HOW TO: Buy a mower

As a contractor or a grounds manager, the prospect of buying equipment can be exciting but also can cause you a great deal of anxiety. For many of you — especially those who like equipment — the idea of getting new equipment and getting to pick it out is fun; and employees are usually excited to see a new piece of “iron” come in. At the same time, you feel some anxiety, often triggered by the thought of spending money out of your pocket or your budget. Are you making the right decision financially and, just as important, is this the right piece of equipment? Once the decision is made, you will have to live with it for years or learn an expensive lesson.

So how do you make the best decision? There is no simple answer. But there are some ways to think about the decision-making process that can improve your chances of making a decision that you can feel good about.

1 Know your needs

Route contractors have the hardest time making equipment decisions because the type of work they do is constantly changing. Maintenance contractors and grounds managers for large facilities use their equipment in more predicable and well-defined ways.

If you are a contractor who is just starting out, you need to think versatility first and foremost. If, for instance, you are considering your first walk-behind or riding mower and you do a lot of route work, you know what kind of jobs you have now, but you don't know what your future jobs will be. So you need to be thinking about what you can use on the most properties and what will give you the most efficiency overall.

If you are an operator of larger business and have a pretty good stable of mowers already, or if you are a grounds manager of a large facility, you might think more about specialized pieces of equipment. You should think efficiency first. You should choose the largest piece of equipment that offers you the most production using the least amount of labor. You must accurately figure out how much time, if you were to use the piece of equipment to its maximum potential on your jobs, it sits idle. If you can use it 80 percent of the time or four days out of five, purchasing it is probably a good decision.

Also, when you're comparing pieces of equipment on a cost basis, you must project production rates and offset price differences with labor savings over the life of the equipment. Labor is much more costly, over time, than equipment.

2 Consider various makers

When it comes to selecting one manufacturer's equipment over another's, what is the best way to make the right decision? Whenever possible, arrange a demonstration of the equipment on the property where you'll use the equipment if you buy it. Ideally, have the person who will be the operator be the one to try it out. Get references, or go to an industry forum on the Internet and ask your peers what they think of the brand.

Often, the primary difference between two pieces of equipment is how well they perform under adverse conditions, not ideal ones. For example, some mowers perform better mowing wet grass than others. If you frequently face wet mowing conditions, then you should try out the equipment when turfgrass is wet.

During the past few years, manufacturers have begun paying more attention to operator comfort and ergonomics. You should not overlook this. Finding the piece of equipment that will cause less fatigue on the operator will increase productivity and motivation. This will close the gap between actual production rates and potential rates.

3 Look for dependability

Production is very important, but equally important is serviceability and dependability. Have other users had good luck with the serviceability, and have they been satisfied with parts availability? The bigger the piece of equipment, the more you are hurt by downtime. If you have a piece of equipment that mows 7 acres per hour and it breaks down and is out of commission for 2 days, and your only other equipment mows 2 acres an hour, you have a serious problem. You now will have to work 56 hours to mow what was taking you 16 hours, if you can't get a loaner. So the commitment to having a loaner is important. Yes, price is important too, but productivity and downtime risk must be a bigger part of your decision. If your labor costs you $10 an hour in the previous example, then you could pay $400 more for the mower and break even just by avoiding the downtime in this single instance.

Another consideration is the engine manufacturer. Mower manufacturers rarely make their own engines, but rather use engines made by other companies. Many mower manufacturers give you a choice of engines. If you do not have experience with a particular engine type, check references. Many otherwise good mowers have suffered from poor engine performance. And frequently, the engine manufacturer, not the mower manufacturer, provides the warranty for the engine.

4 Find the right dealer

What is the dealer like? Not all dealers understand the commercial mowing business. Time is money and you don't want excuses, you want results. Be sure to get dealer references from customers who have businesses or applications like yours. More often than not, equipment satisfaction or dissatisfaction can be traced back to the dealer rather than the manufacturer. Good dealers who have the long-term interests of their customers in mind will seldom steer you into buying an inappropriate piece of equipment.

5 Don't forget the little things

The last concern you have when purchasing equipment is unexpected or hidden factors. Check out things like curb clearance (whether the unit can go up a curb without a ramp), trailer requirements (whether it will work with your current trailers), transport speed (important on large sites) and efficiency loss in wet conditions (weight, tracking, etc.). For example, several manufacturers now make standing mowers that save considerable room over walk-behinds in a trailer. In this case, you could save money by being able to use a smaller trailer or gain more space for other equipment.

Finally, do not be rushed into a decision by sales pressure. Do not make your decision in the presence of the salesperson. Go back to your office and lay out the facts as you know them. Have someone challenge your rationale. Try to take the emotion out of it and do your homework.

Bruce K. Wilson is vice president of (Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.), a business-to-business web site serving the green industry.

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