Cut down your overhead with wide-area mowers

One of the most important aspects of commercial mowing success is productivity. In fact, it's a manager's responsibility to figure out how to successfully complete a landscaping job in a short amount of time with minimal equipment and employees.

Consider the example of a facility manager who might tackle a 50-acre property in an eight-hour day with four mowing machines and four operators. What's the biggest expense here? Labor. In an ideal world, the manager could accomplish that same job in less time with just one machine and one operator, freeing up more time to take on more jobs — which translates into increased profit.

Due to development of wide-area mowers, or WAMs, it's already possible. With an increasing demand for WAMs, commercial landscapers are getting just what they need: more productivity with less overhead.

Just ask Bill Edwards, facilities manager of Siskey YMCA in Matthews, N.C., who recently purchased a John Deere 1600 Wide-Area Mower for use at five different locations. “We purchased a wide-area mower to use in conjunction with our reel mowers, and the wide-area mower has, without a doubt, made a huge difference in our productivity,” said Edwards. “What used to take me three hours to mow with multiple mowers now takes me one hour with one machine. If I had enough in my budget, I would buy another one because we have so many locations. In fact, our farthest facility is 10 minutes away, and it takes me longer to load up the wide-area mower and transport it than it does to actually cut the two fields (at that location).”

What's so great about a WAM?

WAMs started making their way into the marketplace in the 90s, and they've become increasingly popular in commercial landscaping over the past few years. WAMs are typically used by commercial contractors that mow 50 or more acres, as well as managers of large institutional sites. They're ideal for areas such as governmental and institutional facilities, school grounds, recreational and athletic parks and golf courses.

In the past, the industry has offered products such as out-front and mid-mount zero-turning-radius mowers to cut these large fields. Perfect for a landscaper mowing smaller commercial properties, both of these types of mowers offer good visibility, easy maneuverability and excellent trimming capabilities. But their productivity on larger acreage can't compare to a WAM. Most front- and mid-mount mowers have an average cut of 48 to 72 inches, while WAMs may cut more than twice that — that's more productivity than using two top-of-the-line front mowers.

Ideal for mowing large fields and pastures, WAMs often are equipped with four-wheel drive that allows them to operate on hillsides and steep terrains. And they are generally available in a rear-wheel-steer configuration, either with a wide, out-front deck or a three-deck wing configuration. Mowers with a three-deck configuration offer added versatility by allowing the operator to mow with one, two or all three decks. These options allow an operator not only to mow in large open acreage, but also to trim and cut around tighter areas such as buildings, trees and flower beds. Depending on the brand, some side decks can float below level to cut a ditch bank, and above level for trimming slopes. In many cases, that eliminates the need to have a second person following behind to do trim work with a smaller unit.

What about the cost?

Of course, WAMs require a larger up-front investment compared to most mowers. But the trade-off is that one piece of equipment can significantly reduce overhead and added costs by reducing the number of employees and machines you would normally need to complete a job. With one WAM, you can replace as many as three to four employees and three to four mid-sized mowers. Freeing up employees means that you can take on more jobs, which will bring in more profit for your company. And budget-conscious in-house maintenance operations can easily justify the investment in light of the reduced operating costs that WAMs provide.

Edwards actually put together a cost-sheet evaluation on his new wide-area mower. “The price of the machine was definitely worth the purchase,” said Edwards. “I figured out that with all of the overhead I'm saving in addition to having the opportunity to take on more work, the payoff on that machine will be within three to five years. That's not bad! In fact, I'm hoping that I can use this information to justify buying another unit if the YMCA continues to expand to more properties.”

Is a WAM right for you?

The need to add a WAM to your fleet can depend on how many locations you're mowing and the total acreage at each location. If you're mowing a 20-acre lot, a mid-mount or out-front mower might be perfect for you. But if you're mowing more than 50 acres, consider a WAM.

The WAM was designed for landscapers overseeing institutional and governmental properties, large commercial landscapes, municipality and school district locations, and parks and recreation areas. About 70 percent of WAMs are sold to governmental agencies and the other 30 percent to commercial landscapers.

Before you purchase a WAM, evaluate your productivity and profitability. Could you afford to reduce your number of employees and equipment? Would one machine that offers the versatility of several machines free up more time to take on more projects? If so, you might want to demo a unit to see if it's right for you.

What about transportation and maintenance?

WAMs are easy to transport. For relatively short distances, their transport is high enough to drive them from site to site, or you can transport the units on a trailer. If you decide to use a trailer, simply get the mower onto the trailer and lock down the side decks.

For maintaining optimal performance of your WAM, a regularly scheduled maintenance routine is vital. Some WAMs have made pinpointing service needs easier with diagnostics systems that quickly help the technician perform needed repairs and reduce downtime. There are daily maintenance procedures that should be followed such as checking the oil and all grease points, making sure mower blades are sharp and ensuring that your tires have the correct pressure. Of course, you should always read your operator's manual and follow the recommended maintenance schedule. For more helpful maintenance tips for your WAM, see the accompanying tips section in this issue.

Will WAMs be around awhile?

As the industry grows and WAM sales continue rising, manufacturers are forecasting an increased demand for these machines. The feedback from users has been consistently positive, noting that these units have saved them time and money. By adding a WAM to their fleet, users are reducing their number of employees and increasing their productivity, freeing up more time to take on more work and contracts. Because WAMs offer commercial landscapers so much versatility and increased productivity, these units are likely to become an essential part of a commercial landscaper's fleet.

Gilbert Peña is a market manager for John Deere Worldwide Commercial & Consumer Equipment (Raleigh, N.C.).


To keep your wide-area mower performing at an optimal level, routine maintenance is crucial. Falling behind on maintenance can lead to costly repairs for your mower. Although there are daily routine maintenance procedures that should be performed on most equipment, always refer to your operator's manual and follow the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule. Below are 14 maintenance tips to help you keep your mower in tip-top condition:

  • Each day before mowing, make sure mower blades are sharp to ensure the best cut quality.

  • Grease all zerks once a week, or as recommended by the owner's manual, to maintain cut quality.

  • After each use, clean the underside of the mower deck to make sure it's free of grass clippings and debris. Debris left clogged under the deck can affect the mower's ability to disperse clippings.

  • Before mowing, check the pressure in the tires. If the pressure of the tires is incorrect, it can affect the quality of cut as well as make it difficult to mow on hillsides.

  • Check engine oil level each day.

  • Before mowing, make sure the mower is adjusted to the correct cutting height for the job.

  • Frequently inspect the engine's oil filter to ensure it's in good condition. Replace the oil filter according to the manufacturer's guidelines.

  • When changing oil filters and fluid on hydrostatic units, examine the filter for contaminants. Contaminants are signs of internal wear, leaks or improper cleaning.

  • Before each use, check the air restrictor indicator to see if it's time to replace the air filter. If the air filter is dirty, the mower won't operate at full capacity and you could even damage the engine.

  • Examine the engine coolant before each use. Low or empty fluid levels can stall a mower and damage the machine.

  • After each use, check the mower for any loose or damaged parts and tighten or replace those parts immediately.

  • Clean any debris from the engine, especially the air intake screen.

  • At the end of the mowing day, remove belt shields, clean the belt area and check belts.

  • Finally, read the operator's manual and follow the recommended service schedule.

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© 2020 Penton Media Inc.

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