Engine essentials

Engine Report 2020 - Engine Report 2020

Landscapers have a variety of opinions on how to buy, maintain and replace engines.

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August 31, 2020

Photo courtesy of Shoemaker Brothers Landscape

They say the engine is the heart of a machine – and that’s especially true for mowers.

Keeping a mower’s “heart” healthy through proper maintenance is vital to keep it running season after season.

But what happens when a mower’s engine inevitably dies? Four landscaping business owners from across the country discuss purchasing a new engine, whether to replace the mower or the entire machine and how to maintain an engine for the long haul.

Where and what to buy.

Johnathan Roberts, co-owner of Elite Lawn Care in Hartwell, Ga., started the business with his brother just three years ago.

With only three mowers in its fleet, Elite Lawn Care is still growing, and Roberts says deciding what type of mower, and what brand of engine, was a serious selection to make early on.

“It was a hard decision and we talked a long time when we were buying our very first mower,” he says. “We talked to people who had landscape companies and with some dealers.”

Roberts says finding a dealer they could rely on made the purchasing process easier, and he’s kept up that relationship in the meantime.

“We have a really good relationship with our dealer,” he says. “That relationship for us is extremely important. They can get our equipment fixed fast.”

Derek Taussig, owner of Taussig Landscape in Manhattan, Kan., and Stefan Shoemaker, owner of Shoemaker Brothers Landscape, in White Hall, Md., also sing the praises of working with a reputable dealer.

“The main thing for us is dealer support,” Taussig says. “Before brand, it’s whatever dealer will give us the best support.”

Shoemaker adds that building a good relationship with a dealer is beneficial because that person gets to know you and your specific needs.

“We deal with one exclusive dealer,” he says. “The dealer gets to know you. They know what you have in your fleet. They recognize your face and have your cell phone number, so the communication is there. And the dealer we have finances, so that’s really nice.”

Shoemaker says he likes dealing with a real person as opposed to shopping online.

“When your online, you don’t really get recommendations,” he says. “You’ve got reviews, but with a salesman you can tell them your specific need for a specific machine on a specific site and they’ll tell you what will work. You just can’t get that kind of feedback online.”

Shoemaker admits he’s willing to pay more in order to get a dealer’s input.

“There’s a slight premium you pay going to a dealer as opposed to shopping online, but we think there’s a value in it,” he says. “We’ve been buying from the same salesman for three years. He’s great and we like to give him our business.”

But for some landscapers, making a short drive to a dealership, or even a big box hardware store, is no easy task. That’s the case for Jody Madewell, president and owner of Yards by Jody in Overton, Nev.

“Where we live, we don’t have a dealer in our town,” Madewell says. “I have to travel a couple hours away to even look at mowers. We live about 75 miles from Las Vegas. Our little town doesn’t even have a stoplight. It’s very limited what I can get here.”

Madewell purchases his engines, and sometimes even mowers themselves, online.

“I ordered our last mower online and had it shipped to me,” he says. “I knew what I wanted and had a set budget I wanted to spend. It came in right at what I was wanting to spend. I went on eBay and they had the exact same mower I was looking for and some company had purchased it and was selling it where the money went to a charitable organization. So, I felt good about that purchase. My money was going to a good cause.”

Before Madewell makes an online purchase, he does plenty of research and reads the reviews for engines of all brands and sizes.

“Basically, the main thing for me – is it going to last,” he says. “We live in harsh conditions where it gets to 120 or 125 degrees. We look for something that’ll survive these hard conditions and last for a while.”

Madewell says he needs plenty of power. And power means more horsepower.

“I like anything above 22 horses,” he says. “Even though it’s a desert climate here, we do have fields they’ve got to handle. Anything that’s 22 Hp or above seems to work better for us.”

Roberts says his optimal horsepower range is also between 22-24 Hp, while Shoemaker says more can be done with less, too.

“I’d say anywhere from 12 to 15 and up to 24 horsepower is probably what you need,” he says.

Taussig says the size of engine, and horsepower requirements, depend on the size of the mower.

“We utilize a variety of sizes because the size of the engine depends on the size of the mower,” he says.

Taussig notes electronic fuel injection (EFI) is equally important.

“We prefer EFI if it’s available for that machine,” he says “EFIs just seem to be more reliable and more economical with fuel. The EFI problems also seem a lot easier to sort out than the carburetor problems.”

Shoemaker makes sure to buy EFI engines because he says they are more reliable in Maryland’s colder months.

“We noticed better fuel economy and consist power with no adjustments really,” he says. “Carburetion is not really something we want to mess with anymore. We use our mowers from spring to winter with leaf removal in the fall, and on colder days carburetors are harder to start, so fuel-injection just makes sense.”

Roberts doesn’t have any EFI engines in his fleet.

“We know we can depend on the engine to be a good one. We haven’t really considered it yet,” he says.

Madewell adds he’s not ready for the financial commitment just yet.

“It costs a little more, and I always tend to spend a little less because we wear them out,” he says.

Out with the old, in with the new.

When it comes time to replace an engine, Taussig says he purchases the same one so he doesn’t have to worry about any unexpected surprises.

“We do a direct replacement to keep it simple,” he says. “If I have a bad engine, I will just buy a new one. Used ones just tend to cause more down time and more problems. I’ve found it’s more profitable to fix it right the first time.”

But having to replace a mower engine is rare for Taussig.

“Typically, I haven’t had to replace one in years,” he says. “I sell my mowers every two to three years while they’re still under warranty and just get new mowers.”

Taussig says that three years seems to be the useful life for a mower.

“Every time I don’t replace one in three years, then we start having a bunch of problems,” he says. “Once we have a real problematic machine it’s just time to phase it out because it starts costing too much money. Anytime I’ve pushed it beyond that I’ve regretted it.”

Roberts also chooses to replace the entire machine if the engine goes bad.

“When engines start falling apart, we usually just trade it back in and get another mower,” he says. “We’re still a new business, so we haven’t had that happen a lot yet.”

Roberts says one of the dealers who helped him early on led him to that decision.

“The dealer who really taught us about engines had a philosophy that was ‘if you’re at the point where you need to replace an engine, most likely things are about to go out on your frame and other parts as well,’” he says. “It’s usually just better to replace the machine. We’ve really just stuck with that and usually replace the entire unit. And we’ve noticed first-hand that if the engine starts giving us problems, there are usually other problems, too.”

For Roberts, his replacement plan depends on the machine’s hours of use instead of how long they’ve had it.

“Our goal is to not keep any engine that has more than 1,000 hours on it,” he says. “We want to swap it out before then. Because, at that point you can still get a decent trade-in value on it and it’s not falling apart on you.”

Shoemaker says that his decision to replace the engine or buy a new mower depends on the size of the machine in question.

“We tend to replace the machine up to a certain size,” he says. “So, for a zero-turn rider, we’ll replace the motor but for a walk-behind machine, we’d just buy a new one.”

Shoemaker, like Taussig, aims to replace his equipment every three years or so.

“For us, the useful life is about three years,” he says. “That’s maybe on the earlier side but once it’s paid off – that’s usually the time to let it go. We’ve found that it’s better to have a payment on a machine than it is to have a repair bill. It’s easier to budget that way. There’s no surprise breakdowns.”

When one of his engines quits, Madewell tries his best to fix it himself.

“I always do try to fix the old one first if it’s worth saving. We don’t have a dealer or mechanic or anyone here,” he says. “If I can’t fix it, I look at the cost of a new engine compared to a new machine. If the machine is having a problem as well and the belts keep breaking or the pulleys are breaking, then I’d just replace the machine.”

© psgtproductions | iStockphoto

Putting in the work.

It’s no secret that routine maintenance can keep a mower’s engine running smoothly, and having a maintenance schedule is essential.

With no in-house mechanic, Roberts oversees his company’s fleet.

“My brother and I own the company and I do most of the engine maintenance,” he says. “He handles a lot of the customer side of things and I handle a lot of the shop aspects.”

Roberts spent his youth working on cars and motors, but he sought out some more specialized knowledge.

“We’ve actually taken some small engine courses from a different dealer in the next town over. It was an eight-week course that met once a week,” he says. “It was extremely helpful in understanding exactly how these machines work. Learning what mower engines need specifically was very informative.”

Now, Roberts has a maintenance plan he sticks to.

“Every 50 hours, roughly, I change the engine oil and filter,” he says. “And at that same time, I’ll do an air filter check. I’ll check the spark plugs, too, and replace when needed.”

Roberts notes that all his mowers have the same brand of engine, which makes maintenance simpler.

“We like to have all the same engines,” he says. “It just makes it that much easier and more convenient. I can buy one type of filter and one air filter.”

He also makes sure to buy only that brand’s replacement parts.

“I’ve found that sticking with the branded replacement items has been better for proper fit and long-term usage,” he says. “Whenever I use an off-brand product, it doesn’t seem to last as long. It’s a little bit more costly, but it’s worth it.”

Madewell also changes the oil every 50 hours, which he says he hits about every two months.

© jamievanbuskirk | iStockphoto

“I take the air filters out and blow them once a week,” he says. “I replace those every six months. We get a lot of fine dirt here that screws up the filters.”

Because he lives hours away from a mechanic or dealer, Madewell keeps old engines and mowers on-hand in case of any unexpected breakdowns.

“A few years ago, I had a mower go bad. It was on a brand-new machine I bought in March and this was July, and it blew up,” he says. “So, I ripped an engine off an old mower and put it on to continue using the machine.

“I’ll also pick up a $50 mower at a yard sale just to have as a backup,” Madewell adds.

Ensuring he has plenty of supplies on hand is also important for Madewell to maintain his engines.

“Another issue is getting the oil filters,” he says. “I have to really plan my oil changes in advance to make sure I have the filters and everything I need. I can’t just run down to the store and grab something. I always try to keep things on hand.”

Shoemaker says that his company will handle basic maintenance on his machine but sends it to the shop for anything major

“We do our own oil changes, but anything over oil changes and filters we send out,” he says. “We’ll send it to the dealer we buy from and they’ve been pretty good to us.”

At Shoemaker Brothers, they have daily, weekly and monthly maintenance schedules.

“We check the oil and filters each day before we start a machine,” Shoemaker says. “We lubricate bearings, transmissions and things every other week based on our usage. We don’t mow five days a week, so our hours aren’t as much. Monthly, we check tire pressures.”

Taussig says his company performs all maintenance in house and each machine has its own logbook.

“I have a guy who used to be a mechanic and works full-time on my install crew. Then he works nights and weekends doing maintenance for us, and on rainy days when we can’t be in the field,” he says. “Every day when they come back, they grease the machines, they check the fluids, they clean the air filters and they sharpen the blades. We do that daily. And then, at every 100-hour integral on the machine, we do a full service on it. We’ll change the oil and check if it needs new air filters or fuel filters. This happens about every three weeks.”

Taussig also suggests using a better quality oil and not going with the cheapest option on the shelf.

“We use a high-quality, synthetic oil,” he says. “That seems to really pay off. It’s a little more to spend on oil, but it seems to give us good longevity.”

Overall, Taussig says being vigilant about maintenance prevents most major breakdowns.

“Preventative maintenance is much better than having to do expensive repairs,” he says.