A victim of ever-advancing technology, the walk-behind power mower – itself a wonder compared to the old reel-type rotary mower – is often overshadowed by faster and more complex ride-on mowers.
But walk-behind lawn mowers are vital tools for any grounds maintenance contractor or landscaper working today. Overall, 21-inch models are the most popular nationally; however, mower preferences vary widely by region, reports Edric Funk, product manager, Landscape Contractor Equipment, Toro. “We sell many 21-inch, heavy-duty mowers in big city markets where landscapers service small properties,” he says. “The good thing, of course, is that landscapers can easily fit a smaller mower onto their equipment trailers. So they make handy specialty machines for areas or lawns too small for ride-on units to handle.”
Because small mowers are so ubiquitous, many landscapers fall prey to temptation and attempt to save money by buying a consumer-grade unit for their businesses. That’s a mistake, says Roy Dust, mower product specialist, Ferris Industries. “I hate to call them ‘throw-away’ mowers, but that’s really what they are,” Dust explains. “I’ve been talking to landscapers for more than 30 years, and many of them have learned this lesson the hard way. They buy a consumer-grade mower hoping it will get them through a season. But that mower is designed to cut a residential yard two or three times a week. Not multiple lawns and properties every day. And when the mower fails, the landscaper discovers that the lost revenue from one job generally equals the cost of a professional-grade machine. So they’d be better off starting out with a professional model and minimizing or eliminating that potential downtime.”
Typically, says Sean Dwyer, product manager, Husqvarna, contractors want the widest cutting width they can get in order to be as productive as possible with the mower. This preference usually manifests itself by selecting slightly larger walk-behind units – mowers including deck sizes ranging from 32- to 60-inch widths or greater. Nationwide, the most popular mid-size models in that range would be 40- to 48-inch widths.
Regardless of the size mower you’re considering for your business, both Dwyer and Funk say you should demo any mower you’re considering purchasing in as close to real-world conditions as possible. “There are a variety of price points available, the machines all look good on the showroom floor, and they all seem fast and maneuverable in the parking lot,” Funk notes. “But how do they handle the hillsides your crews need to mow? And what do the lawns they service look like after they’ve been mowed at 6 mph? Does the machine run without incident after a demanding day on the job? These are all answers a contractor should know before taking ownership of any lawn mower.”
Anyone who follows the evolution of walk-behind mowers knows that engine horsepower figures have been rising steadily. But what does an engine horsepower rating mean in practical terms to a landscaper? “A mower’s strength shouldn’t be judged by its horsepower alone,” Funk cautions. “In fact, it’s dangerous to make a purchasing decision solely on horsepower. It provides a relative guideline of one machine’s power over another, but it’s not the only evaluation tool that should be used when determining the right model.”
The efficiency of the cutting deck and other systems in the machine can more than make up for a lower horsepower rating by giving you more efficient cutting performance. “All things being equal,” Funk says, “you need enough power to do the job without wasting fuel by running an engine larger than is needed. At Toro, we tune all of our systems so they work in concert with each other – the engine, the drive system and the cutting unit are sized to one another to create a high-performing, yet efficient, overall package.
If you’re considering a larger walk-behind unit, then Dwyer says spending the extra money to get a self-propelled mower is a definite productivity booster. “The first, belt-driven walk-behind units were decent machines,” he says. “But they are no match for modern hydrostatic-drive walk-behind units. We’re seeing productivity boosts as high as 40 percent when compared with units without a self-propulsion system. You can finish a mowing job much quicker, and take on more work as a result. The only real limiting factor is the question of operator fatigue.”
Look into the ‘intangibles’ when shopping for a mower
Just because mowers are small doesn’t mean you should sell yourself on a warranty and product support, Dwyer adds. “Good service and support is just as crucial for a push mower as it is for larger power equipment. When you’re shopping for a mower, you can’t simply consider the initial acquisition price and stop there. It’s vital that you factor in maintenance parts, repairs and downtime costs into the equation. Once you do that, the importance of a good dealer and the product support he offers becomes apparent.”
Other intangibles should be considered as well. When comparing mowers always inquire about manufacturer parts availability. Take a look at a machine’s warranty. Funk warns that that some appear to be longer than others, but the key is to find out specifically what is – and what isn’t – covered. It’s also a good idea to ask around and determine what the manufacturer’s track record of standing behind their warranty policy is. That’s a good indicator of how customer friendly a company really is. One thing Funk likes to do is talk to a dealership’s mechanics. “Ask them which manufacturers they have trouble getting parts from and which manufacturers will work with them to take care of their customers,” he suggests. “You’d be amazed what you can learn from a few conversations like that.”