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Eye on Engines: Mower Maintenance Means Productivity
December 1, 2017 - Grounds Management
By Tom Billigen
Many grounds managers, as well as equipment operators and mechanics, remember the days before ethanol fuels, when oil options were limited, and air filters required frequent changes. Those days are fading as engines advance and manufacturers develop features that reduce maintenance and downtime.
While these trends make equipment maintenance easier, they also make it more important than ever to understand engine specifics. Ultimately, being proactive about engine maintenance and staying on top of new technology can help managers reduce downtime and ensure equipment users are more productive.
Getting the most out of an engine still starts with the fuel that goes in the tank, but the days of choosing from among regular, unleaded and diesel fuels are long gone. The development of ethanol fuels created the need to be more mindful about fuel choices. Today’s commercial engines can tolerate ethanol fuel blends up to 10 percent, but using ethanol can lead to fuel system problems, in large part because ethanol attracts water, which can lead to corrosion within the carburetor.
While lower levels of ethanol — 10 percent or less — are generally safe to use, it’ is best to avoid ethanol when possible. Among the ethanol-free options, any gasoline with an octane rating of 87 or higher typically is a safe bet, especially if storage in higher ambient or high humidity is unavoidable.
From the moment fuel is added to the engine’s tank, it begins to lose volatility, eventually becoming stale through oxidation and chemical breakdown. This problem typically occurs only if the engine sits idle for a month or more without being started or having fresh gasoline added. Filling with fresh gasoline appropriate for the season can delay the effects of stale fuel by preventing diminished performance, vapor lock and other potential setbacks.
To get the most out of fuel, managers and mechanics should consider using a fuel stabilizer to combat stale fuel in equipment that tends to sit for periods of time. Many of these products are also formulated to combat the corrosive effects of ethanol fuels, inhibit chemical reactions that lead to corrosion, and prevent gum and varnish build-up in the engine.
A well-oiled machine
Regular oil changes should not be a new concept for anyone working with engines, and staying on top of oil changes is particularly important for small, air-cooled engines due to the high temperatures at which they operate. One general rule has been to change oil every 100 hours of operation for most equipment and every 50 hours for some small utility equipment.
Oil that is used beyond its suggested service life loses viscosity, its additive package and its ability to properly clean, cool, and lubricate. This can put a damper on engine performance and cause lasting damage that will reduce engine life.
Today, improvements to synthetic and conventional oils and oil management systems, are extending intervals for oil changes. While that is good news, it also makes it more important than ever to know the guidelines for each engine in a fleet to make sure mechanics are not wasting money by changing oil too soon and not risking damage by waiting too long.
Mechanics should always check the owner’s manual and engine warranty guidelines for the recommended oil type. Most small engines use SAE 30 as long as the engine is used in areas where the temperature remains at least 40 degrees.
Managers also should consider full synthetic oil options, which typically are formulated to withstand prolonged use in high-temperature environments, compared to semi-synthetic and mineral-based oil. In some synthetics, a zinc additive provides anti-wear protection from metal components while a high-quality detergent in the blend ensures lower engine deposits over time.
Managers also can consider new technology that is designed to extend oil-change intervals by up to 500 hours by continually exchanging the oil in the engine with oil in an external reservoir. This technology reduces thermal breakdown of the oil by cycling it out of the engine and allowing the oil to cool in the reservoir before going back into the engine. The system also works to reduce the temperature of the engine, and anything that keeps engine temperatures in check is positive for overall performance.
Beat the heat
Fresh air is one of most important ingredients for sustaining the performance of air-cooled small engines, making regularly scheduled air filter changes key. Depending on the application and type of filter, air filters generally need changing every 100-250 hours.
While the negative effects of a dirty or clogged air filter are well-known, improvements in filter medium and the development of cyclonic air filtration have changed the game for air filtration. Choosing OEM filters guarantees the right fit as well as a design optimized for the particular engine’s performance.
Those filters also can last up to three times longer than bargain filters. Not only will this reduce how often the air filters need to be changed. It also will result in equipment that runs better and is more productive over the life of the filter.
Reviewing the air filter guidelines for new engines in a fleet also can save unnecessary filter changes. Many commercial engines feature high-performance air handling systems that manage debris well, preventing most of it from reaching the air filter. This feature is especially beneficial for high-debris applications, such as turf. These new systems, paired with a superior air filter, can greatly reduce filter changes compared to engines from only a few years ago.
As engine technology improves and maintenance simplifies, choosing the proper fuel and staying on top of oil and air filter changes remain pivotal for productivity. Managers need to remember that keeping up with the trends and knowing the specifics for each engine is important for maximizing both the investment and productivity.
Tom Billigen is customer education training manager with Briggs & Stratton, www.briggsandstratton.com.