Cutting Edge

It dominates the headlines of the news each day, it seems. The reality of paying $3.00 for a gallon of gas is upon us, and it's clear that the continued escalation of fuel prices has had an effect on the new equipment many manufacturers have recently introduced. While power and productivity are still important criteria among grounds maintenance crews, managers have understandably placed a higher emphasis on the efficiency of the new equipment they purchase.

Manufacturers have responded to this call for increased efficiency with a wide variety of solutions. Diesel power has long been a popular option for extending equipment fuel economy, and the future of diesel engines in landscape applications including mowers, skid-steer loaders, small tractors and other equipment continues to look bright.

Gasoline engines with Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) are a recent development that can offer greater fuel efficiency than traditional carbureted engines. Kohler Engines has been a leader in the adoption of EFI, and the company's product manager for twin-cylinder engines, Cam Litt, has predicted that it's only a matter of time before every landscape contractor uses equipment with an EFI-equipped powerplant.

And he might be right. As fuel prices continue to escalate, the potential 25-percent savings on fuel costs possible with EFI-equipped engines become even more attractive, as the engines' fuel savings can quickly cover the increased up-front costs associated with the technology. For each $3.00-gallon of gas, operators running an EFI-equipped machine will likely save about 75 cents. That's impressive, and the list of manufacturers using the Kohler EFI engines is growing. Toro, Exmark, Hustler, Dixie Chopper, Walker, Bush Hog and Gravely are just a few of the equipment manufacturers that have already begun to incorporate EFI-equipped engines into their product offering.

Propane is another alternative that a number of manufacturers have tapped into as a way to combat escalating fuel costs. Dixie Chopper has chosen a converted 30-hp V-twin engine from Generac for its new Alternate Power propane-fueled model. Envirogard also offers two models of commercial zero-turn riders that utilize propane-converted Kawasaki and Briggs & Stratton engines.

In commercial mowers, cut quality is still king

Efficiency is clearly not the only force driving the new products of 2006 however, a fact that's especially apparent in the zero-turn rider market. The push by contractors to achieve increased cut quality using larger 60-plus inch cutting decks while running the mowers at higher speeds has led a number of companies to introduce new deck systems, or entirely new mower models, to the market.

Lastec has stepped into the commercial landscape market with an innovative line of articulating deck zero-turn mowers. Company founder and president, Jeff Laskowski, says that, after years developing its belt-driven articulating mowers to meet the needs of golf course crews mowing terraced or uneven fairways, he's ready to show landscape contractors the benefits his articulating decks can give them.

“A standard 60- or 72-inch cutting deck has very limited ability to adapt to the contours of the turf,” Laskowski says. “By allowing our deck to articulate, our 72-inch deck effectively cuts with the accuracy and quality of three 25-inch decks side-by-side.

“In the golf market, articulating decks have pretty much become the standard. We're developing mowers for landscape contractors because the guys we're talking to tell us they want the same quality of cut the golf courses are getting, and their customers want it too. I look at articulation as the ‘next zero-turn mower’ in its potential impact with commercial landscapers.”

Lastec manufactures a number of different mower types, all of which use articulating deck technology. The company offers both wing-style and standard mid-mount zero-turn riders, in addition to the PTO-driven and front-mount Articulators Lastec primarily sells to golf courses. All utilize the company's patented belt-drive system, which Laskowski says is lighter-weight, more efficient in power transfer, and costs the owner less money, both up-front and in the long run.

Speaking of articulation…

Mowers aren't the only equipment type that can benefit from articulation. In fact, Turfco has introduced a new tractor-mounted overseeder that introduces articulation to the seeder category for the first time. According to Turfco Executive Vice President Scott Kinkead, the company employs three independently articulating 20-inch seeder heads on its new TriWave 60 overseeder, which allows crews to achieve more even, consistent seed placement, especially in uneven terrain.

“We saw the frustration golf course superintendents were having with the overseeding process,” he says. “From the disruption of the existing turf, to the inability to follow the terrain contours found on any golf course, or the limited seed germination that was being achieved, existing designs weren't very successful.”

The floating heads on the TriWave combine with close 1.5-inch blade spacing and a newly designed “wave” blade system, which Kinkead says achieves successful seed placement, yet causes minimal disruption to existing turf. The reduced disruption is especially important on golf courses, where the consistent visual presentation of the turf is a high priority.

Deeper decks = increased capacity

Keeping pace, Exmark has introduced a new high-capacity Triton cutting platform for its 2006 zero-turn riders. The new 6-inch-deep Triton decks are now standard equipment on Exmark's Lazer Z, Lazer Z XS and compact Lazer Z HP models, and the decks feature an adjustable discharge baffle that allows the operator to maintain the correct amount of airflow in a wider variety of cutting conditions. Exmark says the efficiency of the new deck design actually requires less horsepower than other deck designs it's tested.

The benefit of deeper cutting decks is primarily one of increased capacity for grass clippings. The increased airflow that manufacturers engineer into the decks helps them reduce the occurrence of clumping and uneven cutting that can occur in heavy grass.

Overall, most decks on current commercial zero-turn mowers are at least 5-inches deep, but deeper decks are clearly perceived as a good thing by production-minded contractors, and as such, it's a trend that's likely to continue, especially as more and more powerful engines become available to take advantage of the increased deck capacity.

Resurgence of the front-mount zero turn?

The front-mounted zero-turn mower, which has one or more caster wheel behind the drive wheels, is a mower category that hasn't seen as much development in recent years as other mower types, in particular the mid-mount zero-turn. That seems to be changing, and for contractors focused on caring for residential or highly landscaped properties, it's a mower type that can offer interesting benefits.

Since they don't fully support the weight of the mower like those on a mid-mount zero-turn model do, the caster wheels ahead of the cutting deck are typically smaller on front-mounted zero-turn mowers. Their decreased height allows them to easily mow under and around trees and flowerbeds, in addition to providing a more even cut when mowing through ditches and depressions. The sensation of maneuverability is very high with front-mount zero-turns as well. Because you sit directly over the drive wheels, you're right above the mower's pivot point, and you feel it in the handling of the mower.

Also, the decks of front-mounted zero-turn mowers often detach or flip-up easily, making routine deck and blade maintenance distinctly easier to perform. Exmark gave its new FrontRunner a hydraulic deck lift system that raises or lowers the deck at the push of a button, and that's about as easy as it gets.

Perhaps just as significant to contractors is the reduced trailering space front-mounted zero-turn riding mowers. With their decks flipped-up, the footprint of front-mounted zero-turn models decreases significantly, allowing a greater number of mowers onto trailers. For many growing businesses, the decreased footprint of these new models is a benefit that could allow them to handle more work without the immediate need to upgrade trailering equipment.

Engine diversity defines hand-held equipment

Today, the majority of hand-held equipment in use is 2-stroke powered. Operators still like the light weight and responsive power of 2-stroke engines in these applications, but tightening EPA emissions regulations have led to the development of lightweight 4-stroke engines that can be operated at any angle.

Since 4-stroke engines don't burn oil and gasoline premix, they typically produce fewer emissions than their 2-stroke counterparts. The 4-stroke valve-train also limits the amount of unburnt fuel that escapes into the exhaust with each intake charge. Reduced noise is another benefit of the new 4-stroke powerplants. The issue of engine angle is one that manufacturers have addressed with dry-sump, pressurized lubrication systems that spray an oil mist at strategic points inside the engine to provide necessary lubrication at any angle.

While Echo and other companies continue to develop cleaner, leaner-burning 2-stroke technologies, and Honda develops its micro 4-stroke powerplants, Shindaiwa and Stihl have pursued a relatively new engine technology that bridges the gap between 2- and 4-stroke engines.

Shindaiwa calls its technology C4, while Stihl calls its engine the 4-Mix. And while each company developed its engine independently from the other, both engines are essentially a 4-stroke design that burns a 50:1 fuel/oil mixture, just like a 2-stroke. Why? Because it eliminates the need for a separate engine lubrication system — a necessary component in a traditional 4-stroke engine. This eliminates the opportunity for oil starvation when the engine is operated at an angle, so it's a good fit for hand-held trimmers, chainsaws and the like.

Because the 4-stroke valvetrain is employed in the Shindaiwa and Stihl engines, emissions can be reduced through more effective cylinder sealing and more complete combustion of the fuel/oil mixture. Plus, according to Shindaiwa, fuel economy is significantly increased on their C4 engines, when compared to traditional 2-stroke powerplants.

The bottom line

While increasing fuel efficiency has become a high priority for those purchasing new equipment, it's clear that there are many other factors influencing manufacturers today. Productivity is still a very high priority, and you are likely going to buy the equipment you feel will help you get the job done well in the least possible amount of time. You won't purchase equipment that will hamper your productivity — bottom line. That said, if a more efficient solution exists that is capable of the same, or greater productivity than the equipment it replaced, the value proposition will quickly become crystal clear, and the product will likely be a huge success in the marketplace.

Matt Weber is a freelance writer who currently resides in Lincoln, Neb.

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