After four years in development, Toro came up with an electric mower, gentle enough for golf courses' defining greens.
It's been 90 years since the Toro Co. pioneered motorized grass cutting for golf courses by simply hitching five mowers to a tractor. It was a crude stab at innovation that eliminated an even cruder problem -- cleaning up after the horses that until then had pulled mowers over fairways.
Since then, gasoline -- not hay -- has been the primary power source for golf course maintenance. Now the Bloomington-based company has taken a step to change that, with a new lithium ion-powered, all-electric mower that's a first in the turf care industry. The mower is specifically targeted for greens, whose tender grass is demanding enough to dictate precise care.
It's the latest of several eco-friendly products Toro has launched in recent years, including hybrid mowers and water-saving sprinklers and irrigation systems. Many are aimed at the golf course market, which last year accounted for more than one quarter of Toro's $1.69 billion in sales, but others are geared for landscape contractors, farmers and homeowners.
Toro began exploring battery-powered mowers several years ago because it knew the golf industry was interested in machines that would not consume gas or emit carbon dioxide, said Helmut Ullrich, senior marketing manager for greens mowers. Another benefit is that they are quieter, so they can be operated for more hours during the day without disturbing neighbors, he said.
The company initially considered developing a mower powered by lead acid batteries. Jacobsen, a Charlotte, N.C.-based unit of Textron Inc., already has a lead acid battery model on the market.
"We couldn't come up with a mower with a lead acid battery that met customers' expectations," Ullrich said. The main problem was that the battery would only last for mowing two or three greens and then had to be recharged, a process that takes about eight hours. Golf course superintendents had told Toro they wanted a machine whose power would last for at least six greens.
Ullrich said Toro also thought lead acid batteries were too heavy to use on the greens' tender grass. They also need to be replaced every one to two years, while the lithium ion batteries on Toro's new mower are guaranteed to last five years.
It took about four years for Toro to develop the new mower, with batteries supplied by Enerdel, an Indianapolis-based manufacturer of commercial-grade lithium ion batteries.
Ullrich said the principal challenges included meeting the six-greens-per-charge requirement, a goal Toro finally exceeded. The company says its new machine can mow up to 45,000 square feet, or nine average-sized greens, on a single charge. Another challenge was managing the battery's power flow to ensure precise and even cutting. "Golf course superintendents can lose their jobs over greens," Ullrich said.
Rick Fredericksen, course superintendent at Woodhill Country Club In Wayzata, agrees that greens are a top priority. "You're really judged on them the most," he said.
Fredericksen said he began monitoring Toro's development of the battery-powered mower a few years ago because of Woodhill's focus on environmentally conscious practices. The course is one of 26 in Minnesota certified by Audubon International, a New York-based environmental education organization whose program sets standards on environmental planning, habitat management, chemical use and water conservation.
Fredericksen tried out one of the new mowers last month at a demonstration Toro arranged at Interlachen Country Club in Edina. "I was all on board with it," he said. Woodhill plans to buy three and will store them in a new solar-paneled shed along with two other hybrid fairway mowers it also is purchasing from Toro.
Ullrich said the new mower is expected to cost about $14,000 and will be produced starting in October at the company's Tomah, Wis., plant. The price compares with about $10,000 for a conventional gas-powered mower, but Ullich said Toro estimates the new machine should pay for itself within five years. In addition to not consuming gas, there are savings on maintenance, such as oil and air filter changes.
Ullrich said Toro will look for ways to expand lithium ion technology to other products. For now, he calls the breakthrough "a game changer" for Toro's golf business.
Even so, he won't experience the benefits firsthand. The 30-year Toro veteran chooses not to play the game, adding "I don't need those kinds of frustrations in my spare time."
Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723