Though 2020 is a challenging year full of questions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it could prove to deliver a busier warm weather season than ever for the landscaping and irrigation industries. Many businesses continue to operate, with some industries being busier than ever.
The pandemic doesn’t stop grass from growing, and playing catch-up after months of overgrowth can be twice as hard on your equipment if you don’t stick to a regular maintenance schedule. During the busy season, equipment maintenance is more important than ever.
Prepping heavy-use equipment
During spring cleanup season, mowers and other gas-powered equipment such as backpack blowers are all put through their paces during this time of fast growth and lush greens. The use of edgers, hedge trimmers and string trimmers also ramps up as the season progresses. Chain saws can come into play for areas with storm cleanup efforts. As the weather turns warmer and the busy season blows up, you do not want to be unavailable due to equipment breakage. A regularly implemented and clearly communicated maintenance schedule is the best way for you and your team to prevent downtime.How do you prepare your equipment? One of the best things you can do before things kick into super-
high gear is to read the manuals for all of your equipment. While operations for modern equipment are simplified to get started right away, you’ll extend the life of all your equipment if you sit down and read the operating manual. This helps you understand not only proper usage but also proper maintenance for the longest life.
Another quick tip is to walk every area before mowing, says Brian Schoenthaler, marketing specialist for The Grasshopper Company, Moundridge, Kansas.
“Unseen objects can do serious damage to your mower and to other property or persons,” he says.
Equipment maintenance best practices
While the maintenance schedule provided by equipment manufacturers is “suggested,” Lenny Mangnall, product manager at Exmark, Beatrice, Nebraska, takes it a step further. “The suggested schedule is the maximum time you want to wait,” says Mangnall. “Do the proper preventive maintenance on or preferably before the recommended interval, not after.”On most equipment, there are no indicator lights to tell you something’s wrong, such as on a car, says Kurt Anderson, customer care manager at The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota.
“Small maintenance prevents big problems,” he says.
Landscapers are putting many hours on equipment every day, for 32 weeks or more in a year, says Schoenthaler.
“Mowing 1,000 hours a year is comparable to putting 100,000 miles on a car that runs at 100 mph the whole time,” he says.
While you should always refer to your manual for specific schedules, below are some suggested best practices by calendar days for best performance and maximum uptime throughout the busy season. Customize or alter your list to be hours-based if that makes more sense for your business.
- Visually inspect the entire machine.
- Check oil and gas levels.
- Visually inspect belts for both proper tension and wear.
- Check for evidence of leaks or damage.
- Grease wheel bearings, if suggested in the equipment manual.
- Check tires for damage and proper pressure.
- Clean off any dirt or debris. Use air, such as a leaf blower, not water or steam.
- Check blades for damage. Replace if needed.
- Test safety features to ensure they work properly.
- Change oil.
- Carefully inspect belts and adjust or replace if necessary.
- Inspect, repair or replace tires.
- Inspect filters. Never try to clean filters; change them out when needed or suggested.
- Check blades and belts for wear; replace if necessary.
- Grease gearboxes of string trimmers and edgers.
- Grease drive shafts.
- Inspect and service or replace all filters.
Trouble warning signs
The key to spotting trouble before it kills your productivity is utilizing four of your five senses. Be sure to have open lines of communication with everyone on your team to make sure they feel comfortable speaking up about any problems with equipment. Heading off your problems at the pass can save you a lot of money, even if it means temporary delays.
- Smell: You should know how the engine smells when the machine is working properly and at full capacity. Don’t ignore things like a burning smell.
- See: Your eyes are one of your most important tools, especially when equipment is running loud. Not only do you need to visually inspect your equipment thoroughly before use every single time, but watch for things that don’t look right during usage, like smoke or erratic movement. Also, look at the work your equipment is doing. A downturn in cut quality often means the equipment needs some help.
- Hear: Be familiar with what your equipment sounds like when working properly both at idle and maximum speeds. Don’t ignore hiccups, sputtering, louder-than-normal noises, or sudden or gradual power loss.
- Touch: Your equipment should start consistently. If it becomes much harder to start, that’s an early warning sign something is wrong. Similarly, while landscaping can be bumpy, high-impact work, understand what the machine feels like when it’s running properly compared to unusual vibrations or movements.
During the busy season, you’re in full grind mode, continuously working to avoid repairs that will kill your productivity. Now is not the time to be unavailable or to have to stop mid-job to take equipment in for service. Equipment knows no clock, so if things break when the dealer is closed, you need to be ready to go to make repairs on the fly.
Keeping these items on hand will reduce time spent waiting for repairs.
- Spare belts. Deck belt failures are one of the most common mower issues.
- Spare tires. Also consider a tire plug/sealant kit, and a Tweel or other nonpneumatic tire replacement.
- Spare blades. “Always replace blades in sets. Never replace just one blade,” says Schoenthaler.
- New line for string trimmers.
- Air filters.
Talk to your dealer or even the manufacturer for their advice on what you should have on hand to round out your emergency repair kit. They are there to help you and may even be available after hours if needed. You might also consider developing a friendly network with other contractors. When the dealer is closed, a buddy could help you out of a bind if they have the equipment you need to stay operational. Similarly, if you maintain your equipment to peak condition, you could help someone else out. You never know when a trusted network can come in handy.No matter how prepared you are for emergencies, sticking to a preventive maintenance schedule will avoid many problems down the line.
“The best way to stay ahead of the curve is to establish and follow regular maintenance intervals,” says Nick Minas, product manager, John Deere, Moline, Illinois. “This will save any professional landscape contractor hours of stress and headaches.”
One of the easiest but most important aspects of equipment maintenance is all about people. Communication and honesty are key components of continuous operations, particularly if you have different people working on different jobs with rotating equipment operators. Create a culture at your company where safety and properly working equipment are more important than just productivity, where nobody feels they have to continue using equipment that isn’t working right or seems off. “Communicate any equipment issues with your crew,” says Jeff Taylor, support service supervisor at Stihl Inc., Virginia Beach, Virginia. “It is important to bring up issues before they get worse. Catching problems early allows your team to get ahead of repairs (before they affect uptime).”
Close out smart
At the end of a busy season, you and your crew are often tired and weary from long, busy days and back-to-back jobs. This is a crucial time to fight the urge to slack off and wrap up all loose ends with proper preparation of your equipment for cold weather storage. Smart end-of-season activities can mean a much smoother beginning of the season next year.“At the start of the season, you check for safety, smooth operations and maximum uptime,” says Walt Rose, national sales manager for commercial products with Husqvarna. “(This) is when most landscapers will replace all heavy-wear parts and decide if they are going to keep the mower or trade it in for a new unit. Heavy-wear parts include loose controls, mower blades and other parts that receive a lot of wear-and-tear during daily use.”
As busy months wind down and colder weather approaches, you’ll repeat things you’ve done for maintenance throughout the season — don’t overlook them. Even if you just checked or replaced a component, idle months and cold weather can take an unexpected toll on your equipment. As Rose puts it, “At the end of the season, protect your investment by winterizing your equipment.”
Regular, routine maintenance as suggested by the manufacturer, and developed alongside your dealer, is the first key step to a smooth busy season. Starting smart at the top of the season and closing thoroughly and carefully at the end by following best practices for clean machines and safe operations can lengthen a machine’s operations and minimize your downtime. Always use your senses to continuously monitor equipment for anything that seems off, and never ignore problems once they become apparent. Keep communications open with your team so nobody feels pressured to skip something important or ignore a warning sign. These tips will ensure you can grind through the busy months and rest easy in the offseason.
Nina McCollum is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and can be reached at email@example.com.