Intermediate walk-behind mowers

When you cut grass commercially, you're going to encounter all kinds of obstacles-literal and figurative. Creativity and experience can help you overcome the figurative obstacles, but when there are literal obstacles on the ground you have to maintain, you're going to need equipment that can get around them.

But in seeking out mowers with the flexibility to maneuver into tight places and around the trees, shrubs, flower beds, monuments and other items protruding from the ground and interfering with your mowing path, you don't want to entirely forsake productivity.

That's why intermediate walk-behind lawnmowers are an integral part of a grounds-care operation. With cutting widths in the range of 36 to 54 inches, they deliver a decent level of productivity while remaining small and maneuverable enough to handle the impediments and obstructions that are found in anything but the flattest field.

Size matters The most prominent feature on an intermediate walk-behind mower is the cutting deck. Trimming a lawn in 36-inch swaths will take longer than doing it with a 52-inch machine, but you won't benefit from that extra productivity if most of your jobs can't accommodate a mower that wide. And, if you're able to cut even wider than 60 inches, it might be less wear and tear on you and your workers to consider using a riding mower. So you need to be familiar enough with your job sites to know what will work best where.

Often, commercial mowers will use walk-behind machines with the larger decks for most of the cutting, and the 36-inch machines mostly for trim work in areas inaccessible to the larger units. The 36-inch machines usually have two rotary blades, and the wider models usually have three blades.

A 48-inch cutting deck is the most common, says Dan Brooks, parts and sales manager for Mid-America Golf & Turf Equipment in Shawnee, Kan. "On most commercial mowing jobs, the 48-inch machine leaves a striping, and if you came back later and cut it with a 52-inch deck, it would look funny."

The 36-inch machines are popular with teens who are looking to make a transition from occasionally cutting neighbors' yards to actually starting a summertime mowing business.

"If you're 16 years old, and you get an entry-level 36-inch machine and a trailer for about $2,000, you can make a lot of money mowing lawns," says Brooks.

Engine power varies as well with walk-behind mowers; the wider the cutting deck, the more horsepower you'll need to propel the machine. Engines typically range from 14 hp for a 36-inch mower up to 20 hp or more for the widest decks.

Hydro is a hit In the last few years, hydrostatic mowers have become the must-have piece of equipment in the intermediate walk-behind category. They use hydraulic power instead of belts and gears to drive the machine.

"If you've ever driven a hydro, you never go back to gear-driven," says Brooks.

That is, if you can afford it. Everything has a price, and the ones for hydrostatic mowers typically come with a surcharge of $1,000 or so over gear-driven intermediates. A gear-driven machine can cost $2,300 to $2,500, says Brooks, while a comparable hydrostatic model will cost $3,500 to $4,000.

But judging by their growing popularity, the improved performance is worth the additional dollars.

"With hydrostatics, wet or dry, you're mowing," says Brooks. "With gear-driven units, the belts will start slipping when the ground is wet. It's also easier to back up and maneuver on hills with hydros than it is with a gear-drive."

The belts on gear drives are susceptible to wear and breaking, as well. Hydrostatic units require careful maintenance, including regularly changing hydraulic oil and filters.

"For commercial operations that are mowing six to eight hours a day, most will go with a hydrostatic model," says Brooks. "There is less maintenance, and no belt to wear out."

Besides hydrostatic and gear-driven intermediate walk-behinds, there are also variable-speed units, which use belts and a variable-radius drive pulley to power the mower.

"That was something that was used a lot in the 1980s," says Brooks. "You don't see variable-speed units much any more. They also had the same trouble gear-drives do. When they got wet, they didn't work."

Other features After you choose the size of your mower and how it will be powered, most other features are a matter of personal preference. The wide array of mowers available have differing ergonomic features, such as handles and grips, to enhance the operator's comfort.

Other common features are options to mulch, bag or discharge grass clippings and zero-radius turn capability.

The best way to determine if you will be comfortable using a particular model is to test drive it.

Regardless of what size and style will fit your mowing needs, somewhere in the assortment of available intermediate walk-behind mowers is one that is right for your business.

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