Jan. 1 2008 12:00 AM

the time spent on maintenance is one of your wisest investments


When winter begins to loosen its hold and spring is in the air, a contractor’s thoughts turn to one thing: mowing. Lawn care is the granddaddy of maintenance services, and mowers are its favorite child. Yet whether you own one mower or 100, your services aren’t worth their salt if you can’t cut quickly and professionally.

Therefore, it’s important that you not only invest in a good piece of equipment but also take the proper steps to ensure that you get the most mileage out of it. Mower maintenance cannot be ignored or performed carelessly. That favorite child needs a lot of attention and TLC. If you establish and stick to a regular maintenance schedule, you’ll cut many of the risks associated with running any piece of equipment. You’ll also get the maximum return on investment (ROI), which is great news considering that a zero-turn mower can cost as much as $12,000. Benjamin Franklin wasn’t kidding when he said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Maintenance begins before buying

It seems like maintenance doesn’t really come into play until the mower has been used several times, but maintenance should ideally drive the buying decision. In this respect, buying a mower is a bit like buying a vehicle. No one wants a vehicle that will quit 500 miles down the road or is difficult and costly to service, nor do you want a mower that always needs repairs. When you start shopping around for a mower, there are a few things to keep in mind regarding maintenance. Initial cost shouldn’t be the sole determinant of your purchase. Instead, compare things such as accessibility among models. If you need to replace a belt, say, in the middle of a job, you don’t want your workers to have to dismantle half of the mower first.

Tony Estus, owner of ACE Lawn and Landscape in Louisville, Kentucky, and plant manager for GIZMOW Power Lawn Equipment, says he looks at several factors. “If the engine is liquid-cooled, is the radiator easy to clean? If it’s air-cooled, is there good air flow? How many grease points are there? How easy is it to sharpen the blades? Sharp blades are a must in this industry; they’re part of your reputation.”

“I always check the spindle design,” adds Jeff Huncilman, president of GIZMOW in New Albany, Indiana. “Is it weak or poorly designed? Also important are the bushings, bearings, deck thickness and whether I can pull anything off with my hands. We make sure that none of our products have parts that can be easily pulled off. If you can pull anything off with your bare hands, you might as well leave it off because it’ll come off eventually.” Mock maintenance on a demo-model will give you a feel for how difficult the upkeep will be. This is a good time to familiarize yourself with the gear boxes, transmission, filters, belts and various lubrication points. Anything that seems overly complicated at first glance can prove to be trouble for your crew in the middle of the day.

Designing a schedule that works

Once you’ve found your dream mower, it’s time to get to work, right? Not so fast. Before you slice that first blade of grass, you want a detailed maintenance schedule in place. However, saying you’ll maintain your mower is easy, as we all know. Remembering to do it is another thing.

One answer is to build consistency. Just as your body acclimates to waking up at a certain time every day, if you resolve to always take care of maintenance on Monday mornings at 9 a.m., for example, it will become second nature. Bob Nelson of Sebert Landscaping Company in Bartlett, Illinois, explains that Sebert’s crews record their maintenance tasks on a simple chart. “Each page contains the crew’s number at the top and the last three digits of each unit’s serial number. All the crews have to do is check off maintenance items in four places, log the hours the machines have been used and note the date on which maintenance was performed,” he says.

Another idea is to purchase business management software and track equipment usage and preventative maintenance through your computer. Some software also comes with a module similar to a Palm Pilot that will automatically remind you when certain tasks are due. This is a convenient method of monitoring your equipment.

Estus uses an electronic tracking device that attaches to his mowers and acts as a watchdog. “I can find out who’s operating the equipment and how long it has been mowing,” he says. A satellite will transmit the information to him wirelessly, which is particularly helpful as he negotiates his jobs with GIZMOW and his landscaping company. Estus then performs most of the necessary maintenance. Another way to devise a schedule, according to Fred Fugett with Exmark Manufacturing Company in Beatrice, Nebraska, is to adopt a timeless principle: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! In all seriousness, Fugett says he first looks at a machine to see what’s wrong with it. “I identify the problem areas and work on maintaining them,” he explains. “I ask, ‘Is the mower going through a lot of blades or belts?’ If not, then I tell the contractor to keep doing whatever he or she has been doing. Not having problems means that something’s going right.”

Whatever system you devise, make sure you stick to it. If you cannot, make someone else accountable. Jim Hilburn, national service manager for Dixie Chopper in Coatesville, Indiana, ties the importance of maintenance to safety. “A lack of maintenance can cause damage not only to the machine but also to property and, worse, to people. Every year we hear about unfortunate lawn mower accidents that could have been prevented if the mower had been maintained properly.” A strict maintenance schedule will go a long way towards preventing this. Of course, you’ll have trained your employees to use your equipment, but the best training in the world can’t stand up to a part that’s been allowed to wear or loosen.

The maintenance game

After your mower’s long winter’s nap, you’ll need to take specific steps to get it ready for the spring season. A basic makeover for warmer weather should include at least the following:

 First, remove the spark plugs to check for corrosion or wear. Clean the spark plugs if they’re still intact, but use as little water as possible. Water and detergents can lead to corrosion problems. If the spark plugs show signs of age, purchase new ones. When you replace the spark plugs, use a little anti-seize compound so that it’s easier to remove them next time.

 Vibration can loosen nuts and bolts considerably. It’s a good idea to re-tighten any that have released.

 Check all belts, pulleys and idlers for wear and replace if needed.

 The fuel tank needs to be drained, and the gas filter should be replaced. Check the date on the gas can before refilling. Oxygenated fuels have a shelf life of 30 days.

 Clean up the air filter housing and air filter.

 A fresh lawnmower deck will help performance and prevent lawn diseases from spreading more than normal. Once you’ve cleaned the deck, wash the choke and throttle and lubricate all of the fittings.

 Sharpen or switch out any blades as necessary.

 Charge the battery and check the terminals. To prevent corrosion, apply grease to the posts.

 For air-cooled engines, remove residue from the cooling fins. For water-cooled engines, check the coolant level. If needed, top off the reservoir.

 Make sure your belts are in working order. Tighten any that are loose. Replace those that display cracking or ply separations.

 Lastly, change the oil and filter. Always use the oil recommended by the engine manufacturer to adequately lubricate the engine. Following the post-winter maintenance, regular maintenance on your mowers will vary depending on how many hours your crews log and the type of terrain that’s being mowed. Still, several contractors and manufacturers have recommended that these actions should form the bare minimum of any maintenance schedule:

At least once per month, or even every 100 hours, change the oil. Replace the oil filter weekly.

Clean the air filter weekly to let the engine breathe. Air filters should be replaced every month or so.

Grease the machine’s lubrication points weekly, or daily if it’s a high-use mower.

Check belt tension monthly.

Verify that the blades are sharp and free of cracks every day. Change blades weekly or bi-weekly as needed.

After you inspect the blades, look for any loose hardware that could cause a part to fall off.

Also, check that no debris is lodged in either the engine or drive train to prevent a fire.

Every six months, change the hydrofluids.

Monitor the tires for wear and tear. Air pressure must be checked routinely. Improper tire pressure can affect the height and quality of the cut.

Visually inspect the mower regularly for damage.

Performing these actions regularly will help keep your mower looking and running its best. It also helps to always adhere to the manufacturer’s recommendations. When a manufacturer claims that a mower should last for about 3,000 hours, that estimate is made with the assumption that its recommendations are being followed. Not using a mower accordingly creates situations in which damage is possible or even likely. “Maintenance is the life of the machine,” says Hilburn.

Yet even with the most diligent adherence to a schedule, damage and wear and tear are as inevitable as weather-related delays. When even the best-laid plans go awry, you may find yourself stuck with downtime. One thing you can do to minimize downtime is to cultivate a good relationship with the shop that services your equipment, assuming that you don’t have an in-house crew. Some shops will loan you another mower if they can’t return yours the same day.

Another thing that can minimize downtime is making your crew leaders proactive when it comes to maintenance. “Trust them and get them involved,” advises Estus. “They are the eyes in the field.” A crew leader who feels comfortable reporting wear or damage will be more apt to do so rather than trying to cover it up or waiting so long that the machine cannot be replaced.

Furthermore, extra belts, spark plugs, an air tank and extra spindles are handy to keep on the truck. That way the old parts can be swapped out quickly for new ones. Extra springs can make a world of difference, too, says Fugett. “A spring costs $5. Without one, your $10,000 mower won’t move across the ground. It’s worth the investment.” You already know how much time can be saved if you carry extra gas cans to fill up the mowers when they run low; the same is true for parts.


So long, friend

At some point, though, you and your mower will have to part ways. It can be tough to determine whether a mower is ready for greener pastures, but there are a few guidelines that can help. “After two years, a mower pretty much pays for itself,” says Estus. “But if you wait more than five years, the resale value goes down.”

Hilburn has this to offer in regards to repairing versus replacing. “If the problem is due to wear, heat, dirt or lack of maintenance, go ahead and replace the part. You’ll have to do it eventually. Or if it’s something like a spring that can be replaced without problem or something that has a one in 100 chance of failure, a repair is a better bet. But keep in mind that if it’s an engine or pump, for example, there are several other things that can break as well. And if you haven’t maintained the mower, you’ll continue to experience problems. At that point, it may be better to get a new mower.”

When the time comes for you to replace your mower, the process will seem less daunting if you know that you can get the maximum amount of use for your dollar by sticking to a regular maintenance schedule. At the end of the day, so much more than just your employees are riding on your mowers. Your customers, your reputation, and even your business are too, making the time spent on maintenance one of your wisest investments.