Equipment Management: Zero-turn mowers

Just a few years ago, zero-turn lawn mowers were considered aspirational machines by landscapers. That’s no longer the case. Today, many equipment OEMs and landscapers consider zero-turn mowers to be must-have machines for competitive lawn maintenance companies.

Ride-on lawn mowers have been around for decades, but the zero-turn design was significant in that it took advantage of hydrostatic drive advances and applied them to mower design. The result was a highly comfortable and productive machine, thanks to the precise metering of hydraulic fluid through high-pressure gear pumps. These drive motors gave operators infinite control over steering functions, combining precision with increased mowing and transit speeds.

At the same time, says Gilbert Pena, business to business manager with John Deere, there were other, less professional benefits to hydrostatic mower drives. “They’re fun machines to operate,” he notes. “So you’re not bored when you’re running one of these machines because it’s not slow or tedious work the way running other mowers can be.”

But fun alone doesn’t explain why a zero-turn mower is regarded as a must-have item for landscapers. The answer, says Tim Peter, value stream director for Ariens-Gravely, is rooted in basic economics. “It’s not unusual for landscapers who switch to zero-turn mowers to see increases of 50 percent in productivity,” he notes. “You have ease of use, ease of training and operator comfort, all of which combine to make these highly effective machines.”

“Compared to other types of machines – conventional ride-on or hydrostatic walk-behind mowers, or compact tractors with mowers – zero-turn machines are capable of higher production times and not as cumbersome in tight surroundings,” notes Pena. “Walk-behind mowers used to be the entry-level machine for landscapers. Now, even one-man lawn maintenance operations have walk-behind mowers strictly as trimming machines or for mowing berms.”

Finally, the simple law of supply and demand has worked in favor of landscapers, making it much easier – and cheaper – to purchase a zero-turn mower than it was just five years ago. Then, there were few companies manufacturing zero-turn mowers. So the basic unit price was much higher. Today, many companies produce these machines. As a result, prices have decreased and lawn maintenance contractors can choose options or purchase based on price like never before.

Slow and steady beats fast and furious
Unit speed is what really sets a zero-turn machine apart from other mowers. Speed translates into higher productivity. You finish jobs faster, which means you can do more jobs in a day, week or month’s time. And that’s the real reason competitive landscapers value zero-turn mowers so highly.

But speed is not an end-all solution for lawn maintenance professionals. Speed also has drawbacks that must be accounted for when working with zero-turn mowers. And ultimately, speed is a production consideration that has to be balanced out by you, the operator of the mower.

On the one hand, speed can be a valuable asset when mowing a flat, open lawn or returning the mower to the trailer once a job is complete. But during mowing operations, Pena says speed has to be tempered with a quality cut. He says a lot of landscapers become enamored with high-speed mowing and purchase mowers based on performance figures. “But can you really mow at those speeds?” he asks. “You have to make sure beforehand. Remember that mowing speed is actually determined by the physical characteristics of the property. If you’re on uneven terrain, or you’ve got extra- thick grass ahead of you, you’re going to have to slow down.”

Not only that, but if you’re serious about retaining customers and building your business, you have to leave a good cut in your wake. Remember that the steering tires on a zero-turn do not articulate. The mower changes direction by slowing down and/or speeding up individual drive wheels – skidding them. If you turn a mower too aggressively or at too high a speed, you could damage a customer’s turf. And that’s never a good thing. Another problem is mowing too fast can result in an uneven cut – particularly on uneven terrain. If that happens, you’re going to have to go back and double-cut the property to deliver the service your customer expects. And nothing kills lawn maintenance productivity like a double-cut. The key, Pena notes, is to find the perfect production speed – essentially a balance between high productivity and quality work. Once you know where that sweet spot is, your production times will escalate accordingly.

A diesel engine is tough. But do you really need one?
Recently, zero-turn mowers have become more specialized thanks to the introduction of small diesel engines. Regardless of their size, diesel engines have a number of features that make them an attractive option on zero-turns – chiefly their high power output and superior lugging capability. Diesel engines are inherently more powerful at lower engine rpms than gasoline engines are. This gives them the ability to power their way through wet or thick grass without stalling out. Another attractive trait is that diesel engines are tough. They are able to withstand punishing, low-torque applications better than gasoline engines. As a result, they can be counted on to outlast all the other components on a zero-turn mower in most lawn maintenance applications.

But there are some drawbacks to diesel engines – namely price and fuel type. Price is the biggest obstacle, particularly for entry-level contractors. “Generally speaking, gas engines are much more affordable than diesel units,” Pena says. “And while it’s true that diesels are more durable engines, if you’re not working in heavy-duty mowing applications, a diesel engine may not be worth the extra money because the mower itself just isn’t going to give you the same durable service as the engine powering it will.”

One new option Ariens-Gravely’s Tim Peter points to is the introduction of small, liquid-cooled gasoline engines into the zero-turn mower market. “These engines are quieter than air-cooled, gasoline engines, but offer more power,” he says. “In many applications, they are a viable, low-cost, alternative to diesel engines and a nice step up from air-cooled units.”

Another potential problem is the introduction of a new fuel type into your company’s operations. The vast majority of mowers and small equipment is gasoline-powered. If you’re set to fuel and maintain gasoline engines, you need to ask yourself how much of a burden it will be to add a diesel machine to your fleet. “If you’re already running compact tractors or other types of diesel-powered equipment, adding a diesel mower to your fleet is going to be simple,” Pena notes. “Otherwise, you have to consider the impact adding an ‘oddball’ machine will have on your daily operations.”

Once you’ve settled on a fuel type, you need to determine your next two performance priorities: horsepower and width of cut. Most entry-level zero-turn machines feature gasoline engines and a 48-inch-wide cutting deck, according to Pena. “This is a good, all-around machine, although it will not give you the quick turnaround times a 60-inch cut machine will on small mowing jobs,” he notes. “But you need higher horsepower to run larger decks, or if you plan to collect clippings or mulch with the mower.”

“You can run a 35-horsepower V-Twin air-cooled engine for a very reasonable price,” notes Matt Gersib, Swanson-Russell Associates, the PR agency for Briggs & Stratton Commercial Power. “These are fast, powerful mowers. But what you have to make sure when you’re sizing a potential mower up is that its deck and cutting system have been designed in a way that allows them to take full advantage of this additional power. If you don’t match the cutting system up well with the horsepower, you end up wasting power trying to push an inefficient deck through the grass or lose power because the cutting system can’t process grass clippings through the deck in an efficient manner.”

Finally, says Peter, you need to think of yourself and your employees and consider the ergonomic benefits a particular machine has to offer. “Larger diameter tires are an excellent choice because they give you an inherently better ride and offer more efficient drive characteristics,” Peter says. “If you’re an owner-operator and will run the mower yourself, check into options like suspension seats, floating front axles and hydraulic deck lifts to make operating the mower easier and more productive.”

Control layout is also something you consider. “You want comfortable controls from a day-to-day livability standpoint,” says Gersib. “The fact that several manufactures have moved throttle, choke and other engine controls up instead of placing them between your legs is a more convenient location and is safer, especially on a zero-turn mower since you tend to keep your hands on the control bars when operating the machine.”

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Landscapers use a variety of attachments for doing everything from snow removal to jobsite cleanup, and regardless of how often they are used, every landscaper has a favorite attachment.
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