Reclaim Your Weekends
There's nothing like the look and smell of freshly cut grass, but unless you're paying for a professional landscaping service, you'll have to put in the time to keep your lawn in tip-top shape. You can spend hours every week doing the work yourself, the old-fashioned way, or you can invest in a robot lawn mower to do the job for you.
Available for lawns of all shapes and sizes, robot lawn mowers are relatively easy to set up and program, and because they're powered by rechargeable battery packs, they're extremely quiet, which means you can let them do their thing at any hour of the day without bothering the neighbors. They don't come cheap, however, and you'll pay more for features like rain and anti-theft sensors, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connectivity, a mobile app, and flexible scheduling capabilities. You'll also pay more for a model that can handle larger lawns that have steep grades and obstructions such as flower beds, trees, and ornamental decorations.
Read on to find out which robotic lawn mower is best suited to your lawn size and your budget.
How Robot Lawn Mowers Work
Robot lawn mowers look similar to robot vacuums. In action, it's almost like watching a Roomba darting around your lawn, tidying things up. When it comes to what's inside, however, things couldn't be more different.
All mowers use a battery operated motor with cutting blades, an AC powered base station, perimeter wire, and sensors that prevent them from wandering off your property or into the street. With one end of the perimeter wire connected to a terminal on the base station, the wire is laid along the border of your lawn and held in place using stakes that are similar to those used to pitch a tent. The other end of the wire terminates back at the base station and is connected to the second terminal. The base not only charges the mower but provides the wire with an electrical charge. Sensors on the mower use the charged wire to guide it along the boundaries and to return to the base when the lawn is cut or when the battery needs to recharge.
Speaking of battery, the mowers use a rechargeable battery pack (typically lithium ion) that can last anywhere from 30 minutes for an entry-level model designed for small lawns, up to four-plus hours for a high-end mower designed to handle larger property. Depending on the size of the mower and the battery capacity, you can expect charging times of anywhere from 30 minutes up to two hours or more.
Programming is typically done using an onboard control panel that has On and Off buttons, as well as menus for setting seasonal timers, scheduling cutting times, creating zones, configuring edge cutting settings, running diagnostics, and viewing the cutting history. Nearly all robotic mowers are very quiet and operate in the 55dB to 60dB range, but there are a few models out there that can put out up to 75dB of sound. You can run the quieter mowers at night (some even have headlights), but the louder models should probably be limited to daytime duty unless you're trying to irritate your neighbors.
Lawn Size and Cutting Deck
Before purchasing a robotic lawn mower, you first need to figure out how much lawn it will be required to cut, or its working area capacity. Residential models typically have a working capacity of 0.20 acres up to 1.25 acres. A mower that will be used to cut large lawns will have a high-capacity battery pack that allows it to work longer and travel farther between charges. The shape of your lawn will also come into play: If you have things like flower beds, trees, and lighting, the mower has to use more battery power to navigate these obstructions than if it were just cutting a rectangular or square plot.
The cutting deck refers to the area underneath the mower where the blades spin. Most robotic mowers use a floating deck design that allows you to quickly adjust cutting height while allowing the mower to navigate the contours of your lawn without scalping the grass in higher spots. Different mowers use different types of cutting blades. For example, some mowers use a single spinning blade configuration while others use multiple spinning blades or a spinning disc lined with multiple razor blades.
The mower's cutting width determines how wide a swatch it will cut on a single pass. Models designed for smaller lawns may only have a 7-inch cutting width, while mowers designed for big lawns offer cutting widths of around two feet. All robotic mowers cut the grass into a fine, almost sawdust-like state that works its way into the soil as mulch that fertilizes your lawn. Equally important, there's no bagging involved.
Price and Features
Robotic lawn mowers don't come cheap, but in most cases light-duty mowers are going to be significantly more affordable than their heavy-duty counterparts. Whatever you do, make sure you buy a mower that can handle your lawn. Most vendors have online calculators to help you choose the right model for your needs, and many of them will send a dealer representative out to your house to do a site check to help you make the right choice. You can expect to pay anywhere from $600 and up for a barebones model, and up to $3,500 for a mower that will handle over an acre of lawn and comes with all the bells and whistles. Dealers that require professional installation may add hundreds of dollars to the total cost.
Once you've narrowed down your choices based on lawn complexity and working capacity, it's time to consider features. Look for a mower that offers flexible programming options that allow you to create schedules for multiple zones. For example, it you have a large lawn, you might want to split it into multiple zones and have the mower concentrate on specific zones on specific days. With multi-zone schedules, the mower will travel directly to the specified area before it begins cutting, which saves battery life.
Most robotic mowers will operate in rainy conditions but it can get messy: caked up grass cuttings will stick to the cutting deck and the deck and blades will eventually require cleaning, and some mowers might have trouble with wheel slippage. Look for a mower with a weather-sensing feature that tells it to return to the base in the event of a heavy downpour.
If you have a lawn with lots of hills and slopes, you'll want a mower with large wheels that can navigate the changing landscape. Most mowers can handle slopes of up to 20 degrees, but some can handle slopes of up to 30 degrees.
All robotic mowers let you adjust the cutting height using a dial on the mower, and some models let you make this adjustment electronically at the control panel or via a mobile app. While all mowers use perimeter wires and advanced algorithms to ensure total lawn coverage, some models also utilize GPS technology that tells the mower where it's been and where it needs to go. Some robotic mowers offer built-in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or cellular circuitry that lets you program and control the mower using a mobile app and track mowing progress from anywhere.
There are even a few models out there that let you use your phone as a remote control to guide the mower to certain areas for spot maintenance, and use Amazon Alexa voice commands to begin and pause mowing. Other features to look for include a dedicated remote, spare cutting blades, and an anti-theft system that shuts the mower down when it is picked up and requires a unique PIN to work again. Some mowers also have an audible alarm and use GPS tracking to help you locate it if it's been stolen.
Personal vs. Professional Installation
Installing a robotic lawn mower can be tedious depending on the size of your lawn, but it's not very difficult. Nearly all vendors offer online video tutorials and supply written instructions, a measuring tool for laying the wire, a spool of wire, and stakes to hold the wire in place. Count on spending anywhere from an hour on up (depending on the size and complexity of your lawn) on your knees laying wire.
A handful of robotic lawn mower manufacturers will do the installation for you, and some actually require that the mower is installed by a certified dealer. In this case, be prepared to spend more money and make sure to get a quote upfront, as it can be costly.
Once your mower is installed and programmed, however, all you have to do is keep its cutting deck clean, change its blades every so often, and kick back with a cold one while it cuts your lawn for you.