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Riding reel mowers are the mainstay of the mowing fleet on most golf courses. To a lesser extent, you can find them in formal turf settings, such as sports turf fields and formal corporate settings. Most are triplexes, or three-reel mowers. You also can find five-, seven- and even nine-reel machines. But, due to their higher price tag, you're only likely to find these on golf courses.

Your specific application, of course, dictates which machine you need and what options to choose. To determine which unit is best for you, decide the amount of time you will use the machine and the situations in which you'll use it. These considerations will influence your choice in fuel power, number of blades, the choice between fixed or floating heads and the option of 2-wheel or all-wheel drive.

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* Diesel or gasoline power. Most grounds managers who own a reel rider opt for the diesel-powered machines. This is because their engines provide the greatest reliability and performance, as well as fuel economy. But gasoline-powered machines are practical for situations where purchasing costs are a greater concern than fuel costs, as well as for lighter-duty applications such as sports fields. Both types are reliable and will do the job well. Some grounds managers consider diesel a safer choice than gasoline-powered units because diesel fuel has a higher flash point than gasoline. But this edge in safety is mostly perception. All reel mowers-whether diesel- or gas-powered-incorporate a variety of safety systems to protect the operator and any people nearby.

If you already know you want one of the reel mowers with more than three heads, you won't have much choice in fuel options because nearly all of the larger machines are diesel-powered. This is due to the greater power needed to operate multiple heads.

* Number of blades. Reels are available with 5 to 11 blades. Many people think more is better but, really, too many blades is as bad as too few. The proper number is directly connected to the height of cut you want to achieve. The more blades on the reel, the lower the unit can cut-to a point. Triplex mowers cut from 1/8 to _ inch. Utility reel mowers cut from about 3/8 to 21/2 inches. Don't try to force a machine to cut outside of its design. Doing so not only is a waste of the machine, but it can be dangerous to the user. (I've seen situations where a machine is pushed to cut turf that is too high, the unit clogs and the operator loses several fingers by trying to clean it out in a hurry.) Five- to eight-bladed utility mowers are the most popular because they have the most flexibility. You'll typically only find reels with more than eight blades on a golf course.

* Fixed or floating heads. Floating heads are designed with a front and back roller. The head is free to "float" not only up, down and side to side but also front to back. The advantage to floating heads is that they help you avoid scalping turf on rolling terrain. The disadvantage is that you're typically limited to about 11/2 inches maximum height of cut because of the size of the roller on the front.

Fixed heads do not rock front and back and usually have only a rear roller. This type of head cuts from about 1 to 21/2 inches high. Higher heights usually are not practical with a reel mower.

* Two-wheel or all-wheel drive. Though you'll commonly hear references to 3- or 4-wheel drive, a more accurate description is traction-assist. The extra-drive motors provide only an additional "push" in low-traction situations. Therefore, it's important to choose the correct unit for your application, because you take a greater risk in damaging turf when mowing with more wheels than you need. (Thus, again, more is not necessarily better.) However, if your site has berms, rolling terrain or a lot of hillsides, traction assist is a requirement.

Considering safety aspects Machines on the market today have a collection of different safety systems. At absolutely no time should you disconnect these systems or operate the mower without them.

Even with such safeguards, however, your biggest safety system is employing a well-trained and responsible operator. To attain such a title, he or she must read the operation manual. Operator manuals come with all new units, and you typically can get a manual for older machines from the manufacturer. Many manufacturers offer training videos, as well, in both English and Spanish.

An educated operator not only is a safer one but is better-equipped to use the unit properly. Doing so reduces downtime and machine damage.

Maintenance differences from rotaries Reel mowers have different maintenance needs than rotary mowers. While both have the common engine-service and lubrication needs, you need to check the quality of cut on reels on a more regular basis-in most cases daily. Notice that I did not say you must adjust them daily. Properly adjusted reels can go as long as 2 weeks or more without readjustment. This applies to both mechanically driven and hydraulically driven reels. Instead, I'm talking about checking the reels on a daily basis.

Most manufacturers design the reels to cut grass cleanly without the reel and bedknife touching. This reduces wear from metal-to-metal contact. This concept came from the application of hydraulic drive to the larger machines with heavier, larger, thicker blades. However, I have successfully applied this concept to reels of all types and sizes, thereby reducing wear on all units and reducing maintenance.

Many of the new reel mowers have hydraulically driven reels as well as hydraulic transport drives. These systems require some extra maintenance effort. As you'd expect, the two main enemies of these systems are dirt and heat. Thus, you should perform regular filter and fluid changes according to the manufacturer's maintenance schedule. These intervals can vary from machine to machine and among manufacturers. Typically, they all include-before opening the system-that you clean around the hydraulic fill cap, the breather (if so equipped) and the dipstick. Also clean off dirt and accumulated clippings, leaves and other debris at least every day. Specifically, look for accumulation on or around the hydraulic-oil coolers, hydraulic motors and pumps, radiators and hydraulic reservoirs.

Final reel-mower tips To determine the appropriate height of cut for a specific mower, follow this simple rule: A reel mower will cut only two-thirds the height of the reel plus the height of cut. So, if a reel is 8 inches tall and set at a height of cut of 11/2 inches, then two-thirds of 8 inches is about 51/3 inches. Then you add the 11/2 inches (height of cut), which means the unit will cut weeds or grass up to 65/6 inches tall. Trying to cut taller grass will result in simply pushing the blades down, not cutting them.

You'll also push blades down, without cutting them, when making turns that are too sharp. Doing so also can scuff the turf. To avoid this, many of the greens and larger fairway mowers have a steerable head feature, but even these units have limitations on how sharp you can turn them.

Modern reel mowers have evolved to meet the demands of today's industry. Some units are so advanced, in fact, that they have onboard computers to monitor and control all mower systems. Even so, to get the job done, you still must rely on the basics: selecting the appropriate mower for the application and making proper adjustments, performing adequate maintenance and operating the mowers correctly.

P. Mark Johnson is a vice president of Prairie Rivers Ltd. (New Lennox, IL) and a director of the Turf Equipment Technician's Association.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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