Comfortable suspension. More horsepower. Impressive safety features. Phrases like these sound like buzzwords from a car commercial. At first glance, not many people would normally associate these attributes to a lawnmower, but that’s what we’re talking about. Each year, manufacturers are making zero-turn lawn mowers, or ZTRs , faster, more comfortable, more efficient, and more user friendly. Just like automobiles, the demands for improvements keep manufacturers on their toes. Here’s a look at some of the new features these mowers are sporting, and how they could make a fundamental part of your lawn care business more efficient.

An interesting feature is being added to the line of mowers by Walker Manufacturing, Fort Collins, Colorado. On the projects that require that the grass clippings be collected, Walker has designed an easier way for you to discard the clippings in a trailer or dumpster. Instead of having to heave the clippings over a dumpster, you just have to push a couple of levers and sit back in your seat.

Called the “Walker Hi-Dump,” it will fit on the MD and MT lines of mowers, and “enables a contractor to raise the grass catcher in the air by using a hydraulic system to dump the grass,” says Bob Walker, owner. “The lifting and dumping
functions work independently and are controlled by two toggle switches from the operator seat. The catcher box can be lifted to a height of 67 inches.”

The Grasshopper Company, Moundridge, Kansas, adds power adjustment to height adjustment and deck lifting. The mechanism allows the operator an infinite range of cutting heights between one and four-and-a-half inches. Grasshopper also tackles operator fatigue by incorporating a “Cordora Comfort Zone” seat. The seat adds lumbar support, and makes riding the mower comfortable to control at speeds up to 10 mph.

Four-wheel independent suspension is being featured on models made by Ferris Industries, Munnsville, New York. “We’re putting Monroe shocks on the mowers; they are a lot more comfortable and go a long way in reducing fatigue,” says Jennifer Loran, marketing and advertising manager.

The benefit of the shocks also goes beyond driver comfort; they also increase the reliability and durability of the mower. “There is far less vibration, and a drastic reduction of shocks and jolts that could damage the chassis,” says Loran. “It gives the machine a longer life, and you’ll be able to cut at a faster speed, due to not having to slow down over every little bump or hill.”

An important and fundamental necessity that landscape contractors have to closely monitor is productivity. Time is gold, and many consider it crucial to know just how long a crew is taking to tackle any given job. Ariens/Stens, Jasper, Indiana, went out of its way to update a simple technology, an hour logger, to a very useful and integral piece of technology.

“The IE-Q is a little black box that is wired into the drive system of the lawn mower,” says Carol Dilger, marketing manager. “It logs the number of hours an employee is on the mower, so the contractor can know if someone in the crew is taking too long to complete a job.”

The technology is also implemented to let the operators know when the mower needs maintenance, and what routine services need to be completed.

Speaking of maintenance, when purchasing a new ZTR mower, parts should be readily available and easy to change. “In new mowers, contractors should be looking to see how easy it is to check the belts, change the oil and check and change the air filter. Are they easy to get to? No one wants to waste time completing a simple chore,” says Gilbert Pena, brand marketing manager for commercial mowing products for John Deere, Moline, Illinois.

Contractors are continually on the lookout for mowers that require less maintenance, and many manufacturers have delivered, making certain parts of the engine more robust, to withstand more abuse over a longer period of time. “We have made a heavy-duty air filter standard for 2004 models,” says Pena. “Contractors want everything to last longer, and we made the filter last a lot longer than a conventional one.”

Before committing to a purchase of a ZTR, take a look at how ergonomic it is, i.e., how comfortable the controls are, and if they are located in a convenient manner. If the seat isn’t comfortable for you or your operator, and you have to stretch and subsequently place your body in awkward positions when you operate the mower, you may be increasing the odds of an injury occurring. That, and it’s just plain uncomfortable.

“Where exactly is the throttle, the key, the controls? We are trying to concentrate all the controls on the right-hand side; placing nearly everything the contractor will use in one area, so the operator doesn’t have to search for anything,” says Pena.

Just like you would in a new car, check out the leg room. Make sure the foot platform is comfortable and convenient. Some adjustments should be able to be made to the chair, steering wheel, or platform so it can accommodate the different sizes of operators. Also, some manufacturers have made the height of cut adjustments foot-controlled as opposed to hand-operated.

“Most of our ZTRs are now foot-adjusted. You simply heighten or lower the deck with your foot, and then lock the pin in with your hand,” says Pena.

Something that can be overlooked, yet happens to be one of the most fundamental and important factors in considering a ZTR, is the cut quality, and how consistent that quality maintains itself. Inconsistent cutting and jagged shears have the tendency to look shabby on large properties where the ZTR would obviously be utilized. Companies are working to be precise about consistency, and are installing mechanical features on these mowers to deal with different conditions you may not even had paid much attention to before.

“You can go out and start mowing early in the morning, and the grass will be moist and covered with dew. In the afternoon, the grass is considerably drier; maybe it’s simply fired out. Another property may have fescue or a different type of grass than the other places where you just mowed,” says Brad Hamilton, marketing director for Toro, Bloomington, Minnesota. “The variables can have an effect on the quality of the cut. A mower must be built so it can be adjusted to deal with the daily variances of grass a contractor will have to deal with.”

Toro found a way around this by allowing contractors to adjust the cutting performance on the fly from the deck. Contractors can do this by adjusting the baffle of the deck. For extreme conditions, the baffle can be opened up to conserve power and achieve faster mowing speeds. In thick and demanding conditions, the baffle can be closed to cut the grass shorter, along with maximizing discharge velocity.

Another helpful feature that Toro adds to its line of ZTRs is a rubber discharge chute that is designed not to break if it collides with something. The chute also helps disperse the grass more uniformly. “Contractors love it because they can run with the discharge chute down, and the rubber gives, instead of breaking, if they hit the base of a tree or something,” explains Hamilton. “It also makes loading the mower into a trailer easier; it will bend and give, instead of getting damaged by the other equipment.”

Because you want to be productive, and want to complete a given job as quickly as possible, the odds are you don’t exactly baby your equipment. Naturally, that is to be expected. It’s simply the nature of the beast in this industry, when time is more than just of the essence; it is profit flying out the window. No matter how conscientious you are about maintaining your equipment, it still takes a lot of abuse; make sure it is built to handle it.

“Our decks are now built with seven-gauge steel, which makes them very powerful,” says Hamilton. “The deck takes the brunt of the bumps and jolts that result from contractors mowing fast and hard. Quality of steel is very important.”

Engine economy is becoming increasingly important, as cheap oil seems to be a thing of the past. Hustler, based out of Hesston, Kansas, will be offering a new 34-horsepower Caterpillar diesel engine next spring. Hustler is also putting a 27-horsepower Kohler engine on its 52-inch deck mower, making it a powerful unit. “Next March and April, we will be coming out with some really sweet features, including a hydraulically driven deck that has a one- to seven-inch cut range,” says Adam Mullet, product manager for Hustler.

Ferris Industries will also sport a 27 hp diesel engine. “We got a lot of calls from contractors who loved the power of that diesel,” says Loran. “But they also wanted it more compact, so we made a few adjustments.”

Dixie Chopper in Coatesville, Indiana, who boasts of being the manufacturer of the world’s fastest lawnmower, is also adding a few new features to its future lineups. “We’re going to have new 36- and 44-inch models,” says Cliff Franks, marketing manager. “The Silver Eagle Line will feature electronic blade engagement, electric clutch, digital hour meter, and a foot-assisted deck lift system.”

Both the 36- and 44-inch models are expected to take care of two to four acres an hour.

With all the attention paid to the cut quality, engine power, traveling speed, and deck strength, sometimes a crucial component of a mower is overlooked: its safety. Features include everything from a Roll Over Protection System (ROPS), which basically works in the same way that a roll cage does for a vehicle, to automatic kill switches should be available to the contractor.

“If the operator leaves the machine and the parking break isn’t set, it’s obvious that something really bad can happen, especially if the mower is on a hill,” says Pena. “Our mowers are equipped with an ‘operator presence system’-- if the brake is not on and you get off, everything on the mower dies.”

A mower can have every safety feature ever fabricated, but all of them combined don’t make up for safe operating practices. Make sure that whoever is operating the machine knows how to safely use it, and knows how to safely maintain or repair the machine.

Mowing is being taken to a new level, thanks to the demand of contractors and the manufacturers eager to satisfy them. Because the simple act of mowing is such a staple service in the landscape maintenance industry, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that companies continue to obsess about how to create a faster, more reliable, and dependable product, to help you make your company more efficient.
october 2004