Life is full of decision-making. Choosing the right spouse, choosing the right car, choosing the right house...and the list goes on and on. Making the right choice is not always easy.
It’s not unlike what happens when it comes time to choose a new commercial mower (or mowers) for your landscape business. There are plenty of good, solid, quality mowers out there, that’s not the problem. It’s deciding which mower, with what features, is right for you and your operation.
It’s not an easy decision, not when you take into account all the factors involved. There’s the price tag, of course. But before that, there’s a long list of other considerations, such as, what type to buy: rider, stander, walk-behind? What size cutting deck should it have? And will it be tough enough to endure six- to eight-hour days, five to six days a week, all year long?
In addition, with the dizzying array of options, it’s not a decision to be made lightly. Choosing the wrong multi-thousand-dollar mower might even be a make-or-break decision, especially for a small or startup operation. So, before you plunk down your hard-earned dough, it makes sense to weigh and measure what factors might be the most critical in choosing the right mower for your business.
“The number one factor we hear about is productivity,” said Ross Hawley, senior marketing manager at The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota. “How fast can the mower go and still do a good job of cutting grass? How fast can you get the mower’s annual servicing completed? And how fast does your dealer get you back up and running when you have a problem?” These are important considerations.
Tim Cromley, marketing manager at Fort Collins, Colorado-based Walker Manufacturing Company, agrees that productivity should be the main consideration. “Productivity has a lot to do with using the right tool. If that tool can save you a couple of minutes on each of the 20 or so lawns you do in a day, you might be able to do another lawn— and that’s more income. You also may be able to knock off a little bit earlier.”
“I’m not sure that there’s any one factor that should be weighed over all the others,” said John Swanson, senior product manager at Exmark Manufacturing in Beatrice, Nebraska. “There’s a big picture, and that’s the total cost of ownership. The second most important factor is fuel efficiency. Most contractors today should be looking at fuel-injected engines.”
Rider, walk-behind, or stand-on?
The first consideration is, of course, which type of mower or mowers you’re going to buy. The answer is, “That depends.” Every type has its benefits and drawbacks.
Rhett Kramer is the owner and president of Echo Systems in Cordova, Tennessee; his company serves mainly commercial clients. He looks at the types of properties they’ll be cutting. “You can buy a rider with a 72-inch deck, but if you only have one property that needs it, it’ll slow you down on all your other properties. You’d be better off buying a mower with a smaller cutting deck that can do more.”
Kramer’s company mainly uses riders. Currently, they don’t use any standers. They also use quite a few walk-behinds that have ‘sulkys’ attached where the operators can stand, kind of like a harness racer.
As landscape management operations manager at The Pattie Group in Novelty, Ohio, purchasing new equipment is one of Nick Marrali’s jobs.
“We’ve recently invested in some stand-on units,” he said. These acquisitions were made in response to the prompting of his field staff. “Some of them had experience with that type of unit, and they really liked them for their maneuverability.”
He elaborated further. “Especially on some of these homeowner’s association (HOA) sites, you often find yourself in these narrow areas between housing units, without a lot of room. And then, you’ll turn around and have this big backfield area that you’ll want to cut as fast as you possibly can. The standers can do both.”
You might think that field personnel would prefer riders; after all, sitting is less tiring than standing. If it was straight-out field mowing, they would, according to Marrali. But in situations where it’s a matter of going back to the trailer and getting the riding mower, it’s easier and faster to stay on the stand-on and get both done.
Derek Novack is lead mechanic and salesperson at Anewalt’s Landscape Contracting in Bernville, Pennsylvania. He’s in charge of the company’s seven large commercial mowers, a combination of riders and walk-behinds. They also have some little 21- inch push mowers. “There are times when you can’t get a 52-inch walk-be hind unit into the space, when you just need to trim around a pool or something. These small mowers fit well around those areas.”
“My mechanic might differ, but to me, it’s all about support,” says Marrali. “I weigh the relationship with the local dealer heavily when making my purchases. I look to him for good, solid advice as far as what he’s seeing in the industry, and knowing that he’ll back up anything I buy with great quality service.”
One man who agrees with that statement is Sean Dwyer, director of regional product development, dealer channel, for Charlotte, North Carolina-based Husqvarna Group USA. “A good support network is one of the most important things there is,” he says. “Sure, you can ‘buy the deal,’ based only on price, but at the end of the day, is that dealer going to give you service after the sale?” Good service is also important to Kramer. “Certain companies make very good mowers, but they can only be serviced by one dealer in town. Or the dealer that does service that brand is half an hour away. That’s why we buy brands that we can take to ten different people in town to get fixed.”
Cory Bettinghouse owns Cory’s Lawn Service in Reno, Nevada. As a small operator, price is important to him, but it’s not the overriding concern.
He does his research. “I find the lowest price I can, online, that includes free shipping. Then, I’ll go to the three dealers in town and say, ‘Can you match this, or come close? If you can, I’ll buy from you, even if it’s $50 more.’” For him, dealer relationship trumps price.
Experiences like the following is why Bettinghouse now prefers buying from a dealer. “I bought an aerator from one of those major outside stock places,” he said. “Right away, I had an issue with it. Trying to get warranty repairs was an absolute pain. I took it to my small-engine guy (who’s also an equipment dealer). But, because I didn’t buy it from him, it’s not a priority.”
When Bettinghouse brought in the aerator, he also dropped off one of his walk-behinds. The walk-behind was turned around in a few days; the aerator is still sitting in the repair shop’s back office. Guess which piece of equipment was bought from that shop?
The next big consideration for most buyers is the heart of the beast: the engine. How much power do you really need? “The first question a dealer should ask a contractor is, ‘What do you plan on doing with this mower?’ says Dwyer. “If you’re just cutting grass, and don’t plan on bagging it, that should shift the decision.”
Sometimes people forget that what they think is a great deal usually isn’t. If they purchased a mower because it was a great deal, and then put a bagger or a snow blower on it only to find out that there wasn’t enough horsepower to push that combination, it was not a great deal.
When Novack needs to replace one of Anewalt’s commercial mowers, engine power is his biggest priority. “Most of our customers don’t want their grass mulched, so we do a lot of bagging and catching,” he explains.
Novack is most concerned with the strength and quality of the engine, what company made the engine, and its overall horsepower.
After that comes the quality of the deck, the spindles and the drive. “Everything should work together, or the mower is not going to work fluidly and at 100 percent, like we need it to.”
“You’ve got to think about what type of mowing you’re doing,” says Kramer. “If you’re mainly mowing high-end properties, you’re probably cutting that grass frequently enough that power shouldn’t be that much of an issue. But if you’re cutting rougher properties on two- or three-week cycles, the power of the engine plays a bigger part.”
As part of a fleet program, Kramer buys six or seven mowers at a time. On their riding units, they’re looking for 20 to 25 horsepower, minimum. For the walk-behinds, approximately 12½ to 15 horsepower is adequate.
In his very first week in business, Bettinghouse learned about the importance of adequate horsepower the hard way. The first mower he bought, back in 2006, he just walked in and purchased, with no research. “The salesman must have seen that I was young and naïve (just 21 at the time).”
“So when I asked him if it was a mulching mower, he said, ‘Sure, not a problem.’ But the mower bogged down after I’d mowed just ten feet. Although it turned out to be a great mower, that in fact, we still use, it was clearly not meant to recycle grass.”
Many mowers come with a choice of engines, sometimes from different engine manufacturers. “You’ll need to do your research on that,” said Kramer. “The warranty on your engine is separate and covered by the engine manufacturer. We’ve come across engines that we thought were poorly designed or poorly manufactured, but the maker wouldn’t honor the warranty, even though we thought the problem wasn’t our fault.”
“And then we’ve seen other engine manufacturers pay off on things that I thought were borderline. So don’t just consider the length of a warranty, but the willingness of the manufacturer to accept claims.”
“We used to have a saying around here about one particular company,” adds Kramer. “It was, ‘They don’t make mistakes.’ In other words, no matter what happened, it was your fault.”
All of the contractors we spoke with use straight gasoline. It’s still the most available of all the fueling options, among them, diesel, propane, biodiesel or CNG.
Although he’s still using gasoline, Kramer thinks that propane is the future. “It’s cheaper, and the engines run so much cleaner, and there’s less maintenance on them. Right now, it’s too difficult for us to do. But, at some point, it’ll be what our company and a lot of others will be using.”
As to whether propane really is the future, Cromley would disagree. “I would ask, then, where are all the propane cars? The engine manufacturers are moving that way, because there is some call for it. But it takes more propane to get the same amount of work done as gasoline.”
Diesel is another option.
“We continue to promote ‘clean diesel’ as the most economical and environmentally friendly alternative for turf and landscape professionals,” says Mike Simmons, communications specialist at The Grasshopper Company, Moundridge, Kansas. “These mowers use half as much fuel every hour as gasoline or propane, cutting fuel costs by as much as $2,000 every year.”
Other benefits of diesel include longer-lasting engines with fewer maintenance issues and increased torque. However, diesel mowers usually cost more at the outset. Also, diesel fuel currently isn’t any cheaper than gasoline in many areas. And the Tier 4i emissions regulations, now in full force, have reduced the amount of horsepower diesels can have.
“We’ve bought diesel mowers in the past,” says Kramer.
“Yes, the engines do last a long time. But towards the end, the engine may not be worn out, but the rest of the unit is shot.”
Walker and other manufacturers feel that the real future lies in electronic fuel injection (EFI). “It’s a technology that can consistently give contractors at least a 25 percent fuel savings over carbureted engines,” says Cromley. “That’s big, and it requires no change of infrastructure.”
The other fuel issue is, of course, our old nemesis, ethanol. E10, gasoline with ten percent ethanol, is found around the country. E15, with even higher ethanol content, is still only in a few states, but may spread if lobbyists get their way.
The problem is, engines run hotter on it, and if it sits, it attracts water and corrodes engines. It’s not as much a problem for mowers as it is for small power tools, but it’s still a problem.
The consensus among mower company executives seems to be that the ethanol ball is firmly in the enginemakers’ court. “We’re certainly looking for the engine manufacturers to help us with that in the future,” said Swanson. “The solution really needs to be driven from their side.”
There are other considerations when choosing a mower. Operator comfort, for one. “For any contractor, labor is by far the highest cost,” says Swanson. “The productivity of the product depends on the productivity of the person using it. How comfortable is that mower? Does it ensure that the operator will be alert and attentive at 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon, and not ‘beaten to death’ by it?” “You also need to consider the cost of parts,” Kramer warns. “For most mowers, replacement parts are reasonable. But there are some mowers where I have a hard time justifying the higher parts costs, even though technically, they’re better machines.
But if a starter goes out, it can cost you almost as much as buying another engine.”
Durability is another factor. “There are some brands that are better lawn mowers, as far as how well they cut. But we’ve found they’re just not as durable,” says Kramer. “If they keep breaking, they’re not worth much.”
We can’t tell you what type or size of mower to buy; that’s your business. Those last two words say it all: “your business.” The right mower to buy is the one that’s right for your business. Only you can pick which one that will be, from the smorgasbord of choices before you. Just make sure to do your homework first.