“The best time to start a springtime revival is actually in the late fall of the previous year,” says Walter Cornett, owner of Walter Cornett Landscaping, Richmond, Virginia. “Before you park your lawn mower for the winter, one of the best things you can do is to drain the gas tank.”
Whether your mower is old or new, regular maintenance can keep it cutting cleanly and reliably for years to come. Otherwise, you may face the same situation as one frustrated operator in Milwaukee, who took a short-barreled shotgun from his garage and shot his mower because it wouldn’t start.
Preventative maintenance is essential to achieving trouble-free operation. “It’s best to start the season with fresh fuel, fresh oil and clean filters,” says Ray Garvey of Grasshopper.
Here is a partial list to check before the season starts. Hoses are especially vulnerable; if a hose blows in the middle of a job, that job is at a standstill until the mower can be repaired. In addition, if you blow an oil line, or a hydraulic hose, it will leave a line in the turf that will die.
Don’t forget to check the tires and brake pads. Before you start out for the spring season, it is recommended that you change the oil, install a fresh filter, do a thorough greasing and replace the spark plugs before turning the engine over. In addition, give the mower a very thorough cleaning, especially under the deck to try and reduce corrosion and rusting. Keeping the blades sharp will also reduce wear on the machines so you won’t have to replace them as often.
“On liquid-cooled gas and diesel mowers, the radiator fluid should be checked with a good refractometer and if it’s aged or deteriorated, it should be drained, flushed and replaced with fresh radiator fluid, pre-mixed 50/50 with distilled water,” says Garvey. “You should check the radiator core to make sure it’s clean before the season starts and, as necessary, throughout the season according to mowing conditions.
Check the condition of the fan belt and adjust tension if necessary.”
Always start the season off with sharp, balanced blades and make sure they’re the right ones for the right job. “The lush, spring grass may be much different than the dry grass and leaves mowed in the fall, so consider changing to a style of blade that matches the mowing conditions you’ll encounter,” explains Garvey.
Although this is a checklist prior to the start of the season, maintenance is a year-round program.
Scheduled maintenance of your mowers all during the busy season can assure you of virtually trouble-free equipment. Timing your maintenance schedule can be just as important as the maintenance itself. If you schedule the maintenance in advance, you can choose the time that best suits your needs.
In addition to being in top working condition, regular maintenance extends the life of your mowers. Take the time to clean the decks. Allowing the grass clippings to build up reduces mulching performance and corrodes the metal over time, particularly when those clippings include fertilizer. The decks should be cleaned immediately after mowing, before the clippings dry and harden.
Mower maintenance isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Different models and styles, and different engines require their own special TLC to keep them purring along the landscape.
A healthy walk-behind mower engine can typically last about eight to 10 years, but you can easily cut that lifespan if you allow the oil level on four-stroke engines to get too low, or don’t change the oil as often as the manufacturer recommends. The oil should be checked every time you mow, just before you begin, and added when the level drops to the halfway point or lower. Don’t fill above the “full” mark because this can cause the oil to foam and fail to lubricate critical parts. And always, always, make sure the filter is clean.
With riding mowers, attention should be paid to tire pressure. As with car tires, those on mowers gradually lose air even without an actual leak, making the mower harder to steer. If the air pressure gets too low, it can also damage the tires. A rear tire that’s low can also affect traction, causing it to tear grass or slide on inclines.
It’s also important to check to make certain the mower blades are sharp. Peter Sawchuk, Consumer Reports lead tester of outdoor power equipment, says, “Dull blades make your mower work harder and longer. It’s wise to have spare blades, so that you don’t run the risk of not having a working mower while its blades are being sharpened.”
You won’t need to change oil as often with a compressed natural gas mower. “Due to the decrease in hydrocarbon emissions with compressed natural gas, you can increase the oil change intervals between 30% and 50%,” says
Parke Lucas, Dixie Chopper service manager. “My recommendation is to change the oil and filter after the first eight hours and then every 150 hours thereafter, but you don’t want to exceed 200 hours between oil changes.”
James G. Lawton of Briggs & Stratton Yard Power Products Group, manufacturers of Ferris and Snapper Pro, says the basic cleaning of engine parts on propane-powered mowers takes much less time than on other types of engines. “A winter tune-up usually consists of having to go in and clean out and degrease the carburetor, and clean the spark plugs. Propane is a clean burning fuel, so there’s no carbon build-up on spark plugs or other parts of the mower. So, general maintenance on these engines is fairly easy.”
Maintaining and servicing bio-diesel engines is similar to gasoline-powered mowers, but overall there is less maintenance required with diesel engines. “There are no spark plugs, spark plug wires or carburetors to maintain,” says Garvey. “Here’s a tip that takes a minute and can save hours of downtime in the long run. Liquid-cooled engines, including diesel models, have a convoluted radiator screen to trap debris that would otherwise build up on the radiator and cause overheating. It’s very easy to remove and clean, and it’s important to train operators to take a moment to check for and remove debris buildup from the screen when they stop for lunch or in between jobs.”
Storing diesel fuel can create a problem if the mowers are idle for a long period of time. If stored too long, the diesel fuel can deteriorate. To avoid this, you need to keep contaminants such as water and air out of your storage tanks. In addition, cycle your fuel often and use additives that are designed to solve major common fuel-related problems, such as: cold weather operability, low sulfur lubricity, hard starting/low power, as well as those that help remove water and prolong the effective life of diesel and gasoline fuels.
Downtime means lost revenue, so in order to keep your business running smoothly, simply rotate your lawn mower inventory. While one mower, or more, is being serviced, have others on hand to pick up the slack. A creative maintenance schedule will definitely ease the strain of an overworked engine.
Martin Cleary, owner of Cleary Bros. Landscape, Inc., Danville, California, has developed his own, unique maintenance system for his company. “Each mower is assigned an internal serial number and is tracked in a database that pulls information out of our accounting system. We can see at a glance the total cost and total repair hours for each piece of equipment. The information is used to determine when to retire each piece,” Cleary said.
The reality is that even with the best care, lawn mowers, like everything else, get old and sometimes not worth fixing. When the repair on your old mower costs more than 50% than that of a comparable new model, it’s time to say good-bye.
Even if it can no longer do its job, your old mower can still be of use. If you have several models of the same type, you can cannibalize the old, broken-down mower for replacement parts. These can be stored or transplanted into the mowers that are still operational. Whatever you can’t use can be sold off as scrap metal.
By properly maintaining your equipment, you can get the most for your money over the long haul. But even before your mower gets old and tired and needs to be replaced, you have the option of moving up to a new eco-friendly model. Especially if you notice your competition going in that direction and taking your clients with them!