Check out the budget rowing machines and it's not just the price they have in common. Out of the 14 models we currently have reviewed on this site, over half are hydraulic. Yet when you go over $500 only 1 out of 25 uses pistons to create the resistance for your muscles to work against.
The reason is obvious. An oil-filled piston is cheap to manufacture, plus the method by which you attach it to a rowing machine requires fewer parts and takes less time to fit in a factory.
So why don't more brands use them? Several reasons.
There are probably more if I think about it long enough, but five is plenty for now.
Let's look at some of the above in more detail. A piston uses a combination of oil and air to create a resistance. After around 15 to 20 minutes the oil will have heated and therefore its viscosity changes - remember that one from your science lessons at school? Basically, this means it becomes thinner and the stiffness on the piston drops. When you're rowing you'll suddenly feel it's a lot easier to pull on the oars - a pain in the 'you know what' when you're really getting stuck into your workout. This can be made worse if the rower uses two pistons and one has heated quicker than the other so one arm is working harder than the other.
So you have to stop and adjust the collar on the piston to increase the resistance level (although you're stuffed if you're already on the hardest setting) and try to match the two sides to get going again. If you were at the top level, you're only option is to stop for half an hour and wait for the oil to cool before starting again.
So why are there still many models on the market?
As I said above, the main reason is cost. Water/ fluid rowers remain expensive when compared to hydraulic, and although some budget rowers use air, they can be too noisy for some. You can get a combination of air and magnetic machines but these start at around $500 - you can read about the advantages and disadvantages of the types of resistance here, also see air vs magnetic.
The use of pistons do help to bring the price of home fitness equipment into the pockets of many who may not be able to justify spending $500 or more. Hydraulic rowers can also be made smaller than other types due to the location of the resistance mechanism, this means those with limited space still have the option of using one.
But even with all of the disadvantages I've mentioned above, you can still find a good reliable model that use pistons. Both the Kettler models (the Favorit and Kadett) are perfectly capable of getting you fit on a budget. And of course, if you're currently unfit and overweight you may not want to row for over 20 minutes at a time and therefore the varying resistance issues won't be a problem.
A hydraulic rower is also a cheap way to check out rowing in the home. Once you discover you love indoor rowing and want to take it to the next level you may be prepared to spend more on a better machine. If you don't like it you've not wasted too much money and you'd get some of it back selling it on eBay :0)
So while they look out-dated and cumbersome, I believe the piston will be with us for some time yet. I'm sure in the not too distant future the costs of making air, water and magnetic machines will come down and perhaps make the piston, with all of its limitations, obsolete. But until then they'll still be gracing homes up and down the country keeping many indoor rowing enthusiasts happy.
Any thoughts? Are you for or against them?
Roy Palmer is an athletics coach, teacher of The Alexander Technique and a rowing fanatic.