Comparing petrol rotavators with electric tillers for price and ability to plough

Plant roots need a good supply of air, water, and nutrients to thrive, and for them to get what they need, your soil needs to be in the right condition.

Over time, due to things like foot traffic and just plain old nature, your garden soil can become quite dense and compact, and even dry out and form a crust on top that will reduce the flow of air, water, and nutrients through it and down to the roots where it is needed.

To prevent this, many gardeners occasionally turn over their soil, breaking it up and generally making it a better environment for plants to grow in. There are some people who disagree with this, but from my own personal experience, if not done too often, it really does make a positive difference. As you can see from this tweet, Im not the only one who thinks this way-

There are obviously many tools that you can use to cultivate your garden soil, from the trusty old spade to an electric tiller, or even a petrol rotavator. As we are pretty sure everyone knows what a spade is and does, this article will focus on comparing petrol rotavators and electric tillers for things like price, performance, and other factors.

What is the difference between a cultivator, tiller, and petrol rotavator?

Sometimes in the gardening world, the correct terms for things can be a little confusing. This can be because a lot of people use them wrong and it just catches on, or that there is more than one name or term for something and they can be used interchangeably. A common source of confusion is the difference between a cultivator, tiller, and rotavator, so I’ll try my best to explain.

Technically, both tillers and rotavator are classified as cultivators as that’s what they do-cultivate soil. So, some people use the term cultivator to refer to either of these machines, while others use the term cultivator to describe a machine that has no wheels and is used to add compost or fertiliser into loose soil. I know, it’s confusing haha.

How I personally look at it, for simplicity’s sake, is that tillers are smaller cultivators, and rotavators are larger ones. They both break up compact soil and make it easier for things to be planted and grow. A much simpler way of classifying, certainly, but one that works for me.

I realise that many of you will be new to cultivators, tilers, etc. so I thought this video on how to use one would come in handy-

Comparing electric tillers with petrol rotavators

Now that I have tried, and probably failed, at explaining the differences in terms used for these tools, I thought I’d do a better job of explaining the important differences between them such as size, price, power, etc.

Again, things are not so straightforward when comparing the prices of electric tillers and petrol rotavators. The main reason being that there are some products calling themselves petrol rotavators that I would consider petrol tillers due to their smaller size. These petrol tillers are usually priced between 150-200 pounds which isn’t much more than a good electric tiller, and about the same as a low budget petrol lawnmower

However, for me at least, a ‘proper’ petrol rotavator is a larger more powerful machine than these petrol tillers, and you should expect to pay at least 500 pounds for a decent one.

Electric tillers are fine for turning over soil that has been cultivated before, especially ones that have larger electric motors, but they often struggle with clay soil and soil that has never been turned over before.

Petrol rotavators are much more powerful than electric tillers and can turn over thick and dense soil, and dig down much deeper, but just how much depends on the size of the engine and how much horsepower it can produce. A 200cc 6.5HP rotavator, for example, would far outperform the most powerful electric tiller, and would be able to break up even the toughest terrain. For comparison, a powerful petrol strimmer could be expected to have a 50-60cc engine and produce maybe half as much horsepower.

In this clip, the man is using a petrol rotavator that produces about 9HP

Size and weight
if you prefer something that is lightweight and easy to move around, then an electric tiller will be the right choice for you. To give you an example, I’ve used electric tillers that were under 10kg in weight, that’s comparable to some cordless brush cutters, and when you compare that to the last petrol rotavator I used, which tipped the scales at close to 90kg, you can see there is quite a difference. Smaller petrol tillers can be much less than that though, and I’ve used a powerful Honda model that was around 20kg.

Noise and vibration
It’s pretty much the same story with all gardening power tools- petrol machines offer more power but also make more noise and create more vibration. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tiller or a chainsaw, it’s nearly always the case that petrol tools are louder, and is the price you pay for the extra performance.

Some electric tillers can be surprisingly quiet, but lower budget models tend to be noisier than their more expensive counterparts from well-known brands. There will still be vibration felt when using an electric tiller, but it will be much less than most petrol models.

So if you’re sensitive to loud noises, perhaps you should avoid petrol power tools 😂

Unless you are happy to mix fuel, change spark plugs, and perform other types of basic maintenance, you shouldn’t buy a petrol rotavator or tiller. Neglecting the upkeep of petrol tools will just lead to them breaking down and becoming a costly mistake. With proper care, these machines will last you for years, but you will have to service them annually or pay someone to do it for you.

If you don’t like the idea of that, then an electric tiller is probably the way to go. These tools don’t really require any maintenance, but they won’t last as long as a well-serviced petrol rotavator either. Electric tillers, just like electric lawn mowers and hedge trimmers, are much easier to operate than petrol models too, so unless that extra power is really needed, they are probably the best choice for most people.

So, to sum up, electric tillers are fine for cultivating soil that isn’t too densely packed. They are cheaper, weigh less, and produce less noise and vibration. Petrol rotavators are better suited for heavier work with thick soil that has never been cultivated before, but you will have to deal with the extra noise, weight, and maintenance.

About Terry Smith

I’m Terry Smith from, a professional landscape designer, hobbyist gardener, and barbecue fanatic with 20 years experience building and restoring. So as you go through my site you'll watch me document some of the professional garden installs I make as well as the major projects I take on at home. While sharing those experiences and guiding you, I'll be recommending some great tools I use to enable this along the way so you can really buy in confidence. Always feel free to pop me a message:

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