It’s that time of year again. Spring is just months away, and winter equipment maintenance has revealed the need for new mowing equipment. For many grounds managers, buying new equipment is the highlight of the year. It offers a chance to visit trade shows, pour through the magazines and surf the internet looking for the perfect piece of equipment that will solve all of the department’s problems.
But specifying mowing equipment can be a headache, given the large number of manufacturers, models and features. So how do managers choose which mower is the best fit for their departments’ challenges?
For many, the specification process begins with a wish list that includes problems the department must address, says Russell Maulding, manager with Christy Weber Landscapes in Chicago. Among the common problems are these:
• Newly hired employees need to get up to speed to become, productive so current staff will have to spend more time mowing.
•A new facility executive expects higher quality mowing.
•Landscape features, such as steep berms, are hard to mow without scalping.
•More landscaped areas are hard to reach.
•Trees are maturing, increasing fall leaf cleanup.
•The temporary staff is larger, and there is little time to train them properly.
Another early step in the process is compiling a list of current equipment, along with the strengths and weakness of the mowing fleet. With these two tasks complete, managers can begin the search for new equipment.
“Begin your search for new mowing equipment at your local dealers,” Maulding says. “In many ways, choosing the dealer is as important as choosing the mower itself. Resist the temptation to find the right piece of equipment, then try to find the dealer to sell it to you. You might spend hours even days researching, only to find the nearest dealer is two states away.” A dealer can be the best source of product information and service.
Next, check the brands a dealer carries.
“Research the brands, their reliability and features,” he says. “If you like their product line, then continue to pursue a working relationship.” Also, check with experienced peers for their recommendations.
Make sure your dealer is someone reliable to work with by asking these questions. Are the people friendly, attentive, available, reliable, knowledgeable and experienced? How long has the dealer been in business? How long has it carried each brand of equipment?
“Consider the dealer’s location and remember time is money,” Maulding says. “Traveling hours to pick up parts or take equipment in for repair will not be cost-effective.” Another dealer with similar equipment might be much closer. See if that dealer will pick up and deliver equipment that needs repairs.
Managers also must remember to check dealer references to find out about service quality and speed. Find out how quickly the dealer can fix a broken mower in the hectic spring months. Ask if it offers loaner or rental equipment to use while a mower is in the shop. Maulding also suggests sticking with one dealer for all of your mowing equipment.
“Mower deck size is most important to me,” Maulding says. “I need to choose a complement of mower sizes that will most efficiently get the job done and fit on the trailer.” On average, mowers come with decks in widths of 21-72 inches. To determine the right deck size, find out the average size and terrain of areas to be mowed. Not every site can accommodate an 18-foot winged mower or a 72-inch walk-behind.
“Look at landscaping, spacing of trees, buildings, berms, fences and other site features that will impact the mowing operations,” Maulding says. Using “the larger deck does not always mean the job gets done faster.” Newer, smaller mowers actually might produce a better-quality cut at a faster speed, making the entire job less time-consuming. Smaller mowers also might be more versatile and easier to use around landscaping and trees, as well as easier to transport.
Next, compare ride-on models to walk-behind models, each of which offers different advantages. For example, the price difference can be substantial. But if all other factors are equal, most employees mowing every day prefer to ride.
Next look at engines, blades, and ergonomics. In addition to deck size, Maulding closely reviews engine type and horsepower.
“Usually, each brand of mower comes with a couple of engine choices, and the deck size dictates the horsepower ratings. You may have a choice of two different engines manufacturers and with two different horsepowers, then a choice of fuel type,” Maulding says.
Mowers are available with up to 65 horsepower (hp), with many in the 25-30 hp range.
“I’ll always choose the larger horsepower engine,” Maulding says. More power results in better cut quality at faster speeds. More horsepower also is an important consideration when using attachments like vacuums, blowers, aerators or plow blades.
“Even simple attachments like mulching blades can put more stress on an engine, so a larger engine will usually last longer,” he says.
Managers also should consider engines that produce lower emissions and reduced noise that comply with federal, state and local laws.
Fuel efficiency also is an important criterion. Not only does lower fuel use reduce fuel costs; it also saves money by minimizing refueling. Managers also should look closely at fuel types. Gasoline and diesel engines are commonly available on riding mowers. Liquid-cooled, diesel engines tend to be longer-lived and require less maintenance than a standard air-cooled gasoline engines. Diesel engines also are more fuel-efficient.
“I am interested in using propane as fuel, for its cleanliness and lower price,” Maulding says. “But right now, I only know of one manufacturer that is making a propane mower.”
Maulding also is specifying mulching blades, which cut grass blades into small pieces that can decompose, eliminating the time needed to bag and haul clippings off site. Smaller clippings are less apt to create unsightly windrows that must be raked or blown away.
Ergonomic design and ease of operation also might be important considerations. Once on the mowing crew himself, Maulding recognizes the need for comfort and easy of use.
“Operator fatigue is a real issue,” he says. “Much of our staff is mowing for nearly eight hours each day.” Compare ride-on equipment to feel the comfort of the seat and back support. Some machines are equipped with shock absorption with independent suspension and vibration control that minimizes operator fatigue.
Operators also should test the positioning of handles and controls on both walk-behinds and ride-on machines. Shape and placement of steering controls, button controls and handle grips have an impact on the ease of operation and might provide more comfort for long hours of use.
Finally, a range of attachments are available for riding mowers, all of which can enhance mowers’ versatility. Operators often can replace decks with aerators, rakes, snow blowers leaf vacuums and chemical sprayers. Some accessories also can be used in conjunction with the mowing deck, and manufacturers are offering trimmers and blowers that attach to mowers.
“Consider these options very carefully,” Maulding says. “It is not always cost-effective to have mowers doing other tasks. There is other equipment out there that is better suited for multitasking.”
Ease of service must remain a top priority when specifying mowers. If a mower is easy to maintain, it is more likely to receive the care necessary to keep it in good working condition for its expected life.
Mower maintainability and durability has been greatly enhanced. New features include built-in jacks for raising decks when changing blades, easier-to-read temperature gauges, and decks with blade spindles without grease fittings on the bearings. They are simply replaced instead of continuously maintained, but replacement is infrequent.
Fewer tools are needed to service the equipment, and in some cases, one tool does it all.
— Cathy Walker