Your day in the field is done and it was a long one. You, your crew, and your mowers have logged a lot of hours. You know it’s time for some equipment maintenance but it’s late. It probably won’t hurt to skip it this once. Besides, there’s always tomorrow… STOP! Don’t even think about it. Neglecting or postponing routine mower maintenance is one of the most costly mistakes you can make. If basic maintenance doesn’t fit seamlessly into your company’s schedule, there’s something wrong. It’s time to re-evaluate your commitment to one of your biggest investments.

"Maintenance should never, never be ignored, delayed or rushed through,” says Bob Tomasek, Technical Support Manager for Walker Manufacturing Company. "When it's time for scheduled maintenance you need to do it no matter what the situation. Oil and filters are cheaper to replace than an engine."

There is no question that neglected maintenance can lead to costly repairs. And as Jim Hilburn, National Service Manager for Dixie Chopper, points out, the cost of labor and parts is only a portion of the total cost. “Every hour a mower sits in the shop is another hour of lost revenue.”

Photo courtesy: Toro

Properly performed maintenance keeps your mower working for you so you can reap more profit out of your investment. Mike Anderson, Technical Service Representative for Toro’s Landscape Contractor Business, knows this first-hand. In addition to his work for Toro, Anderson runs his own part-time landscape contracting business. He credits his commitment to maintenance with the longevity of his mowers. “I have a lot of machines that have logged a whole lot of hours in very rigorous conditions. I have a religious maintenance schedule and I’m still operating the same equipment I started with seven years ago.”

Proper mower maintenance takes a commitment on many levels. You need to choose mowers you can service easily, create a maintenance schedule you can stick to, and hire and train employees who will respect your equipment as you do.

It all starts with the mower
Effective maintenance begins well before you ever start the mower’s engine. It begins when you are selecting new equipment. When making new purchase decisions, experienced contractors factor in the time and costs of maintenance over the long term. They also consider whether the mower’s maintenance needs are a good logistical fit for their company.

“All too often new purchases are driven by the price of the equipment,” says Tomasek. But purchase price is only a part of total equipment cost. “The money you save up front may have to be spent later on additional time required to do maintenance or on parts that do not give satisfactory life. Before buying, ask a few questions: How hard is it to replace the belts? How accessible are the blades? How accessible are the gearboxes, transmission, and filters? How many shields and bars need to be removed to perform needed maintenance? How often do belts or chains need to be adjusted or are they self adjusting?”

Performing rear maintenance. Photo courtesy: Grasshopper

Again, factor in down time. “Consider how easy it will be to do maintenance in the field,” says Ray Garvey, Communications Director for The Grasshopper Company. “Having to haul a unit back to the shop for minor adjustments in the middle of the day can be quite costly. If minor repairs or adjustments, such as belt tensioning, can be made easily in the field with standard tools, then downtime is kept to a minimum.”

Jennifer Loran of Ferris Industries says, “One of the most important things a contractor can do when purchasing new equipment is to try some basic maintenance on a demo model. Take a look under the hood – or in a lot of cases under the seat – to see how easy it is to access key points.”

Garvey agrees. “Prior to investing in a commercial mower, we challenge professional operators to take a close look at the maintenance requirements of the equipment. Physically locate and count all the lubrication points, for example, and take note of how often you’ll need to change transmission and gear box oils. There can be a vast difference in the number of lubrication points between machines. This difference correlates directly with labor costs and maintenance costs down the road. If there are too many lubrication points, something will probably get overlooked and neglected.”

“You should also factor in the maintenance and repair costs of the features you’re considering,” says Hilburn. “Some features can save you time and increase operator comfort but they can also increase the potential for failure and be costly to repair.” A streamlined look is another thing that may be attractive at purchase time but that can surprise contractors when it comes time to service. “A mower may have the look of a Dodge Viper but that look may actually hinder its serviceability. Remember, all that stuff needs to come off.”

“Ease of blade maintenance is easy to overlook,” says Garvey. “Not only sharpening but also changing blades to handle various mowing conditions. At the end of the day, it’s too easy to leave a dull blade or the wrong blade on the machine if the mower deck is too hard to get under. If a deck can be raised for accessibility, blade sharpening will tend to get done more often.”

Simplicity is key, according to Hilburn. Easy service and maintenance helps ensure that the work will get done. “One of the basic tenets of Dixie Chopper is KISS or Keep It Simple Stupid. We emphasize simple designs that are reliable and easy to comprehend. You don’t have to be a trained technician to know how to install a belt. It doesn’t take an hour of removing shrouds and shields to get to an oil filter for example.”

A Toro decal gives maintenance information

“Contractors want ‘no excuse’ serviceability,” says Garvey. “They want service points that are so easy to access, and need to be accessed so infrequently, that there’s no excuse for not getting the service done. In other words, you arrive at more cooperation among mechanics and operators when the maintenance is easier to perform.”

Instructions that are easy to interpret and follow also go a long way says Anderson. “For example, Toro does a great job on the decaling of their machines. Decals give details on the maintenance intervals and location of all lubrication points. This is a very good way of laying out the information and it’s always with the machine.”

A schedule that works
Equipment that can be maintained quickly and easily is half the battle, but a schedule that fits with your company’s working style is just as important. How do you create a schedule that works? Obviously it starts with the owner’s manual but it doesn’t end there.

“Make sure you put yourself on a service schedule you can stick with,” says Roy Dust, Product Specialist for Ferris Industries. “Stick to the schedule even if you don’t actually log all the hours recommended between service. The actual hours aren’t as important as getting on a regular maintenance schedule. For example, I used to run cutting crews for the New York State Parks Department. When I did this, all the machines were serviced every Friday afternoon, period, no matter how many hours they logged. I never had to replace an engine.”

“A maintenance chart and a service log can be valuable tools in a contractor’s maintenance program,” Rob Dewey, Chief Engineer for Woods Equipment. “The chart serves as a reminder of service intervals and also may list part numbers for commonly replaced items, such as air filters. The service log shows when the maintenance work actually gets done.”

“Set up a schedule based on the manufacturer’s information and make it part of the every day schedule,” he continues. “These items must be checked every day before the unit is started. These items are done every Monday, or the first of every month, or the last day of the season, etc.” A schedule that’s consistent and easy to follow removes room for error and excuses.

Solve little problems now; avoid big headaches later
Make sure you have a holistic approach to your maintenance routine. Contractors who are vigilant about tending to basic maintenance issues sometimes neglect less obvious problems.

Checking the radiator screen. Photo courtesy: Grasshopper

“Preventive maintenance is like a religion,” says Tomasek. “If it's going to be effective it needs to be followed fully. I've never understood the rationale behind trying to clean and reuse an air filter, for example. A pinhole in the filter can cost thousands of dollars if you have to replace the engine. Another area that is often overlooked is worn pulleys. Belt tension cannot be increased enough to compensate for badly worn pulleys. This results in belt slippage that leads to poor drive or poor quality of cut.”

“The most important maintenance items are those that may cause safety problems,” says Dewey. “Maintenance items related to safety are usually something that owners just don't think of when considering how to keep the machine running and generating a profit. Inspect blades for cracks or wear daily and replace them if there are any signs of problems. Inspect for loose hardware that may allow items to fall off. Inspect the engine and drive train for debris that may cause a fire. An accident related to poor maintenance can make the cost of the machine seem minor.”

“Keep blades sharpened and more importantly, keep them balanced,” says Dust. “A lot of guys will skip the balancing and end up taking bearings out of spindles. A four dollar pyramid balancer is a cheap investment, even if it only saves you one spindle repair.”

“Another area that too many people miss is the clutch,” he says. “Check the adjustment on an electric clutch. An electric clutch is very expensive to replace.”

Garvey points out that not using equipment can be just as hard on it as using it. “Winter storage can actually be hard on a commercial mower if the storage maintenance isn’t done properly. Over the winter, fuel can gum up carburetion systems, tires can go flat, and batteries can go dead. Plan on spending time at the end of the mowing season on preventative maintenance to keep these things from happening, or consider buying a unit that can continue working after the mowing season for snow removal and fall clean-up projects.”

Who’s doing the work?
Keep in mind who will be doing the maintenance for your company and how the maintenance requirements fit in with the training and commitment of the people doing the service.

Tomasek believes that a streamlined approach to maintenance reduces room for errors. “I don't believe that mowing crews should be responsible for doing the maintenance work,” he says. “Too many hands in the pie can lead to poor results. Crew leaders should be responsible for making sure the maintenance is done at the designated time. A contractor with multiple crews will get the best results from placing one or two people in charge of doing the actual maintenance procedures.”

“Make sure you or someone who is very familiar with the manual regularly covers the maintenance schedule with operators,” says Dewey. “Have the operator read the manual prior to using a new machine. Have someone read it to them if necessary. You can make training part of the purchase agreement with the dealer when you buy a new machine. Many manufacturers offer training videos for maintenance and safety.”

“Proper maintenance affects virtually every aspect of the machine and its performance, including quality of cut, quality of the ride, and longevity of all the parts,” says Garvey. “Clean, well-maintained equipment is easy to spot and reflects well on the company’s image.” A commitment to maintenance will help ensure that your mower…and your company will be around for a long time.