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The bottom line dominates the decisions grounds managers make in researching and purchasing new equipment, from mowers and tractors to utility vehicles and light construction equipment. That focus is understandable, given the big-ticket nature of grounds care equipment, but initial and life-cycle costs are not the only critical factors that go into the decision.
Managers who are truly focused on delivering long-term equipment performance and operator productivity are taking a closer look at the key equipment features and functions that ensure mowers and utility vehicles remain in service as long as possible. Topping this list for many managers are equipment safety and ergonomics.
“I want it to be comfortable for the guys who are sitting on it for seven or eight hours a day,” says Dallas Cott, director of campus services with Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. “We're looking at the overall build. We're looking at reliability and at the seat to make sure it's comfortable. We're also looking for safety features.”
To effectively address the safety and ergonomics of new grounds equipment, along with all of the other factors that go into the decision to purchase a particular mower or utility vehicle, managers first need to assess grounds care needs and their existing equipment.
“For utility vehicles strictly speaking, we have five. As for mowers, we have five zero-turn mowers,” says Cott, whose campus features athletic fields and a total of more than 600 acres, with crews mowing about 150 acres. The department also deploys a multi-use grounds machine that can be used year-round and has benefits for operator safety.
“We can use it for snow removal," he says. “It can have eight wheels on it, and then we take it down to four wheels for winter. It allows us to mow slopes up to 30 degrees. It can handle slopes in a much safer way for areas that we used to basically trim by hand. It has helped eliminate a lot of handwork. They take a lot of different attachments. We use mowers, snow blowers, plows, brushes, and a stump grinder.”
For Jimmy Viars, grounds manager for Gloucester County Public Schools in Virginia, his department is responsible for school campuses that range from 16 acres up to 138 acres.
"Our total acreage is over 400, but we currently have 160 groomed acres,” he says. “We're getting ready to add 15 acres as soon as construction is finished at a transportation complex. My total crew size right now is five full-time employees.
“One person has the high school, and he takes care of the athletic fields there. He has one 6-foot-wide zero-turn mower, and he has two high-speed rotary mowers specifically for athletic fields. And they’re set at different heights for football and soccer fields so we don't have to keep changing back and forth because it's kind of a pain.”
The other four other people in the department work on the regular mowing crew and are responsible for the school campuses.
For both Viars and Cott, selecting grounds equipment that meets department needs means including operators and mechanics in the process.
"They provide me with a lot of input," Cott says. “I'll do the initial research online or with my local vendors. Once we kind of narrow down to a couple of choices, if the vendor can’t bring one here, I try to go to them, and I usually take an operator and a supervisor plus a mechanic.
“From the view of a mechanic, I want to know that it's easy for them to work on it and think they're comfortable on repairing. They also have a different eye for things than operators do. They know if something is well-built or if it looks like trouble down the road. I take that into consideration as well, but I try to get them involved as much as possible. Their input and their past experience are very valuable to me in making the final decision to spend 15, 20, 25 grand on a piece of equipment.”
While initial cost has a major influence on a manager's final selection of a new mower or tractor, smart managers understand that the safety and comfort of operators plays a central role in the equipment’s long-term performance.
“Safety has always been a concern,” Viars says. “When I look at the commercial equipment, the heavy decks, their heavy gauge steel versus something that's not commercial, it is rare for me to see an unsafe piece of equipment. Any piece of equipment is only as safe as the operator using it.”
Operators often must deal with uneven terrain when mowing, and Slippery Rock’s use of its multi-purpose vehicle has helped them operate more safely on the campus’s challenging turf areas.
“You can take it on 30 degree slopes,” Cott says. “We’re a hilly campus, and we have a lot of big hills that traditional direct-turn mowers aren’t capable of mowing. Prior to having (the vehicles), we mainly did it by hand using weed whackers. The (vehicles) are able to move around the hills very easily and very safely for the operators, so it cuts out a lot of handwork. They are very safe. You can take them pretty much anywhere you want to and feel very safe on hills.”
Viars and Cott agree that grounds equipment manufacturers continue to offer products that meet the evolving safety demands of grounds care operations.
“Safety wise, they seem to all be pretty consistent across the board,” Cott says. “In terms of overall safety, they all have the (rollover protection systems) on them. They all are very similar, and operators probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference from a safety standpoint from one brand to the next.”
The differences among products often show up in the comfort of operators who use the mowers and utility vehicles for long periods.
“Ergonomics is one thing that tends to be different, especially if you're looking at zero-turn mowers,” Cott says. “We’ve bought a few over the years where the operators will come to me and say, ‘Hey, after a couple hours of sitting on this, it isn't very comfortable.’ So we pivot away from those and look at something else. But there is there is a difference for overall ergonomics and comfort level of operators from one brand to the next.”
Ensuring operator comfort often requires managers to look closely at a range of equipment features and functions.
"We get full cabs on our utility vehicles or golf carts because we use them year-round, including winter,” Cott says. “We're not brand specific by any means. We buy what we can find locally. What we look at is the quality of the cab versus the traditional utility vehicle.
“We make sure it's easy to drive and holds up to daily abuse that we put it through. They do get put through the paces here, with different operators every day. The biggest thing that we look at is the quality and reliability and comfort level for the operators. We get heat in them, whether they use it or not. It’s mainly to keep the front window defogged because we do use them year-round. The cabs are what separates a lot of them. We look at those for functionality and comfort level for the operators.”
Dan Hounsell is senior editor of the facility market. He has more than 25 years of experience writing about facilities maintenance, engineering and management.