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Power mowers show promise as emissions standards wane

Power mowers show promise as emissions standards wane

Despite the well-publicized drought in Texas, outdoor power equipment posted solid results for the model year ended August.

Overall, the country experienced a wet, early spring that boosted mower sales, said John Liskey, marketing technician for the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, Alexandria, Va.

The U.S. economy is strong and all indicators, such as housing starts and disposable income, are positive, he said, notwithstanding the weather, the biggest variable, which could have produced a poor year.

Shipments of walk-behind power mowers rose 2.4% for ’98 models. For ’99, OPEI projects a 1% increase to more than 5.76 million units-the highest level since ’95.

Shipments of riding mowers showed a strong 7.4% gain in ’98, but are expected to drop 2.8% in the model year that began Sept. 1.

Push mowers are a steady, mature industry, so an increase of 2.4% meant a good year, Liskey added.

The engine horsepower race is still on for push and self-propelled units. Sears offers a walk-behind mower with a 6.75 horsepower engine, which it advertises as the most powerful engine for a walk-behind model. Kmart offers a walk-behind with a 6.5 hp engine. Entry-level mowers often start at 3.75 hp, up from 3.5 hp.

The power mower industry dodged a bullet back in the spring when the California Air Resources Board (GARB) delayed by a year the implementation of its new Tier II air pollution regulations for outdoor power equipment and weakened the new standards in the bargain.

Manufacturers now have until Jan. 1, 2000, to meet the new regulations.

Manufacturers had been under the gun to reduce emissions from larger engines, 60 cc and up, by 92% from present engines, beginning with engines made after Jan. 1, 1999. Now, they have an extra year and must cut emissions only by 67% by the year 2010.

On smaller engines, such as engines for handheld string trimmers and leaf blowers, the industry has to reduce emissions by 74% instead of the original 80%.

With the exceptions of Honda, Ryobi and Tanaka, manufacturers had told CARB in a March board meeting that they were unable to meet the timetables and pleaded for both more time and less stringent standards.

The three exceptions mostly have switched from two-cycle engines to less-polluting four-cycle models and urged CARB to hold its position since they already were meeting the ’99 standards.

In some cases manufacturers, such as Husqvarna, have added catalytic converters to their two-cycle engines to make them compliant.

Previous Tier I CARB standards, which went into effect in 1995, required a 30% to 70% reduction. That spelled the end of the side-valve engine and required switching to less-polluting overhead valve engines in models destined for California. Meeting the Tier II requirements may require the use of catalytic converters, as Tecumseh already has done on one push-mower engine. What the delay and weakening of Tier II means to the power equipment industry is that it won’t have to raise prices next year to cover the cost of meeting the standards. Briggs and Stratton, one of the major U.S. engine manufacturers, estimated that cost at $10 to $15 per engine, depending on size.

The CARB decision has meant some relief for the industry-but not a lot. Engine makers still have a lot of work to do in order to comply with the revised standards. And they will have to pass the cost along to their retailer customers.

Most manufacturers now make two models, one for California and one for the rest of the country. Segregation problems arise when dealing with national chains as manufacturers must ensure that the correct model gets shipped to California stores, Liskey said.

In an exception, Homelite, a division of John Deere, manufactures a leaf blower that can be sold anywhere in the country, said Tony Hoppa, public relations for John Deere consumer products.

In showing products to retail customers, Murray, MTD-Yardman and FHP (which makes Sears Craftsman and Kmart KGro private label mowers) adopted a new tack, skipping both the OPEI show in Louisville and the National Hardware Show in Chicago.

Jim Falls, Murray vp of sales, said his company finds it cheaper and more effective to hold private showings of its products at either its Brentwood, Tenn., headquarters or at retail chain headquarters.

Murray deals mainly with three major customers, WalMart, Home Depot and Sears (for Craftsman snow blowers), Falls said.

Implementation of Tier II CARB regulations will boost the cost of engines by about 2%, Falls said, resulting in a mower increase of $10 for push mowers and up to $15 for riders.

The next real push in California may be for reduction of noise pollution.

In a bid to reduce the noise level of its professional model leaf blowers, John Deere uses a full muffler and a special air filter to cut noise.

In product trends, Murray has seen a huge 30% increase in high-wheel, walk-behind mowers, Falls said. At retail, a high-wheel, 21-inch cut mower with a 5 hp to 6 hp engine sells for about $299.

Another trend concerns higher mower deck ratios for riding mowers. Murray now produces two riders with 46inch cuts; a 20 hp engine powers one and a 19.5 hp engine runs the other.

The most popular Murray rider, though, features a 12.5 hp engine and a 40-inch cut.

Falls predicted no new bells or whistles for ’99 Murray models.

Wal-Mart stores in the South as well as those west of the Mississippi (together accounting for about 60% of the total chain) carry Murray products, Falls said. Northern Wal-Mart stores carry MTD mowers, he said.

Target treats mowers as a strictly seasonal item, offering a special makeup line called Lawn Flite by MTD. Target opened its new Pennsylvania stores in late July without mowers, and stores in New Jersey were sold out in mid-August.

On the contrary, Wal-Mart was still very much in the mower business in mid-month.

Its North Brunswick, N.J., store was down to two pieces of MTD Yard Machine riding mowers, though one was a promotional model that included an MTD garden cart and a garden tractor that featured an 18 hp engine and a 46-inch cut. The price was $1,294.

In contrast, a long line of Murray mowers stood outside its Wilmington, N.C., store in early August, with retails to $1,250.

At North Brunswick, WalMart’s entry-level push mower was an MTD mower with a 3.5 hp engine and a 20-inch cut. No price was posted.

A high-wheel yardman push mower featuring a 5.75 hp Briggs and Stratton engine and a 21-inch cut, was priced at $169.94.

In the biggest merchandising news, Kmart made a swift about face from last year’s exclusive reliance on its KGro private label mower line.

For an opening price point of$109.99, the Kmart in East Brunswick, N.J., was carrying a Rally 20-inch cut mower with a 3.5 hp engine.

It also carried a Yardman mower by MTD at $299.99 that was self-propelled and featured a powerful 6.5 hp engine and a 21-inch cut.

Another Yardman offering was a 20-inch cut push mower with a 5 hp engine at $199.99.

The Kmart store also carried the Lazy Boy Chip ‘N Vac from Troy-Bilt at $399.99.

The bulk of its offerings, though, still were private label, dubbed Power Pro by KGro.

Kmart also was holding a 30%-off closeout on riding mowers, including a 42-inch, 14.5 hp rider at $999.99 regular price and a 42-cut, 18 hp model at $1,199.

A reconditioned 5 hp 22inch cut Power Pro push mower was $144.

A Power Pro high-wheeler with a 22-inch cut and 5.5 hp engine was $229.99.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Lebhar-Friedman, Inc.

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