Equipment breakdowns are costly. At a minimum, there is the cost to repair the tool. If it can’t be repaired quickly or you don’t have a backup, downtime cuts into profitability. In worst-case scenarios, poorly maintained equipment can damage part of the landscape or throw debris that injures a person or property.
Being proactive about equipment maintenance can save you time and money. Ideally, preventive maintenance begins at the end of the previous season. Nick Minas, the go-to-market manager at John Deere Commercial Mowing, Moline, Illinois, recommends adding a fuel stabilizer and keeping tanks full year-round.
“Throughout the off-season, it’s also good to start vehicles periodically to charge the battery, as well as get fuel circulating to minimize carburetor issues that cause varnishing,” he says.
Jack Easterly, brand manager of the professional handheld category at Husqvarna, Stockholm, Sweden, agrees that an ethanol free stabilizer should be used with fuel and left in the tank. However, he acknowledges there is often debate around running a piece of equipment before storage.
“One thing that is a little controversial in the service world is running the engine dry out of gas,” he says. “That runs the risk of damaging the diaphragm, which can potentially dry out and become brittle.”
Good product life has a lot to do with following original equipment manufacturer servicing guidelines, according to Tim Cromley marketing manager for Walker Manufacturing Company, Fort Collins, Colorado. Customers who get familiar with maintenance schedules and are disciplined at performing maintenance will often have the best results.
“Proper operation is also a big part of the longevity of a mower, and using a mower properly for its intended task will give good overall product life,” he says.
Common zero-turn repair items
Landscape work takes a toll on any piece of equipment. Even the most well-cared-for, best-built tools have common parts that fail simply due to the nature of the work. Some parts to include in routine checks for a mower include belts, air filters, hoses, seals and o-rings, as well as spark plugs and tires.
Certain parts require maintenance checks at different times. For example, engine oil levels and air filters should be checked before each use, and spark
plugs and fuel filters should be checked every 100 hours, says Amberlee Perry, the email and content analyst for Ariens Co., Brillions, Wisconsin.
“Engine maintenance, such as changing the oil and filters, should be performed per the engine manufacturer’s recommendations,” says Perry.
Before a mower starts use at the beginning of the season, make sure moving parts such as caster fork bearings and caster wheel hubs are lubricated, the oil has been changed and blades are sharpened.
Overall cleanliness of the mower is also important. Brad Unruh, director of new product development at Hustler Turf, Hesston, Kansas, recommends removing grass, dust and debris build-up from the top side and underneath the mower.
Use air to blow off debris around the air intake, beneath shrouding, hydraulic components and around the muffler and engine compartment daily. If air is not an option, use low-pressure water.
High-pressure water forces water and contaminants past seals in bearings, especially around electronics.
“Mower blades can dull after multiple uses or belts can loosen, so we recommend checking if they are sharp and tight, respectively. Being mindful of tire pressure will avoid a midday tire change or need for an air pump,” he says. “These practices will make a big difference in the performance of the mower and overall impact on a contractor’s productivity.”
Belts and idler pulleys cause the most downtime in the commercial landscaping industry, he says. Because of the environment they’re in and how many hours they’re used, they get worn down easily and need to be replaced often.
A common parts stock list for mowers includes these:
- spark plugs
- air filters
- oil filters
- belts (deck and drive belts)
“We recommend contractors check their zero-turn mowers daily to ensure optimal performance,” Unruh says. “If you’re going to mow for eight or more hours straight, it’s best to give it a once-over at the start of the day in case any issues need addressing. Something simple, like low tire pressure, could inconveniently set a job back.”
Much of the regular maintenance can be done in-house. However, having a good relationship with a local dealer can also help you have their equipment ready to go for the year. This relationship can sometimes involve a “no-downtime” guarantee if the dealer can do a full winter service.
“This can mean that the dealer may offer a loaner to prevent downtime,” Cromley says. “Besides this type of a relationship, contractors who have consistent maintenance as directed by the OEM will generally have the best success.”
Maintenance for handheld tools
Handheld tools are smaller and typically less costly to purchase than mowers, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to skimp on maintenance. Easterly says that good maintenance begins with a predelivery inspection. This ensures the equipment is in working order before getting onto the job site.
This checklist includes
- assembling per owner’s manual and following additional attachment instructions.
- checking for loose fasteners.
- checking the operation of choke/ primer and throttle/throttle lock.
- inspecting fuel filter, lines, clamps and connections.
- applying filter oil to foam and felttype air filters.
- checking that the air filter is fitted correctly.
- adding recommended fuel mix.
- conducting a test run to warm up the engine and adjust the carburetor.
- confirming idle and max RPM.
- testing the operation of the stop switch.
- retightening muffler fasteners.
- checking the gearbox and greasing as needed.
- lubricating the cutter bar on hedge trimmers.
- completing the warranty registration.
Like larger equipment, handheld tools include an owner’s manual. This provides detailed instructions for maintenance on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. In general, Easterly recommends checking the main safety features every time the tool is used. Operating equipment carries risks and even the most well-maintained equipment can break down. Taking preventive steps to catch and repair problems early helps reduce the number and severity of injuries caused by equipment failures.
“Check the chain saw chain brake and throttle lockout to be sure they’re functioning properly,” he says.
In addition to safety checks, Easterly says fuel issues, filtration and spark plugs are the most commonly reported issues from the field.
Here is a common parts stock list to avoid long stretches of downtime:
- fuel filter
- fuel line
- air filter
- spark plugs
- trimmer heads
- trimmer line
- gearbox lubricant
Parts most affected by wear vary among manufacturers. However, Easterly says fuel-related issues that cause the carburetor, fuel filters and fuel lines to fail top the list of common breakdowns. Most of these are attributable to ethanol and poorly mixed fuel.
“A lot of landscapers use 5-gallon cans to transport fuel and refill. When it sits it separates if it doesn’t have a premix. Over time that leaves more and more oil at the bottom of the tank,” he says. “The reason premix is expensive is that it is formulated not to separate. Cleaning out the gas tanks periodically is also a recommended step.”
When it comes to fuel, you are what you eat. If you have a poor diet your disease risk increases. Similarly, if you “feed” handheld tools the wrong fuel you increase the chances for failure. Easterly recalls a customer calling because 12 blower engines seized and blew up. When he visited the site, he found the contractor had a 100-gallon tanker that wasn’t agitated so the fuel separated.
“Fuel is a big deal. Older engines that were less environmentally friendly and much dirtier run on 30:1,” he says. “Today, the most common mix for two-stroke engines is 50:1, and they are pretty clean. You can’t even see exhaust on ours these days.”
Ignoring routine maintenance for your equipment can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars in repairs and new machines. If your equipment is not functioning properly and the guards are not in place, you could very well damage your client’s property or even injure someone who is nearby.
Equipment that doesn’t function well can’t get the job done right. If the job looks sloppy, clients become disappointed and you may lose referrals along with their business.
Additionally, there may be times that you’re looking to sell a piece of equipment. The better maintained the piece is the higher resale value in trade or private sales. Keeping detailed maintenance records goes a long way to getting the most money. Thorough service records and documentation can answer questions a buyer may have around reliability.
Invest in your equipment maintenance upfront because it will pay off later. Equipment warranties also tend to require good documentation, so keep detailed service records to ensure you’ll be covered in the event of a manufacturer-related failure.
In working order
Landscape contractors rely on their equipment to keep them in business. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that each piece is running smoothly at the start of the season and replace older machines with newer models as necessary. We asked our readers for their insights on how they make new equipment purchases and maintain the pieces of equipment already in use.
More than half (68%) of our respondents were focused on landscape and lawn care as their specialties, with slightly more covering residential customers than commercial. A majority of respondents (51%-69%) generally purchased one of each category per year, if they made equipment purchases.
A quarter of contractors (26%) budget $2,500 or less each year for new equipment, with another 23% setting aside between $2,501-$5,000. Almost one-fifth of contractors (19%) budget between $10,001-$25,000 annually.
When buying new equipment, 88% of respondents almost always go to authorized dealers directly. Big box stores only pulled 6% of contractors for equipment purchases.
In choosing the right piece of new equipment, 95% of respondents said that reliability was a very important factor in consideration. Quality was close behind with 92% of contractors. Beyond those points, three-quarters of respondents (76%) prioritize ease of use in equipment.
Contractors tend to be diligent with regular maintenance checks on equipment, with a total of 71% performing them daily or weekly. Another 18% run checks every month, with the rest taking on a little more risk with quarterly or seasonal checks. About one-third of respondents (33%) have a dedicated mechanic on staff.