They Wrecked Our Mowers

When I was a kid, lawn mowers worked. You pushed them and they cut grass. The grass went into the bag. Then you emptied the bag. The results were great. There was no grass to rake. It all went into the bag, because that’s what lawn mowers did.

Then the feds got involved. Or so I now gather. I didn’t know this for a long time. Every time I would buy a mower, I would be disappointed in the results. I kept buying mowers with ever-larger engines. Then I would buy them with different bag designs, and then a different brands, and then different features. Nothing worked.

The problem was always the same. I would mow and most of the grass would go in the catcher. But some didn’t. Some landed on the lawn in a line. When the grass was wet, it left an even bigger trail. Or when I would go from the grass to the sidewalk, a big clump would fall out from underneath the mower onto the sidewalk, requiring that I get a broom and sweep it up. Then I would have to empty the bag long before it was full.

It took me many years of thinking to figure out the problem. After all, I never had this problem when I was a kid. Have companies started making lawn mowers that don’t work? Are manufacturers worse than they used to be? It all seems crazy. I would mow with a smartphone in my pocket that could check my blood pressure, make the sound of a flute or surf the Web. Why can’t private enterprise seem to make a mower that works?

I would try to forget about the problem, adjust to the downgraded reality and finish up the growing season. But the next year, it would all come back to me. Grass trails. Clumps on the sidewalk. Emptying too often. Buying a new mower and finding the same problem all over again.

What is the source of the problem? The spinning blade cuts the grass and creates a flow of air that lifts the grass and throws it into the catcher. A flow requires circulation, and where does the circulation come from? It can’t be a vacuum seal. You can’t create a small wind tunnel without a source of air. Where is this coming from? Nowhere. The base of the lawn mower is flush against the grass. The blades spin but create no suction effect.

Why is the base so low to the ground? I tend to mow my grass pretty low just because of the variety of grass and the topsoil level. But doing this causes a perfect seal between the mower and the ground, cutting off all airflow and denying the blade the air it needs to create the wind tunnel to empty the grass.

It is pretty obvious, right? So why have manufacturers not responded by raising the steel casing on the lawn mower? Why would they keep selling mowers that don’t work well? I’m hardly the only person who has the problem. Lawn mower forums all over the Internet are filled with people asking exactly the same questions and having the same symptoms. The manufacturers are shy to mention the real reason. They talk about changing blades, removing obstructions and things like that. Users know better. There is another factor.

I was just looking at the detailed regulations for lawn mowers. In particular, the relevant passage is 16 CFR PART 1205 — the Safety Standard for Walk-Behind Power Lawn Mowers. Here we find that the height of the lawn mower case must be low enough to pass a “foot probe” test. No matter how high or low the wheels are adjusted, it cannot be possible to stick your foot under the case.

Now, when I was young, you could stick your foot under the mower. We didn’t do that, of course, but we could. Therefore, there was suction. The air sucked from underneath and swirled up and out in the grass catcher. It was like running a vacuum cleaner over a floor. It shaved the grass, and not one grass blade was left anywhere in sight. It all went into the catcher.

The new regulations, which apply only to walking mowers that you use at home, went into effect sometime after 1982. I still used my old mower for years after that date. I fact, I didn’t have a reason to buy a new one until about 15 years ago. That’s when my troubles began.

Now I know the cause. The bottom line is that federal regulations have degraded the lawn mower. In the name of safety, the government has forced all manufacturers to sacrifice functionality. They are forced to sell equipment that doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. All the while, I’ve been blaming private enterprise. It turns out to be the fault of government.

The government’s central plan for walk-behind mowers is mind boggling. That bar you have to squeeze and hold on the handle to make the wheel move? Mandated by government. That annoying plastic piece that covers the blow hole for the grass that you have to push out of the way? Mandated by government. The government has mandated the blueprint for the whole machine and thereby frozen its structure in place with an inferior and unalterable design.

It is not enough that regulations have invaded the bathroom, ruined our showers and toilets, degraded our detergent, made it ever harder to unclog drains and made essential medicines hard to get. Now I find that regulations have even made it difficult for me to do something completely American like mow my own lawn!

It is now as it was in the 19th century when Herbert Spencer wrote his amazing work, The Man Versus The State. It remains a powerful explanatory essay about what is wrong with the world and what to do about it.

This also explains why so many of my neighbors are using lawn mowing services that have giant riding lawn mowers. It turns out that these particular regulations do not apply to them. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that lawn services were actually instrumental in lobbying for these safety regulations. This is how commerce works these days: Compete for a while, but when that doesn’t work, turn to the government to wreck the competition.

Government hates lawns — except at the White House, of course. They consider private lawns to be wasteful and vain, a symbol of conspicuous consumption. If they had their way, we would all have rocks in our front yards. Or maybe we wouldn’t have front yards. We would have little window boxes, and surely that would be enough for us.

It’s all in the interest of your safety. And security. What about your freedom? It’s been mowed under, and it landed like clumps of grass on the sidewalk.


Jeffrey Tucker

The Daily Reckoning