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The modern commercial mower is an awesome beast. The things it can do, the power it has, the technology that goes into it are truly remarkable. You probably own several of them. As you know, this much mowing “firepower” doesn’t come cheap. That’s why it’s important to manage these costly assets just as carefully as you manage every other aspect of your business, from labor to overhead.
Think of yourself as an admiral. A good one knows how many ships he has and what they’re equipped to do. A great one uses the right vessel in the right way, to maximize its potential. You should manage your fleet of mowers the same way.
Bigger isn’t always better. It might seem logical to send a big mower to every job. After all, the bigger the cutting deck, the faster things go, right? That’s not always true. You have to look at what you’re doing and where. Let’s tweak an old saying, and vow not to send a man to do a boy’s job. Don’t send a 72-inch mower to do a task a 36-inch could accomplish just as well, if not faster.
Let’s consider how they do it at ISS Grounds Control, the landscape division of The ISS Group, an international company. “If we’re bidding on a commercial property, there are different mowing rates, depending on how many square feet need to be mowed,” said Gene Petrini, director of operations for the Phoenix, Arizona branch. “It all goes into my computer. That determines whether we’re going to be using a 21-inch push mower, or a 72-inch rider. If the turf is wide open and it’s like an acre or so, obviously we’re going to want to put a 60- or 72-inch mower on that. We want to get as much production as we can in as short a time as possible.”
Obstacles are another factor. “If you have a turf area with trees you have to go around, that’s going to negate your using a bigger mower. You’ll have to use something a bit smaller for agility, especially if there is a density of trees in a specific area. If you have things sticking out that are going to clip the trees as you go by them, we’ll use a 21-inch. It’s much easier to use around a tree than a rider.”
Slopes are another place where you can’t use just any size mower. “You have to be careful what kind of mowers you use on slopes, especially if there’s water at the bottom of them,” continued Petrini. ISS doesn’t allow any of their workers to use riding mowers on slopes, due to safety concerns. “We’ve heard of incidents in the past—not with us, but at other companies—where mowers have tipped or rolled over on people while they’re trying to mow slopes near lakes, streams, or retention ponds. The sides of the embankments can be slick. We have all our guys use 21-inch push mowers in those circumstances.”
Before you take on a new client, you or a trusted supervisor should carefully inspect the jobsite. Assess what size mower will do the job in the fastest and most efficient way. No sense dispatching a crew to a job with a machine that won’t even fit through the gate.
A large-decked mower is designed to cut large, open, grassy areas, not typical residential yards. Save that big mower for those jobs. It will do them faster and more efficiently.
If your business is mostly residential, then you probably don’t need one of those massive mowers. The time wasted in maneuvering that behemoth around tight spaces, curbs, flower beds and so forth, even if it’s a zero-turn mower, will override any time saved by cutting wider swaths.
Don’t swat a fly with a steamroller. It just doesn’t make common sense.
Take care of them
We all know that our cars, and marriages, last longer if we take care of them. The same is true of our power equipment. A little TLC goes a long way. A good commercial mower should give you years of solid service, but you can shorten that time considerably by not changing the oil or air filters regularly or putting off other manufacturer-recommended maintenance. Don’t neglect this important area. Cutting corners will only come back to bite you later.
Keep mower blades sharp and clean. Dull blades and decks gummed up with thatch decrease productivity, too.
Walking, standing, or sitting?
Whether you purchase walk-behind, stand-on or riding mowers will depend on a number of factors. If you’re mowing mainly large commercial sites with multiple acres, you should take the fatigue factor into account. Someone cutting big areas of grass all day standing or walking is going to be very tired by day’s end. He’s going to slow down, and that’ll affect how many jobs he can finish.
Many contractors like to keep all their power equipment in the same brand family, mowers included. This makes things simpler in a number of ways. Attachments can be moved from one machine to another. Maintenance is simpler. Parts may be interchangeable and can often be cannibalized. Cultivating a relationship with a brand dealer can lead to substantial discounts and prompt service, putting your company at the head of the line when there’s a problem.
One feature you might want to consider is an independent suspension. On a mower with a fixed frame, the operator has to slow down for dips and bumps in the terrain. Not having to do this obviously makes things go faster. That could translate to more jobs getting completed per day and per week, well offsetting the added expense.
Don’t forget about maintenance. Are mission-critical areas easy to get to? How easy is it to change the belts, oil, air filters, blades? Will the blades be easy to sharpen? If your operation is big enough to have a maintenance supervisor, bring him along when you’re checking out new models. Keep in mind that the easier maintenance is to do, the more often it’ll get done. That’s just human nature.
Another thing to consider is which attachments are available. There’s an attachment for virtually every job a landscape maintenance contractor does. There are dethatchers, catchers, brooms, leaf blowers, sulkies, vacuum collection systems and more. Some are made by the mower manufacturers for their specific models, and some are aftermarket attachments made by other companies.
However, like options on a new car, you have to decide what you need and don’t need. This may affect which mower you choose. Say, for instance, one mower you’re considering has an optional snow blower attachment. Great, but you’re in Florida. Perhaps another make or brand would work better for you at a lower price point. Conversely, if you’re in Wisconsin, that snow blower will have that mower making money for you year ’round.
And then there’s the fuel issue. The bigger the engine, the more gas it gulps. In many parts of the country, the higher cost of fuel has outstripped labor as the biggest expense for landscape maintenance companies. Ask what kind of mileage per gallon you can expect. You might want to go with a diesel- or propane-powered model, depending on your local situation.
Some parts of the country restrict the use of gas-powered landscape equipment to certain hours or days of the week. In that case, having some mowers that run on propane might be a good idea.
Lastly, don’t buy too inexpensive a mower. Stick with the major commercial brands and buy quality. A flimsier mower won’t be able to stand up to the hours you’ll be running it. And “cheaping out” will cost you far more in repairs and downtime than you ever saved on the purchase price. Your livelihood depends on this tool. Don’t you want the best?
The next thing to keep in mind is scheduling. There’s an art to this. You want to cut down on the number of crosstown trips a crew has to make in a single day. Remember, you’re paying for that travel time and gas. Schedule jobs on the same side of town for the same day. Look at a map and plot the most efficient route. Don’t be afraid to change routing schedules to accommodate new clients. Remember, there is plenty of software to help you in your scheduling. Most people don’t care what day their lawn gets mowed as long as it gets mowed regularly.
A good admiral knows his men, too. Without them, the most expensive mower in the world is worthless. Watch your crews at work and learn what they’re capable of. This will help you know whom to deploy where and with what tools. It will also help you know how big a crew to send to each job, so you don’t send too many people or too few.
Knowing which mower to use where isn’t rocket science. However, the attention you pay to this area could rocket your maintenance business to either the top or the bottom of the heap. Which way would you rather go?