They’re the workhorse of the landscape maintenance contractor, yet they’re often neglected. We are quite helpless without them, yet quick to discard them once they’re old and have served our needs. If lawn mowers were people, they’d be Rodney Dangerfield. They get no respect.

As a landscape maintenance contractor, you will spend thousands of dollars on these machines over the course of your business. For much of the year, your lawn mowers will be operated on a daily basis. Yet unlike cars, trucks or other pieces of equipment, the contractor often does a minimum amount of maintenance on their mowers, running them into the ground. There’s got to be a better way and there is.

As a landscape maintenance contractor, you will spend thousands of dollars on these machines over the course of your business. For much of the year, your lawn mowers will be operated on a daily basis. Yet unlike cars, trucks or other pieces of equipment, the contractor often does a minimum amount of maintenance on their mowers, running them into the ground. There’s got to be a better way and there is.

Adjusting belts is an important part of a mower's scheduled maintenance.

In many industries, older equipment is sold off while it is still operable and replaced with the latest model. If you run machinery until it breaks down, it will have little resale value. Think of a car. Before buying a new one, you’re likely to sell off the old one while it’s still running. An inoperable automobile will get you a fraction of one that works. Using that same logic, wouldn’t you want to sell your old lawnmowers before they break down?

You can also factor in that newer equipment is usually more reliable than older equipment, often using less gasoline and mowing a larger area faster than models just a few years old. The potential for increased productivity will allow your crews to do a job in less time, giving them time to do more jobs in an eight-hour day.

Now that all sounds great on paper, but does it work out in the field? As we found out, it can, but it takes a little effort. For larger landscape maintenance companies, the cost to replace hundreds of lawnmowers every few years can be prohibitive. Yet running the equipment ragged is not an option. For these companies, one way to avoid the premature death of this valuable equipment is through regularly scheduled maintenance.

Since most manufacturers warranty their mowers against factory defects, it’s important that operators religiously perform basic maintenance. A blown engine caused by negligence is not covered by the warranty. These machines are designed to be used, not abused.

Over at American Landscape, in Canoga Park, California, they have an on-site repair shop with five mechanics. “Their job is to keep things running,” says Mike Hayes. “Rather than run things into the ground, we maintain equipment and usually get a lot more life out of it. We replace parts as needed in order to hold onto the equipment as long as we can. It makes a lot more sense just to buy an engine and stick it on a deck that’s still in good shape.” Hayes says that in a commercial application, mowers will start needing repairs within a year. On an average, his mechanics are able to get three years of service out their lawn mowers.

A rigorous weekly preventive maintenance that is strictly adhered to throughout the mowing season is what Ron Kujawa, of KEI, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, says helps his mechanics keep their mowers running. That schedule includes changing the oil regularly, sharpening blades, checking all the filters and belts, and making adjustments as needed.

Keeping the underdeck clean helps prevent oil from burning.

“We have experienced very little downtime in the last four to five years since we began this vigorous program of maintenance,” says Kujawa. “We used to leave a lot of the maintenance up to the individual crew chiefs. Some of them were conscientious, some were not. When there was turnover, there was no one who could be held accountable. Now our mechanics in the service center are accountable. You know who worked on the machine, and that the job was done correctly.”

Keeping a maintenance log on the work that’s done is an essential component of getting the most life out of your equipment. “If you look at our machines,” says Kujawa, “they all have an asset number on them. You could come into our office and in five minutes we could tell exactly what was done to that machine, what parts were replaced, labor, and anything else from the day we put that machine in service.”

Assigning specific equipment to a specific crew is another way to ensure it will be better taken care of. “If a crew abuses their equipment,” says Rich Angelo of Stay Green Inc., Valencia, California, “then they’re going to get abused equipment the next time they go out. And if you reward the people that are taking care of the equipment by keeping them with good equipment, the other guys get the message.”

You also want to create a work environment that encourages communication. Employees should never be afraid to report any problems with equipment the minute it occurs. “We never penalize or charge a worker for equipment that gets damaged,” says Hayes. “That only encourages them to make something up like ‘it was that way when I found it’. It also becomes a safety issue when they’re working with something that’s unsafe just because they’re afraid to report it.”

Once a problem is discovered, it is imperative that the equipment be fixed and back in service as quickly as possible. Having a replacement available for a machine that needs to be serviced will eliminate down time for your crews. When it comes to knowing when it’s time to get rid of a mower instead of repairing it, both Kujawa and Angelo use the same formula. If the cost of repairing the mower is more than half the price of buying a new one, it’s time to let it go.

Kujawa says future availability of parts is another factor that influences his decision on whether or not to sell a working or repairable mower. “If we find that a particular unit is no longer produced, we immediately put it up for sale because we don’t want to get stuck with an obsolete machine that’s going to be difficult to get parts for.”

When a mower is beyond repair, and has no resale value, it can still be of use. If you have several models of the same mower, use whatever you can from the broken mower as replacement parts for the mowers still in operation. Whatever you can’t use can be sold off as scrap metal.

Photo courtesy: KEI
Using a maintenance log provides a service record for a mower.

And when it comes time to purchase a new mower, choose wisely. Don’t just run out and get something just because it’s shiny and new. “We buy just one mower at a time to find out which model lasts the longest and runs the best,” says Hayes. “Because we’re a labor intensive industry, we want to make sure that the guys are mowing as much lawn as they can per hour, and that the mower is not going to break down after six months.”

While deciding on what mower to buy, look for one that gives you the most bang for your buck. Hayes says that when mowers that automatically mulched were first introduced, his company did cost studies. The new models were cost-effective, but the company didn’t sell off old equipment in order to buy the new mowers. Instead, they purchased them as older mowers needed replacement, and not at the expense of equipment already in their possession.

For some landscape maintenance contractors, though, a staff of in-house mechanics keeping their machines running is an overhead they can’t, or don’t want to, absorb. Repairs are made when needed by outside repair shops, or they do it themselves. The downside to that approach is that as long as a machine is in the shop, it’s not generating income. And the time you take to fix the machine yourself is time you could be out there making money.

To avoid that dilemma, Paul Wolbert of U.S. Lawns, Orlando, Florida, encourages his franchisees to rotate their inventory of lawn mowers. As the industry’s only registered franchise organization, the company has operations in 28 states. Wolbert discourages the hiring of a mechanic at the shop level.

“A mechanic turns out to be overhead as far as the cost of his time goes,” says Wolbert. “And then you’ve got to stock thousands of dollars of inventory. That’s why I preach rotation and disposability. We treat items such as string edgers, stick edgers and blow packs as disposable items; one season and replace them, as opposed to crossing your fingers and hope they last two to three years. But with lawn mowers, there is a market to rotate and sell them before they break down.”

Wolbert says that it makes sense to sell a mower before it is completely trashed, because it will have a much higher resale value. He adds that the cost of one repair on an older mower can exceed the cost of several payments on a newer, more efficient model. He also points out that by including the rotation of lawn mowers into your business plan, you can replace the mowers over a period of time, thus avoiding sticker shock.

“If you plan your rotation properly,” says Wolbert, “you never get stung with having to replace hundreds of mowers at once. If you do it over a four-year period of time, you’re replacing 25 percent of your fleet with new equipment every year. There’s a consistency that you factor into your business plan. You’re reinvesting back into your business. It doesn’t have to be a financial blow.”

Although most lawn mower manufacturers generally are not in the business of buying and selling used equipment, sometimes their dealers are. According to Randy Harris, with the Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota, variables such as the condition of a mower and the cost to refurbish it for resale make it difficult for manufacturers to offer any type of guaranteed fixed rate for used equipment. But it’s a different story for dealers.

Photo courtesy: KEI
Proper maintenance will increase equipment's longevity.

“In some cases, it can be a profitable business for the dealer,” says Harris. “When you think about it, dealers will offer that type of arrangement to existing customers because the next time around, they want to get that repeat sale. And they physically see the equipment and know whether or not it’s in good condition. Even if they’ve not provided the service on the unit, when the customer brings it in, they can see it first-hand. They can inspect it and say ‘Here’s what I’d be willing to give you.’”

It’s also through your dealer that manufacturer incentives will be offered to help you finance the purchase of new equipment. Periodically, manufacturers will offer rebates when buying a new mower and trading in your old one. And deferred payment arrangements are often available. According to Harris, Toro is currently offering a manufacturer-sponsored “no down, no pay, no interest” until January 2006 promotion to qualified buyers.

And Harris says the best time of year to buy and sell a mower is right now, during the off-season. “In the winter months, you can buy at probably the lowest prices you’re going to see all year. And if you’re trading in a piece of equipment, you can probably get a better price, as well.”

If your dealer doesn’t buy and sell used equipment, there are other options. Kujawa says he’s had success selling mowers on eBay to homeowners who can get years of use from them. He also has a few local dealers to contact when there’s used equipment to unload. They will come and pick up the machines, then turn around and sell them out of their homes or shops.

Whether you sell or scavenge parts from that old mower, knowing when to put it out of service doesn’t have to be tricky. “If a piece of equipment is frequently breaking down in the field,” says Angelo, “you want to get rid of it. The biggest expense in our business is labor. If we can be more efficient and productive, our clients get a better job and we make money. The equipment is just a means to an end.”

To achieve that end, workers need good equipment. By properly maintaining that equipment, you can get the most for your money. Sometimes a mower gets old and tired, and needs to be retired. Other times, it makes sense to trade in or sell the mower while it’s still operational and has value. It can help defray the cost of updating your fleet, and the homeowner who will probably buy your old mower will get lots of use from it. For everybody involved, it’s a win-win scenario. You get new equipment. The mower gets a new home, and it’s allowed to enter its golden years with a little dignity and respect.