Equipment Options: Intermediate walk-behind mowers

Intermediate-size walk-behind mowers are the silver bullets in a grounds manager's arsenal. They are the unsung heroes-the big dogs. They can cut large swaths, covering sizeable areas in less time, yet they also can cut close enough to beds, tree trunks and shrubs to eliminate the need for spin-trimming. For ultimate productivity, a mix of different types of intermediate walk-behind mowers is ideal. Properly using and choosing the right walk-behind can get a job done faster, with less effort and better results.

In the 1997 model year, 49,193 commercial intermediate-size walk-behind rotary turf mowers were sold in the United States, according to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute Inc. (Alexandria, Va.). OPEI's Commercial Turf Care Equipment Forecast projects model year 1998 shipments of commercial intermediate-size walk-behind rotary mowers to be about the same, at 49,341.

Three basic types of intermediate walk-behind mowers are available: Variable-speed. Belts and a variable-radius drive pulley power these units. Gear-driven units. A transmission is the driving force on these. Hydrostatic mowers. Hydraulic technology turns these units' wheels.

Hydrostatic mowers are the "new kids on the block." They have only been around since about 1990. Whatever "flavor" you prefer, aspects to consider for each type include price, maintenance and productivity.

"Eeny meeny miney" mow Gear-driven and variable-speed mowers typically cost about $1,000 less than hydrostatic models. However, the maintenance on them can be higher due to many control- and drive-related component problems or transmission wear, increasing their operating costs. For example, variable-speed mowers' belts constantly need adjustment or replacement. If you don't adjust them correctly, or if one tire is lower on pressure, belt-driven mowers will pull to one side. In addition, you can experience increased belt slippage on slopes.

A disadvantage of hydrostatic mowers is their tendency to creep in neutral, and their adjustment is hard to maintain due to variations in the hydraulic-oil temperature from cold at start-up to hot later in the day. Hydros also require careful, conscientious maintenance. Hydraulic-hose leaks due to loose or cracked fittings and hose ruptures caused by chafing or age can spell disaster for the entire system. These types of problems require an outlay of hundreds of dollars. In addition, many hydro models require hydraulic-oil and -filter changes every 500 hours, about once each season.

Although belt-driven units have some problems with belt slippage and breakage, at this point in time, they make up the majority of our walk-behind fleet at D.R. Church Landscape. These soldiers see a lot of action. One advantage we've found is that after-market parts are readily available as the units age, and we can replace entire engines for around $550 plus labor. Keep in mind that units you might consider "tired" still typically command much more than the cost of a new engine if you sell them before they die. Another helpful hint when using these units is to standardize equipment. By purchasing all mowing units from one manufacturer, you standardize maintenance skills and your parts inventory.

All decked out Generally speaking, your crew should have a mix of large and small deck sizes to meet demands ranging from large open expanses to smaller, fenced-in areas. We put at least one hydrostatic mower on each trailer, as well as a mix of older belt-driven units. The hydro units have larger-width decks to maximize efficiency, however, most units are not wider than 48 inches. Decks larger than that are best-suited for riding units, which can handle the challenge of heavy, thick grass better with their increased horsepower. Fitting walk-behinds with riding attachments is an option to reduce operator fatigue, although they negate some of the tight maneuvering capabilities of walk-behinds.

The narrower-deck mowers use a two-blade cutting system. The larger units, in the range of 48 inches and wider, use a three-blade system. Keep in mind that using a three-blade model requires extra attention to the alignment and sharpening of the blades to ensure an even cut. With the larger decks, also note that cracks can occur between the deck and engine housing. The distance between the front and back wheels and the increased weight of a larger deck increases the load on any connection points between the deck and the power unit. Often times, manufacturers do not beef up these connection points or the horsepower when adding large-diameter decks. This also can create power problems. A two-blade, 12-hp, 36-inch machine might work well, but a three-blade, 48-inch unit powered with 12 hp might bog down in wet or heavy turf conditions.

Account for the landscape So how do you choose the right intermediate walk-behind mower for the work? It depends on your account mix. What kind of landscapes do you maintain? With walk-behinds, what separates the men from the boys are the intricate landscapes with smaller turf areas, screening berms and retention-pond slopes.

For instance, if your firm serves a lot of multi-family complexes with smaller turf areas and lots of planting beds and trees, you need a machine built to maneuver well. In these high- visibility areas, larger deck sizes can give an uneven appearance to the cut turf, as they don't follow grade changes as well as units in the 36-inch range. In addition, tighter turf areas require operators to back up mowers frequently. With a belt- or gear-driven unit, that requires gear changes or pulling. So for these intricate landscapes, the hydrostatic mowers, with their hand-controlled reverse modes, shine. Another advantage to the immediate-reverse action is that the operator expends much less effort. (Remind workers in these landscapes to wear eye protection to guard against eye scratches from twigs and always wear ear protection. [See related article, "Equipment Options: Equipment decibel levels," March 1998 Grounds Maintenance.])

In an open, flat area of about 1 acre, any of the walk-behind units will do an excellent job. Here deck size is key-the larger the better. However, for 2 or more flat acres, a 61-inch riding mower is more efficient than a walk-behind.

When mowing around retention ponds, an operator can contend with steep slopes and many trees or landscaped beds. Negotiating retention-pond turf can be tricky, especially if you want to alternate your cutting pattern to eliminate ruts and soil compaction. In many of these situations, it is possible to use a riding mower, typically when the retention area is adjacent to a larger turf area. However, your pattern choices will be limited with a rider due to safety concerns. Also, if a riding mower loses traction, the spinning tires will damage turf as you wheel around trees on a slope. With walk-behinds, the situation is somewhat safer, as long as the operator-and the unit-has good footing. With belt-driven units, wet belts can slip to the point of free-wheeling. This is a dangerous situation and probably the biggest concern. The hydrostatic mowers tend to have better traction and maneuverability on slopes and wet terrain because they do not experience belt slippage (which actually can send a belt-driven mower into the "drink").

With an intermediate walk-behind mower, it is the turning and maneuverability coupled with a deck in the 36-to-48-inch range that makes these machines stand out. At D.R. Church Landscape Co., we use walk-behinds in all situations where we want a fresh weekly cutting pattern. It is important to keep pattern changes in mind when bidding a property, because a more difficult diagonal pattern over a long, narrow stretch can take twice the time of a lengthwise cut. The hydrostatic mowers tend to be easier to handle in these situations. Using a hydro's grip-controlled reverse feature on one of the tires, you can make a "zero-turn" at the end of each row with the independently-driven tires to make the turn and then to pivot back at the start of the next row. To finish off the standard baseball-field effect, we "frame the picture" by making several outline-edge passes to encompass areas unevenly cut when turning the mower.

All in all, most maintenance crews probably use intermediate walk-behind mowers to perform about 75 percent of their work. These machines have decks that are large enough to increase productivity yet you can easily maneuver them. Intermediate walk-behind mowers are, in fact, the work horses of a maintenance crew.

Jim Moreau is maintenance superintendent at D.R. Church Landscape Co. Inc. (Lombard, Ill.)

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