Power up

From maintenance to hiring a mechanic, here’s what to know about engines — what makes your business go.

Longevity and power ranked at the top of what readers said was most important when choosing a small engine.
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The engine is shot. But the mower is still in its prime and all of its other parts are working. Clayton Graham would typically replace the motor. “We have some mowers that are on their third engine,” says the president of Sundance Landscape Maintenance in Queen Creek, Ariz.

But the engine currently in the mower — and not working — is a scarce find, given supply chain challenges and shortages. “When we checked with our vendors, there was only one engine in the country that anyone could identify as a replacement,” he says.

“We could go with a different brand, but then would we need to retrofit it since everything is set up for the other engine? How different is it? Our mechanics are working on figuring that out now, including how much it would cost to retrofit—or do we just part the mower out and buy a new one?”

In another instance, a mower went down and Graham took it into a machine shop to have the heads redrilled. “We rebuilt the motor because it was 2020 and getting a replacement was out of the question, but we had to keep the mower going,” he says.

Across industries, the cost of materials, parts, equipment and doing business in general has escalated during the last couple of years, and especially in recent months. “It seems like pricing has gone through the roof,” Graham says. “The motor we just got a quote on was $3,300 and a few years ago I replaced an engine and it was like $2,200.”

“And there are definitely supply chain issues,” Graham continues. “I needed a head for one of our edgers and it took almost a month to get that part in.”

Andrew Stachowiak has purchased new hand-held equipment rather than getting repairs because replacement parts were "few and far between,” says the owner of Seasons Change Services in Comstock Park, Mich.

From accessing engine parts to replacing motors and executing a maintenance schedule, Lawn & Landscape’s State of the Engine Market explores the ins and outs of running well-oiled machines.

Preventing high maintenance

For warrantied maintenance, Zack Rulli, owner of Dirt and Stone Landscaping in Newington, Conn., will send engines that require repair to a dealer. “Or, if it’s a situation where I do not have the space to take it apart and work on it, I’ll have a dealership or someone who knows how to work on the equipment do it,” he says.

For the most part, Rulli maintains engines and equipment himself. And sticking to a regular schedule prevents repairs and downtime. For example, on a Saturday, he might clean all equipment, change oil and clean filters. “With how dusty it has been and all the pollen, changing filters is really important,” he says.

Padilla Group in San Leandro, Calif., has an in-house mechanic who performs routine maintenance weekly. “Crews can sharpen their own blades if needed,” says Michaela Rivas, area operations and sales manager.

The company runs three maintenance crews and an enhancement crew. Each is equipped with a 21-inch walk-behind mower and 36-inch mower, plus blowers, hedge trimmers, edgers and pole pruners. “We also have spare equipment so we can keep our guys running out in the field,” Rivas says.

Dealers’ recommendations on how often to perform certain maintenance tasks weighs into Stachowiak’s schedule. “I make sure oil is checked every day and after that we do maintenance on an hourly basis, whether it’s changing oil every 100 hours,” he says.

Every day, Stachowiak greases equipment. “That little bit of grease is cheap insurance,” he says.

At Sundance Landscape Maintenance, mowers are on a monthly maintenance rotation. “Our mechanics do a full service, trailer by trailer. With two-cycle equipment, we do the same thing where every week. We take one truck and go through all of the equipment to make sure it is working properly and up to date,” Graham says.

39% of respondents said they maintain their engines themselves most of the time.
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The Right Fix

After calling around to various dealers in town, Rulli decided to take on a repair himself — which is what he tends to do most of the time. “When our walk-behind went down last fall, I wanted to see if I could drop it off at a dealership but they would say, ‘I can’t give you a time as to when we can look at it,’ and I couldn’t wait,” he says. A loaner wasn’t possible.

“I did fix it—the problem was an intake gasket, but it also had a faulty ignition coil, which I replaced, as well,” Rulli says, adding that he poked around a bit before diagnosing the problem, “but it was better than not knowing when a dealer could look at the equipment or get it back to me.”

Stachowiak also performs his own maintenance and relies on his dealer for repairs. There’s no in-house mechanic. “I’ve built the skills over the years,” he says, relating that his dad taught him how to tinker as a kid.

Downtime and wait time are two factors that pushed Padilla Group to invest in a part-time mechanic. “It’s easier to control the repair time,” Rivas says. “It’s one thing if our mechanic says it will take two days,” and another if a dealer says you’re on the wait list.

Sundance Landscape Maintenance has two fulltime mechanics. “We hired our first back in 2017 when we hit that $5-million mark, and before that it was either myself or a manager or my dad who was wrenching on equipment, or we were taking it to shops,” Graham says. “That was just getting insanely expensive.”

What’s the cost of hiring a mechanic to service equipment in house? That depends on the market, but according to Lawn & Landscape’s 2022 Benchmarking Your Business Report, the going rate for an entry level mechanic is $37,050 while an experienced mechanic pays $48,750 an hour.

The mechanics are charged with creating the maintenance schedule, regular tune-ups and repairs as complex as engine overhauls. They advise on purchases and decisions like whether to replace an engine or buy new equipment. That includes trucks and the engines that keep the company’s rigs moving.

And now more than ever, minding the maintenance schedule and an ability to at least make minor fixes is a time and money saver considering the rising cost of parts, equipment and labor challenges.

“Our guys turn in a daily truck inspection sheet and that gives our mechanics the mileage so they can keep an eye on when it’s time for service,” Graham says.

The author is a contributing editor with Lawn & Landscape magazine.

July 2022
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