May 1 2000 12:00 AM


The driving force behind riding
mower popularity is zero turn.

Once upon a time, the only mowers available for turf pros were push-behind models, soon followed by revolutionary lawn tractors. These lawn tractors were miniature versions of the farm tractor, with front-engine mounts. In their day these machines were all the rage, freeing up the belabored from walking behind, but they still lacked one important advantage: operator visibility. Sitting near the rear of the deck, engine in front, it was difficult to see what was ahead.

Then came the riding lawn mower, which placed the mower?s engine in the back and the operator in front--landscape maintenance contractors and greenskeepers everywhere shouted, "Now that?s more like it!" But familiarity breeds contempt, and riders found that they still needed the versatility of walk-behinds to get the hard-to-reach areas. The stage was set for a marriage between the two, and what evolved is the hottest product to reach the landscape industry?s playing field: the zero-turn radius mower.

Excel Industries, Inc., Hesston, Kansas, manufacturers of Hustler mowers was the first company to wrap its arms around zero-turn technology, followed closely by Grasshopper. "Everyone laughed at us; no one needed it," says Excel account specialist John Austin, of when Excel first began selling zero-turn mowers. "We started with belts that made it a zero-turn radius through pulleys and turning belts. And then in the ?70s we came out with a true hydraulic system zero-turn unit with a 72-inch deck."

A lot has changed since the ?70s. Along with disco and bell bottoms, the push-behinds and early lawn tractors have given way to the zero turns.

"This is the hottest product in mowing, period," says Mike Gordon, product manager for Bush Hog Corporation in Selma, Alabama. "Hotter than hydrostatic walk-behinds and regular riding mowers that are transmission steered. Since the [hydraulic] concept, which originated with Grasshopper about 25 years ago, the technology had to catch up with it. Now the people who make the major drive components have all but perfected the technology."

Gordon recalls that from August 1998 through July 1999, the number of zero-turn mowers sold doubled, reaching about 40,000 units in the United States. He is also quick to point out that the figure may be skewed somewhat, due to non-reporting companies from year to year, but said it was a fair representation of how zero-turn popularity has skyrocketed.

And in such a rush for a popular item, it?s easy for the various pioneers to get trampled a bit, while still staying in the game. "Now," Austin lightheartedly mentions, "to be honest, some have probably even passed us up."

The ability to maneuver around obstacles such as sidewalks and trees has given rise to the popularity of zero-turn technology. Independent hydraulic wheel motors allow zero-turn mowers to turn on a dime. Maneuverability increases with a lower turning radius (the minimum number of inches a mower is horizontally displaced when it turns 180?). So, by definition, a zero-radius turn mower can do an about-face at the operator?s whim.

"The reason they call it zero turn is because you can be stationary, never moving one drive tire, and simply move the other drive tire and rotate 360? in the same spot," says Mark Meager of Dixie Chopper, Coatesville, Indiana.

And the best size isn?t necessarily the big, bad grass-eater. According to Bob Walker of Walker Manufacturing, Fort Collins, Colorado, the initial push toward combining zero-turn technology with larger mowers is a misapplied concept.

"For some reason many manufacturers thought that the big machine was where it was at," says Walker. "If you just look at it in a relationship where size combined with the maneuverability becomes most important, it?s with the small machine. When you have a job where you?re mowing in wide-open spaces, using a large deck with possibly wing extensions, you don?t have a great need for trimming.

"That?s why we saw the need to come out with more of a compact machine, where you can get back to the places where a push-behind can get to. We?ve tried to produce the smaller machine to replace the need for any push-behind mowers."
Photo courtesy of John Deere

Large or compact, lever controls are, by and large, associated with zero-turn mowers, acting as offsetting steering columns. "You have two levers that the operator controls by hand," Gordon informs. "Each lever operates a separate hydraulic pump for a separate wheel motor to each of the two drive tires. You?ve got a dedicated drive that?s controlled by a singular wheel motor and a singular pump. By pressing the steering levers, which are in front of the operator, forward, you?re sending hydraulic fluid from the pump to the wheel motor which powers the unit in a forward direction."

When the levers are offset, the machine turns. "There?s no transmission in the standard sense of a transmission," Gordon continues, "and no steering wheel in the standard sense of a steering wheel."

Hustler mowers are one exception to lever-controlled zero turns. In the early days, twin levers were the norm, but today operators can drive the machines much like a motorcycle.

"Now, only a few of our units still carry twin levers," says Austin. "We?ve gone to a ?trim steer? that?s a true one-hand machine. And we also have our ?H-bar? steering: it?s like driving a motorcycle or a snowmobile, where you roll your grip to go forward, or roll it toward you to go backwards. It?s very user-friendly."

One reason for moving away from twin levers was due to concerns about turf damage brought about by inexperienced zero-turn mower operators.

"An inexperienced operator can make little divots until he gets a feel for the unit," Austin continues.

The ability to maneuver around obstacles such as sidewalks and trees has given rise to the popularity of zero-turn technology.

"On a zero-turn unit, instead of counter-rotating the pivot wheel, he locks it and then it?s making divots in soft soil." Technology enables an automatic counter-rotation in one drive wheel while accelerating the other, thus producing a virtually goof-proof turn.

"We have thousands of these things in the field," says Gordon, "and I never hear of problems with leaking hydrostatic pumps. Very rarely would it be a problem with the pump itself."

Although the price tag of zero turns has been a purchase deterrent for some, the savings found in productivity can balance the decision.

According to marketing department representatives at Snapper, zero-turn mowers "have allowed landscape contractors to increase productivity and save time. Time is money; one man can do more work than before with ride and zero turn versus walk behind."

Mike Harrell, vice president of sales for Dixon Industries, Inc., Coffeyville, Kansas, manufacturers of the Dixon line of ZTRs, knows how savings play into making a wise mower move. "With the maneuverability of zero turn, I have a hard time understanding why all landscapers do not ?ride.? Using [zero-turn] mowers will increase productivity while decreasing operator fatigue. Mowing speeds are increased, and in most cases cut widths are also increased. Both mean more grass cut in less time." Increased efficiency is also attractive in a tight labor market.

More Than Zero Options

There are two basic styles of zero-turn mowers: the front mount where the engine is located in front of the operator; and the mid mount where the engine is located underneath. There are advantages to both: a front-mount unit allows for reaching under overhangs, such as low trees; a mid mount, or "belly style," allows for more storage and transport room on a trailer.

Harrell notes, "Commercial equipment requires daily maintenance. Operators should look for features such as tilt-up mower decks for servicing blades and deck hubs; grease fittings that are easy to reach and accessible in places like all deck hubs, front spindles, and casters. They should look for ?full flow? hydraulic systems. These systems will prevent heat build-up and provide longer life to the drive system."

Operating longevity can also be found in engines which are liquid-cooled. "When you look at what we?re asking these engines to do, they run in an extremely hot environment with nothing to cool them but air," says Mark Meager of Dixie Chopper, Coatesville, Indiana.

"And on top of that we throw dirt and grass at them; they?re at nearly 100-percent duty cycle 100 percent of its life. Anything we can do as far as liquid cooling and fuel injection and using extra filters will allow the machine to run more efficiently and prolong its life.

"We?ve always based our principle on performance without compromise, which basically means that you?re using this machine to generate cash flow. And by the time the machine has done enough work to pay for itself, you shouldn?t be looking at a heaping pile of bolts that?s ready for the scrap heap; there should still be something left," emphasizes Meager.

Depending on deck width, horsepower, and other bells and whistles, a zero turn mower will run from $2,000 to $17,000. Two options manufacturers see in high demand are mulching capability and operator comfort. While these options can occasionally be found as standard features, more often they?re extras or found in alternative add-on kits. The future should hold more options for the zero turn.

Harrell confides that their newest addition to the Dixon line will include a feature that ensures a smooth ride. Gordon admits that his company will soon unveil improved features, but couldn?t reveal what the finished product will be. As exciting as zero-radius turn technology is today, it?s hard to imagine what further improvements the future could bring.

Using zero-turn mowers will increase productivity
while decreasing operator fatigue