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Not long ago, mowers just had to cut grass. If they left landscapes looking good, grounds managers in institutional and commercial facilities had little reason to pay much attention to issues such as emissions, noise, or fuel efficiency.
How times have changed.
Managers specifying mowers today delve deeply into all aspects of the equipment, including life-cycle costs, technology advances, safety, and maintenance.
The latest addition to the growing list of equipment issues is sustainability. More managers are seeking answers about mower features and functions that affect the environment, including emissions and noise control, alternative-fuel options, and mulching decks, all in an effort to minimize their operations' environmental impact.
Managers' interest in sustainability often goes beyond a feel good effort to save the planet.
"We have a lot of students concentrated in one area," says Fernando Reyna, manager of grounds services at Arizona State University, which has 59,000 students moving around its 450-acre campus. Emissions from mowers and similar equipment, such as utility vehicles, are creating problems.
"We're getting complaints from students because the emissions tend to settle into pockets," Reyna says. "So we're looking for equipment that runs more efficiently."
Reyna's 58-person department uses three riding mowers — one runs on propane and two use diesel fuel — and four walk-behind mowers. All of the riding mowers feature mulching decks.
Such decks were among the first features of commercial mowers designed to improve sustainability, and they remain among the most popular.
All of the mowers at Michigan State University use mulching decks to take care of grass, as well as all leaves on campus.
"The process helps put nutrients back in the soil," says Gerald Dobbs, the university's landscape services manager. The process also cuts labor costs because workers do not need to spend hours collecting, transporting and disposing of leaves each fall.
"We're willing to pay a little more for" mulching decks, he says. "They are a little pricier, but they are worth the cost."
Dobbs has 58 full-time employees who maintain 2,100 acres. The department uses a fleet of 48 mowers, all of which use diesel fuel; some units run on B5 bio-diesel fuel.
John Burns, manager of landscape services with the University of Texas in Austin, says he also looks beyond initial cost for mowers and mulching decks that improve departmental sustainability.
"Unless it's just a budget killer, we're willing to pay," Burns says.