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Mowers... Getting 'em Ready for Spring

| Landscape Maintenance

“I did a dumb thing last year but I learned a lesson,” said one landscape contractor, who requested anonymity. Because he was rushing to close down for the winter, he did not prepare his equipment for the winter layoff. When spring came, getting his equipment ready—especially his lawn mowers— presented many problems. “This year, I’ll be prepared,” he added.

With spring almost around the corner, it’s a good time to begin to think of preparing your mowers for the season. You’re lining up your crews, getting the materials you’re going to need stocked. Your ducks are in a row, ready for startup. Of course, your faithful commercial mowers are sitting in storage, just waiting to kick right back into action.

Or are they? Your mowers may not be as ready as you think, especially if you didn’t ‘put them to bed’ properly. If you winterized your fleet, you should have no problems, now that spring is almost here. If you didn’t…well, then there are some things to get busy with now, before the first client appointment is made.

Remember “spring cleaning?” That was the old housewife’s ritual, where every year, the house was cleaned from top to bottom; rugs and drapes freshened, closets de-cluttered, screens hosed down, iceboxes sanitized. The idea was that once spring arrived, all traces of musty, dusty winter should be banished, and everything made sparkling to match the season.

The ritual has kind of gone by the wayside, but the principle behind it is still sound. Why not approach spring startup the same way, by giving your mowers a thorough inspection, cleanout and tune-up, making everything shiny and new before the season roars into full gear?

While you’re revisiting your mowers, you may discover that some parts need replacing. If you do your own maintenance, you probably have some of those parts in your shop already.

“Keep a good inventory of what you need on hand,” advises Gary Sams, shop fleet manager at Hermes Landscaping in Lenexa, Kansas. “With mowers, in many cases it’s cheaper in the long run to replace with new parts, rather than rebuild. You’ve got to consider your downtime while you’re having an item rebuilt.”

The problems you’re most likely to have at the start of the season are mowers that won’t start, due to dead batteries or gasoline gone bad. “We do see a lot of fuel problems in the early spring when contractors first get their mowers out,” says Alex Collins, owner of Alex’s Mobile Mower Repair in Waldorf, Maryland.

Ready to get started? Here’s a checklist to guide you.

Drain gasoline fuel tanks. Did you drain the gas tanks or put fuel stabilizer in them before you closed the shed door for the winter?

“Unlike propane, fuel stabilizers must be added to gas and diesel for long-term storage,” says Joe Hyler, service technician for Beatrice, Nebraska-based Exmark. “Gasoline and diesel left in a tank might go bad, which can damage some engine components. It can be avoided by adding a stabilizer to the gas tank before storing the machine for winter,” he explains.

If you didn’t do this, the fuel in those tanks has probably separated. Most gasoline has some ethanol in it, at least ten percent (E10). Ethanol attracts water.

If there’s still some fuel in your mowers, drain them and add some new fuel before starting them up again. And don’t use fuel that’s been sitting there in a gas can, either; the same thing has happened to it. Even more important, if you’ve been using E15 (gasoline with 15 percent ethanol), know that when it breaks down, it can leave varnish inside of engines. Sticky goo inside any engine is going to make it hard to start.

If you’re using propane, Hyler points out that you don’t have to worry about propane degrading. However, “contractors should shut off tanks and run the machine until hoses are completely empty of fuel” before they are stored for the winter. He adds, “They can keep the propane still left in a cylinder.”

Change fuel filters. Change the oil and oil filters. Be sure to put in the right weight of oil for warm-weather operation.

Check belts. Check all drive belts and deck drive belts for wear. It’s possible that shiny spots, cracks or loosening that you may have overlooked in the fall is obvious now.

Change them if they’re nicked, frayed, warped or have started to slip.

Check batteries. How are they doing? If you didn’t hook them up to trickle chargers, they may not have any juice. “The starter batteries on many mowers go dead after sitting for three months,” says Sams. Test, charge and replace, if necessary.

Many of the “mower won’t start” calls manufacturers get from February to the beginning of April are caused by neglected starter battery maintenance. It’s a good idea to disconnect batteries before winter storage.

If you did that, but still have dead batteries, it may be because they were left on a cold concrete floor. The chemicals inside them may have reacted to the extreme temperatures. If any of your batteries have flatlined, don’t despair; Sams says most of them will come back if you give them a recharge.

Tighten nuts and bolts. Look your mowers over and check all of these. Do you see any loose nuts or bolts on the floor, under the machines? Check all the metal connections to verify that they’re nice and tight.

Change air filters. If they’re dirty, they should be history. Dirty air filters reduce fuel efficiency. Even worse, they put added stress on mowers. It’s good to get in the habit of changing out air filters just before winter storage. If you know that the filters weren’t changed, better safe than sorry; change them now, even if they don’t look that dirty.

Test spark plugs. Spark plugs usually require replacement every 100 hours. If you didn’t replace aged or corroded ones before winter storage, now’s the time. Don’t overtighten them or forget to leave gaps, or the mowers won’t start.

Check glow plugs. If you have diesel-powered mowers, you have glow plugs. A single bad glow plug will keep a diesel engine from starting. A cautionary note: glow plugs should only be activated for testing purposes for five to ten seconds, and never for more than 20 seconds at a time.

Check tires. Did you know that tire pressure can greatly affect the quality of cut your mowers give? The tires have been sitting for some time; make sure they haven’t gotten soft. Even without slow leaks, tires gradually lose air. If they’ve gone flat, sitting that way over the winter can damage sidewalls. While you’re at it, don’t forget to check the treads. Is it time for some new tires?

Look for cracks and breaks. Any parts of your mowers that can break should be looked over thoroughly—wheels, handles, fuel tank covers, cables, anything. Check for cracks in the frames, too. Do a thorough visual inspection, and repair if needed.

Do a leak check. Notice any puddles under your mowers? They’ve been sitting around for a few months, so anything dripping should have “outed” itself by now, whether it’s a wheel motor, a pump, an oil cooler, or a fuel tank or line. “Check the fuel lines to see if they’re getting soft or pliable,” adds Collins, who says this can be one of the bad effects of ethanol. If they are, replace them.

Inspect all electrical connections. Make sure nothing is loose or corroded. If there are fuses, make sure they’re not blown.

Check and change fluids and filters on hydrostatic drive systems. Drive systems on rider mowers are usually hydraulic. Hydraulic drive system filters and fluids are supposed to be changed every 500 miles. If the fluids and filters haven’t been changed regularly, or weren’t changed just before store-away, do it now.

Check the spindles. If there’s play in them, they should be changed.

Do a safety check. Make sure all safety features are fully enabled. Some landscape workers like to cable down throttles, a very dangerous practice. Make sure everything on the mowers that was put there for safety reasons is still attached and functioning. Fix anything that may have been jury-rigged or messed with.

Lubricate. Now’s the time to make sure that everything glides along smoothly. If a good, thorough lube job hasn’t been done in awhile, now’s the time. Grease idler arms, pivot points and cutter housings. The mowers have had all winter to sit and dry out. Spindles and axles can actually break from not being properly lubed; you don’t want that happening the first day out.

Sharpen and balance blades. Don’t start the season with dull or damaged blades. Dull blades slow things down and cut grass unevenly. Replace them if needed.

Check and/or clean undercarriages. And while you’re looking at the business ends of your mowers…is everything clean under there? Or do you see a bunch of caked-on grass and dirt? “Remove all debris from the engine and cutting decks, and around the blades,” advises Hyler.

Any buildup of debris needs to go, because it can clog discharge chutes. You can blow out some of this with an air compressor, and use a wire brush to get the more stubborn stuff out. “If machines need to be washed, make sure to dry them thoroughly with a blower or using compressed air to prevent any rusting,” adds Hyler.

Clean the exteriors. Of course, your mowers will run fine with dirty exteriors. But what about your business? Your company’s image is tied to how your equipment looks; clean it up. You can use a solvent such as WD-40 to remove any oil or gas stains. After you wash down your mowers, blow them dry with compressed air.

Some landscape professionals also touch up their mowers’ paint jobs before they make their spring debut. Does she need a touch of lipstick before meeting her public?

We need to add a word of caution about pressure-washing your mowers: while some contractors like to do this, doing so can drive water up into the bearings and lube points, causing corrosion. Even some sealed bearings can get water forced into them this way. Cleaning out your mowers with an air compressor nozzle is safer.

Once you’ve done all that, you’re ready to start up your mowers.

My mower won’t start—now what?

Even after you’ve done everything on the checklist, you still might be faced with a balky machine. Here’s a checklist for a mower that won’t start:

—Is the blade control disengaged or turned to the off position?

—Is the parking brake on? —Is the operator sitting in the seat (riding mowers)? Riders won’t start if no one is sitting on them— that’s a safety feature. Some standers have this “dead man” feature, too.

You might try using a cleaning additive to de-gunk the carburetor and see if that helps.

Be very careful before you reach for that starting fluid. Kubota, Kohler and Briggs & Stratton say you should absolutely never use starting fluid in any of their engines, as it will cause severe piston ring or ring land damage. Check your owner’s manual before you add anything. If in doubt, don’t.

If the mower still won’t start, then something more serious may be wrong. If you don’t have your own shop, it may be time to take it to one.

When all else fails, read the instructions. Mower manufacturers are pretty good about telling you exactly how their products should be handled. Inside your owner’s manual you’ll find a recommended maintenance schedule, what weights of oil to use, instructions on cleaning, and many other important things, including what not to do.

Many manufacturers have “how-to” videos on their company’s websites. These demonstrate step-by-step many common service and cleaning procedures. (You can also download owner’s manuals there, in case you’ve lost yours.)

We hope this will help you prepare for a productive and profitable spring season. Happy mowing!

 
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