Jan. 16 2012 09:36 AM

Every contractor and landscape service provider knows that the lawn cutting business is more a marathon than a sprint.

Your crews and equipment are out there day after day. Butts get sore, hands callused, and necks sunburned, despite baseball caps and sun block. The next job is always waiting, and the one after that. You find yourself doing clock and personnel management like an NFL quarterback on a last-minute drive as you think, what can I do to squeeze in one more property before the sun sets?

Bottom line: It’s one thing to have your crews in the saddle of their mowers that first job of spring. It’s another thing to have them there 800 hours of seat time later, sometime in the late afternoon of a blazing August day.

As crucial as it is to have reliable workers, providing your crews with comfortable mowers can make the difference between enthusiastic employees and crews who dread coming to work. Crewmember satisfaction is a big reason that zero-turning radius (ZT or ZTR) mowers—whether operated from a mounted saddle or from a standing position—have made impressive market inroads.

Kirkville, Missouri landscape service provider Shannon Snyder knows the importance of crewmember satisfaction. In business for 26 years as Snyder’s New Lawn Service, Snyder is one of those owners who’s out there himself cutting grass, every single day.

“In mid-summer, I run two crews,” Snyder relates. “One crew has five guys, one has three. I’m always part of one of those crews, and I know what it’s like for the guys. Believe me, when you’re mowing large pieces of property with little time for breaks, and have been in the seat for seven hours straight, you’re a tired person at the end of the day.”

Snyder is all about comfort, and loves his ZT mid-mount with the spring-loaded seat, spring-loaded forks, and flotation tires. “I feel like I’m driving a Cadillac,” he says with a laugh. “The big flotation tires not only stop the mower from tracking in the ground, but help a lot with the ride. In addition, of course, because it’s a zero-turn, the cutting process is super-efficient.”

The earliest model year in the Snyder mid-mount fleet is from 1988. “All the factory stickers are still on it,” Snyder says proudly.

He attributes his ZT’s longevity to careful engine maintenance, and one little personal wrinkle. “A lot of folks hose down their mowers every week. We don’t. We just blow them clean with air, and rub the grass off, of course. I try to limit the amount of water that hits the machine. Twice a season works for me.”

A much bigger “operator” just as happy with his ZTs is Dave Long, district manager of city-side park maintenance for the city of San Diego, California. Long runs a fleet of 65 mowers of different types and styles. Some of those 65 mowers are ZTs.

“We added them about three years  ago,” Long relates. “I manage 34 crewmembers and one of our jobs is to mow a 22-acre cemetery. By their very nature, they’re rough. Believe me, the guys want to use those machines when we do the cemetery.”

“If you own a lawn care company and don’t own a ZT, you’re thinkin’ small,” declares Fred Brummett, who has operated Brummett Lawn Service in South Haven, Mississippi, for eight years. Brummett started out with a pickup truck and two push mowers; he grew his business to where he now owns two zero-turn mowers.

“I bought those machines three years ago, and they are easily 30 to 50 percent faster than a regular riding mower.”

Brummett calls the ZTs the workhorses of his company, and praises their reliability. “Any day the mower is down is a day I can’t make money.”

All the major ZT riding mower manufacturers are keenly aware of the requirements of the operator, and want the person at the controls to be as comfortable on an August dog day as he is at the start of the season. Brad Unruh, product manager for Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas, ticks off some of the features geared to the rider, and not just to the cutting.

“There are suspension seats, both with the suspension visible or builtin,” Unruh explains. “We’ve got flexible forks at the front of the mower designed to absorb the punishment of bumpy terrain. We don’t want that punishment transmitted to the driver at the controls.”

Over at Bloomington, Minnesotabased Toro, marketing manager Chris Hannan underscores Toro’s commitment to operator comfort in extended cutting conditions by pointing to the three-dimensional isolation mounts that separate the operator from the frame. These mounts, made of hard rubber resin, absorb fore and aft motion. Up and down action is picked up by the springs in the seat itself. “We also use large flotation tires that absorb shock,” says Hannan.

Walker Manufacturing mowers have a similar focus on the person at the controls, reports marketing manager Tim Conway, speaking from company headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado. “Our biggest focus at Walker is the center of gravity for the driver. On our mowers, the operator is at the center, with a low center of gravity. A lever on the right- hand side locks in speed, so the driver doesn’t have to change position much. It’s a bit like cruise control.”

Mower builders agree that ergonomics are as important as a comfortable seat, a strong frame, and good shock absorption. Each goes at ergonomics slightly differently.

“Over a long summer of cutting, our theory is that a lot of little things add up to whether mowing is comfortable. At Walker, we think those things are operational more than functional,” Conway declares. “It’s why we’ve sought fingertip controls, instead of having to put a lot of strain on your arms moving bars forward and backward.”

Toro takes similar pains to make the operator experience simple, efficient, and comfortable over a long summer of cutting. “We understand that the operator might have to raise the cutting deck a dozen times on any given day, to negotiate curbs, move past stumps, and the like,” observes Hannan. “That’s several hundred times a season. We put a foot-operated pedal on the operator’s right side that raises and lowers the deck without any kind of bending.”

Excel’s ergonomic innovation is to build the parking brake right into the twin level controls. “The idea is to eliminate one motion entirely. When you think of how often the driver has to set the brake, it really adds up,” says Unruh.

In addition to suspensions, seats, and ergonomics, most zero-turning radius mower manufacturers offer add-on options for operator comfort, such as sun canopies that attach to the roll bar.

Today’s ZT is both efficient and comfortable. However, they are a serious investment. For the landscape maintenance contractor who wants zero-turning radius speed and func tionality but at a lower price, there are the “stander” ZT mowers, where the operator stands on a low platform behind the mowing deck.

The standers won’t match the speed of a mounted-seat ZT, though most move along nicely at eight miles an hour. With decks up to 61 inches and the operator just a few feet from the action, standers shine in spaces with lots of trees, picnic tables, flowerbeds and the like. Their lower center of gravity also makes the stander a good choice for hilly property, since they can cut grades that are normally too steep for riding mowers. Some standers even have an optional drop-down seat.

Though the operator is standing on a deck instead of sitting at the controls, it doesn’t mean that manufacturers didn’t try to maximize operator comfort. Ross Hawley, product manager for the standers at Toro, points out that the company has moved from a rigid standing platform to one where there’s something of a suspension. “There are rubber bumpers of different shapes under the platform, so that the operator won’t bottom out on rough terrain. Plus, we’ve got a heat shield now in front of the platform, to block heat from the hydraulic system from reaching the operator.”

Chad Williams, of Chad’s Five Star Lawn Care LLC in Wooster, Ohio, has been operating standers since he entered the business six years ago, while he was still a student. With a business that focuses on commercial accounts, he sends out two cutting crews and one landscape crew in peak season. He operates a fleet of three sit-down ZTs and six standers.

“The standers are functional,” Williams maintains. “They get in and out of tight spots, they can still stripe up a yard, they make those quick 180-degree turns, and they’re easier on the turf when the ground is wet. We don’t send out a trailer unless it has a stander on it, in addition to all the other equipment.”

Williams confirms that the standers generally can’t match the ZTs for speed, but what they lack in speed they make up for with versatility. Some of his leaf-blowing crews even use their standers like souped-up Segway machines, carrying their blowers on their backs and firing away on the go. Since the standers can do eight miles an hour while people walk at three miles an hour, his workers do their leaf-blowing job in less than half the time. This application is probably not in the operator’s manual.

As for the comfort factor, Williams admits that if you’re on a stander for three hours without a break—especially some of the older models with rigid frames—you’re going to feel beat up if you’re riding over choppy terrain. “But there’s an advantage on hot days,” he suggests.

“Standing up? You’ve got more wind in your face.”

Lawn cutting may look easy. The first job of the year isn’t tough. As the jobs, acres, and stripes add up, and the mid-afternoon thermometer goes up, the work gets challenging. Zero-turn mowers, whether sit-down or stander, can make it more than just a little bit more palatable.

In the dog days of summer, after months of cutting, “more than just a little bit” goes a long, long way.