Friday, May 5, 2017

Assault on battery.

Black Beauty, my gas-powered lawn mower, bit the dust.

A moment of silence, please.
It was barely operating at the end of last season, and as I got it tuned up this spring I realized there were some serious problems. Like, part of the chassis had ripped up around a bolt that held on the motor, so every time I pulled the cord the motor was getting closer to pulling off the chassis entirely. It was time to call it.

Fortunately I have another mower handy, a battery-powered one made by Ego that my wife bought me a couple of years ago. It's a good machine, much quieter than the gas mower, and cuts well, requiring no gas, no oil, no spark plug, no air filter. There are, however, some problems --- one related to the dumbest safety feature I have ever seen, but all the rest related to the battery.

Quickly, the dumb thing: The handle retracts for easy storage (the mower weighs nothing), but when one of the plastic clamps that holds the handle extended pops out, it stops running. So the operation of the machine is entirely at the mercy of a cheap bit of plastic, which by the way now pops out every time any torque is put on the handle, like if you might want to turn or something. So I have had to clamp it in place to keep the machine operating. That's poor design.

As for the battery, it's the same old same old. The real reason we're not all driving electric cars now has nothing to do with evil gas companies or evil car companies. It's the damned batteries. I'm no engineer, so I'll eschew the science lingo, but allow me to describe the six serious problems I have observed with batteries:

1) Short life: I have to recharge the battery three times to get my lawn done; four times if I'm dealing with wet or long grass (and as I mentioned a few days ago, these are not uncommon circumstances). I don't have the rapid charger Ego makes, so it's half an hour or more to a full charge. You get at least 45 minutes of mowing, so it's a net gain, but it's still very frustrating. What happens when you and your electric car are stuck in traffic for a long time?

2) Long recharge: As I say, the recharge takes quite a while and stops the whole mission cold. This is not a problem with a gas mower -- fill it and go. But the load time for large batteries is considerable. For the country to have fleets of electric cars running around, gas stations would have to be replaced with battery exchanges, where universal batteries that fit every car could be exchanged for charged batteries. You couldn't just have plug-in stations where people get the car zapped and go on their way, like in the Watchmen comic book. Batteries that load like that have not been invented.

3) Instability: Weird things can happen with batteries. If I hit a thick, wet spot of grass with a gas mower it might stall out. The clog can be cleared and the mower restarted. If I do that with the Ego, the battery gets overloaded and has to shut down. The whole thing can discharge. It doesn't make it unsafe, or more so than gasoline, but it is another level of inconvenience, because you have to give it time to cool down.

4) Environmental hazards: Two things about batteries that make them less enviro-friendly than people may think: a) The juice still has to be generated somewhere, and it's not going to be solar and wind but almost entirely natural gas, coal, and nukes; b) Batteries are basically micro-Superfund sites of toxic materials. This doesn't relate to problems with my mower, but it's interesting. Storing energy is a lot harder than people think. Nature's spoiled us by storing it underground in delicious oil.

5) Price: Yes, I could buy a second Ego battery and have one charging while I use the other, but their cheapest lawn mower battery (2.0 amp) is $129. Their most expensive one (7.5 amp) is $386, the price of a good gas push mower.

6) Energizer vs. Duracell: Most Americans are aware that Energizer has a pink bunny mascot, but not that rival Duracell does too. Really!

Duracell's is actually older, but was only seen outside the U.S., so the two reached a deal in 1992, because obviously there's no way to sell consumer batteries without the use of pink battery-powered rabbits. That hasn't stopped the lawsuits, and there's one wheezing through the courts now. Couldn't one of them have been a tortoise? (Tortoise beat hare, as you know.) Or at least a green rabbit?

So those are my battery issues. I do have to say that thanks to my battery-powered mower and my clamp and the beautiful weather, I got everything cut yesterday, so I really shouldn't complain. It beats an old-fashioned push reel mower. Power to the people!
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