Oct. 1 2006 12:00 AM

Today, lawn maintenance is a huge part of your professional life—mowing helps put food on your table and keep a roof over your head. That’s why you need the best mower for every job. Saying there’s a “wide variety” of mowers to choose from is like saying the surface of the sun is “a little warm”—it’s a vast understatement. There are many mowers to choose from, and new ones come on the market all the time.

Picking the right mower (or mowers) for your company can be a daunting task. Choosing a walk-behind seems safe; you’ve probably been using a walk-behind since you were a kid. However, moving away from the comfort of the familiar and choosing a riding or standing mower, or even a self-powered walk-behind, can be a brilliant business decision. Every manufacturer agrees on the benefits of a riding or standing mower when compared to a walk-behind. “There are two main benefits,” says Toro’s Edric Funk, product manager for landscape contractor equipment. “Speed and comfort.” No matter how fit you may be, there’s a limit to how fast you can walk. Usually, a machine is going to be able to go faster, which means you can get the job done sooner. Time that would have been spent mowing can then be used to accomplish some other task.

Photo courtesy: Hustler

“You can buy a walk-behind with a 52-inch cutting deck, or you can buy a riding mower with a 52-inch cutting deck. But the riding mower is going to be 25 percent more efficient than the walk-behind,” says Howard Mees, vice president of operations and equipment for ValleyCrest Landscape Maintenance, Calabasas, California.

Imagine getting 25 percent more work done in an hour. If you’re getting more done, you’re finishing tasks faster. And the faster you finish a task, the faster you can move on to the next one. If you can mow four properties a day with a walk-behind, you could possibly mow five a day with a rider. Every extra property is extra profit in your pocket. But speed isn’t the only way a mower can make a worker more productive—the comfort factor is not to be ignored. It’s more tiring to walk a large property than it is to sit down and ride for that time period. You can ride longer than you can walk, which ultimately allows you to work longer and get even more done.

Types of mowers
It’s probably pretty easy to figure out the difference between a riding mower and a standing mower—one has a seat you sit on in order to operate the machine, and the other allows you to operate the machine from a standing position. But there are some other important divisions between mowers you should also be familiar with.

A front-mount mower means that the cutting deck is mounted on the front of the machine. A mid-mount mower means that the cutting deck is mounted in the middle of the machine. This isn’t just a minor detail—where the deck is mounted can affect the mower’s performance.

Photo courtesy: Gravely

“Front-mount mowers provide reach and sideways deck maneuvering, so you can access more places by reaching under trees and fences, or into alcoves,” says Ruthanne Stucky, director of marketing for Grasshopper, Moundridge, Kansas. “The upshot is that there is no need to retrace mowed areas with a string trimmer. This makes front-mounts up to 50 percent faster than mid-mounts at complex mowing sites.”

Mid-mounts are not without their own advantages, however. They are typically smaller than front-mounts and can, therefore, save space on a trailer. Additionally, they can cost a bit less.

A zero-turn mower can be either a front-mount or a mid-mount. What “zero-turn” means is that the mower can turn within its own footprint, seeming to pivot in place. Despite being a larger size than a walk-behind, the zero-turn aspect of these mowers makes them extremely maneuverable.

If you have to mow a large site dotted with many obstacles (trees, fences, etc.) a zero-turn mower might be the way to go. It can save you the fatigue of walking the entire site, but still allow you to avoid obstacles and mow in tight spaces.

To mow in even tighter spaces, you can invest in a standing mower. They have a smaller footprint than any other riding mower, thus making them even more agile and maneuverable. This smaller size can allow you to fit even more machines into a trailer or storage area.

If you maintain properties that have a lot of slopes, a standing mower can make your job easier—not to mention safer. “Driving on slopes can be a problem for some riding mowers because the operator’s weight is strapped into a seat. As the mower begins to tilt while traveling on a slope, the weight of the rider can begin to pull the whole mower off balance,” says Hal White, vice president of sales and marketing for Wright Manufacturing, Inc., Frederick, Maryland.

Standing offers more flexibility than riding mowers. Photo courtesy: John Deere

However, on a standing mower, the rider can shift his weight against the direction of the downslope. This puts weight on the high drive wheel and increases the mower’s traction on the hillside. Just like you use the weight of your body to help you ride a motorcycle, you also use the weight of your body to help you ride a standing mower. This is a huge boon on slopes.

This means that you can handle steep hills without having to stop and switch your riding mower for a less-productive walk-behind. White states that standing mowers are up to 30 percent more productive than walk-behinds. John Deere’s Sean Sundberg, business-to-business planning manager, agrees. “A standing mower can almost replace your walk-behind,” he says. “They’re maneuverable, but faster than walking.”

No matter how new you are to the world of standing mowers, don’t be intimidated. “They’re very simple to operate,” White says. “Most contractors can pick up the basics in just a few minutes.”

Important features
When you consider all the maintenance even a modest-sized walk-behind mower requires, it’s easy to balk at purchasing an even larger mower. The bigger the mower, the bigger the maintenance headaches, right? Wrong.

A big focus of manufacturers has been to make servicing and maintaining large mowers easier. They know the harder you have to work to perform routine maintenance, the less likely you are to do it. This can affect the mower’s performance, or even your safety. “Maintenance is always a challenge,” says Rob Barber, corporate equipment manager for Brickman Group, Gaithersburg, Maryland. “The lower the maintenance on a machine, the better.”

Several service-friendly models have been designed to allow longer intervals between maintenance. “For example, the transmission fluid and filter change interval is recommended at 1,000 hours, instead of the more standard 200 to 500 hours,” Stucky says.

A "sulky" turns a walk-behind into a stand-in mower. Photo courtesy: The Toro Company

The air filters on Brickman’s mowers need to be changed only about once a season, instead of once a month. The mowers also have some maintenance-free bearings and few grease points, all reasons Barber cites for Brickman buying these mowers in the first place.

Ken Rainey, advertising manager for Hustler, Hesston, Kansas, has seen similar innovations. “We’ve designed our mowers to have only three grease points, and no daily grease points,” he says. Manufacturers know you have better things to do with your time than grease—like mow and make money.

But not only do you have to service your mower less frequently, the service points are now easier to get to. Some mowers have all major service points of their engines outboard for better accessibility. Others have a limited need for tools—the access covers don’t require tools or wrenches to open, and you can even make some tool-less adjustments.

It’s no longer even difficult to get beneath a mower for maintenance. A handful have an onboard jacking apparatus built in to lift the front of the mower off the ground. Mees likes this feature. “It makes it much easier to change the blades,” he says. Other mowers have special folding decks that electrically raise the cutting deck to a vertical position for this same reason.

Mees also says that an increasing number of manufacturers are color-coding their fuel caps. “We’ve been asking for this feature and manufacturers are responding. For example, if all of their diesel machines have a yellow fuel cap, all of our diesel fuel cans will be yellow. This helps prevent anyone from putting gas into a diesel engine,” he says. Safety can be another concern with riding and standing mowers. These are large machines, and while not necessarily difficult to operate, may be different than what you’re used to with a walk-behind. But manufacturers have made some great strides forward in this area, too. “Our design criterion is safety first,” says Stucky.

A sulky attachment can have either one or two wheels. Photo courtesy: Wright Mfg

Many mowers have a feature that returns the machine to neutral if the operator releases the controls. This stops the machine in an emergency situation. Other mowers are designed to immediately shut off the cutting blades should the operator leave the seat. Realizing the number of landscape companies that employ workers for whom English is a second language, some companies are offering their operator’s manuals in both English and Spanish versions. “The operator’s manual is integral to the product,” says Funk. “We consider it an important safety element.”

Some manufacturers are offering roll-over protection bars. Mees, like many contractors, was at first resistant to the idea. “It makes the machine more difficult to operate because workers aren’t used to it. When the bars first came out, one of our workers ran the bar into a half-lowered garage door. The mower was fine, but the garage door was a mess.” However, Mees has now decided that you can’t be too safe. “When you consider the risk versus the benefits, it’s a benefit. Why not try to be safer?” Brickman feels the same way. “We require all of our operators to wear seatbelts and use roll-over protection,” Barber says.
One in a million You wouldn’t buy a suit without trying it on first and making sure it fits correctly. You should treat buying a mower the same way. It’s a significant investment, and you want to buy one that you’re going to be happy with for the long term. Why spend several thousand dollars on a mower, only to bring it to its first job and find it doesn’t meet your needs?

Slopes, specialized grasses, and tight areas are all important concerns when buying a mower—if you have to deal with any of these on a regular basis, make sure the mower can, too. “See if you can rent one or take it out for the day. Bring it to your problem jobsite—your most difficult property. See how it does. Any mower can do the basics, and a sales guy isn’t going to tell you what it can’t do,” advises Rainey.

The sizes of the properties you maintain should be another big consideration. If you’re mowing multiple acres, you probably want to be able to sit down. A 72" deck can be very productive on these kinds of large areas, especially if the property is flat and wide open. On the other hand, if you’re working on postage stamp-sized lots with narrow gates, a small frame standing mower might be your best bet. You could also use a “sub-compact” zero-turn rider with a 34" or 40" deck. Small mowers like these give you the agility of a walk-behind with the comfort of a rider or stander.

The importance of the dealer you buy from cannot be over-emphasized. “You don’t want a dealer that’s going to sell you a mower and then say, ‘See you later,’” Sundberg says. “You want a dealer who will be your partner and help you with maintenance issues over the long term.”

“All mowers make tall grass shorter,” Mees says. “You shouldn’t focus so much on what brand you’re buying, but on what dealer you’re buying it from. Servicing is key.”

Photo courtesy: The Toro Company

Mees says you need to consider the location of the dealer—is he located near you or all the way across town? What kind of parts inventory does he maintain? What is his ordering policy if you need a part he doesn’t have in stock?

“Some smaller dealers only order parts once a week. If your mower breaks down on a Wednesday, and your dealer only orders on Tuesdays, you could be waiting more than a week for that mower to be up and running again. Meantime, you’re losing money,” Mees says.

If you’re looking to get a great price on a mower, Barber recommends looking into used equipment that’s coming in off of lease. “Talk to your dealer early in the season, around December or January. You may be able to catch significant price savings on lightly used equipment that’s coming in off lease,” he says.

Finally, if the cost of fuel is a concern for you, you might look for a diesel-powered mower. Diesel is a more efficient fuel that can give you more energy output per gallon. While exact numbers are debatable, diesel can be up to a gallon per hour more efficient than gasoline. That means that even if it doesn’t cost less at the pumps than gasoline, you could ultimately be getting more bang for your buck.

That might seem like a lot to think about when investing in a mower, but keeping a few of these points in mind can be well worth it. You’ll end up with a mower that will make you happy—and more productive—for many, many years to come.