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NOT JUST BLOWING SMOKE

A propane-powered string trimmer does a good job without the pollutants of gas-powered models.

Cleaning up your yard can muck up the atmosphere.

While the Environmental Protection Agency has been busy for decades mandating cleaner-running cars, lawn equipment for the most part has been allowed to pump out pollutants with abandon.

But there's something new in the garden department.

Lehr, a company in California, is marketing Eco Trimmers, string trimmers powered by the small propane canisters more often associated with camp stoves or lanterns.

That mean no mixing oil and gasoline for the usual 2-stroke engine. And no spilling gasoline in your car or on the ground as you fill the tank. (The EPA says that each year lawn rangers spill more than 17 million gallons of gas refueling lawn and garden equipment, more than the amount of crude oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez.)

But, for those fond of breathing, the bigger deal is that propane burns clean, especially compared with a 2-stroke engine. Pollution from all those small engines working in yards adds up: A typical lawn mower running for one hour produces the same amount of smog-forming hydrocarbons as driving an average car about 200 miles, according to the EPA.

Next year and in 2011, the EPA will tighten rules for emissions from lawn equipment. The Lehr machines already meet or exceed those standards.

Using the Lehr weed whacker is pretty much like using a gasoline-powered one. It weighs about 14 pounds, on the lighter side for a 4-cycle engine. There's no need to prime or choke. The propane tank slides into a cradle under the engine and screws into a connector. (It's about as difficult as opening and closing a jar of peanut butter.) The tank clips into place to avoid vibration.

On the model I tested, the pull cord started the engine on the first or second try. And the torquey 4-cycle engine ran quieter than a 2-cycle, which isn't really saying much, but I'll take what I can get.

The curved-shaft model accepts attachments, so I used the bump string trimmer, along with a hedge clipper attachment and an edger. All performed well.

The drawbacks? Unlike a gasoline tank, you don't know when the propane will run out. The company says each tank provides about two hours' work. I got a little less than that, but won't quibble. That's longer than a tank of gasoline lasts for a typical trimmer. But each propane tank costs about $3.50, a price that could refill the gasoline a few times. Of course, not many household budgets will be made or broken by the string-trimmer fuel bill.

The manual also urges users to remove the tank when not in use - an extra step that a standard weed whacker doesn't require. But without gasoline, carburetors won't gum up and spark plugs are less likely to foul, so you save maintenance on the back end.

And finally, the little propane tanks are not refillable - yet. They are made of steel, however, which makes them recyclable.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that after about three hours of run time the trimmer I was using quit and the pull cord locked up. I called the company and was offered a replacement. After looking at various online sites, there don't seem to be excessive quality complaints. So maybe I just got "lucky."

Greg Joyce can be reached at gjoyce@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8489.

FAST FACTS

Lehr Eco Trimmer

The propane-powered trimmers are at Home Depot under the Lehr name or at Sears as a Craftsman product and run about $200, which is competitive for a 4-cycle engine. The company is planning to sell a propane-powered leaf blower in the fall. Go to golehr.com.

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