Jan. 15 2015 08:16 AM
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One of the best things about self-serve frozen yogurt places are those little white sample cups. They exist just so you can try out a new flavor before you commit to a w hole cupful. Will you really like Salted Caramel, or will it be too sweet? One taste will tell you.

Anything new takes some getting used to. The same holds true for our work tools and machines. It was just about 18 years ago that the first Wright Stander rolled off the assembly line, making the stand-on mower a relatively new flavor for the landscape contractor. While manufacturers of stand-ons say they’ll never outstrip the sales of zero-turn riders, their acceptance keeps expanding.

“Stand-on mowers are growing in popularity,” said Carl Agee, product manager for Moline, Illinois-based John Deere Commercial Mowing. “The industry has seen more manufacturers developing these types of products in the past five years.” Once someone who mows for a living gets a ‘lick’ of a stand-on mower, chances are he’ll buy one or more for his operation.

Of course, one needs good reasons to justify any new business purchase. As it turns out, there are as many reasons for a contractor to buy a stand-on as there are types of contractors. “There really is not a ‘typical’ stand-on mower buyer,” said Ross Hawley, senior marketing manager at The Toro Company in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“In some cases, they’re smaller contractors who are just starting out, who want to establish them selves before making a large capital investment in a zero-turn riding mower,” said Hawley. “A few, very large contractors even run fleets that are exclusively stand-ons.”

Stand-ons generally cost about 20 percent less than riders. “Their price point falls between commercial walk-behinds and traditional zero-turn radius (ZTR) mowers with seats,” said Agee.

There’s really no substitute for the modern zero-turn rider mower, the true powerhouse behind a maintenance operation’s ability to turn over a lot of work in one day. It will always be king. The stand-on is the lean, trusty knight by his side, who can be counted on in battle.

Maneuverability and versatility

You could also call a stand-on the Mikhail Baryshnikov of mowers. The ease with which it weaves in and out of small places was cited by every contractor we spoke with. “We find them to be extremely maneuverable,” said Todd Pugh, CEO and founder of Enviroscapes, Inc. in Louisville, Ohio. “Because they’re smaller, you can get them in and out of tight areas much more easily.”

“When we’re training new operators, stand-ons are a bit more forgiving, because you can just step off them. And if you get stuck somehow, you can help push it out, which is harder to do with a heavier machine.”

Nick Marrali, landscape management operations manager for The Pattie Group in Novelty, Ohio, says that his field staff loves stand-ons because of their ability to operate in cramped spaces. “Especially when we get into some of these condominium sites,” he says.

“You can find yourself in these niches between units, where there’s not a lot of room. With these standon units, you don’t have to look for that second piece of equipment to go mow an open backfield quickly. The stand-on can service both.”

No wonder that stand-ons sell well in big cities and their outskirts. “They’re used mainly in urban areas, where there are smaller properties and tight spaces,” said Bill Engler, director of sales, commercial landscape contractor, for the AriensCompany in Brillion, Wisconsin.

“When you look at where they’re mainly sold, it’s in these highly populated areas, like Chicago.” He says urban-based contractors like the fact that they can send five or six of these units into tree-filled city parks, where maximum maneuverability is desirable.

While the reliable, workhorse zero-turn riders remain the backbone, Engler says that sometimes, a stand-on can replace one or more professional walk-behind machines in a contractor’s fleet. “If a contractor owns two walk-behinds and a zero-turn, he can replace the two walk-behinds with one stand-on.” This is because many stand-ons can be converted to walk-behinds with the mere flip of a switch.

Andrew Ziehler, owner of Ziehler Lawn and Tree Care, LLC in Centerville, Ohio, even uses his stand-ons like Segways! “We use them as personnel transporters around big apartment complexes. If you’re done mowing, you can still use them for a lot of different things, like zipping around a property, blowing leaves, wearing a backpack blower.”

Smaller size, lighter weight

“Stand-on mowers typically weigh less than riding mowers,” said Hawley. “That can have a positive impact on the after-cut appearance. They’re especially good on wet or sensitive terrain.”

Judy McNew, COO of Austin, Texas-based SunTerra Landscape Services, a company that maintains a large number of commercial properties, has become a fan of stand-ons. “We don’t have any now, but I’m definitely buying stand-ons to supplement our fleet for next year,” she says.

“They’re a little bit lighter,” says McNew. She wants to have them available, especially for those times following rainstorms, when ground can be soft and more susceptible to damage. “I hate to see deep ruts in the turf, right in front of one of our commercial customer’s leasing offices.”

As to the lighter weight of standons, Pugh jokes that “it all depends on how heavy the operator is.” He goes on to point out that the pounds-per-square-inch exerted on turf by a zero-turn might actually be less than that of a stand-on, even though a rider is a heavier unit. This is partly because zero-turns have wider tires on the back.

Gary Busboom, product manager for Exmark, a division of The Toro Company, says that one of the benefits of stand-ons is their compact size. There are times when it’s important to a contractor to have a smaller footprint—allowing him to pack more equipment into a trailer.”

Ryan Taheny, president of Ryco Landscaping, Lake In Hills, Illinois, is one of them. “There’s less capital investment involved in buying stand-ons,” he says. “And I can buy shorter trailers. That saves me on both the cost of the trailers as well as the fuel it takes to haul them.”

Busboom brings up another weighty issue. He says that a few customers just don’t want to see big riders on their properties. “For whatever reason, they have a perceived bias regarding big machines, especially riders. They have a belief that a bigger, heavier unit is going to damage the turf.” Even though that isn’t necessarily the case, perception is reality—and the customer is always right, even when he’s wrong.

Safety and visibility

When considering a new piece of equipment, one should never disregard safety considerations. Although riders and walk-behinds are extremely safe, there is one extra thing stand-ons have going for them, and that’s visibility. “An operator has a great view of the overall perimeter of the cutting deck,” says Busboom. It’s also a bit easier to see obstacles that might be in front of the mower.

Hawley agrees. “Since the operator is positioned higher up, standons provide a great vantage point for identifying obstacles and increase accuracy when trimming.”

Taheny likes the fact that many of the newer stand-on models have operator presence control (OPC), which most riders have had for some time. OPC works kind of like the ‘dead-man switch’ on a locomotive. It senses whether someone’s on the mower’s platform or not. “If a guy’s headed into a pond or a lake, he can just jump off,” said Taheny.

Some stand-on mowers have OPCs in their handles. Matt Jackson, engineering manager at Coatesville, Indiana-based Dixie Chopper, said, “We didn’t like the functionality of having the OPCs in the handles, so we use ultrasonic sensors. They constantly send out signals that bounce off the operator.” If no operator is detected, the mower simply stops.

Productivity Steve Seely, operations manager at Santa Clarita, California-based Stay Green’s North Hollywood branch, feels that stand-ons have increased the amount of work his crews get done. “We work in a lot of places where there’s debris or fallen limbs on the ground. They can get on and off the stand-on machines quickly to pick them up. We keep trash bags on the mowers, so it’s easy to just throw that junk in there and keep moving, keep production going.”

Engler says that stand-ons, in certain conditions, can enhance overall productivity. “We’ve had contractors do time-and-motion studies on the effectiveness of stand-ons,” he says. “A national contractor did one of these studies for us. Using a stopwatch, he found that it takes one of his employees an average of eleven more seconds to get up off of a rider, go pick up a piece of trash, and get back on the mower, as it did to do the same task with a stand-on.”

The contractor then calculated the total amount of time saved. He discovered that by using stand-ons for a month instead of riders or walk-behinds, he’d gained a full week of productivity.

When very large areas need to be mowed, and mowed quickly, however, nothing can beat the efficiency and sheer power of zero-turn rider mowers.

Rider comfort

It seems counter-intuitive that standing on a mower would somehow be less tiring than sitting on one. However, some people feel that way.

“Some operators believe that standing is less wearing on their bodies,” said Brice Hill, associate product manager at Dixie Chopper. “They feel it’s better if their legs absorb the roughness, the impact of the ground.” This is especially true when an individual has back problems that make sitting uncomfortable.

Of course, commercial mower manufacturers are always working to improve rider comfort, putting in suspension seats, beefing up shock absorption and improving tires. Today’s rider mowers are extremely comfortable. Still, many contractors say their crews sometimes feel “beat up” after a full workday riding over bumpy terrain.

“You can have a machine with a great suspension and a good seat, all those things they do to try to compensate for the roughness of the ground, but there can be times when a stand-on will be less fatiguing,” said Marrali.

However, Seely says the fatigue discussion is relative; it all depends on how you’re using the mowers. “If you’ve been mowing since early in the morning, and you get back on that mower after lunch, it’s better if that mower is a sitdown,” he said. “Just being on your feet for that extended period of time, fatigue can start to kick in.”

“However, if you’re mowing a site that’s got a lot of small areas and you have to keep getting on and off, a stand-on might be the way to go.”

Comfort itself is a hidden productivity booster, according to Hawley.

It only makes sense that by the end of the day, fatigue tends to make a worker slow down, no matter what kind of mower he’s using.

Room for improvement

“We’ve been running stand-ons since 1998,” said Pugh. “We’ve been in the business a long time, tried a lot of different brands, and we believe in the product.” Even so, he feels that one of the challenges stand-ons have is that “nobody has been able to come up with a good bagging system for them yet.”

Pugh’s crews usually mulch-mow, recycling grass clippings as they go. However, a few of his clients still want their clippings bagged. “There does come a time in the spring, too, when the grass gets ahead of you. And fall, when you have tons of leaves.” In cases where a large-capacity bagger is needed, his people will usually turn to a walk-behind or rider.

However, he believes that the advantages stand-ons provide offset that “minor hiccup.” “There are lots of aftermarket baggers out there for stand-ons,” he says.

“Somebody will eventually figure this problem out. After all, the popularity of stand-ons has really just started to pick up in the last few years or so,” said Pugh. Now that more contractors are buying them, a bigger, better bagger can’t be far away.

The final judge of whether the addition of one or more stand-on mowers will be a good fit for your operation will be you, of course. If you’re not sure, leasing one for a trial period might make the most sense for your company. You just might go back for a second scoop.