One of the things we can count on in life is that nothing runs smoothly forever. If that wasn’t true, a lot more cars from the 1940s or even earlier would still be on the roads, instead of being the rare sights that they are. As with all mechanical devices, eventually something breaks or wears out. And then there’s always Murphy’s Law, which says that, “If something can go wrong, it will.”
In the landscape business, where we depend upon our machinery, these breakdowns can be costly, not just in the dollar outlay involved in buying replacement parts, but in downtime. This is especially true when it comes to riding mowers, the most expensive piece of equipment any landscape maintenance professional owns outside of their trucks. It behooves us to take good care of them.
If we do, they last longer and have fewer breakdowns.
“Maintenance is extremely important, because it allows our equipment to last longer. And with the price of mowers, you need to stretch their life out as long as you can,” said Ryan Strunk, co-owner of family-owned All Seasons Lawn Care in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“We sharpen the blades of our walk-behinds every other day or so; we grease them once a week, we check the oil three times a week. Usually, one guy will be gassing up the mowers and another one will be checking the oil.” In addition to the mowers, the hedge trimmers and string trimmers, leaf blowers and vacuums are maintained on a regular basis. Strunk adds, “If they start running badly, we’ll run some SeaFoam through them to clean the gunk out of the carburetors.”
“Our regular mower maintenance is very proactive,” says Justin Wixom, account manager for Gothic Grounds Management, Inc.’s North Las Vegas, Nevada branch. “Our mowers run for seven hours a day, every day, so we sharpen the blades and change the oil three times a week.”
Gothic performs 80 percent of its maintenance work in-house. “When the machines come in every three weeks for their routine maintenance, we do a complete inspection.
All the belts, wheels, handles, all the pieces that can and do break, are checked. We change the spark plugs, the air filters, do any general maintenance that’s needed,” said Wixom.
“We make sure that all the cables are connected properly. If something is broken, we fix it immediately.”
Michael Candillo has a completely different approach to maintenance. He owns Garden Gate Landscaping, a full-service landscape company with six full-time employees in Raymore, Missouri. “We send everything out. I found that when we attempted to do our own maintenance, we made a lot of errors and spent unnecessary time doing things the long way. It saves us money as a business to have a great relationship with a local service shop.”
It’s easy to neglect maintenance. Putting things on a schedule can prevent problems like Strunk once experienced.
“We had a problem a few years ago with one of our walk-behinds,” he said. “We were just real busy, got way behind on our greasing, and the spindle actually broke while the crew was mowing one day—all from not being greased.”
And then, sometimes power equipment breaks down because it’s being used improperly. “We’ve trained our guys to recognize when an air filter on a string trimmer or blower is getting clogged to the point that it’s affecting the motor’s performance,” said Wixom. “But we’ve found that some of the crew, instead of turning the machine off and putting a new air filter in, they just took the air filter out completely. Then the motor runs just fine, ’cause it’s not being restricted by the air filter. But you suck debris into the motor and destroy it. Then you have to replace the whole thing.”
It’s really a matter of communication more than anything. Your employees need to be taught why they should never remove an air filter, and the consequences that follow. Sometimes, though, a mere explanation won’t be enough to keep people from doing what’s expedient, yet foolhardy. In that case, you may need some ‘bad attitude insurance.’ “Removing air filters has been an issue for us in the past,” said Wixom. “We consider that negligence, and we have a disciplinary action plan in place for that.”
What if your field employees don’t tell you when something’s broken? “We want them to say, ‘Hey, this thing’s not running right; I need a different one,’” said Wixom. “Unfortunately, it’s a common problem, where the guys just aren’t communicating. We have a foreman for each crew, and we take the time training them on equipment functions; how things are supposed to run. We tell them to flag tools when they look like they’re starting to need maintenance.”
Why would someone keep working with a tool that’s not operating properly? “People know they have schedules and timeframes and routes that have to be completed in a day,” says Wixom. “Sometimes there’s a fear that if they have to make a phone call to report that a piece of equipment is down, they’re not going to finish their route. If they can just take an air filter out and finish the job, they’ll do that and deal with the problem later. But by then, the damage has already been done.” But Gothic isn’t throwing in the greasy towel, not yet anyway. “Communication is something we’re always working on.”
ISS Grounds Control, headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, operates in several states and more than 50 countries. Gene Petrini, operations manager of the Phoenix/Tucson branch, explains their procedure. “We change all mower blades every Friday. The walk-behind mowers will come in once a month in the summer, every couple of months in the winter. We’ll change the oil and clean the filters. Oil is changed based on the number of hours the machines run. And the air filters are blown out once a week. We instruct our crews not to attempt any kind of repairs out in the field. A guy will mickey-mouse around with something, do a quick fix, but the quick fix later becomes a major fix.”
Just as it is at Gothic, at the ISS Phoenix/Tucson branch, removing an air filter is a real no-no. “In Arizona, we have a lot of dust. It’s going to fly in there, get into the carburetor, score the cylinder, and bam! Now we have to buy a new piece of equipment.”
Obviously, winterization is something they don’t really have a need for in Arizona. However, in Missouri, where Candillo works, they do. Before the mowers are put away for the winter, he makes sure they are washed down. “We power-wash them underneath and get into every little crack and crevice. You don’t want gunk sitting up in that mower all winter long.”
After that, Candillo’s service shop does a multipoint inspection of the mowers, checking the belts, plugs and points. They grease the bearings, disconnect the batteries, and put in some fuel stabilizer.
“Before we put our mowers or other tools to bed for the winter, we make sure everything gets cleaned out well,” said Brian Janes, coowner of JC’s Landscaping and Lawn Service, LLC, in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania. He makes sure his zero-turn riding mowers are completely overhauled so they’re ready to go in the spring.
“We check for cracks in the frames. If we have an older mower, we pull the cover off and blow out the head to get out any grass that might be stuck up in there. We do
that once a week through the season, and very thoroughly at the end of it. We leave a little bit of gas in our riders, just so we can move them in case we have to. We put in an additive so the fuel makes it through the season.”
Strunk also puts a fuel stabilizer in his mower’s gas tanks before they’re put up for the winter. “If you don’t, after about 30 days or so the gas will start to go bad. It separates. Ethanol attracts water, and with all the ethanol in the fuel nowadays, you’ll end up getting a little bit of water in your gas tank.”
“E15 breaks down and leaves varnish inside the engines,” says Bob Broughton, owner of Empire Landscaping in Victor, Montana. “All that sticky gunk will make it hard to start that engine back up in the spring.” He gets around this problem by putting high-octane aviation fuel in his mowers before he stows them away for the long Montana winter, where temperatures can drop to 20 degrees below zero.
Improper maintenance—or maintenance that you think is proper but isn’t—can harm your equipment. “Some contractors tell me, ‘I really take care of this mower; I pressurewash it every time I use it,’” says John Mierek, customer support manager for the Briggs and Stratton Power Products Group, commercial division, Munnsville, New York. “Well, he’s just driving water up into the bearings and lubrication points. That causes corrosion, especially if they do it in the fall, and then it sits all winter and doesn’t go though the greasing.” Mierek suggests that rather than pressure-washing your mower, do a simple rinse-off with a garden hose. Better still, blow it clean with one of your leaf blowers or an air compressor with a nozzle.
For larger commercial mowers, the most important thing is to make sure that they’re getting consistent greasing. “We often find that a contractor will have ten mowers, but always have problems with a certain one. The issue is usually lack of maintenance,” Mierek said.
Broughton has a solution for that problem. “We have one employee assigned to each mower. That person is responsible for that piece of equipment. He is supposed to check or re place
belts, change and top off fluids, and do repairs.” He finds that his fifteen workers don’t hesitate to report when one of the mowers or other piece of equipment is down. “My guys aren’t afraid to say, ‘I tried to fix this, but I’m stumped.’” Mierek suggests that you “refer to your owner’s manual. Every model of mower has a slightly different maintenance schedule.” If you’ve lost or misplaced your manual, most
manufacturers have them on their websites in pdf format, even for discontinued models. This is also true of the manufacturers of small power equipment.
The E15 issue
E15 is gasoline with 15 percent ethanol added. It’s notoriously hard on small engines. “It gives us a lot of headaches,” said Janes, whose mowers, string trimmers and blowers are all gas-powered. “The E15 fuel corrodes carburetors from all the moisture it attracts. It makes things not want to run right. So we run our machines all season long with a fuel additive in it. That makes a world of difference.”
“E15 is a huge problem. It’s probably one of the biggest our industry has faced in some time,” said Kris Kiser, CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia.
“E15 was designed for 2001 and newer automobiles only. No outdoor power equipment engines are designed, built or warranted to run on anything higher than E10 (fuel with ten percent ethanol content.)” Kiser offers this illustration. “A landscape contractor sends his crew out in the morning to go fill up the tanks in the equipment. Now, the higher the ethanol content, the cheaper the fuel. People tend to buy the cheapest fuel available. If that’s E15 (or even worse, E85), they could bring home every machine you own, destroyed. You’ve voided your warranties. They’re very specific about the kind of fuel you’re to use. Who makes that person whole again?” E15 is finding its way into the market, mainly in the Midwest and upper Midwest, but it may come to your pump soon. Be aware.
Your mowers and your other tools are your livelihood. Just as your body needs the right nutrition and regular checkups to keep it going strong, your power equipment needs regular, appropriate maintenance to keep it working smoothly. Treat them right, and they should serve you well for many years to come.