What is a Self-Propelled Lawn Mower?

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Updated June 27, 2022

Is the best electric lawn mower self-propelled?

When it comes to traditional, walk-behind mowers, buyers usually have a choice between a “push” mower and a “self-propelled” mower. To newcomers while finding the best electric lawn mowers, the difference may be a little confusing, if not one in the same. It’s not. So we have a quick guide on what is a self-propelled lawn mower.

What is a Self Propelled Lawn Mower and How It Works

mower types infographic gadgetreview 750x1875 1A self-propelled mower uses a basic drive shaft, similar to that found in vehicles, that connects the wheels to the motor.

When engaged, the self-propel options kicks in, and part of the mower’s engine power is directed to turning the wheels. Some systems affect just two wheels, and some heavy-duty mowers have four-wheel drive.

Typically the drive system is activated by squeezing a lever (sometimes called the bail bar) near the mower handle.

Many mowers have basic speed adjustments that control how fast the wheels turn. Let go of the handle and the lever is automatically released, so the movement stops.

It’s all pretty intuitive, although mower models can differ greatly on how well these functions perform and how sensitive controls are.

The best self-propelled mowers have a very responsive activation lever – allowing you turn the propulsion on and off instantly as you navigate and turn the mower.

Pro tip: don’t turn the mower with the propulsion engaged, as this can cause damage unless your mower is front wheel drive and you can lift it onto the back wheels.

At least a few different speed options are also nice to have: Different people may use the mower at different speeds, and faster speeds are nice to engage if the grass is still low and you are doing a vanity cut.

Note that self-propelled mowers are a distinct class of walk-behind mower. It’s easiest to understand if you divide mowers into 3 categories.

  1. Push mower: These are walk-behind mowers where you supply all the pushing power. They are best for smaller yards and lighter mowers made with plastic materials instead of metal that can decrease the weight of the mower by a dozen pounds or more.
  2. Self-propelled mower: These walk-behind mowers have a drive system that enables propulsion, which takes much of the effort off your arms and makes mowing easier.
  3. Riding mower: These mowers act more like vehicles, with powerful drive systems and a seat you ride in. You don’t have to expend any energy on long mowing projects, but the initial cost is much higher and they tend to use more fuel.

Many mowers these days are also electric and use batteries as a source of power. Some of these electric mowers are also self-propelled – but it’s a different experience than using the feature with a gas mower.

In a gas mower, the extra propulsion energy will eat up more fuel, but otherwise, there isn’t much of a difference, because gasoline engines work well with this setup. The efficiency of the engine will probably make more of an impact on fuel usage than self-propulsion.

Batteries, however, tend to struggle with self-propulsion. A powerful battery will provide enough power to propel the mower, but it will sap battery life more quickly.

As a result, the battery becomes depleted and the mower struggles to work properly, which can make it difficult to mow larger lawns on a single charge. Your battery may only last 2/3 as long as it would without the propulsion engaged before the mower starts have trouble cutting grass!

We have also encountered electric mowers with propulsion speed settings that didn’t appear to do anything at all, as the battery simply couldn’t supply enough power to make a difference. So be wary of paying extra for propulsion systems on electric mowers, especially if you haven’t had a chance to try them out.


Bail Bar
The bail bar

Do You Need a Self Propelled Lawn Mower?

For most people, it depends on how large the lawn is! Some brands claim that self-propelled mowers are good for yards around ¾ of an acre. In our experience, this is a low estimate.

An acre of land is really not that much to mow quickly: there’s not any need to upgrade to a full riding lawnmower unless you are dealing with at least a few acres and really need the help.

We suggest using a self-propelled mower for up to 1 1/2 acres (particularly flat, broad lawns that are easy to mow), and considering a riding lawn mower for yards larger than 1 acre.

Self-Propelled Lawn Mowers and The Type of Terrain They’re Good for

However, there is another important factor – the terrain. A self-propelled mower is a great choice if there are a lot of hills you need to mow, or other awkwardly shaped lawns that take a lot of effort to navigate.

In these cases, self-propelled lawnmower may be an ideal choice even if you have a smaller lawn, such 1/4 of an acre or less. Your current physical health and strength also play a role here, but many people won’t want to push a heavy mower up and down hills all day regardless of the aforementioned.

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