The green industry would not exist as it does today without the invention of the motorized mower. These mighty machines are many times more efficient than their muscle-powered predecessors, and you could never hope to complete your workload without them. This is because lawn maintenance is a race of sorts—you hop in a truck, hop on a mower, hop off a mower, and get to the next job as quickly as possible, because time is money.
You try and eke out every bit of productivity you can from your machines, battling the clock on a daily basis because time and tide wait for no man. This intense usage puts lots of wear and tear on your mowers, which need regular servicing. Asking a mower to power through a season without maintenance is like asking your crews to power through a week without sleep. If you’re lucky, it might just be possible, but it’s needlessly difficult, and dangerous to boot.
Your mowers need a going-over on a weekly, if not daily, basis and there are so many reasons to give them one. A maintenance schedule may start out as an insurance policy that you’re making with yourself, but it can grow into much more. Over time, smart fleet management can save you money, build a sense of confidence and ownership in your crews, and most important of all, avert disasters.
As you might expect, making a good maintenance plan begins with the mower itself. The manufacturers of mowing equipment produce their own instructions and guidelines for how to best keep their equipment in working order. These materials provide a good basis for a preventative maintenance (PM) schedule, but the last word on needed maintenance is experience. If you know that a machine is prone to a specific type of failure, it behooves you to take extra care of those components.
Exactly how often that preventative maintenance should occur is dependent on the size of your company and how you structure your crews, according to Joe Kujawa, executive vice president of Kujawa Enterprises Inc., in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. For him, maintenance scheduling is determined by usage. “The way we’ve structured our operation, we don’t have dedicated mowing crews,” he said. “Each crew’s mowers don’t see as much use as some company’s machines, so once a week is sufficient for us.”
Every afternoon, a set number of crews bring in their equipment for preventive maintenance, and each mower gets a good check-up. Kujawa keeps a dedicated staff of mechanics for this purpose, scheduled on a swing shift to better accommodate the work crews. As part of the process, they take note of any problems they find that they can’t immediately fix, either because they lack the part, or because the repair will be too lengthy for the time they have. “It’s just like when you take your car to the dealership and they’re doing the 20-point inspection,” he said.
Anything his mechanics find gets listed as a scheduled repair, with the timing dictated by how indispensable the part in question is, and how long it can last without the repair. A largely cosmetic fix can wait a couple of weeks, but anything that could get worse, or poses a safety risk, will necessitate swapping the machine out until it’s repaired.
There are some incidents, though, that are unavoidable. No matter how careful your PM methods are, accidents will happen. Nails from a home project will be left on the lawn and puncture tires; spindles will run afoul of sprinkler heads, and tree branches will fall onto engines. When an emergency repair, or a particularly large and costly scheduled repair, rears its ugly head, it may be time to weigh the cost of the repair against the lifespan of the machine.
Just like a car, a commercial mower can reach the point where it costs more to keep repairing it than it would to buy a new mower. Deciding how long you’re going to keep a machine is an important part of maintenance, and can sometimes be done at the outset. “We currently use eight years—or 3,000 hours —as the replacement criteria for our laser and walk-behind mowers,” said Ken Railey, director of fleet operations for Ruppert Landscape, Laytonsville, Maryland. “Because that’s typically the useful lifespan of the hydraulic system; after that point, it literally costs more to repair the machines than they’re worth.”
Companies that don’t outsource maintenance and repairs keep their operations in-house, to varying degrees. Some prefer to limit their maintenance to daily or weekly PM performed by the machines’ operators. Others hire mechanics and run shops to manage those tasks, but send off any major repairs or emergency problems to the dealer. Finally, there are those who want to take it all on, performing all maintenance with their own crews, and keeping fully equipped shops to manage even the most dire of problems. These operations only go to their dealer when it’s time to buy new machines.
Daily maintenance begins with a visual inspection. On older machines, casters, front wheels and any other grease fittings should be lubed. Fluid levels should be checked, tire pressures should be equalized, and air intake screens should be cleared. Excess grass and leaves can clog up the air intake, especially during the fall and spring seasons. Cleaning this component is as quick as brushing it off with a gloved hand, but if this simple task isn’t attended to, a clog can overheat and kill an engine.
During weekly maintenance, engine oil and engine oil filters should be checked. Manufacturers generally list maintenance requirements in term of usage hours, and keeping track of those hours gives clear guidelines for when a particular task needs doing, and parts replacing. Blades should be swapped out and sharpened at least once, if not twice, a week.
As you might expect, some of these upkeep requirements can be very location-specific. The vice president of operations for LandCare in Frederick, Maryland, Robert Barber says that the American Southwest can be hard on air-cooled engines. “In those really hot, dry markets, it’s extremely important that you keep those oil levels at max or peak,” he said.
Air-cooled systems count on the engine oil to do much of their cooling, so every helping hand you can give that system is worth it. Often, Barber says, this is as simple as elbow grease and due diligence. “It’s important to keep your engines and your equipment clean from debris, and your oil coolers clean from the caking of dirt and dust and grime— that helps make for a longer engine life.”
The quality of the soil is the other main environmental condition that can affect mower life. “When you get into certain markets where the soil conditions are extremely sandy— Florida and Texas are good examples—you see many more challenges with air filters,” Barber said. The sand particles are also rough on mower blades, which then require more frequent sharpening and have shorter lifespans.