As members of the green industry, we all know that there are times when we have more problems to fix than time to fix them in. When we’re running ourselves ragged to service our customers and keep our businesses running, we rely on our mowers to get the job done–the same way, every time. Happily, for the most part they do just that.
A commercial-grade mower will never ask for a raise, or move to Montana, and (with a little weekly maintenance) they usually won’t call in sick, either. So we rely on our machines to be a constant source of value, and accept their little flaws and imperfections as a part of life, as the cost of doing business. But what if we didn’t have to?
How many of us started out with a single mower made for the homeowner with a postage-stamp lot? Do you remember the rush of buying your first commercial machine, and how much better and more efficient it made your business? The difference between using a mower designed for a landscape contractor, and one designed for a small backyard is like night and day.
That’s because all the little differences—the thicker deck, the bigger engine, the vibration dampening— add up to make a big difference. That’s why mower design is so important, because the change that makes your mower a minute faster on one lawn, adds up to a real time savings over the course of a year, let alone the life of the machine. To get a better idea of how these changes happen, and what they mean for us, I talked with three different mower manufacturers about their design approaches.
At Walker Manufacturing in Fort Collins, Colorado, Timothy Cromley, marketing manager, says that the main brainwave which drives his company started decades ago. “Our mower design goes back to the late ’70s, when we started putting the mower deck out in front of the tractor,” he said. “We think it’s a better design.”
A front deck does solve some problems. An operator using a midmount machine has to be able to fit his whole body atop it anywhere he’s cutting. If a property has a lot of trees with low-hanging branches, that could be a problem, and you can forget about mowing under other obstacles like backyard playgrounds or split-rail fencing. You’ll have to handle those with a less efficient walk-behind, or a string trimmer.
Another common efficiency problem for contractors is grass collection. Mowers that collect grass automatically tend to have wider profiles, due to their hoses. Other solutions can take up more time or trailer space. Cromley suggested a third option. “Get a mower with center grass collection, through an internal grass-handling blower,” he said. “That way, you don’t have hoses sticking out of the sides, limiting the width of gate you can go through, and what direction you can cut around fences.”
Many of us can’t mow as fast as we’d like in suburban neighbor hoods, because the tight, fenced-in spaces prevent us from using more efficient ride-on or stand-on machines. Instead, we send walk-behinds on those jobs. Mowers with tighter deck widths and more compact profiles are better at navigating these tricky spaces.
According to Cromley, a compact design also provides another benefit, ergonomically speaking. “When the seats and steering levers are in close proximity to each other, it allows you to operate the machine from a really relaxed position,” he said.
It can be tempting to dismiss ergonomic features as luxury add-ons, but that decision can cost more than you’d expect. Mowing without any comfort features is exhausting work, and tired people work slower, miss details and make mistakes. That can result in repair bills and customer-service problems—which cost you money—but if those mistakes affect matters of health and safety, the cost is higher than anyone can afford.
It might seem trivial, but even measures such as adding a suspended toeboard to a mower can make a big difference. That’s why Daryn Walters, director of marketing for Exmark Manufacturing in Beatrice, Nebraska, says that his company did just that with their latest mower line. “Fatigue doesn’t only come from the normal jostling that your body goes through when mowing ground that isn’t perfectly flat,” he said. “It also comes from vibration.”
Vibration isn’t just hard on operators, it affects machines as well. Any gearhead can tell you that a car with a straight-six engine has lower maintenance costs than an equivalent V6, because the reduced vibration of the inline design means less wear and tear on every part.
There’s only so much you can do to reduce vibration, though, which is perhaps why Walters says that his company’s design process focuses on reducing the complexity of its machines. “Fewer parts equals less complexity; fewer parts equals lower costs; fewer parts equals less repair bills,” he said. “We believe that the fewer parts we include in our designs, the more dependable machines they become.”
When Exmark overhauled its Laser Z line a few years ago, the company reduced the number of parts in its flagship mower by 48 percent. “We were also able to modularize the design,” Walters said.
“So that if someone wanted, for instance, larger tires or a bigger deck, we could include them without completely redesigning the product.” A modular design also makes it easier to replace parts if they break, or if upgrades become available.
An upgrade may sound farfetched, but for Joe Conrad, president of Mean Green Mowers in Hamilton, Ohio, it’s a part of his business model. The mowers he makes all run on electricity, and with all the economic and scientific attention on new batteries being developed by Tesla and others, his options are evolving by leaps and bounds. “We started using lithium batteries four or five years ago,” he said. “Before that, we were using lead-acid, just like you’d see in golf carts.”
That switch was important for Conrad, because runtimes had been a common problem with battery-powered mowers up to that point.
Even the most eco-green landscape contractor might balk at having to buy three large batteries, and still only be able to mow for six hours. Now he’s using the same battery formulation that Tesla is just starting to use in its electric cars. The largest batteries can run upwards of seven hours on a single charge.
There are still hurdles remaining for landscape contractors looking to go electric. There’s a large initial investment required. Also, batteries degrade with time and use. However, there are some federal tax incentives that can defray startup costs. Conrad is working to address the second issue. “We make a lithium battery that can be repaired for one-tenth the cost of buying a new one,” he said.
For all that, electric mowers do offer some unique benefits. The most obvious being that you don’t have to manage fuel. No buying fuel, no transporting fuel, no storing fuel, and no emissions from fuel. In addition, not having a gas-powered engine in a mower cuts down considerably on vibration, and the noise it makes.
“We still have some blade noise, but overall, our noise output is half—or less than half—the noise of a typical gas mower,” said Conrad.
We all know that the loud noise of a mower’s engine can cause hearing loss, but it also increases operator stress levels, and can raise blood pressure. Not to mention that on certain properties, such as schools, hospitals and resorts, using noisy equipment can make a contractor persona non grata.
Of course, there are more direct threats to mower operators than noise. Every year, we hear about mower operators who roll their machines while trying to drive across an embankment, and every year a few people die or are hospitalized because of it. The most common solution is to use walk-behind mowers on steep slopes. If it skids or tips, it’s unlikely to wind up on top of the operator.
In Greenbush, Minnesota, Altoz recently introduced a ride-on design they think will help with the rollover problem. “For contractors who are doing ditch banks and slopes, or are mowing around ponds, tracked vehicles provide low ground pressure and high traction,” says Karl Bjorkman, Altoz’ sales and marketing director. The company just introduced a mower line that has independent tracks in place of the rear wheels, affording a greater safety factor for slope mowing.
Sometimes the problem isn’t how steep the ground is, but what’s on it, specifically, sharp objects. Driving over a nail or a piece of broken glass may not create as expensive a repair as a broken crankshaft, but it will put a mower out of action all the same. Downtime costs money, and every contractor tries to avoid it. Some include tire patch kits in all of their trucks; some inject self-sealing goo into all their tires. Still others buy airless tires. Tracks are just the latest way to avoid the flat-tire blues.
Cutting grass is what we want to do, but it’s important to avoid cutting other things along with it.
There are all kinds of risks inherent to running a machine that spins razor-sharp blades at hundreds of RPMs inches from the ground. Making sure your crews clear each landscape of foreign objects before mowing helps mitigate that risk, but there’ll always be little things that get missed.
Bjorkman’s company lowers that risk by recessing its anti-scalp wheels into the deck. “That puts our wheels closer to the blade, so if you’re going over an object, the wheel is less likely to travel over the object and then let the blade fall down on top of it,” he said. “The wheels are also less prone to hooking on paving stones, bricks or stumps.” That means less accidental root damage, less wear and tear on your blades, and a lower chance of hitting some piece of gravel and shooting it out like a bullet.
Mower improvements can compensate for the drivers, too. We often accept the risk that an inexperienced or inattentive operator will ignore danger signs and run a mower into the ground, but the latest engines with Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) are challenging that assumption. Some of the new support software platforms that come with EFI machines will warn the operator if an engine is starting to redline, or even prevent a blowup by throttling the engine down.
Most insidious of all, there are the problems we’re so used to coping with that we hardly even think of them as problems anymore. No contractor thought the push mower was an issue until the walk-behind was invented. No contractor realized that having a ride-on that could drive faster than its effective mowing speed would be useful, until he saw how it navigated large areas more quickly.
Contractors serving different markets, or in different regions, have different needs. A mower in Tallahassee, Florida, will see more steady, year-round use than one in Buffalo, New York. A company that maintains a lot of municipal properties will almost always benefit from wider decks. On the other hand, a company whose clientele is primarily HOAs will likely want something more compact.
Nobody understands the problems you face with your mowers better than you do, but every manufacturer is trying to do just that.
Mowing is not theoretical physics or philosophy; there is a solution to every problem, and if you’ve got one that’s a thorn in your side, take some time to address it. Look up mower companies, think about their design approaches, and delve deep into the individual benefits and features of each model.
Those little details add up quickly, and while you may chafe at taking another workday to pore over mower minutiae, just remember that it all adds up to real money. When you’re still sitting pretty on your new purchase a few years from now, you’ll be glad you took the time.