What is a Self-Propelled Mower and How Does it Work?

man mowing the lawn with an orange lawn mower

What is a self-propelled lawn mower, exactly? Is it a Roomba of the lawn mowing world? Can you just sit back and have a cold drink while it runs around your yard?

If you’ve been shopping for lawn mowers and had these questions, we’re here to help. A self-propelled lawn mower might not mow the lawn for you, but it can save you time and energy, making your weekly lawn care efforts more enjoyable and less physically taxing.

What is a self-propelled lawn mower?

Self-propelled lawn mowers make your mowing experience more like an afternoon drive through the country and less like Sisyphus straining to push a mower up a hill. (Note to Sisyphus: Pushing a mower up a hill is not recommended. Mowing across the face of the hill is the safe, successful way to go.) 

In short, these mowers have a drive system (like a car) that, once engaged, pushes the mower forward. All you have to do is steer. 

Note: Both battery-powered and gas mowers offer self-propelled models.

How does a self-propelled lawn mower work?

It works in much the same way any gas or battery-powered mower works. The difference is that the mower pushes itself forward instead of the operator (you) pushing from behind.

As with most gas-powered lawn mowers, hold down the handlebar and pull the cord. Then pull up on the drive lever to engage the drive system. For a battery-powered motor, push the start button and pull on the handle to start moving forward. 

The drive system is similar to the one in your car: Once you engage the drive lever, the drive system engages the wheels, and the mower propels itself forward.

Safety Tip: If you ever need to stop the mower immediately, let go of both handles, and the mower and drive system will stop.

Like a car, self-propelled mowers come in all-wheel drive, front-wheel drive, and rear-wheel drive. Here’s a breakdown of each.

Type 1: All-Wheel Drive (AWD) 

An all-wheel-drive mower doesn’t take a lot of guidance to get it going in the right direction. All-wheel drive mowers (AKA four-wheel-drive mowers) have excellent traction and balance across all four wheels. 

As you need different drive systems, use the convenient handlebars to switch among the three drive types for optimal traction on hills and most any terrain. AWD can be more costly than the other drive types and is the rarest type among the three.

Type 2: Front-Wheel Drive (FWD) 

FWD is generally less expensive than the other two types of drive systems and is ideal for flat lawns. Here’s why: Lawns that are uneven cause the front wheels to bounce. When this happens, you lose propulsion. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means you’ll have to do a bit more physical work. When the front wheels come off the lawn (tall grass, an incline, or as you’re making a turn), you’ll have to supply the forward motion yourself.

Type 3: Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD)

RWD is the most popular of the three drive types. Do you have lots of trees to mow around? RWD helps you power through turns since the front wheels typically come off the ground as you start a new row or curve around trees. This drive type is ideal for large lawns or lawns that are uneven or sloping. RWD provides good traction and takes very little force to move across almost any terrain.

Mower speeds

Finally, as you’re shopping, notice whether the mower is a single speed or a variable speed. Single-speed machines work well for a standard walking pace. If you want more flexibility to vary your walking speed, or if you need to mow around curves, through dense grass, uneven terrain, or hills, variable speed may be a better choice.

Pros and cons of self-propelled mowers

If you are older or want to make your mow a little less exhausting, self-propelled mowers offer many benefits. You can choose from single- or variable-speed models and enjoy the benefits of side discharge, mulching, or bagging on most models.

So, is there a downside? Well, kind of. These mowers aren’t right for every yard. Consider three things as you’re doing your mower research: size of your yard, cost vs. time, and terrain.  

Size of your yard: If your lawn is so small you could mow it with a weed eater, a self-propelled mower isn’t for you. Consumer Reports recommends a self-propelled mower for anyone with half an acre to an acre of lawn space. Other experts, however, recommend self-propelled mowers for lawns even as small as a quarter of an acre. If you don’t think a self-propelled mower is right for your tiny lawn, see our list of the best lawn mowers for small yards out this year.

A little self-knowledge (and mowing experience) comes into play here. Are you exhausted after push mowing your quarter-acre lawn in the summer heat? If so, you might want to upgrade to a self-propelled mower. 

On the other hand, if mowing your half-acre lawn is your only opportunity to get out and sweat all week, you may be perfectly happy sticking with a good old-fashioned push mower.

Finally, think of your lawn. A more pleasant mowing experience means you’ll mow more often, so you and your lawn will be healthier and happier throughout the mowing season.

Cost vs. time: Time is money, right? Self-propelled mowers cost more than their push mower counterparts, but they get the job done faster than a push mower. You also have a more even cut if you let the mower maintain a consistent speed as you mow. If your time is more valuable than a few extra dollars, it’s worth the investment. 

Terrain: If you have a very small, flat lawn, a self-propelled lawn mower may not be worth the investment. If your lawn is on an incline or has uneven terrain, a self-propelled mower can get the job done with less effort from your human-powered drive system. 

Another thing to consider is the density of your lawn. If you have dense grass that is a challenge to get through with a push mower, a self-propelled lawn mower will make the job much easier. Its drive system will supply all of the forward push to power through the lawn.

Curves also present a challenge. Do you have a lot of trees on your property? As you go around curves, the back wheels of a lawn mower stay on the ground, but the front wheels have to come off the ground. A rear-wheel-drive mower makes mowing on curves a whole lot easier.

FAQ about self-propelled lawn mowers

1. Who should buy a self-propelled lawn mower?

If any of the following applies to you, consider the benefits of a self-propelled mower:

Large lawn: If you have a lawn that’s over a quarter of an acre, you may find that self-propelled lawn mowers are a labor- and time-saving tool. 

Uneven terrain/lots of curves: Large and small yards that have bumps, hills, and uneven terrain also may benefit from a drive system. Likewise, if you have borders around trees and beds, a rear-wheel-drive will help you power through those turns without as much muscle.

Short on time: Self-propelled battery and gas mowers are fearless lawn explorers. They’ll keep a consistent speed throughout thick grass and hilly terrain. This helps you power through your lawn without slowing down due to fatigue.

Low on energy: If you hate pushing your lawn mower and would rather let it do most of the work, self-propelled mowers will help you get the job done with less effort than a push lawn mower or reel mower (neither of which have a self-propelled option).

2. Do self-propelled mowers come with special features?

Self-propelled mowers are powerful and speedy, but those aren’t their only special talents. They have many other bells and whistles to choose from:

Fold-and-store: Some of these mowers will fold up for easy storage.
Electric start: You’ll find electric or push-start options on some gas mowers and all battery-powered mowers.
Quiet operation: Self-propelled battery-powered mowers are quieter than gas models. 
Three grass disposal options: Many self-propelled lawn mowers will offer all three options, so you can choose to bag, side discharge, or mulch your grass clippings.
Blade brake clutch: Allows you to shut off the blade but keep the mower running. This is a handy feature if you need to cross a gravel path, empty the bag, or pick up obstacles in the lawn. 
Single-lever height adjustment: Adjust the height on all four wheels with a single lever.

Pro Tip: If you often load the lawnmower onto a trailer, the blade brake clutch is a handy feature to have. Leave the drive system engaged (without the blade running) to help you get the mower onto the trailer with less effort from you.

3. Which brands can I choose from?

A good many. Here are some popular brands that sell self-propelled mowers:
Cub Cadet

If this article hasn’t propelled you off the couch to mow your own lawn, contact one of our local lawn care experts. They’ve got the motivation and the commercial-grade, self-propelled gas lawn mowers that will take care of your lawn in a jiffy.

Main Photo Credit: Pexels | Pixabay

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.