Remember the old “Batman” TV show? If you do, you may recall that no matter what dire situation he and Robin got into, courtesy of some supervillain, the Caped Crusader would have some gizmo in his utility belt that he could pull out at the last second and save the day.
As silly as that show was, you, as a modern landscape contractor, may have access to something akin to Batman’s utility belt: your commercial mower. The tool you depend on daily to tame your customers’ turf has a variety of attachments available that can turn it, and you, into a Dynamic Duo. They may not allow you to face down the Riddler or the Penguin, but they can make you a superhero when it comes to all the tasks you need to do.
Through these accessories, your commercial mower has the potential to become a snow plow or snow blower, a mulcher, a leaf vacuum, an aerator, a dethatcher, a sprayer, an edger and more. Many of these attachments are OEM (original equipment manufacturer) accessories, designed to fit your mower’s make and model precisely.
They’re available for all types of commercial mowers: zero-turn riders, walk-behinds and even standons. There are also aftermarket add-ons made by other companies that’ll work with many different commercial mower brands.
These accessories can substitute for single-purpose machines, saving you money. Of course, the manufacturers of contractor-grade mowers also make single-purpose units. So why make mower attachments at all, when they could force you to buy several more machines in addition to their mowers?
As it turns out, add-ons are just good business. “For our dealer network, there’s always a good profit margin in selling accessories,” said Mike Simmon, communications specialist for The Grasshopper Company, Moundridge, Kansas. “They add profit to every sale.”
Think about it…most OEM accessories will only fit that specific company’s mowers. Since the add-ons are used less often, it’s a safe bet your mower will wear out before they do. Being able to keep using those attachments is an incentive for you to replace your mower with the same brand.
The realities of the marketplace mean that if mower manufacturers didn’t make accessories for their mowers, the “other guys” certainly would. And they do; aftermarket companies make everything from tine-rake dethatchers to leaf-blade plows.
Many jobs, many attachments
Kenneth Thexton, owner of Tonganoxie, Kansas-based Thexton Lawn Maintenance, LLC, is a big fan of attachments. “I use the bagger, the dethatcher, the aerator, the hooded sprayer, the snow thrower and the snow blade,” he says, all OEM equipment for his particular brand of mower. He feels these addons definitely save him time and money.
Thexton says that some walk-behind snow throwers he could buy would actually be cheaper than his snow-throwing attachments. However, they wouldn’t be nearly as productive. “Those units are only 24 to 30 inches wide. But with the attachments, you can get them anywhere from 48 to 60 inches wide.”
His hooded sprayer attachment also gets a great deal of use, as it’s often windy when he works. Even though he owns a conventional stand-alone sprayer, he can only use it when there’s absolutely no breeze.
Tom Morris, owner and president of Morris Lawn Maintenance, LLC, in Hampton, Virginia, likes his aftermarket vacuum-bagging attachment. “It amplifies the pickup ability of the deck, and has an auxiliary container for storage. When we add it to a side-discharge zero-turn mower, we use the container on the back as a collection point for leaves. It’s worked well for us.”
He’s also been happy with a bededger attachment that hooks onto a walk-behind. The next attachment he’s planning to buy is a turboblower system that will also be used with a walk-behind.
This unit has a remote to control the blowing direction. If the blower is in use on a site and people walk by, the snorkel can be moved so that it’ll blow straight up into the air, away from them.
The ability to aim the snorkel adds another advantage: that of giving Mother Nature a nudge. Morris can aim his turbo-blower attachment 40 or 50 feet up into the trees. The air flow will hit the “cling-on” leaves that are ready to fall, but haven’t yet.
“Say it’s fall, and I’m doing someone’s front yard, which has a Bradford Pear tree that’s dropping leaves like crazy. I can go ahead and blow down the ones that would have fallen the next day. When the owner gets home, he can see that I’ve actually worked. That’s better than him getting a bill and thinking I never came, because there are still leaves all over his yard. When those leaves start aggressively coming down, 30 minutes after you’re done doing a leaf cleanup, it can look like you were never there.”
“Different mowing situations around the country require adjustments on our part,” said Simmon.
“In some areas of the U.S., you’re not allowed to bag grass at all. That’s why we make a mulch kit, and why we make our baffle kits the way we do.”
A baffle kit works in conjunction with a cutting blade. If you’re using a high-lift blade, you can adjust the baffle up or down, higher or lower in relation to the ground. It creates a vacuum under the deck to lift the grass, for the blade to process it evenly.
This vacuum suction is important for an even and consistent cut. Heavy, wet grass needs a different vacuuming velocity than thin grass. You can adjust the baffle accordingly, to give the customer a better cut.
“This is especially important for commercial clients, customers who may need to have a more manicuredlooking mowing job than most homeowners,” says Simmon. “Or that will, at the least, have more eyes critically inspecting the jobs.”
Most popular Of all the many add-ons available for commercial mowers, baggers— which collect grass clippings, leaves and debris as you mow—are probably purchased most often. “Baggers are high-necessity items for professional contractors,” said Tony Weston, owner of Weston’s Lawn Equipment and Service in Sumner, Illinois.
In addition to selling and servicing professional landscaping equipment, Weston is also a contractor. He uses aerators—another popular accessory—on his clients’ properties, saying, “They’re vital for turf care and enhancement.”
There are two types of aerators: spikers and core aerators. Spikers, as you might have guessed, poke holes in dirt, while core aerators extract a piece of soil out of the ground, a “core sample,” if you will. They’re often configured as pull-behinds that attach to the backs of mowers with single pins.
“Core aerators decompress the soil, and expose the roots of the grass to oxygen,” says Weston. “If you overseed after that, the hole allows a place for the seed to fall, so it can’t get washed away with the next rain. It’s one of the best things you can do for a healthy lawn, even more than fertilization.”
The Decatur, Illinois-based GMA Group, Inc., a landscape maintenance company with a large number of commercial accounts, uses coretype aerators by an aftermarket manufacturer. “They’re nice for productivity, because you can cover a lot of ground quickly,” said president and owner/operator Matt Schwass. “But we don’t use them on our highend residential sites, as they tend to tear turf.”
The next most popular attachments are mulch kits, used instead of baggers. Mulch kits cut grass and leaves up finer than mower blades alone, for better reabsorption into the turf.
Morris has seen how different manufacturers approach similar tasks, such as mulching, in their own proprietary fashions. “A few years ago, we were running a brand of mower that had a mulching shield, or chute, that helped with leaf removal. We liked that, because we prefer to grind leaves rather than haul them; the leaves feed the soil.”
“Later, we had another mower brand that sold a different mulching kit. This one gave you two blades on each spindle. Instead of having three blades underneath a mower, you now had six. It did a great job cutting and shredding grass. Since the grass was cut twice, we got a finer product that was easier to spread and didn’t clump up as much.”
Striping kits are popular, too. These consist of rubber flaps that run over grass to create a pattern on turf. They can enhance the appearance of a lawn, giving it that “professional” touch that many clients like.
“When stripers first came out, I bought about ten of them, and put them on all my mowers,” said Weston. “You can stripe more definitively, and quicker, with a striping kit.”
Accessory vs. dedicated machine
There are times when buying an add-on to perform a certain task makes good fiscal sense. If you deal with snow only occasionally, a snow blade or snow blower attachment may be a better buy than a standalone unit. But if you deal with a lot of deep snow every winter, then a dedicated snow thrower, blower or plow might be more what you need.
Some contractors don’t like using their mowers for snow removal. “If you’re going to put a snow blower on a mower, you’ll need some chains for traction, and weights for counterbalance,” says Weston. “A zero-turn mower can be tough to maneuver in snow. For one thing, it’s got two wheels turning, and not four.”
“Certainly a four-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicle, such as an ATV, does a much better job of removing snow,” concedes Karl Bjorkman, sales and marketing director for Altoz, a mower manufacturer based in Greenbush, Minnesota. “In Minnesota, you need a 4WD truck, or a snow blower on a tractor. But for areas with lighter snow, we’ve got some new attachment designs coming out that we believe will overcome or compensate for the traction concern.”
Schwass says traction hasn’t been a problem for his company, which does snow removal in the winter by adding snow-thrower and rotarybroom attachments to their zeroturn riders. “The snow-thrower attachments came with tire chains; they work well. We’re mainly using the throwers and brooms on pavement, clearing 15 feet from the front door to the sidewalk. The traction is more than adequate for that.”
“We maintain a lot of medical facilities. These are high-demand accounts, with ‘zero-tolerance’ policies for ice and snow. That can take a lot of salt. The power brooms cut our salt consumption, as they only need a minimal amount to melt snow and ice.”
Schwass says there’s one more advantage to using attachments over dedicated machines. “This way, we only have to maintain one motor. We have to do preventative maintenance on the mower’s motor all year long, anyway, so it’s one less motor sitting around, not getting used.” He adds that he hasn’t found many selfcontained standalone snow-blower units with four-foot-wide clearances, like his attachments have. “One pass down the sidewalk, and we’re done.”
Easy to use?
Are mower attachments fairly easy to use—snap-on-and-go type affairs? Yes, and no.
“They can range from simple to convoluted; it depends on how many moving parts the attachment itself has,” says Morris. “For instance, the blower system I’ve been looking at buying has two points for mounting, and a driveshaft. You have to line those three things up, bite your lip, and hold your breath. But then, there are other attachments that are very easy to hook up, where everything slips right into place.”
“We’ve gotten our baggers down to a four-pin system that can easily be put on by one person,” says Bjorkman. He adds that “our engineers are all homeowners who live out in the country. They’ve had experience with our competitors’ attachments, and took note as to how easy or hard they were to install or remove.” You can be sure that all the makers of add-ons will keep working on ease of use; it’s a selling point.
Be a weight watcher
An area where you’ll need to be weight-conscious—in addition to your own body—is when you’re considering a mower attachment. Remember that you’ll have the weight of your already-hefty commercial mower, plus the weight of the attachment. Certain combinations might be too much for a customer’s turf.
It’s the reason Morris doesn’t like to use sprayer attachments with his zero-turns. “You start carrying the weight of the tanks on what you’re rolling onto a yard, and things can get kind of heavy. We prefer to pull hose with our 500- and 600-gallon tanks.”
Not all accessories are task-oriented. There’s a whole bunch that are mainly for operator comfort or safety, such as ROPS (rollover protection) systems and suspension seats.
“My guys have been begging for sun canopies,” said Morris. “We tried using them, but they hurt productivity too much, because they won’t fit under low-hanging tree branches.”
Weston has a different view of the sun-canopy-vs-tree-canopy conflict. He says, “Who cares if they hit the tree limbs, if they keep you from getting melanoma?”
In general, mower attachments are well-made, according to Weston, who repairs them. “It depends on what type they are, and who makes them. Baggers can take a lot of abuse, and don’t break down. You have to smack them with a brick or something. And snow throwers don’t break down that much, because they only get used a small part of the year.”
Mower add-ons can certainly add ease and comfort to your work life. They might even save you money. If you decide to make them part of your personal ‘utility belt,’ you’ll have plenty of useful options from which to choose. They might even make you a superhero to your customers.