Zero-turn radius mowers continue to gain popularity

With the promise of increasing productivity while maximizing quality of cut, it's easy to see why zero-radius mowers are one of the hottest pieces of equipment in the commercial-mowing marketplace. More and more, landscape contractors are turning to these machines as alternatives to conventional mowers, making zero-radius mowers the fastest-selling product in our industry.

Zero-radius mowers are ideal for commercial operations, golf courses and other areas that require high degrees of maneuverability and lots of trimming. The short, overall length of these mowers provides enhanced maneuverability in tight areas and takes up less trailer space. They also have a low center of gravity that offers increased traction and stability on hillsides.

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Front- and mid-mount mowers Two types of zero-turning-radius mowers are available. The first is a front-mount that has drive wheels and a single or double wheel, with the mower deck out in front of the body of the machine. The out-front mount of the deck provides better trimming ability around tree rings, shrubs and utility boxes.

The second type is a mid-mount mower. It has drive wheels and caster wheels on the mower deck.

Keep in mind that mid-mounts are less flexible when it comes to trimming.

Check the deck If you decide to purchase a zero-turning-radius mower, deck size is an important issue, as it affects your productivity and, ultimately, your profit. The average cut on zero-turning-radius mowers is 48 to 72 inches.

When choosing the deck for your mower, make sure to evaluate stamped decks vs. fabricated decks. There is a misconception in the industry that fabricated decks are sturdier than stamped decks. This simply is not true. Stamped decks add durability to the product and are not dependent on a series of welds for their overall strength. In addition, manufacturers have more control over the design process of stamped decks; therefore, airflow over the deck is streamlined.

Blade-tip speed and safety You also should ask about the blade-tip speed of the mower. Many contractors believe that increased blade-tip speed increases overall productivity. This is true to a certain degree, but as blade-tip speeds increase, safety decreases. You must be careful to control the delicate balance between safety and the promise of added productivity.

Speaking of safety, mower decks are one of the largest contributing factors of sound levels. The design of your deck plays a part in the total amount of sound your mower creates when it is running. In addition to protecting the operator, lower sound levels also are an added bonus if you face noise restrictions. Low sound levels also make residential and office-park customers happy.

Serviceability When making your purchase decision, you also must consider the serviceability of the machine. To minimize service time-and allow more time for mowing-look for a deck with a flip-up, rotate-for-service option. Ideally, the deck should rotate 90 degrees for maximum ease-of-service and blade access. A 90-degree rotation also will save space on your transport trailer. While evaluating the rotate-for-service option, be sure to investigate the mechanism for changing the cutting height of the mower. You will save time by choosing a mower that allows you to adjust the deck without using special tools.

Another aspect of serviceability is getting under the hood, so to speak. Simplifying engine maintenance, for example, means you must choose a mower that allows you access to the entire engine compartment. Some manufacturers accomplish this by designing a "flip-up" mower body, allowing full access to the engine compartment.

Options As the market continues to grow, so will the options and features available on zero-turning-radius mowers. Some manufacturers have developed material-collection systems for zero-turning-radius mowers which already are available with diesel-fueled and liquid-cooled engines. Larger decks also are emerging in the marketplace with many more options still to come.

While a zero-turning-radius mower will help you save time on your mowing jobs, be sure not to cut corners when cutting the grass. Customers can be demanding, so advise them against trying to limit mowing frequency with lowered cutting heights. The lower you set the cutting height, the higher your odds of scalping the turf. Even the most efficient zero-turning-radius mower will not prevent a long-term problem that results from scalping turf. It is advisable to observe the rule of cutting only the top third of the grass blade to promote a thick, healthy turf. If you mow more than a third of the grass blade, you can damage the root system of the turf and create a thatch problem.

Ground speed In addition, don't mow too fast. Find a speed that will give the grass a nice, even cut without putting you behind schedule. Unfortunately, no standard rule exists on how to find that balance, but there are some things to keep in mind as you mow. To get the best cut from your zero-turning-radius-riding mower, operate it at a reasonable speed. In most cases, you should not exceed 4 or 5 mph. If mowing in wet or tall grass, you may hear the engine start to strain. That's a signal it's time to slow down. Be especially careful on hilly terrain. A four-wheel-drive unit is a better option for these conditions.

Obeying some simple turf-care rules helps you maximize your efficiency and productivity from a zero-turning-radius mower.

Bob Tracinski is the consumer-information manager for John Deere's Worldwide Commercial & Consumer Equipment Division.

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