Cutting Edge

March 1, 2019 -  By
Exmark mower (Photo: Exmark)

Mower revolution Compared to those from several decades ago, today’s mowers allow for a much cleaner cut. (Photo: Exmark)

Andrew Morse of Belknap Landscape Co. in Gilford, N.H., compares operating a mower from a few decades ago to driving a tank. Paul Fraynd, co-owner of Sun Valley Landscaping in Omaha, Neb., jokes that the machines’ seats resembled those found in football stadiums. Stephen Crowell, director of Maui operations for SGS Hawaii in Maui and Kauai, comments on the extra hours it used to take to mow lush multiacre properties.

On a couple of ideas, they all agree: The mower industry has made — and will continue to make — some considerable leaps forward to help landscape companies ease the strain of the labor crisis.

“Our biggest struggle in the industry is labor, so I think mowing is a place we can really look at being innovative and using new technology,” Fraynd says.

LM spoke with several experts — landscape contractors and mower suppliers alike — to find out more about these innovations. It all comes down to improvements in four major segments: performance, ergonomics, maintenance and safety.

John Deere mower (Photo: John Deere)

Easy rider Modern mowers enable landscape pros to maneuver around obstacles and landscape plantings. (Photo: John Deere)

Efficient and proficient

As the labor problem becomes more prevalent, mower suppliers are rising to the challenge.

“Contractors are looking for higher-productivity machines that allow them to get more done quicker with fewer people,” says Lenny Mangnall, product manager for Exmark.

Enter the zero-turn mower. Many experts agree that a major turning point in the mowing industry came when the zero-turn riding mower started to gain traction in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These machines provided increased speed and maneuverability that hadn’t been seen on previous models, according to Nick Minas, product manager for John Deere.

“The zero-turns help save time because you’re able to turn on a dime and make passes very quickly versus other models where you have to make a 10-point turn to turn around,” says Morse, recurring services department head of Belknap Landscape Co.

Model S Walker mower (Photo: Walker Manufacturing Co.)

Compact comfort Dave Walker is pictured in 1977 riding the first Walker mower, the Model S. (Photo: Walker Manufacturing Co.)

In addition to helping with the labor shortage, these mower updates, large and small, have helped contractors deliver a better service to their customers.

“I remember having to go over the lawns three or four times to have it be properly mowed, and now you can get it single or double cut and it looks really nice,” Fraynd says. “The machines are so much more efficient and able to better handle wet, long grass.”

Electronic fuel injection (EFI) technology also has had a significant impact on the mower industry. The engine technology started becoming popular in the mowing industry about five years ago.

Similar to the technology that’s been used in cars for several decades, EFI helps provide better fuel economy, lower emissions and better startup.

“Fuel is one of your variable costs, and the more you can manage that, the better off you are,” says George Reister, Husqvarna’s global product manager for commercial zero-turns.

He adds that EFI improves how a mower performs in takeoff and maneuvering situations because the technology engages the throttle so it’s more responsive.

Exmark 5-speed walk-behind (Photo: Exmark)

Take a walk Walk-behinds such as Exmark’s 32-inch 5-speed mower from 1986 are being replaced by stand-on and ride-on machines. (Photo: Exmark)

“It also gives the operator a sense of better control because the controls are instantaneous,” Reister says. “It’s almost like driving a BMW versus an old 1950s Chevy.”

The use of twin-cylinder engines in smaller machines — a trend that began in the early 1990s — was another significant upgrade in the mowing industry, according to Tim Cromley, Walker Manufacturing Co.’s marketing manager.

“We were able to put more power in a pretty compact place,” he says, adding that the horsepower on the machines initially increased from about 16 hp to 20 hp.

Other updates that have helped contractors become more efficient include larger tires and higher blade tip speeds — both of which have helped increase overall ground speeds — along with increased options for collecting grass and other debris.

“You didn’t have many options to collect grass; even the collectors were very clumsy and heavy,” Morse says. “Now, they’re lightweight or already built on. You can dump it without getting off the machine. It’s about working smarter rather than working harder and being time efficient.”

Innovations such as mulching decks and rear-discharge decks have helped contractors save on cleanup time.

“By discharging clippings out the back of the mower, cleanup time to stop and blow clippings off of sidewalks and out of parking lots is virtually eliminated,” says Brian Schoenthaler, marketing coordinator for The Grasshopper Co.

Kubota zero-turn (Photo: Kubota)

Safety first The rollover protection system is a major safety update that’s present on many commercial zero-turn mowers. (Photo: Kubota)

The versatility of mowers also has made an impact. For example, in addition to allowing for attachments, several models of stand-on mowers can be converted to walk-behind machines, sometimes referred to as second-generation stand-on mowers.

“It allows you to have a better option for loading and unloading trailers,” Reister says. “You can walk up the ramps. You can go up a hill and walk behind the machine with greater control. It’s related to both performance and efficiency, but there’s a safety element to it as well because you have the option to step off the machine and operate it in a different capacity.”

Cruising in comfort

With the operator top of mind, mowing manufacturers also have found ways to improve on the comfort of the “tanklike” machines of the past.

“When we listen to commercial contractors, they identify two focus points. Reducing operator fatigue and improving the operating experiences aids in employee retention,” says Kubota Senior Turf Product Manager Tom Vachal. “Reducing operator fatigue leads to greater productivity, while increased unit performance yields better results and reduced time on the job.”

A major improvement involves better handleability. For example, end users now only need to put forth minimal amounts of effort to operate controls, where it used to take a lot of effort. Additionally, the positioning of the controls has improved to become more ergonomic.

Exmark mower (Photo: Sun Valley Landscaping)

In control Ergonomic hand controls help alleviate operator fatigue. (Photo: Sun Valley Landscaping)

To further ensure the comfort of ride-on machine operators, mowing manufacturers have enhanced the quality of the seat and incorporated full-on suspension.

“Full-on suspension allows you to absorb bumps and other jarring sensations while you’re mowing,” Minas says.

For those operators who aren’t sitting all day, the ergonomics have improved as well. In many cases, stand-on mowers are beginning to replace walk-behinds.

“On some of the older walk-behind mowers, you were reaching over the machine to get to the controls. It actually really bothers your back,” Reister says, adding that while the introduction of the sulky solved the problem of the operator standing all day, operators still had to extend uncomfortably to handle the controls.

“The (mowers) that allow you to stand within the machine with the controls wrapping around are a superior way to cut,” he says.

Maintain and sustain

Following a long day of mowing, contractors no longer need to spend several additional hours in the shop performing maintenance on their machines — thanks, in part, to reduced component counts, toolless removal of various segments and improved deck and body designs.

Fewer components mean fewer hours spent greasing or fixing up different aspects of the mower, according to Mangnall, adding that Exmark reduced its component count by 40 percent in 2009 to help contend with this issue.

Additionally, on many models, panels can be removed without the use of tools, making oil filters and oil drain hoses easier to access, Minas says.

Other manufacturers, such as Walker, designed the mower so the body tilts open and the deck tilts up.

Mean Green mower (Photo: Mean Green Mowers)

Longer life Short battery life is one challenge with battery-powered mowers, but companies are working to increase battery lifespan. (Photo: Mean Green Mowers)

“Our design really allows you free rein over your entire machine to do the maintenance that’s going to keep that machine running for a long time,” Cromley says.

As smart technology becomes more integrated into daily lives, mower manufacturers are also looking for ways mowers can send maintenance updates and alerts to the end user. On certain machines, operators already can interact with the mower’s interface to receive information about mower functions, maintenance reminders, property statistics and troubleshooting issues.

On the safe side

Several experts agree that one of the biggest safety innovations in the mowing world was the introduction of the rollover protection system (ROPS).
John Deere pioneered ROPS for tractors in the mid-1960s, but it hadn’t caught on with mowers until the early 2000s, according to Minas.

“Now, you don’t really see commercial mowers without ROPS,” Minas says. “It’s just a standard safety feature along with seat belts.”

Operator positioning also has played into the machines’ overall safety.

“Our deck sits in front of the tractor so it’s a true floating deck,” Cromley says. “We believe that’s the safest place to be in the center of the machine, so there’s really not any forces sending you in any directions. Our machine sits low, that helps with imbalance.”

Another safety update comes in the form of integrated parking brakes. Once the operator moves the control lever to the outer position, the parking brake automatically engages, according to Reister.

Previously, the machines had a separate lever for the parking brake, which meant that in order to get on and off the machine, the operator had to reach down and find a different lever, usually located by the seat.

Other safety upgrades include automatic engine and blade shutoff, fuel spillage prevention features and probe tests to prevent end users from contacting hot points, such as mufflers.

Future trends

Moving forward, experts say they expect to see more advances in alternative fuel options, such as propane-powered and battery-powered equipment, and increased development in the robotic sphere.

“If you look to the future, that’s going to splinter into several different categories,” says Brian Manke, product manager for Stihl. “Some commercial mowing will be replaced with robotic lawn mowers. You will have some commercial operators that will move to a battery platform. Then there will be some with the traditional gasoline-powered equipment.”

For Crowell, the future of battery-powered equipment is already here. Crowell’s company, SGS Hawaii, began using battery-powered equipment about seven years ago when it started doing maintenance for several resorts around Hawaii, many of which required low-noise, no-emissions maintenance.

“We’re trying to look for better ways to provide a service for the resorts and give the guests a better experience,” Crowell says. “We really want to push the envelope on trying to be quiet gardeners in these resorts that we take care of.”

He adds that because the equipment made less noise, his crews were able to get moving earlier in the day, often before 7 a.m.

Since his company began using battery-operated equipment, Crowell says the technology has greatly improved. For example, the mowers feature larger batteries, increased runtime and are now self-propelled. However, Crowell says he would like to see more zero-turn options in the future.

Catering to contractors interested in battery-powered equipment, several manufacturers have already entered the battery-powered market, including Mean Green Mowers, which only manufactures electric mowers.

“We got into the electric mowers because the technology is so old in the gas mower market,” says Joe Conrad, president of Mean Green Mowers. “We decided to build all-electric mowers so we didn’t have any of the emissions, noise and maintenance problems of gas mowers.”

Several other experts say the low-noise, low-emission aspects of battery-powered equipment make it ideal for schools, hospitals and other similar areas.

Additionally, Conrad says the electric mowers require no filters, spark plugs, belts or hydrostatic transmissions. He adds that the vibration produced from Mean Green’s electric mowers is about an eighth of the vibrations put out by a gas mower.

Challenges of implementing battery-powered equipment include a higher upfront cost, shorter runtimes and long charging times compared to gas equipment.

“It’s like buying some of your fuel upfront,” Conrad says, adding that the fuel cost is usually paid off by a quarter to a third of the machine’s service life.

Other companies are looking into battery-powered mowers, but don’t find it feasible quite yet.

“You need a system that’s fast enough that can recharge overnight and a battery that lasts all day,” Reister says.

Many manufacturers have similar thoughts about automated mowers — it’s a potential solution for the future, just not entirely practical yet.

However, there are several manufacturers, such as Stihl and Husqvarna, that have already produced robotic mowers.

“It’s hard to find enough skilled labor that can run heavy equipment,” Reister says. “This helps fill that gap. You’re able to manage a blend of robotics, large zero-turns and stand-ons.”

Morse agrees. “Is it the ultimate solution for a company? Probably not, but it’s what we consider another tool in the toolbox.”

Down the line, experts say they also expect to see a rise in GPS-based systems, where contractors can monitor and receive information about any given
mower’s trajectory.

“I dream about having these automated mowers that remember the path and know where to mow and provide the same cut, same service every week,” Fraynd says.

Mower model trends: Be on the lookout

It’s no secret that the zero-turn ride-on mower led the industry in popularity for some time. However, the stand-on mower — especially if equipped with zero-turn technology — could soon surpass it.

“The zero-turn stand-on is by far our fastest growing mower,” says George Reister, Husqvarna’s global product manager for commercial zero-turns. “The zero-turns are the staple of the industry right now.”

Much of the appeal of stand-on machines stems from the fact that the operator isn’t required to walk with the machine, as with walk-behind mowers. Additionally, stand-ons are more compact and therefore can fit into tighter spaces, such as a trailer.

“As we see stand-ons coming into the market, the key benefit is you’ve got a much smaller footprint and it’s more productive than a walk-behind,” says Jamie Briggs, director of marketing at Exmark. “As landscape contractors struggle to find labor, they’re bringing on equipment that these users are willing to use.”

Sarah Webb

About the Author:

Sarah Webb is Landscape Management's associate editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at LM, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor.

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