Turning Heads, Zero-Turn Mowers

Features - Business Management

The productivity and maneuverability benefits of zero-turn radius mowers are continuing to capture contractors’ attention.

November 23, 1999

When driving by a housing development on any summer day, a passerby may notice that criss-cross cut of the lawn. It is this mowing technique that makes a summer lawn eye-catching. This look, the result of a zero-turn mower, is only one of the many characteristics that make these mowers unique.

If given the chance, manufacturers and contractors alike will sing the praises of zero-turn mowers. Zero-turn mowers offer advantages not only in maneuverability, but also in productivity and maintenance needs. Several manufacturers have explained these benefits in further detail.

A PRODUCTIVITY PLUS. The major advantages that contractors and manufacturers describe are the greater maneuverability and productivity of zero-turn mowers.

“I think the biggest benefit is speed,” remarked Jeff Ellis, maintenance manager for McCoy Landscape Services, Marion, Ohio. “This is in terms of turn-around time on jobs and maneuverability.”

“The fact that they turn with zero-radius allows them to be more maneuverable,” added Tom Benjamin, market manager at Woods Equipment, Rockford, Ill. “This allows them to easily get around trees and shrubs. This offers time savings and greater productivity.”

The time savings feature is a definite bonus, according to Mike Kadel, marketing manager, Dixon Industries, Coffeyville, Kan. “A zero-turn mower will cut time on a job in half and, for a contractor, that is money in his pocket,” Kadel commented. “Zero-turns can get into spaces that only walk-behind models could previously. The maneuverability is the whole key.”’

“Zero-turn riders offer a more compact design than non-zero-turn riders. This allows for greater mobility in and out of tight places, but more importantly, it lets the contractor get more equipment on smaller trailers,” noted Roy Dust, product specialist for Ferris Industries, Munnsville, N.Y.

For example, he explained that Ferris Industries' zero-turn rider is 6 feet, 9 inches long, while the non-zero-turn rider is 8 feet, 10 inches long.

One might ask, how is all of this added productivity possible? Ruthanne Stucky, director of marketing, The Grasshopper Company, Moundridge, Kan., explained that the independent control over each wheel without the use of a foot-pedal brake assist is part of the zero-turning radius advantage.

Ultimate Upkeep........

    To keep a zero-turn mower running in top condition, proper maintenance is key. According to Woods Equipment, Rock-ford, Ill., there are a few regular checks that can keep a mower in good shape.

  • Hydrostatic Transmission Service – Fluid levels should be checked at least every eight hours of operation. Also, check cooling fins and fan blades for debris. These should be free of foreign material.

  • Transmission Filter and Oil Change – Every transmission has a filter and it should be changed every 500 to 1,000 hours, depending on use. Under normal mowing conditions, the filter and oil can be changed every 1,000 hours. The two can be changed every 500 hours when using a grass catcher or when operating in temperatures above 100F degrees for any extended period.

  • Battery Service – First and foremost, be careful to prevent any battery acid from contacting the skin. Clean the battery at least once a season and inspect cables for deterioration and loose connections. Check the battery case for cracks or leaks. Take a hydrometer and recharge the battery if less than a 75 percent change is indicated. – Angela Dyer

“An operator seated between the drive tires at the pivot point of the zero-radius turn has the ergonomic advantage of clearly seeing his immediate terrain, trimming up-close and always passing the mower over uncut grass in an effortless manner,” Stucky said. “This eliminates the wasted time and motion of wide turns, foot pedals and shifting gears. When you eliminate the time and effort associated with jockeying into position on turns and trimming, you end up being more productive.”

Due to the the hydraulic systems, there is more flexibility in terms of operation, according to Peter Whurr, vice president of product development, Textron Turf Care and Specialty Products, Racine, Wis.

“In other words, they can drive forward, reverse, turn to the left or right without the user having to select or change gears. This allows for the product to be more productive in maneuvering around confined areas or tree belts and hedge rows,” he explained.

These numerous benefits are prevalent in both zero-turn riders and walk-behinds, however the riding models give the operators more opportunity to be more productive during their work day, according to Whurr.

“Walk-behind units, unless used with a sulky, tend to be more demanding on the operator and obviously much slower due to walking speeds,” he said.

A riding mower can also handle challenging terrain with less wear and tear on the operator, Stucky added.

“A zero-turn rider will save on labor costs because the crew isn't walking,” Ellis agreed.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST. Just as zero-turn riders can save on costs over walk-behinds, gear-drive units can save money as a low cost alternative to riding models. According to Dust, gear-drive models can be used as insurance. They can be purchased as a low-cost back-up for when other mowers are out of service. Or, they could be used as an extra mower when needed.

“Many start-up contractors think they should start with a gear-drive,” Dust noted, commenting that a zero-turn walk-behind can cost roughly 30 to 50 percent more than a gear-drive walk-behind. “But these are the folks who can least afford a less productive machine. Why not mow more in less time and use the money you make to defray the substantial costs of starting a business?”

Whurr agreed zero-turn units are more expensive, but he said that the payback can be considerably more and the return on investment will be quicker with a hydrostatic due to its maneuverability and high performance ability.

“The zero-turn rider will mow more acres per day in equal or less time, thus allowing the contractor to bill more acres per day,” Stucky stated. “This increased productivity is significant enough that more business and revenue can be realized while minimizing the relative labor and equipment costs.”

Top Training Tips

    As with many necessary products for contractors in the green industry, training is a key factor to the successful operation of a zero-turn mower. According to Peter Whurr, vice president of product development, Textron Turf Care and Specialty Products, Racine Wis., the operator must be fully aware of the unique features of a hydraulically-controlled machine.

    “A landscape contractor owes it to himself and his employees to undergo training on any type of mowing equipment,” stressed Ruthanne Stucky, director of marketing, The Grasshopper Company, Moundridge, Kan. “Dual-level, zero-turning radius units are no exception, although they are generally easier to operate.”

    Tom Benjamin, market manager for Woods Equipment, Rockford, Ill., explained that typically with commercial products, there is a short learning curve when someone new is using the equipment. “In order to become proficient, the more you use it, the better you will get,” he noted.

    “For someone with little or no mowing experience, the learning curve for a gear drive vs. a zero-turn walk-behind is basically the same,” remarked Roy Dust, product specialist, Ferris Industries, Munnsville, N.Y. “All that is required is an understanding of the different controls.”

    He added that the greatest challenge is for someone who is used to tractor-type equipment to learn how to use a zero-turn rider. Those operators are used to steering with a wheel and controlling speed and direction with the foot. Plus, they’re used to a wider turning radius. The dealer should demonstrate the use of the zero-turn and help promote a necessary comfort level.

    “We recommend that our dealers spend 15 to 30 minutes with someone to let them know how to operate the mower,” noted Mike Kadel, marketing manager, Dixon Industries, Coffeyville, Kan. “Pay attention to daily maintenance and you should have a long-lasting machine.” – Angela Dyer

“The zero-turns are worth the price, though, for their speed and their labor saving,” Ellis noted.

THE QUALITY OF LIFE. Knowing that price differences exist between the two major mower types, a contractor may wonder if he or she will end up spending additional money on maintenance costs during the years that they own the equipment.

“Zero-turn mowers can be less expensive to maintain than gear-drive models,” Whurr relayed. “The main reason being that lubrication and the wear and tear of linkages on a gear-drive unit require more servicing than that of the hydrostatic, provided the hydrostatic is kept clean and the oil is changed as per the operator’s manual. There is really nothing else to concern the owner than maintaining a regular oil schedule.”

He added that other components such as height of cut, caster wheels, belt drives and blade spindles will require the same maintenance program wheth-er it be a gear-drive or zero-turn unit.

Benjamin agreed with Whurr that the major maintenance for zero-turns consists of tasks such as lubricating the spindles and sharpening blades.

“Lifetime maintenance costs on a zero-turn walk-behind will be lower because there won't be a need to replace as many belts, pulleys, band brakes and gear boxes that are on walk-behind mowers,” Dust stressed. “Many contractors don’t realize that a gear-drive mower is actually a more complex mower than a zero-turn, which requires a greater amount of maintenance.”

“In addition to its hydrostatic reliability, a zero-turn mower can have other service advantages such as accessibility of other service points and the heavy-duty construction of the mower deck,” Stucky conveyed.

Provided that regular maintenance is carried out on both zero-turn and gear-drive mowers, Whurr stated that he believes the life span of both types of mowers is comparable.

Dust, however, commented that a zero-turn walk-behind offers 20 to 25 percent greater productivity than a gear-drive walk-behind, which would roughly double the life expectancy.

“A meaningful way for contractors to look at this is, ‘how much grass will each unit mow over its life span?’” Stucky suggested. “In this regard, zero-turning radius mowers outlast gear-drive models because they will mow more grass.”

The author is Assistant Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.<

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