Zero-Turn Mowers: Past, Present, Future
A lot goes into a nice looking lawn. A variety of plants, trees and shrubs might enhance the turf, giving the yard a pleasing, garden-like touch. Fences, gateways, walls and fountains are other common fixtures. Yet for all the ornamental beauty such accoutrements add to the lawn, all the more challenges there are in maneuvering around them once it’s time to mow.
In the landscaping business, such obstacles can amount to a lot of lost time, which translates to lost profits, which translates to lost integrity. Given this, it’s no wonder that many landscapers are looking for easier solutions when it comes to mowing lawns.
The zero-turn riding mower is such a solution. Although the technology has been around for years, it wasn’t until the past 10 to 15 years that these fast-mowing machines really stepped into the public spotlight. Zero-turn (ZT) riders are built with a compact, low-profile design that enables them to get in and out of tight spaces in ways that traditional walk-behinds and riding mowers can’t.
It’s their ability to operate with two independent drivers that gives them this maneuverability, allowing users to counter-rotate the wheels of the mower a full 360-degrees to suit whatever obstacles come their way. In their time, ZTs have ballooned from obscurity to mainstream success, as past innovations have made them more accessible, more comfortable, more cost-efficient and overall, more productive for the average contractor. Even today, more innovations continue to be made.
“We have about 18 different zeroturn mowers,” says Mohammed Mosley, division manager for Hermes Landscaping, Lenexa, Kansas. “We’ve been using them for the past 15 years now. They’re definitely more efficient when it comes to mowing.”
According to Ken Raney, advertising manager at Hustler Turf in Hesston, Kansas, “Studies indicate that a modern-day ZT can mow about 20 to 25% faster than a regular lawn tractor on a football field. Add a couple of trees on that field and the time saved goes up to 50%,” he adds.
“It takes a short period of time to get comfortable with the controls and drive system responsiveness. ZT operators are able to utilize faster mowing speeds and cut more grass in less time while leaving the property highly manicured,” says John Cloutier, senior marketing manager at Exmark Manufacturing, Beatrice, Nebraska. “Since their inception, manufacturers continue to introduce larger horsepower engine options for better drive systems, cutting decks, cutting speeds and overall productivity.”
Indeed, ZTs have come a long way. But how did they get to where they are now? And where are they going? What does the future hold for ZTs, and will they become the only type of mower available on the market in the years to come, usurping the competition’s throne as DVDs did to VHS some years ago? To understand the answers to these questions, it makes sense to first put things into perspective.
The history of ZTs
In 1963, John Regier was an employee of the Hesston Corporation, a manufacturer of farm and agricultural equipment. The company had recently engineered a device called the swather, which, propelled by a series of belts, cut hay, alfalfa and other farming materials and laid them out in windrows. The way the belts and pulleys operated allowed for counter- rotation—a process which particularly struck Regier. An idea came to him one day: What if he could incorporate the same technology into lawnmowers?
“So he went home and invented this thing that was able to operate on the zero-turn radius,” says Raney. “He began selling them, but they weren’t really taking off the way he wanted them to. Nobody knew the technology then, so nobody wanted to buy it.” Regier’s patent was eventually sold to Hesston, which would eventually become Excel Industries—parent company of Hustler Turf. The mower was called—appropriately enough—the Hustler.
“We were the first company to offer mowers with zero-turn technology,” says Paul Mullet, president of Hustler Turf. “After Regier sold us the patent, he came to work for us and the rest is history.” In 1974, Dixon ZT developed its own patent that allowed for zeroturning on a mower. The first to coin the term “zero-turn radius,” Dixon’s entrance into the mower market heralded a great change in the industry, and that change pointed in the direction of ZTs. More companies would follow this direction in the years to come.
The genesis of the modern-day mower came when companies began integrating dual hydrostatic drive systems into their ZTs. Instead of operating on a drive system, these mowers were run entirely by hydraulics. The only problem here was that the early hydraulic systems required so much power that operators were unable to mow and drive at the same time. Soon enough, this problem was rectified, and today most ZTs run on pumps.
Advice for the here and now
Today, there are dozens of ZT manufacturers in the United States alone. Some of the current ZTs have electronic fuel injections for better fuel efficiency. Other models include Rollover Protection Systems to improve driver safety, seatbelts and improved operator presence control have become standardized features. Companies such as Ferris Industries use suspension on their machines to allow drivers to take even more advantage of potential ground speed, allowing for a speed of up to 12 miles per hour. Dixie Chopper produced and sold the first propane ZTs.
Perhaps the most important distinction to be made today when it comes to ZTs is the difference between mowers with front-mount decks and mowers with mid-mount decks. Until the 1980s, when midmounts came about, all ZTs were front-mounted. The driver’s seat sat on the outside of a free-floating deck, which could be tilted to allow for additional storage or to give operators easy access to the machine’s blades in case they wanted to sharpen them or perform repairs. Their large, front-cut design allows for accessories such as snow blowers, power brooms, leaf blowers or sprayers to be attached and used during the course of mowing—an especially handy feature for sites that require string trimming.
No matter what type of ZT you’re using, there are circumstances where you’re bound to run into trouble. Backyard gates, which used to be a problem, are no longer so. Ferris recently introduced its compact zero-turn (CZT) that can go through a 36-inch-gate opening.
A no-go area in the ZT operator handbook is on wet turf. The weight of the machine is such that it can damage the lawn—a risk all the greater when driving over wet, softened turf. “ZTs are heavier than a lot of other mowers, so you want to use push mowers in those wet situations so you won’t cause any damage,” says Mosley.
Speed should also be taken into consideration. Going at too high an operating speed can damage the turf or tarnish a nicely patterned cut. “The rougher the terrain, the more you’re required to control your speed,” says Roy Dust, product specialist at Ferris Industries, Munnsville, New York. “If the machine is bouncing, then the deck is bouncing too and you’re going to be all over the place. You’re definitely not going to leave that smooth carpet look on the lawn.”
Slopes can pose a great safety risk to ZT operators. If one of the mower’s wheels happens to lose traction on the slope, the machine might lose balance and topple over, endangering the driver. In these cases, it’s best to play it bettersafe- than-sorry and simply opt for a walk-behind to tackle hills.
For these reasons, a little bit of training is necessary before hopping on a ZT and haphazardly taking it out to your clients’ lawns. After all, you don’t want to ruin their turf, and you certainly don’t want to lose balance and cause damage. “You have to make sure your operators are properly trained,” says Cromley. “I would say the best trained guys typically have a good hour of learning how to use the machine under strict supervision.”
A good maintenance program should be set in place to ensure that your ZTs last for as long as possible. Monthly oil, oil filter and air filter changes are crucial, as well as daily oil pressure checks. “At the end of the season, we evaluate the conditions of all our mowers,” says Mosley. “Based on that, we make the decision as to whether we need any replacements.”
What’s in store?
There’s an increasing number of municipalities and landscape companies that will require that ZT drivers be given some sort of safety course prior to operating the machine. Given this, it’s likely that in the near future all ZT operators will be required to participate in ZT training programs. “It’s good for companies’ liability insurance to show that their operators received proper instruction,” says Dust. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if proper instruction becomes mandatory everywhere.”
Another consideration is the “green” factor. California, in particular, leads the pack so far as alternate energy sources go. And when you look at ZTs’ track record, it should come as no great surprise that these heavy-duty machines do their fair share of gas-guzzling. So with the future of gas-powered engines in question, this begs another question: What are our other options?
Propane and diesel are two options being thrown out there, but perhaps the most prescient talk has been geared towards electricity-powered engines. Companies such as Hustler Turf are already looking towards electric ZTs as the new wave of the industry. “It’s definitely where technology is headed,” says Raney, whose company has already come out with an electric ZT called the Zeon. “Currently, the Zeon has a run time of 80 minutes, which will cut almost up to an acre and a half. Charging it back up will typically take about 16 hours, although contractors with a heavy workload can purchase an optional quick-charger that charges in four hours.”
With their short battery life proving to be more trouble than they’re worth for some, electric ZTs still have a long way to go. Industry experts predict that the technology will get better as time passes, allowing for more time between battery charges. And, as other companies look into manufacturing electric ZTs, you can expect their high costs to go down. “It will be a lot like the computer industry,” claims Raney. “Every year you’ll get better, faster products. These ZTs will have quicker run times and quicker charge times in the years to come.”
Another thing to look forward to in the industry is increased comfort. Ferris Industries’ brand new product for 2009, the Evolution, is expected to set new ZT standards for sitting. With a driver’s seat that hangs directly over the mower deck in the upright position, drivers are essentially bolted directly to the floor. “With the Evolution, the operator actually becomes part of the machine,” says Dust. “He’s in the position where he’s sharing the weight of his body and distributing it on more points that he otherwise would. I’ve ridden the machine and it’s unbelievable. The comfort factor of that position is better than any upright seat I’ve sat on in my life.”
Evolution comes in a compact size, smaller than the typical midmount ZT, so it’s more capable of getting into tighter spaces. Its size also allows you to cram more ZTs into your trailers. “I think other companies are going to follow suit with similar products,” says Dust. “We already know that the dealers are behind it 100%, so we’re expecting it to take off at a fast rate.”
Although the mower industry has certainly turned its eyes on ZTs these last several years, don’t count traditional mowers out entirely. As previously discussed, there are still circumstances such as slopes and gated yards for which other types of mowers might be better suited. “Landscape professionals need to know that there is not really one type of mower that is perfect for all clients or properties,” says Cloutier. “You would never pound a nail in with a screwdriver, so why would a contractor expect one machine to meet all of his needs?”
But more and more, ZTs are becoming indispensible tools for staying competitive in this industry.