RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Workers in Wisconsin are turning out a new kind of lawnmower. Their company hopes it will change the image of riding lawnmowers as noisy and dirty. This new motor is quieter, it's greener, and according to the company, it is the first battery-powered, riding lawn mower for the mass consumer market. Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.
CHUCK QUIRMBACH: For more than 50 years, the Ariens Company has been making lawn mowers in the small town of Brillion, Wisconsin. Inside the Ariens factory, hundreds of mower parts are being welded, painted and assembled.
(Soundbite of lawn mower starting)
QUIRMBACH: Out back, on a patch of grass, employees test the sound of the mowers, like this gas-powered, riding mower. Ariens makes several models of gas-powered riders, but soon at Home Depot Stores, you'll be able to buy this new, battery-powered mower. It's called the AMP Rider.
(Soundbite of lawn mower starting)
QUIRMBACH: Though some might still find this mower too noisy, Ariens says it's only half as loud as its gas-powered sibling. The company also says the new mower doesn't directly pollute the air, require any messy oil, and rides more smoothly than its gas counterpart. That could be big news in an industry that sells a million and a half riding mowers in the U.S. each year. Company President Dan Ariens says while the AMP Rider is not quite the holy grail of lawn mowers, it is an innovation.
Mr. DAN ARIENS (President, Ariens Company): We've come up with a product that's very easy to operate. It is very quiet. It's going to cut a substantial amount of grass for the typical American home. And from that standpoint, maybe we're at least out reaching for the grail.
QUIRMBACH: Ariens insists that the battery-powered mower will, in most cases, perform just as well as a gas-powered model. He worries, though, that a recession is a tough time to bring out any new product, especially one with a bigger price tag. The AMP Rider sells for around $3,300, hundreds more than some comparable, gas-fueled riding mowers. The Toro Corporation in Minnesota says it is working on alternative-powered mowers, too. But research director Dana Lonn says concern about consumer reaction has kept them out of the big-box stores.
Mr. DANA LONN (Research Director, Toro Corporation): I will tell you the consumer market is very challenging, just because price is so key to penetration in that market. It's hard in the Home Depot to convince somebody to buy a product that costs a little bit more.
QUIRMBACH: But Lonn says Toro is keeping close tabs on Ariens' experiment with a new, battery-powered riding mower. So are environmentalists like Rosemary Wehnes. She works for the Sierra Club in Wisconsin and is part of the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership with labor groups. Wehnes says while many consumers won't spend $3,300 for a riding mower, prices will likely drop if companies embrace the technology.
Ms. ROSEMARY WEHNES (Environmentalist, Sierra Club; The Blue Green Alliance): It's really important to see that companies are investing in new technology that will help maintain the jobs we have and hopefully, create more green jobs in the future.
QUIRMBACH: The Ariens Company says recharging its new riding mower will cost about $40 a year, about one-fifth the cost of running and maintaining a gasoline-powered riding mower. And that spread increases if gas prices go back up.
For NPR's News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.
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