance.

Spinning blades running unsupervised? Kids should not interfere with the mower – another reason to run the mower at night — and less chance of it being spotted by thieves, too.

“I like one piece bodies, as, if they are touched they instantly stop, making them very safe around children and pets,” says Tadhg Casey. If a mower collides with anything it will move away and when lifted it should stop instantly.

ROBOT MOWER GLOSSARY

- Severity of slope: The gradient the machine can deal with: 20-24 is good, 36 is very good. Some machines boast an amazing 45.

- Floating deck: Blades are able to move up and down to cut uneven ground cleanly.

- GPS: Allows the machine to ‘remember’ where it left off a cut and restart at that point.

- Schedule: 5-7 days schedules allow you to program and forget what the machine is up to. Remember the schedule can be interfered with by the weather (more rain, less cutting).

- Weather sensor: When the sun shines the grass grows more. With a weather sensor the machine will set out more regularly in drier conditions and back off when its raining —saving wear and tear.

- Recharge times: Depends on the size of the battery and the size of the area to be cut. Expect anything from 45 minutes to 2 hours, another reason to get your machines sized correctly to the job.

- Lithium-ion battery technology: This delivers machines that can be charged in under an hour.

- Forward mounted blade: cuts over the lawn edge. Handy for the uptight gardener in us.

- Docking station: Placed generally in a corner, Worx machines offer a drive-through action.


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