Running a profitable and successful landscaping business depends on many factors. One key piece of the puzzle is having machinery that runs smoothly. Nothing is more frustrating for a contractor than having crews that are forced to stop working on a site because of an inoperable piece of equipment.

The impact of such downtime can be considerable. Work crews still get paid whether they are working on site or waiting around for a problem to be solved. Work schedules that have been thrown into flux can result in dissatisfied customers who might later jump ship. A work stoppage at one site can cause jobs at other sites to be thrown off schedule as well. All this can add up to lost jobs and less profit for a landscape contractor.

An effective equipment maintenance schedule can help cut down the chance of such woes. Whether a company is large or small, it has to protect its investments. One of the biggest expenditures contractors make is for mowing equipment. Servicing this equipment regularly will aid in protecting this investment and keep the machines running at peak efficiency.

For optimal performance, a lawn mower engine, just like a car engine, requires regular maintenance; otherwise, problems will be waiting just around the corner. A mower that?s not properly cared for will have years taken off its life and also will experience a lot more problems in the short run.

A strict maintenance schedule can make the difference between the carefree operation of mowing equipment, the experts say, or a lot of costly problems, both in terms of time and money. ?Experience has taught us that we get a longer life out of the equipment by servicing them properly and regularly,? says John Allin, president of Allin Companies in Erie, Pennsylvania.

There are several areas of concern when it comes to lawn mower maintenance. Basic engine maintenance is essential, with regular oil changes an absolute necessity. Equally important is making sure the mower?s air filter is clean. This simple task will help extend a mower?s life. An air filter keeps dust, dirt, sand and grass from being drawn into the engine. If the air filter is dirty, tiny abrasive particles can get into the internal moving parts and wear them out.
Blades that are not regularly sharpened can also present a host of problems. A dull mower blade will result in ragged leaf tips that will give a brownish appearance to the lawn.

Greater Texas Landscapes head mechanic Tom Gary says he has found it necessary to follow a strict monthly maintenance schedule in order to keep the company?s mowing equipment in top form. Each month, Greater Texas Landscapes, located in Austin, breaks down its service into two periods. During the first two weeks of the month, maintenance is performed on the small equipment. The second two-week period of the month is reserved for work on the larger pieces of mowing equipment.

?The reason for such a stringent schedule,? says Gary, ?is to keep the engines running well. Its lifeblood is oil,? Gary stresses about the mowers. ?Our biggest destroyer in Texas is heat. When we are running 115 degrees outside and they are cutting and mowing, that mower is hot . . . and we need to keep changing the oil because otherwise we could go through a heck of a breakdown, so our idea is to keep the oil fresh.?

Another problem that Texas landscape contractors encounter is the dirt, Gary says, also making monthly service a necessity. ?Our goal is to keep that (schedule) up and make the equipment go as far as it can,? he adds. ?We live in a dust bowl and we live in a hot dust bowl, so we (previously) came to the conclusion that we need to do this more often.?

There are six commercial and three residential crews ? all made up of two to four people ? at Greater Texas Landscapes. The company?s mowing equipment includes seven riding mowers, nine walk-behinds and ten push mowers. Extended pole hedge trimmers and short hedge trimmers are also part of each crew?s equipment.

Every crew is assigned one day during the first two-week period for service to the blowers, trimmers and the push mowers. For the mowers, this includes changing the oil, oil filter and air filter, and lubing the engine. At this time, any minor repairs are undertaken, including fixing such things as flat tires and broken ropes or bags.

Upkeep on riders and walk-behind mowers is scheduled into the second two-week period with each crew assigned one day. These pieces of equipment get preventative maintenance ? oil changes, new oil and air filters, and lubing ? as well as repairs to any minor damage the machine might have.

Gary, who begins his workday at 5 a.m., is one of two mechanics at Greater Texas Landscapes. Each crew brings its equipment to the shop the night before it?s scheduled for service. It?s the responsibility of the other mechanic, who works a later shift, to make sure the equipment is there, ready to be serviced when Gary arrives. ?I will service it in the morning and then they can come in, pick it up and go, unless I find something that?s damaged,? he says.

Sharpening the blades on all the mowers is the crew foreman?s responsibility. This task is a weekly one. Gary explains that each foreman is assigned one day during the week to do this task with two foremen scheduled per day. ?They have to sharpen their blades every week and clean the underside of the machine, including spraying bleach to kill fungus and bacteria,? Gary says. ?This is something the foremen have to do. They do it every week, if not (after finishing) every site. We spray the bleach because we don?t want to spread any diseases.?

The foremen are required to have a mechanic sign off as a quality check to ensure that these tasks are done. As part of an incentive program, foremen are given monthly cash rewards if they complete these jobs each week during the four-week period.

?Every month we check to make sure the foremen have complied and have come in each week. What we are looking for is 100 percent compliance. There is no 99 percent (accepted); it is 100 percent,? Gary emphasizes. ?All (the foremen) have to do their part, sharpening the blades and cleaning underneath the mower. If they do this they get their cash bonus.?

In order to keep track of maintenance of the mowers, Gary says, a large board, in the form of a monthly calendar, outlines the service schedule.

Gary says the equipment also gets an inspection. The mechanics will go through it piece by piece looking for problems. It?s the foreman?s decision as to whether equipment needs this type of attention.

?Greater Texas Landscapes has been following this maintenance routine for the past 16 months,? says Gary, ?and in that time we?ve only lost one large engine and one trimmer. So we?re doing pretty well,? he says. ?I am trying to get my money?s worth ? that?s what works best for us. We strive to do the best we can.?

At Allin Companies, preventative measures are also an important part of keeping its fleet of mowing equipment running effectively. The company employs approximately 45 people with 10 crews and two mechanics ? a small engine mechanic and a truck mechanic. Allin says his company generally gets four years out of a mower before it is replaced. ?And, with proper maintenance, you can get as much as six years out of it,? he says.

The company has approximately six riding mowers, 12 walk-behinds, and an assortment of push mowers and trimmers. As part of the company?s preventative maintenance program, the equipment is rotated through the mechanic?s shop every two to three weeks. At that point, the mowers are gone over piece by piece to look for any potential problems. The most important part of his company?s routine, though, is a simple, daily visual check. ?(You do this) to see if anything is wrong, broken or just not right,? Allin says.

Allin Companies follows the manufacturers? recommendations when it comes to oil changes and other service. ?We follow those to the letter. If the manufacturers say every 40 hours, we do them every 40 hours,? says Allin, adding that the engines generally need service every 40 to 60 hours, depending on their size.

Sharpening of the blades is also the foreman?s responsibility at Allin Companies. ?That is done not less than once a day and we change them when needed,? Allin adds. ?This gives us a higher quality cut.?

At Clarence Davids & Company, Inc., headquartered in Matteson, Illinois, Saturday is maintenance day. The company tries to set aside half a day each weekend for service during the mowing season.

Clarence Davids & Company, which has three offices and employs 250 people, has a large fleet of vehicles and machinery, including push mowers, walk-behinds, and riding mowers. ?(Once a week) we clean the deck, sharpen the blades, change the oil, and grease the machine,? says Bill Davids, the company?s president, about service performed on his company?s mowing equipment. ?We also make any repairs that need to be done by a mechanic.?

Davids says it?s important to stick to a strict schedule when it comes to mowing equipment because each week the machine will have gone through a considerable amount of acres. ?It?s a small engine so it needs to be serviced on a regular basis, and we clean the deck because depending on the kind of weather we?re having, we can have two inches of debris underneath that deck,? Davids adds. ?Eventually, if you don?t do it, it?s going to show on your mowing patterns.?

His company?s service schedule helps extend the life of the mowers? engines, which generally last about five years for the smaller mowers and well beyond that for the larger pieces of machinery. ?We haven?t replaced any (mowers) very often,? Davids says. ?Usually, if the engine is shot, we?ll put a new engine on it. We basically rebuild them and keep using them.?
Tamotsu Yamamoto, the fleet manager and head mechanic at Del Conte?s Landscaping, Inc., Fremont, California, says the decision to replace an engine or simply buy a new mower depends on the cost of the repairs versus the cost of purchasing a new piece of comparable equipment. ?We typically haven?t gotten rid of mowers and bought new ones. If you repair the worn parts as the equipment ages, you can get many, many years out of them,? he explains.

At Del Conte?s Landscaping, which employs approximately 100 people and runs 14 landscape maintenance crews, service to the mowers is performed weekly for its fleet of 30 mowers, which include 21-inch commercial mowers, mid-sized walk-behinds, and riding mowers. During the busy season, Yamamoto says, each piece of mowing equipment is visually inspected once a week. At this time, air filters are cleaned, the equipment is greased, and blades are sharpened and balanced. Air tire pressure is also checked weekly on the larger mowers. ?Uneven tire pressure can result in an uneven cut,? Yamamoto says, adding that oil changes are done monthly, or as needed.

The whole point of regularly servicing equipment, Yamamoto says, is to prevent bigger problems. ?For example, on the visual check, you can find a loose nut or bolt and this is a little, tiny problem, but it can end up to be a really expensive problem if it?s not taken care of.? He adds, ?Also with air filters, if you don?t clean all the debris from around it or replace it occasionally and it clogs up, the engine may not run correctly. Then it can go down in the field, or it won?t run well enough to be productive. That?s when you lose productive time.?

Little things can add up to big problems, Yamamoto stresses. ?It?s just like servicing your car. If you do it regularly, you might not notice it right away but down the road, you won?t have any problems or as many problems as you would if you didn?t do it,? he says. ?You have to be a long-term thinker.?

Mar 2001