Small Engines - Big Polluters

Last updated 2014.02.22

Small gasoline engines are big polluters. With either no, or token, emission controls, primitive combustion techniques, and typically significant spillage and evaporative losses, they damage our environment out of all proportion to the useful work they accomplish. On a scale comparable to our gasoline and diesel-fueled cars, they are killing us.

They are all around us, the common 2-stroke and 4-stroke small gasoline engine. If you live in North America, you know them:
weed-whackers (line-trimmers);
lawn tractors;
outboard motors;
personal watercraft;
parking lot vacuums;
junior dragsters;
golf-carts - the list goes on.

Our societal love-affair with them is hard to understand on a rational basis. They are noisy, smelly, dirty and often hard to start. They use toxic, carcinogenic, flammable, explosive fuel that has to be acquired off-site, then transported and stored and carried to the machine. Some require mixing gasoline and oil (trademark of the 2-stroke). Many require the use of a rope starter. They produce toxic emissions that prohibit their use indoors. Somehow, we have taken all this and convinced ourselves this is "convenient". If you care about the air you or your family breathe, or the water that you or your family drink, or the climate you or your family live in, you have to understand that small gasoline engines are a significant problem as they pollute our air and contaminate our water. Unfortunately we do not have simple solutions which can correct the harm done by these engines and machines. We simply have not grasped the scale of the issue.

In his book "Polluting for Pleasure" (ISBN 0-393-03510-7) Andrew Mele claims that powerboats in the U.S. create nearly as much atmospheric pollution as all American automobiles and spill 15 times more oil into the water than the Exxon Valdez every year.

[Link has bit-rotted:] Michigan State University's Engine Research Laboratory suggests that each small gasoline engine produces approximately the same amount of pollution as each modern car, but in the U.S. small engines outsell cars by about 35,000,000 to 15,000,000 each year. As is stated on their page, "While each automobile is typically operated between 100 and 1000 times longer than each small engine, their emissions are 100 to 1000 times lower."

The U.S. EPA identified small gasoline engines as a significant environmental problem prior to 1995, yet the message is not getting out to the users of these devices.

The major automakers claim it costs more than US$2,500 per vehicle to install the emissions control equipment that allows them to run as clean as they do. But we continue to produce small gasoline engines that do a similar amount of environmental damage with minimal or no emission controls for about US$100 a piece. What's the point of spending the extra money on cleaning up our cars, if these small engines are allowed to continue to do as much damage?

To be event more blunt, even with the best of emissions control technologies in place, you simply cannot burn hydrocarbons (gasoline, diesel fuel) without creating large amounts of carbon dioxide, the most significant of the greenhouse gases.

What can you do? You can resolve not to buy another small gasoline engine. As each of your current small gasoline engines dies, commit that you will replace it with a more environmentally-friendly alternative.

Perhaps you feel it is OK for you to continue to use devices powered by these small internal-combustion engines because everyone else is doing it, or because your personal use of them does not make much of a difference. Wrong. We have to change the way we do things, all of us. Each one of us has a role to play. Individually and collectively, we have caused the problem. Individually and collectively, it is up to us to solve it. Government won't fix it. Corporations won't fix it. We will fix it, or continue to kill ourselves with our own apathy. And we can fix it. Perhaps you feel you cannot give up your fossil-fuel car or truck for a less damaging form of transport, but could you mow your lawn with an electric mower instead of a smog-belcher? Could you use an electric line-trimmer instead of a buzz-bomb? Below, you will find constructive advice on how to start giving up the gasoline habit, without lowering your standard of living.

The great majority of devices powered by a small gasoline engine can be replaced by a human-powered or electrically-powered unit to do the same job. Below, many common gasoline-powered devices are considered, and alternatives are suggested and discussed.

One myth that is often raised in discussions I have had on this topic is that switching from a gasoline powered device to an electrically-powered device will not reduce the amount of pollution, but will only move it from the device to the power plant. This simply is not true. Even in the worst case, where an old coal-burning plant produces the electricity, that plant is subject to emissions controls. The small gasoline engine is not. The power plant, using external combustion technology on a large scale, operates more efficiently than a small gasoline engine. More importantly, electricity can be produced from non-polluting, renewable sources which will become more common in the coming years, such as wind-power, solar cells, geo-thermal generation, tidal power, hydro (including low-head hydro), etc. Consumers in Canada and the U.S. (where they do not already) will soon have the ability to choose the primary source of their electricity, and can choose "green" electricity if they wish to do so. If you choose to do so, you can even go further and produce your own electricity with solar panels or small wind generators or other devices to ensure the primary energy source is clean.

With that out of the way, let us consider the common uses of small gasoline engines, and the alternatives for each. If you have an application for a small gasoline engine that is not addressed below, please tell us about it in an e-mail, and we will add it to this list.


For householders, alternatives include:
eliminating the lawn, replacing it with garden or natural local flora;
mowing with a human powered mower (e.g. push reel mower) available from several commercial sources;
mowing with a corded electric lawnmower available from many commercial sources;
mowing with a cordless (battery) electric mower available from several commercial sources;
mowing with an automatic cordless electric mower available from at least 2 commercial sources
mowing with a mower converted from gasoline power to electric operation.

Weed-Whackers (Line-Trimmers)

For householders, alternatives include:
let the plants grow up along fences and walls;
use of human-powered long-handled shears;
corded electric line-trimmers;
cordless (battery) electric line-trimmers

Lawn Tractors

These are the small tractors, including ride-on mowers, that are endemic to suburban estate lots. Their primary use is mowing large lawns, and to a lesser extent clearing snow from driveways. About the only viable alternative to these units is electric-drive small tractors. These include:
commercially available small electric tractors;
a refurbished electric tractor built in the 1970's
conversion of a gasoline-powered small tractor to electric power.


Alternatives include:
ignoring the leaves, letting them rot to provide nutrients to the soil;
raking the leaves with a simple rake;
a corded electric leaf-blower available from commercial sources;
a cordless (battery) electric leaf blower available from commercial sources


Here we are talking about householders who use a small consumer-class chainsaw on an occasional basis. For those that make a living with their saws lumbering or ranching, we are not aware of a non-gasoline alternative that is commercially available as yet.

Alternatives include:
human powered pruning saws and cutters, some on extensible handles to increase reach;
corded electric chainsaws from a variety of manufacturers;
cordless electric chainsaws were available at one time (e.g. Tensen), but we are not aware of a current commercial source;
conversion of an existing chainsaw to use with an electric motor.


Alternatives include:
turning soil using human powered tools (shovels, heavy cultivators);
electric rototiller pulled by a small electric tractor;
converting a gasoline tiller to electric power.

We are not aware of a current commercial source for an electric rototiller.


Alternatives include:
human powered cultivator, or a hoe.

In the 1970's, the GE Elec-Trak electric tractor offered an electric cultivator powered from the tractor's batteries.

We are not aware of a current commercial source for an electric cultivator. There was one produced at one time by a company that still produces a gasoline-powered cultivator.

Outboard Motors

An outboard is of little use without a boat, so alternatives are based on having a boat. Alternatives include:
use of paddles or oars (canoes, kayaks, rowboats);
electric outboards (from trolling motors to higher power units);
boats with electric inboard drive systems.

Electric boats do not have to be small, there have been electric ferries. The Queen Elizabeth II passenger liner used electric drive (with diesel generators). Non-nuclear submarines typically are battery-electric drives with diesel generators for battery charging. Nor do they have to be slow, the An Stradag being a good example.

Personal Watercraft

Alternatives include:
canoes, kayaks, rowboats, sailing dinghies, small electric boats.


Alternatives include:
human powered plows and scoops;
corded electric snow shovels available from several commercial sources;
corded electric snowblowers (generally light duty) available from commercial sources;
conversion of gasoline-powered walk-behind snowblower to (corded or battery) electric power;
use of a snowblower or plow-blade on an electric tractor.

Snowmobiles (for recreational use)

Alternatives include:
showshoes; skis;
dog-sled teams;
conversion of a gasoline-powered snowmobile to (battery) electric power.

So far, none of these alternatives seem practical for those who make a living with their snowmobiles, e.g. running a trapline.


Alternatives include:
battery-banks with inverters which can be recharged from the electrical grid, wind-generators, solar panels or other source. Lighted road construction direction signs are in the process of being converted from small generator sets to photovoltaic panels coupled with batteries as a maintenance-reducing and cost-saving measure.

Parking Lot Vacuums

Alternatives include:
push brooms;
electric walk-behind vacuum units;
electric vacuum units mounted on electric tractors.


Alternatives include:
electric go-karts.

Junior Dragsters

Alternatives include:
electric junior dragsters.

The National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA) Junior Dragsters supports electric junior dragsters as an alternative to the conventional junior dragsters which use small gasoline engines.


Alternatives include:
bicycles, particularly mountain-bike types;
electric-assist bicycles;
small electric scooters or motorcycles.

Ice Augers

Alternatives include:
human-powered auger;
electric auger


Alternatives include:
carrying your golf bag;
pull-behind walking carts;
electric golf carts are available from several commercial sources.

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