Before You Put Your Mowers to Bed for the Winter...
Like everyone, I have a bedtime routine. Before I slide between the sheets, I take my allergy pill, feed my cats, floss and brush my teeth, and put in my dry-eye drops. I also make sure my prescription sunglasses and truck keys are in my bag exactly where I want them, so I can zoom out the door in the morning with no delays or drama.
I sleep better, knowing that when I awake, I won’t be sneezing, my cats won’t be yowling, my teeth won’t feel fuzzy and my eyeballs won’t be stuck to my eyelids. Nor will I be late for work, because I had to spend twenty minutes hunting for things.
Most landscape contractors who mow lawns as part of their maintenance operations have ‘bedtime’ routines, too—things they do before putting their commercial mowers to bed for the winter. If all the preparations are performed properly, those mowers will be tanned, rested and ready to go to work when spring starts.
This is an important series of chores, not to be neglected. As Matt Lantz, co-owner of Blue Ribbon Lawn Service in Cheyenne, Wyoming, puts it, “A mower will take care of you, as long as you take care of it.”
“It’s a business tool,” he adds. “If you don’t do the upkeep on it, it’s not going to be as good of a tool. I get a feeling of security, knowing that I’ve done the winterization work; when spring comes, it’ll be ready to roll out and make me money.”
This seems like a no-brainer. Yet Lantz says that every winter, he’s astonished to observe other landscape contractors around him that seem to take a laissez-faire approach to mower mothballing.
“They don’t do any winterization, and put the machines away dirty. Or, they leave them on trailers outside of their houses. Then, come spring, they expect them to start up and run, and are surprised when they don’t.” It’s even more astonishing when you consider where Lantz works and lives—Wyoming. Not exactly the tropics.
After all, we’re talking about business assets that can cost tens of thousands of dollars; you’d think that people with such heavy capital investments would be more circumspect.
For his part, Lantz keeps his mowers as many years as they’ll run and are still reliable. To keep them that way, he stores them indoors, yearround, even in the summer.
That’s saved him a lot of money in wear, tear and repair over the years.
Sonny Okrasinki owns Arrowhead Property Maintenance, LLC, in Hartland, Wisconsin. “After we get done doing fall cleanups, we pressure-wash the mowers, take the blades off the decks, and sharpen them.”
In addition, all the fluids are changed, and the mowers are put up on stands. The rear tires are removed.
They lay the machines on their sides, and grease everything, drain the gas from the engine, and add stabilizer. Every part of each mower is inspected to see if bolts and belts need tightening or removing, and safety features are tested.
“Because we’re on an island, we’re warmer and wetter,” said Kevin Counts, owner of Three Men and a Mower, LLC, in Oak Harbor, Washington. Even though winter temperatures don’t drop much lower than 31 above, keeping his mowers out of the elements is one of his biggest priorities. He knows that the more care he can give them when he puts them away, the better they’re going to treat him come springtime, with seats that aren’t ruined, and no undue rust.
There’s a list of chores that should be done for your zero-turn riders, stand-ons and walk-behinds before you tuck them in for the winter. If you do them, there’ll be no nasty surprises waiting for you when it’s time to start cutting grass again.
Priority one on that list is fuel—gasoline, specifically. If you’re running diesel or propane, you can skip this section, because you don’t need to do anything special.
“The first thing we do is drain the gas out,” said Dave Folkestad, landscape manager at Peter Doran Lawn in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, “and stabilize it.
We put two different products in there and run them through the carburetors until the engine shuts off.” This is because, even when a gas tank has been drained, there’s still a bit of fuel left in the carburetor bowl.
If it’s got ethanol in it, and stabilizer hasn’t been mixed in, that remnant will cause problems. “Any fueland cold weather are not good companions. And once a battery freezes solid, it’s done.
Dwyer always recommends pulling the batteries out if they’re going to be stored outside in a shed in cold temperatures. He advises bringing them inside to a heated environment, then either maintaining them on trickle chargers, or at least, hooking them up to one once a month. The trickle charger not only helps keep the battery warm, it keeps it from draining down to the point of no return, where it can no longer hold a charge.
Graham adds that there are automatic chargers available, similar to the ones used for motorcycles. “You can disconnect the batteries, but you don’t have to,” he said. “Nor do you have to remove them. Just plug the little chargers in, and they’ll keep those batteries ‘topped off.’” Some contractors who’ve suffered battery freezes blame the concrete floors that they were left sitting on. The theory is that this draws the cold inside them. This notion may be based on the observation of how meat defrosts much faster on a metal cookie sheet.
Dwyer dismisses this, however.
“That’s an old wives’ tale,” he said. “There’s no proof of that, in fact or fiction.” On the other hand, why tempt fate? Keep them off the cement, just to be safe.
At Doran, the mowers are stashed for the winter in unheated metal shipping containers. Though the machines are out of the elements, they’re still subject to temperatures that can drop as low as 40 below zero.
So, after Dave Folkestad parks the company’s 18 mowers for the last time, he and his guys remove all the batteries, and bring them into the heated shop. “We put them on a shelf, and then, periodically, thru the winter, we’ll throw a charger on each one of them.”
Counts stores his riders in a covered portion of his shop, and keeps his batteries alive with the help of solar chargers. “They’re little panels, and we just clip them right on to the terminals,” he said. “We also go back and start up the mowers at least once a month, then let them run for five or ten minutes. That way, they never drop down to a completely dead cell.”
Lubrication and fluids
It’s a good idea to change the oil and oil filters before bedding your mowers down for the season. Why now, instead of next spring?
“The old oil contains the byproducts of combustion,” said Graham.
“You’re burning fuel in that machine, and as the oil gets exposed to that, it breaks down, and begins producing acids that eat into metals.”
Fall is also a great time to change the fluid in the hydrostatic drive system. That fluid also breaks down and produces nasty acids. It’s also a good time to pump some lubrication into the mower’s zerks (grease points). “The spindles, especially, should be greased prior to storage,” says Dwyer.
“When you park the machine after that last cut of the season, the spindles are hot. As they cool down, they can draw in condensate. And since you’re not going to be running the mower for a few months, that moisture just sits inside those spindles and rusts away.”
Clean mowers are happy mowers. Don’t neglect a final bath before sending them off to their cave to hibernate.
This step is vital, but often neglected. “People get done with the season, and just park the things,” said Dwyer. “But all that grass and debris is still up in there, inside the decks, and it hardens up like concrete, and then you practically have to sandblast it off.” Save yourself a nasty job in the spring, and wash it off now.
Before putting Doran’s mowers up for the winter, Folkestad says, “We’ll hit them with the pressure washer. The last things we do in the year are fall cleanups, so we want to get all the grass and leaves out. It also makes it easier for our mechanic to see if there’s anything that needs fixing. Then we’ll go back through and make sure they’re all dried off, and re-grease everything.”
While washing is important, be careful where you aim the spray.
Avoid shooting pressurized water into the spindle areas, where it can get past the seals and cause rust. Direct it away from the motors and electrical housings, and concentrate on cleaning out the decks. Counts takes the extra precaution of using an air compressor to blow debris out of the engine areas.
Before bedding down his fleet for the cold season, Okrasinski takes the extra step of removing the spark plugs, cleaning them off, and checking them. Then, he puts them back in lightly, but leaves them unplugged.
“That’s another old-school thing that some contractors like to do,” explained Dwyer, “pulling out the plugs, and squirting a little oil down into the cylinder bores. Then they spin the engine over, and put the plugs back in. It coats the bores with a protective layer of oil, which may help the engine last longer.”
This step may not really be necessary. Cylinder bores are made of polished cast iron, and are therefore susceptible to rust, but only if moisture manages to get to them. Dwyer says he’s “on the fence” about the practice of pulling out the spark plugs, as the chance of engine seizeup is pretty small.
Still, it might be something to consider if a mower is being stored outdoors, or in a cold shed. It may not extend an engine’s life, but it shouldn’t hurt it, either.
The mowers’ rubber ‘feet,’ their tires, shouldn’t be overlooked in this process, either. Before putting the mowers away, they should be inflated to their full maximum recommended PSI. “That’s even more important for a heavy zero-turn,” said Dwyer. “If those front caster wheels ‘pop the bead’ (meaning, the tire comes off the rim), it can be tough to get them reseated again.”
This seems a bit counterintuitive.
If I stay off my bicycle for a few weeks, I always find the tires flat when it’s time to start riding again. The same thing happens to idle lawn mower tires. Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until spring to pump them up?
Dwyer says no, especially when it comes to heavy zero-turn riders. “It’s not about the tires going flat, it’s about holding their shape,” he said.
“Imagine going to use the mower the next season, after it’s been sitting on a flat tire for months, in a weird shape, and then, trying to keep that tire in place while it’s sticking to the rim. That’s a bear.”
So, check those tires before you go for that first spring mow. Correct pressure is particularly critical in the rear tires, as this affects your straight-line tracking ability.
If you give winter mower prep tasks the same regard as your personal self-care routine, they’ll seem less like chores and more like payments to a cheap insurance policy.
Showing your mowers the same respect you give your teeth means your bottom line will be less likely to suffer cavities next season.