Mowers: Versatile Machines
The last five years have been no piece of cake, but you’ve successfully stayed afloat by running a tight ship. That includes watching your pennies and trimming the fat. The bright side is that things are improving. Last year indicated that we’ve bottomed out and now we’re beginning to climb back up again.
During this rough period, the paradigms have shifted and the way we work has changed. We realize that we can’t do business the way we did in the past. And the changes we made to keep our doors open need to stay in place.
One of the areas we isolated as a major cost in our business is labor. So you need to ask yourself a simple question: How can I maximize our production so that my business can continue while keeping a competitive edge?
Since many of us offer a maintenance program, including those who only did design/build in the past, a good place to begin would be to see if we can improve our productivity by utilizing the equipment we already own. The question I would ask myself is: How can I get more use out of the investment that I’ve made in my lawn mowers?
With all of the new technology developed over the last several years, today’s equipment can make your crews far more effective and efficient. So let’s look at some of the lawn mowers on the market today and see how we can maximize their use.
Basic walk-behinds are a mainstay in any landscape contractor’s equipment inventory. They’re perfect for smaller residential lawns, where they’ve become the true workhorses. Walk-behinds are available from 21" up to 36"; they can go through small side door openings, are ideal for mowing strip medians, and can easily be transported.
The Commercial 30", a new walkbehind recently introduced by Exmark, is a hybrid of sorts. “What’s great about the Commercial 30" is that you can use it just as a 21" but get far more versatility and productivity,” says John Cloutier, product manager for Exmark. “You get that 30" cut, which is 45 percent greater than a 21" machine. And because of its larger size, the Commercial 30" can get into those tighter areas, those postage-stamp lawns, where in the past they’ve been mowed by the 21" walk-behinds. Also, because of its light weight and balance, it’s not overly heavy and easy to maneuver.”
If you’re working on larger pieces of property, the next step up is a self-propelled hydro walk-behind. These units range in size up to 72". They’re relatively heavier and more powerful machines and can travel up to six miles per hour.
In terms of effectiveness, your walk-behind can be just as useful on slopes as it is on level areas. “If the contractor is doing a lot of work on hills, then the walk-behind is worth looking into, because it allows you better stability,” says Ross Hawley, marketing manager for riding products at Toro. “Most guys go with hydro walk-behinds so that they have a full hydraulic power package behind them, And on slopes, if you take the weight of the operator off of the product, you end up with good balance on the machine. The operator can muscle the machine, as well, which will help keep it going where he wants it to go.”
Yet because walk-behinds are large, heavy pieces of equipment, as the day wears on, the operator becomes more fatigued and the equipment becomes harder to maneuver. Many hydro walk-behinds have given way to riding mowers because of the fatigue factor.
Now there’s an easy solution to this problem. In recent years, manufacturers have been offering a single- or two-wheel sulky or stand-on for your walk-behind. By simply adding this sulky, you can eliminate operator fatigue. Now, rather than getting worn out walking miles during the course of the day, your crew member can float over terrain and remain fresher and more productive.
Although the ride-on mower has been around for years, it wasn’t until the zero-turn (ZT) was introduced that it began to gain in popularity. By pushing both handles forward, the mower will move forward; pull both handles back and the machine goes in reverse. To turn right, push forward on the right handle, visa versa for the left turn. This machine seems to pivot in place and can turn within its own footprint.
ZTs are available in both midmount or front mount, and ranges from 36" to 72". They can travel at eight miles per hour or more, and they’re excellent for larger-sized lawns. But just imagine, if you have a few acres or more to cut, using a 36" walk-behind or a ZT, how long it would take you to complete the job.
A more efficient way would be to use a 72" unit. One pass can cut twice the area of a 36" unit, thereby allowing you to do the job in half the time. It can maneuver around trees and fences easily. One of the more compelling reasons landscape maintenance companies purchase this unit is because it takes the wear and tear off of the operator.
The stand-on or stander was developed some years ago and fits somewhere in-between a self-propelled walk-behind and a ride-on ZT. Stand-ons fit through small openings and work just as well in tight spaces as they do in larger areas. Some operators feel more comfortable leaning into the unit’s padded cushion while standing, which is why they prefer this mower to a ZT. Additionally, these units are highly maneuverable and easy to transport.
By picking and choosing the mowers that best suit your company’s needs, you’ll have the versatility to do smaller and/or bigger maintenance jobs far more efficiently.
Attachments Another area that’s worthy of review is how to make your mowers even more multifunctional: by using attachments. Whether you’re maintaining dry lawns in the summer or trying to clear snow in the winter, these handy implements can maximize the use of your mower and the productivity of your maintenance crew.
“Technology behind equipment has increased, and more thought has been put into the design of attachments to better accommodate mowers,” says James Truan, vice president of sales and marketing at TurfEx. “For example, some attachments feature innovative mounting systems, which allow them to easily fit on almost any zero-turn mower on the market. Furthermore, some powered attachments are fully electric, allowing equipment like spreaders and sprayers to run completely off the mower’s battery.”
Attachments can definitely make your mower versatile all year ‘round. In the spring and fall, you can easily convert your ZT from a grass cutter to a seed and fertilizer spreader. With the right attachment, you can just as effortlessly transform your unit into an aerator, a sprayer, a leaf pusher, or a dethatcher.
There are attachments that will allow you to mulch or vacuum; there are even blower attachments available. And when it’s snowing, special attachments can make your mower a snow blower, a snow sweeper, or a snow thrower.
Adds Truan, “Some attachments are even multi-purpose. For example, TurfEx offers a Thatch, Groom ‘N’ Sweep package, which is a two-in-one attachment. To transform it from a sweeper to a dethatcher, the operator simply slides out the brush sections from the sweeper housing and replaces them with dethatcher tines. For added versatility, a leaf pusher can also be attached to the housing for gathering large piles of leaves.”
While many of these attachments are ideal for front-deck ZTs—with the removable front deck allowing for a variety of attachments—your mid-mount ZT is also fairly adaptable. An aerator, for example, can be quickly attached to a mid-mount’s rear and smoothly towed.
Other attachments can be conveniently added to the ZT mid-mount. Says James Parello, marketing manager of Husqvarna, “If you add a bagging system to the back of a midmount, you need to add weights to its front to offset the amount of weight behind the mower. It could be awkward. But if your job is to get around corporate parks and cut grass, collect it and get rid of it, you take a big commercial zero-turn, put a dump collections system on it, weights on the front that hook over onto the frame…and you’re off and running.”
What about mulching? Over the years, mulching has become more and more an integral aspect of a maintenance business, especially with the increase in ecological awareness. And since some municipalities prohibit the bagging and discarding of grass clippings, it’s really your only alternative.
Some ZTs have built-in mulch-on-demand decks. But what if your mower doesn’t have this luxury? You can add a side discharge unit which blasts the cut grass off to one side of the mower.
There are scores of mulching kits available which will allow your mower to more thoroughly and accurately mulch. Once installed, the average mulching kit takes all of the scooped-up grass clippings and discharges them—not to the side of the mower, but deep down into the turf.
“When you get into mulching, we do a dedicated mulching deck,” says Tim Cromley, marketing manager at Walker Mowers. “You take the existing deck off and put a mulching deck on. They come in a variety of sizes, too. Some people take our grass-handling deck and use it in spring and fall. But for the summer schedule, a lot of time they’ll want a mulching deck, so they’ll just switch that out and it’s a versatile machine throughout the year.”
Another area that’s impacting our industry is the green movement. There’s a group of clients who are more attuned to being ecologically compliant. Our industry is also concerned about the environment, so now many manufacturers of mowing equipment offer a variety of alternative fuels.
The old stand-by is gasoline, including ethanol. Diesel fuel is being used as well as propane and natural gas. Additionally, a number of manufacturers are working on battery-operated units.
Now that we’ve looked at the mowers available and maximizing their versatility, keep in mind that your customers may very well dictate what types of mowers they want on their lawns. For instance, some of your customers might not want a relatively larger machine on their smaller property. This is all the more reason why you need to closely examine your choices in mowers, especially if you’re an entry-level contractor. Rather than plunk down a lot of hard-earned cash on a machine that might be too large for your purposes, take the time to figure out what’s best and most economical for you.
You also need to ask yourself, “Are all the bells and whistles on a more elaborate mower necessary for the needs of my business?” Find out what the majority of your contract jobs entail and—again, especially if you’re a fairly new maintenance business—pick a mower that fits into your budget, while also ensuring both productivity and profitability.
In the end, no one mower will do it all. But thanks to the wide array of equipment on the market, as well as the advanced technology and adaptable nature of these versatile machines, you can definitely find the right mower that’ll keep you and your business in the green.