Prioritize preventative maintenance

Prioritize preventative maintenance

Following a breakdown, deciding whether to replace the engine or the entire mower can be difficult, but having a maintenance routine can keep your machine running longer.

October 21, 2020

When it comes time to replace an engine, Derek Taussig, owner of Taussig Landscape in Manhattan, Kan., says he purchases the same one every time – 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.”

Johnathan Roberts, co-owner of Elite Lawn Care in Hartwell, Ga., 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.”

Stefan Shoemaker, owner of Shoemaker Brothers Landscape, in White Hall, Md., 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, Jody Madewell, president and owner of Yards by Jody in Overton, Nev., 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.”

PUTTING IN THE WORK. It’s no secret that routine maintenance can keep a mower’s engine running smoothly. All four landscape professionals say 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.

“With all my mowers, I try to change the oil every 50 hours, which is about two months,” he says. “And I take the air filters out and blow them once a week. 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 recalls. “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.