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Keep your fleet of mowers in tip-top condition and ready to roll with the proper
There’s an old adage that says, “Take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves.” This may seem like a strange way to open a story about maintaining commercial zero-turn mowers; after all, they’re hardly “little things,” either in size or in cost. However, taking care of the “little things” that come up in the life of your rider, stander, walk-behind or push mower will make a big difference in terms of how long its life will be.
You might assume that most professional landscape contractors would be pretty conscientious about getting their mowers serviced on a regular schedule. If you did, you’d be wrong. “Most of the guys I see are too under-the-gun,” says Alex Collins, owner of Alex’s Mobile Mower Repair in Waldorf, Maryland. “They’re too understaffed. Every landscape company I deal with is undermanned and underequipped.
That means they push these machines right to the brink.”
Mike Campbell, owner of Forest Park, Georgia-based Campbell’s Lawn Equipment, is another man who repairs mowers for a living. He would agree with Collins’ assessment. “Landscape contractors’ days are so full, so hectic, from sunup to sundown. When they get home, the last thing they want to do is pull those blades off and grind them sharp.”
Contractors tend to think of a mower as just another tool in the toolbox, says Campbell, like a carpenter thinks of his hammer. “They figure, it’ll be there tomorrow morning, just like it was today,” he says.
And for the most part, it is…until it isn’t. That’s when Campbell gets the patient, when it needs emergency surgery, not when all that was needed was a Band-Aid. “I hate to call them all out,” says Campbell.
“There are some who do a good job of taking care of their mowers, but what I usually see is more of the opposite.”
Whether a mower gets treated with kid gloves or boxing mitts doesn’t seem to depend on whether a company is big or small. “I don’t see a lot of them keeping up with their mowers. Not the big ones, anyway,” says Collins. “The small guys are pinching pennies, so they’re more apt to be religious with their maintenance programs. But the bigger guys, I’ve seen them just kind of let the mowers go until there are major repairs to be done. They’ll run them until the brakes are done, the cables are shot, the engines are about to blow, and they need a belt. When a belt breaks and it won’t cut anymore, that’s when I get it. Most of them just push the mowers until they break.”
Collins cites this example: “I’ve got a customer who has 18 zeroturns in his fleet. Every time he brings me one, it’s $1,500 to repair it.” Wouldn’t this client spend less if he did maintenance regularly? “Definitely,” says Collins. “I even offered him the after-hours service that we provide, where we’d go to him, but he doesn’t want to hear it.”
“We try to set contractors up on rotating maintenance schedules,” Collins adds. “We go to one of our biggest clients during his off-time. We service and grease and maintain the mowers. That’s worked out very well. He’s getting a lot more life out of them, of course.”
Air filters: Key to long life?
Most commercial mowers are good for a lifespan of about 3,000 hours. After that, most contractors trade them in or sell them. But Gary Sams, shop fleet manager at Hermes Landscaping in Lenexa, Kansas, gets twice as many hours—and then some—out of his. “I just sold three used ones this past spring that we put 7,000 hours on.”
The long life of Hermes’ mowers is due to their maintenance program.
At each day’s end, crew members take the hoses and air filters off and blow them out with an air gun. If the air filter is really dirty, they change it.
“The air filter is a very critical part of maintaining the engine life,” says Sams. “You have to keep that air clean. If you start sucking dirty stuff in through the carburetion system, it goes right to the oil, and that’s where you start having a lot of problems. You can contaminate your oil through the air filtration system.”
And while we’re on the subject of oil, Sams has some definite opinions. “I hate to contradict the manufacturers, but they always say, ‘Change the oil every 40 hours.’ In that case, we’d be doing it twice a week. Generally, we go 200 hours between changes. But—and here’s the caution—that’s mainly since the oil in these mowers is so clean because of our air filter policy.”
“Use a good oil,” Sams advises. All of the equipment he’s responsible for maintaining, including 40 commercial mowers, 88 trucks (including semis), 14 company vehicles, 12 uniloaders, plus backhoes and dozens of other power tools, run year ’round on 10W-40 oil. He says that using the same oil in every machine prevents mix-ups.
While we’re on the subject of keeping everything the same, Sams says
that keeping mowers in the same brand family makes repairs more efficient, and cuts down on parts inventory.
Fix in, or send out?
Shep Slater, owner of We Cut Grass in Atlanta, Georgia, has five commercial mowers. When they need maintenance or repairs, he sends them to a local shop. “I’m not as mechanically inclined as I probably should be, so I send everything out.”
Of course, the key to this approach is finding a really good mower repair shop. When Slater needs a mower fixed, he needs it done in an hour, and he needs it done right. It costs him less money to take it to a good shop than taking it someplace where “they have kids working for $7 an hour. They call you and say, ‘It’s ready.’ You get it back, and realize that you’re going to be down another day or two, with a mower that’s still not fixed.”
Lenny Mangnall is manager of technical services for Beatrice, Nebraska-based Exmark. He says that from February to the first part of April, the majority of calls to their service department are, ‘The machine won’t start.’ “That’s usually because of poor fuel, or because they’ve neglected starter battery maintenance.”
Maintaining a battery isn’t hard. “The simplest thing you can do is just disconnect it when it’s going to winter over,” says Mangnall. “Just by doing that, you’re doing more than most people do, and you’re easily extending the life of that battery.”
He also suggests using a tricklecharger. “A battery dissipates a little bit, just sitting there. A tricklecharger regenerates what it’s losing, little by little, and keeps that battery at a full charge.” This is another life-extender for batteries.
Campbell explains what happens when a commercial mower is brought to his shop for a routine checkup. “For preventive maintenance, we’re going to change the engine oil and filter, and either clean or replace the air filter. We’re going to inspect the spark plug and probably replace it. We also check tire pressure, of course.”
“Most engines that we see are air-cooled,” he continues. “We’re going to make sure the cooling system is clear. In addition, we’re going to inspect the mower blade and, depending upon what brand and type of machine it is, we’ll inspect control cables to make sure they’re not frayed. If they’re braided or twisted cables, we look for any bends or kinks. If it’s a self-drive, we’re going to check the belts and lubricate the transmission, if it’s not a sealed one.”
Campbell also looks at the overall condition of the safety equipment, especially the auto shut-off lever and cable.
For riders, there are some other items to check. “The drive system of a rider is usually hydraulic, so we’d check the fluid level,” says Campbell. “If it hasn’t been changed in awhile, we’d change it and any filter or filters that it has. Riders have more belts and pulleys, so we’re going to inspect those. The safety system is a little more complex on a rider than it is on a push mower, so we want to make sure that’s operational. Usually, riders have more grease fittings, so we make sure those are lubed. Most push mowers have none.”
“Stand-on mowers are similar to riders, except that many are gear-driven,” he says. “You don’t have to change the fluid on most of the gear-drive walk-behinds. Hydrostatic drive walk-behinds have the same drive systems as riders.”
So now, the $64,000 question: how often should all of these things be done? Campbell says that’s a tough call, because service intervals vary, not just by brand, but with all the different components that make up the various types of mowers.
“It’s hard to say, ‘You should take your mower in and get it serviced every 100 hours,’” says Campbell. “There are things to do on a daily basis, like checking your oil. Some mower manufacturers say to grease the machine once a year, no matter how many hours you put on it. Some others say you need to grease it every 40 or 45 hours, period.”
However, there are some general guidelines. An oil change should be done on most commercial mowers after the first ten hours of its life, and every 100 hours after that. Fuel filters should be changed every 200 hours. Blades should be sharpened every 25 to 35 hours. Some landscape professionals sharpen their mower blades daily. It all depends on what type of turf you’re cutting.
Of course, when in doubt, check your owner’s manual. It’ll have a nice chart in there showing everything you should do daily, weekly, monthly and seasonally to keep your mower in peak condition.
If you remember nothing else, keep in mind the old saying about oil and filters being cheap insurance. “The two biggest, most expensive components on the machines are the engines and the hydraulics,” says Mangnall. “You can’t buy a single part for a failed engine for what you’d spend on two quarts of oil and an oil filter.”
Many landscape pros wonder, when it comes time to put the mowers away for the winter, what’s the best policy with regard to the fuel that’s still in it? Should you drain it all out, or pour in some stabilizer? In this case, we’re talking about E10 fuel—gasoline with ten percent ethanol.
“Ask three different contractors, and you’ll get three different answers to that question,” says Mangnall. “What happens is, the alcohol evaporates, and it pulls in moisture. So there are guys who’ll say, ‘Fill the tank as full as you can; that way you leave no room for condensation to form.’ Some will say, ‘Empty it all out.’ Others will say, ‘Run what you’ve got, but before you put it away for that last time, put the fuel stabilizer in there, and run the engine long enough so that some of that mix gets into the carburetor. You do need to do something to stabilize that fuel.”
In addition to the fuel, there are other things to think about. “Make sure your spindles are in good shape,” advises Jarrett Phillips, president of Orlando, Florida-based Evoscape, Inc. “They often need work, and you want to avoid the cost of having a spindle go bad in the summer. If you notice there is play in a spindle as you’re putting a mower up for winter, change it.”
Another thing Phillips suggests is to touch up the paint on your mowers (he also does this on his trucks and other equipment, too) before he locks up the storage shed. This isn’t merely cosmetic, but helps prevent rust. He also feels that keeping his mowers looking new is also good for his company’s image.
Many commercial mowers today are manufactured with sealed bearings, to cut down on maintenance. If yours aren’t, then make sure they’re greased regularly. “No matter how good of a seal you have, if you allow wet debris, such as wet grass, to sit on top of the bearings for an extended period of time, moisture will penetrate the seal and eventually cause damage,” stresses Mangnall. “One of the things that we preach is, stay away from water; it’s no friend of bearings.”
One daily practice you should get in the habit of is removing the belt shields and blowing off any debris. “Debris retains heat,” says Mangnall. “There are some liquid-cooled engines out there, but everything else on these machines is air-cooled. Debris defeats the machine’s ability to cool itself. Keeping them clean is paramount to extending the life of every one of the components.”
You may be saying, “What’s the big deal? So there’s a little debris.” Mangnall has some dirty pictures to show you. “We have this thing at Exmark called ‘CSI,’” he says. Yes, that usually stands for Crime Scene Investigation; in this case, crimes against mowers. “It’s where we have our dealers send in pictures of misused, abused and neglected machines. ” These pictures are used as visual aids when the company holds service schools for dealers and end-users.
The pictures show debris build up and other mower malaise. “One of the worst ones I’ve seen was of a mower whose air filter became clogged, so the owner poked holes in it to allow more air in,” laughed Mangnall. “He completely defeated the reason for the use of the air filter and sucked dirt into the engine. The inside of that mower looked like it had been sandblasted.”
Don’t be that guy. Don’t neglect or abuse your commercial mower. Maintain it, treat it with respect, and it should give you many, many years of good service. After all, you spent a lot of money to buy it. Don’t spend more than you need to keep it running.