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Next to a reliable and well-trained staff, equipment is the most important component of any landscape maintenance equation. With the proper complement of equipment, a staff of two or three easily can do the work of four or five. In times of tightening budgets and limited labor forces, the savings can add up quickly.
Choosing the right equipment is the first step to increasing efficiency. But proper equipment maintenance is equally important to overall productivity and a cost-effective organization. To develop and implement an effective equipment maintenance program, managers have to address several essential issues.
These issues include establishing the value of maintenance to an organization, defining the duties of managers and staff, and understanding how technology affects equipment maintenance.
A Manager’s Role
One of the first duties for managers is ensuring the department has a maintenance schedule in place right away.
“Have a plan,” says Steve Meyers, operations manager of Midwest equipment in Bloomington, IL. “Don’t wait until it breaks then fix it.”
Lack of routine maintenance greatly decreases equipment life. A new walk-behind mower costs $2,000-6,000, a new zero-turning-radius rider can cost $5,000-13,000, and some large riding mowers can cost up to $50,000. This kind of money should not be spent willy-nilly.
Managers also must make sure the plan is carried out. Staff must be properly trained and time must be set aside for daily, weekly, monthly and annual maintenance.
Managers also must determine if crews have the time and skill for these duties or if a specialized mechanic is needed. If it’s the latter, a manager must decide whether it is more cost-effective to contract out these services or hire an in-house mechanic.
Mower operators should have some responsibility for upkeep of the equipment. Assigning employees their own equipment gives them responsibility, a sense of ownership and pride, and it helps to determine who is responsible for equipment neglect and misuse.
But if employees are to be held accountable for maintenance, managers must be sure they receive adequate training in maintenance and upkeep, as well as the proper tools to complete these activities.
“Tools and basic parts like belts and blades should be easily accessible to crews in the field,” Meyer says. “Tools and parts should be in the truck or trailer and items like a grease gun can even be mounted directly onto larger mowers.” Operators can fix many minor problems at a job site without wasting time bringing equipment back to the shop.
Today’s mowers have many of the same maintenance problems that previous generations have had.
“Lack of proper lubrication is still the most common problem leading to equipment failure and shortened life,” Meyer says. Oil levels that are too low and air filters that are not replaced correctly lead to premature wear and a shortened engine life.
Heat buildup is a major concern in many new-model mowers with hydraulic drive trains.
“Dirt and grass buildup can decrease air circulation around pumps and wheel motors,” Meyer says. “Excessive heat can kill the hydraulic system.” For walk-behind mowers or riding mowers, replacing hydraulic pumps can cost up to $500. Stale fuel is another major contributor to engine problems.
“Gasoline has a specific shelf-life, and there is no way of knowing how old the gasoline really is,” Meyer says. Gas purchased today might have been in the storage tanks for months. Meyer suggests using a fuel stabilizer in all two-stroke engines. A fuel stabilizer is not as important if the fuel tank is filled on a daily basis. Meyer recommends a time-released capsule of fuel stabilizer.
“You just drop it in the tank and it releases a small amount of stabilizer over a long period of time. They cost about $17 and last for years,” Meyer says. “Why not buy one for each piece of equipment then never worry about it again. It’s cheap insurance.”
Maintenance Nuts and Bolts
The nuts and bolts of mower maintenance are the regular inspection and repairs carried out by mechanics and operators. Managers should consider activities outlined below in developing programs for their departments.
Mower blades should be changed daily during spring. A dull blade is rough not only on the grass but also on the engine. During the summer when the grass is typically drier and shorter, blades might need to be changed only every two or three days.
Another daily duty involves using a leaf blower or air compressor on mower decks to blow grass and debris from the surface and out from under the front plates. Grass buildup under the front plate can result in heat buildup and can shorten life of engines, belts and pumps.
Mechanics also should grease all non-sealed fittings daily, but avoid greasing sealed fittings daily. Overfilling a sealed fitting can stretch and even break the seal, leaving the area exposed to air and moisture.
A thorough monthly inspection of mowers and tractors will help departments avoid costly repairs and downtime. The equipment operator or mechanic should look under and all around the mower for cracks, oil leaks, worn belts, etc.
The mechanic should replace worn parts, repair leaks, and change the hydraulic oil and filter after 300 hours of equipment operation.
During the off season, each piece of equipment should be thoroughly cleaned and inspected. This procedure gives mechanics a better chance to check traditional trouble spots and take a longer look at hard-to-reach parts and systems.
Many managers also use this opportunity to rebuild spent equipment and extend their useful lives. Each piece of equipment should be in top condition before the start of the new grounds care season.
— Cathy Walker