Prepping Your Equipment for Winter

Doesn’t it seem like it was only last week when you were applying fall fertilizer and cheering your favorite team to win the World Series? Now, Halloween trick-ortreaters have come and gone, the Thanksgiving feast is just a memory, and you’re starting to feel Jack Frost nipping at your nose. Do you need any more signs that it’s time to prepare your equipment for winter?

Although spring is a very long way off, there is no time like the present to get ready for the future. While you may want to light a fire and stay inside on these chilly days, putting off till tomorrow what you should have done today is a surefire recipe for disaster, especially if your competition is fired up and ready as soon as that first robin appears.

The term ‘winterizing’ means different things in different parts of the country. If you think landscape firms that are located in states where the temperature never dips below 30 degrees are getting off easy when it come to winterizing, think again.

“Even though we don’t usually see a great deal of snow in our part of the state, our winter begins just after October,” says Walter Cornett, president of Walter Cornett Landscaping, Richmond, Virginia.

“That’s when we completely winterize our aerators, seeders, spray tanks, and other pieces of equipment that we won’t be using throughout the winter months, no matter what the weather conditions.”

In warm weather climates like Phoenix, Arizona, grass begins to go dormant in October and doesn’t start growing again until May. As a result, companies in that part of the country aren’t going to be using as much of their equipment as they do in the summer and spring. This is their “winter season” when business slows down and machines that are not needed are taken out of service.

“There’s two different ways to look at winterizing,” says Howard Mees, vice president of operations and equipment, ValleyCrest Landscape Companies, Calabasas, California. “One is where there actually is winter, and the other is in climates that there’s not a real winter, but where there are months when your equipment is used less.”

“If you’re taking certain pieces of equipment out of service because you’re only going to be mowing once every other week, or once every third week, you may decide to use certain machines exclusively, and give the others a rest, so the winterizing would take the same priorities as they would in a snow market,” Mees says.

So, you can see that no matter where you live, all landscape contracting companies experience some kind of change to their business between late fall and early spring, typically during the months of October through the first of March.

No matter what the size of your company, the most important piece of equipment you own is your lawn mower. It was probably the very first machine you purchased when you started your business. Whether they’re walk-behinds, stand-ons, or zero-turn riding models, powered by gasoline, diesel or propane, keeping your lawn mowers spick and span and ready to roll once they come out of hibernation involves a careful series of well-planned protocols.

Mees recommends using a check list of each step for every machine. “For larger operations, where you have several machines, and you might get distracted away during a winterization process, you may not remember whether you finished work on that machine or not. Have the crew put a colored sticker, like a little green dot, on each completed mower.”

The very first item on your check list is to thoroughly clean the machine. A clean mower is a happy mower! Remove any grass clippings, dried leaves or grease that’s built up around the engine. With a small piece of steel wool, clean all the underside areas and remove any residuals from the covers and body of the lawn mower, then apply a protective solution like WD- 40 to the cleaned up surfaces. Spray the underside of the deck with water to clear any clippings or residue, then use a bristled brush to remove any stubborn deposits Once that’s done, the next thing you must do is remove all the gasoline that may still be in the tank. In cold climates, gasoline will gum up inside the carburetor as it loses its octane value. “Once you’ve drained the fuel, you might also want to start up and run the machine to be sure that the gas tank is empty,” says Mees. “Or, as an alternative you can fill the tanks and add a fuel stabilizer which would allow you to go through the season, but generally emptying the fuel tanks before putting them away for the winter is the best procedure.”

A fuel stabilizer should be added to all of your bulk fuel purchases throughout the year, but it becomes even more critical during winter months when the power unit may sit for many weeks at a time without being used. Any time a stabilizer is added to the fuel tank, you have to allow the engine to run in an open, ventilated area for about 10 minutes to ensure that the treated fuel is circulated throughout the fuel system.

Winterizing gasoline and dieselpowered equipment is generally the same; however, caring for mowers that are powered by propane is a bit different. For one thing, you can’t put additives into the propane fuel source to stabilize it, and completely emptying propane tanks is a little bit easier to do than with other systems.

“With propane, you don’t have to siphon the fuel from the tanks, you simply remove the tanks from the mower,” says David Martin, national service manager, Exmark, Beatrice, Nebraska. “Then bleed the fuel out of the system and secure the ends of the line to prevent moisture from getting in. I prefer to leave an empty tank hooked up to the system rather than disconnect it, to prevent any moisture from entering the engine and freezing.”

Once you’ve taken care of the fuel, your work is just beginning. Your mower is more than the sum of its parts and each part needs to be attended to for optimum performance. Ruthanne Stucky, marketing director with The Grasshopper Company, urges you to pay particular attention to the filters, oil, carburetor, and battery, as well as the correct way of disposing and replacing damaged parts.

“If you drain the gearbox and crank case, make sure you dispose of the oil as per guidelines from municipal authorities for disposal of hazardous waste, or hand it over to municipal authorities for doing it. Never, ever dump it in the sewer or onto the ground,” she says.

Spark plugs typically require replacement every 100 hours of operation. If a plug is corroded, replace it before storing the mower for the winter. For plugs that are still in good condition, adding an ounce of motor oil to the cylinders and cranking the engine a few times will help keep cylinders lubricated during winter storage.

“It’s a good idea to check all of your drive belts and deck drive belts before winter storage,” Stucky adds. “Replace any that are nicked, frayed, warped or have started to slip. Check hydraulic fluids and wear points for excessive damage. Change the air and the oil filters if necessary. A good rule of thumb is to replace the air filter either every year before winter storage or every spring before cutting commences. Clean and inspect the battery, cables, terminals, tray and hold-downs, and also check the battery case for leaks and cracks.”

Lastly, don’t forget the tires! Tire pressure can greatly affect the quality of cut your mower provides. Be sure to check the tires for leaks and extreme wear at the end of the season, and repair or replace them as necessary. Then, fill them with air to prevent sidewall damage from sitting flat over the winter.

Now that you’ve finished winterizing your main equipment, it’s time to take care of those power tools—such as leaf blowers and string trimmers. The procedure should be pretty much the same as they are for mowers. Sort and evaluate your hand tools. Check the handles, especially the ones made of wood to make sure the handle isn’t loosening from the shovel. This is also a good time to check for cracks or defects in the handles of sharp, digging tools. Coat the handle with linseed or some kind of oil. Clean and sharpen the blades, of course.

As you prepare your lawn mower and other tools for winter storage, don’t forget to winterize your sprayers and fertilizer spreaders. Smooth, dependable fertilizer and pesticide applications depend largely on the care and maintenance that these tools receive.

Give all your equipment a thorough cleaning and make sure it’s completely dried before winter storage to prevent rust.

If the outside temperature drops below 20 degrees, Grasshopper suggests that you may wish to purchase a block heater to add supplemental heat to the engine to keep it warm.

Remember, when the weather outside turns frightful, your equipment needs to come inside where it’s safe and warm.