1970 General Electric Elec-Trak E15

Once you've had a taste (or whiff) of gasoline-free driving, you may find you want to flush the smelly stuff from your life altogether.

Most of the big home centers and hardware store chains have electric push mowers, in corded and cordless models. Electric chain saws and string trimmers are pretty easy to find there too. As with most tools, the cheap ones will give you service in line with their prices.

Electric yard vacuums are mostly adaptations of electric leaf blowers. I'm sorry to say that I have yet to find anything that's really comparable to the big gas-powered yard vacs. Recently Clean Air Gardening started offering a leaf vacuum - mulcher that looks rather like a miniature version of a "real" gas-powered yard vac. I haven't tried it.

Most of the electric leaf vacs are reversed electric leaf blowers. These, I'm sorry to say, are pretty weak. I find that putting a grass bag on my electric mower and running over the leaves is much, much faster and more effective than trying to suck them up with my Black and Decker leaf vacuum.

Electric chipper-shredders are available, but a bit scarce; you'll probably have to order one over the internet. The most common type I've seen is a light-duty, vertical Asian-made machine sold in various versions by various companies. It costs around $250-300. It's fairly small and limited in capacity, but can handle sticks and small branches, if you're not in too much of a hurry.

A far more substantial electric chipper-shredder is available from Patriot. This guy is built with the same bits that go into their gas chippers. It's solidly US made and far from cheap, but it'll probably last you a lot longer than the cheapies from McCullough and Yard Machines.

After dropping it for lack of interest several years ago, Mantis has brought back the electric version of their small tiller. We have the earlier version from about 20 years ago, and it's a trouper. Just be sure to store it away from moisture. Ours gave us trouble the year we left it in the barn over the winter. The motor's brush holders corroded, and the brushes couldn't move smoothly, so they soon wore enough to fall out of proper contact with the commutator.

If you don't want to buy new, look for the older electric machines. Many of them are still around, sometimes gathering dust in the dark corners of garages. Many were (and are) solidly made. They've often stood up well, even with years of neglect.

How about electric tractors? I know of one current manufacturer of electric utility tractors, Canada's Electric Tractor Corporation.

The best known electric tractors are the ones built by General Electric in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Elec-Trak tractors were built mainly with golf car components. They gave very reliable service with (of course) low noise and zero exhaust emissions. They got glowing reviews -- and pretty pitiful sales.

What can you expect? They cost more. EVs of all kinds always have trouble competing with gasoline vehicles on price because they're built in much smaller quantities. They're built in much smaller quantities because they're sold in small quantities, and they sell in small quantites because they cost so much. (I feel like I'm chasing my tail here.) To mix metaphors, this chicken-and-egg problem is likely to continue in a straight line until acted upon by some outside force. That might be a huge price increase for gasoline or a massive fuel shortage. It might even be an activist government (if such a creature can even exist in the US), deciding that EVs are a Good Thing® and promoting them consistently and effectively.

Don't hold your breath.

But to continue with the history of the Elec-Trak ("ET"):

In the mid 1970s, with sales slow and getting slower, General Electric decided to cut the ET division loose. The employees tried to buy it, but they didn't get their financing lined up in time to keep it from being sold to Wheel Horse.

Wheel Horse continued production of the Elec-Trak under their own name. They altered the design to make it easier to build on the same line as gas tractors (with both positive and negative effects). In the end, though, they gave up too. They stayed with electric tractors less than five years before ending production.

Here we are, three decades years later, and ETs and their Wheel Horse stablemates still have a loyal following. Many of them are still cleanly and quietly cutting grass, plowing and throwing snow, tilling large gardens, moving loads, and sweeping parking lots.

They're not perfect, but ETs are substantial and sturdy enough to be worth keeping in repair. And, yes, parts are available. For years Bill Gunn of Technical Service and Parts sold parts from old stock, adapted components from other tractors, and even had new ones manufactured from the original drawings. A few years ago Bill decided to get out of the business. After a few years of uncertainty, ET enthusiast Jim Coate bought Bill out. You can reach Jim's Electric Tractor Store at 518 631-4775. He's located in Spencertown, New York.

Harold Zimmermann at Clean Power Supply, located in Ephrata PA (717 859-4234), also offers some parts and sometimes even has complete tractors for sale.

That's my trusty ET above. It's an E15 and it dates from about 1970. I also have a rusty old parts E15, and a New Idea R-36 electric rider mower (identical to the GE ER8-36 rider). My ET plows the driveway in the winter, tills the garden in the spring, and cuts the grass on our 2 acres all summer. The only season it rests is autumn. It almost got to be a four season machine, but when I tried the powered sweeper accessory for leaf gathering, it turned out to be ill-suited to our hilly, uneven property.

I'm no collector, so I haven't painted my ET or worried much about the surface rust. It's a workhorse. If you have a bunch of these machines, that's one thing -- you might want to restore some to showroom condition. But if you only have one, why make it so nice that you're afraid to put it to work because you might chip the paint?

Mine works great, especially now that I've replaced the old GE resistor controller with a modern PWM chopper (Alltrax DCX300ET). It's not exactly silent, I'll admit, but it's a lot quieter than a gas tractor, and I don't have to breathe the exhaust fumes of a cheap, inefficient gas engine. How could I ask for more?