The mower makes it happen

December 1, 2010 -  By

Even when the economy is good, contractors are looking for ways to do more with less. The current economic conditions have simply reinforced the need to run their businesses more efficiently, to find a way to get more productivity from their crews and, of course, from their equipment.

Every year manufacturers try to do their part by releasing new mower models. They find new ways to tweak engines to adjust to rising fuel costs and contractors’ demands to get more from their machines — from ease of maintenance to fuel efficiency to run time. And occasionally they come up with a game changer like the stand-on or the zero-turning-radius rider.

But when all the trappings are stripped away leaving only the most basic considerations, there are two factors that take top consideration over purchase price.

Brett Miller

Headshot: Brett Miller

“Quality of cut and reliability would be the two most important features,” says Brett Miller, owner, Brett Miller Landscaping, Ogden, UT.

While nothing at this year’s GIE+EXPO suggested contractors will revamp their mower fleets, there were updates and new models that offer contractors and their crews the ability to get more for their time and investments. (For the latest offerings, see our mower roundup beginning on page 18). As contractors are ready to bring new machines into rotation, they will find more mowers that offer alternative fuels and other efficiencies.

Efficiency trends

Contractors face a constant barrage of increasing costs: fuel, labor and materials. But once they’ve mastered routing and cut the dead weight from their crews and back office staff, there’s not much more in the way of expenses to get rid of.

And while you might be holding on to the equipment a little longer, sooner or later, maintenance and the associated downtime costs are going to outweigh the value of a new machine.

For the past several years, mower manufacturers have emphasized the energy and time-saving aspects of the their products.

Jason Laws

Headshot: Jason Laws

“We’re always looking for new technology in everything,” says Jason Laws, landscape manager, Elite Grounds, Pleasant Grove, UT. “It all contributes to the bottom line.”

Like other manufacturers, at Milwaukee, WI-based Briggs & Stratton, maker of Snapper mowers, the focus has been on improving performance, decreasing emissions and enhancing the durability of its mowers.

“All of these trends add up to increased productivity by making sure the landscaper has the right unit with the right features for the job, which results in being able to mow more acres per hour,” says Laura Timm, director of corporate communications for Briggs & Stratton.

While increased efficiency in engines might be de rigueur today, a style introduced several years ago is still making its way onto trucks and trailers. For Mark Teegen, the fleet manager at Acres Group, Wauconda, IL, “the stand-on mower is definitely changing our industry.”

One way in which contractors are looking to save money and time is by finding tools that can multi-task or reduce equipment load and space. The stand-on is that tool for Teegen.

“We’re trending toward stand-on mowers because they seem to be more efficient,” he says. “If we can replace a walk-behind and a rider with a stander, that’s the thing we like.”

Having one mower that can do the job of two means less labor and maintenance, both expenses that drop straight to the bottom line.

“We cut down the amount of equipment we need to maintain a property by using a different type of mower,” Teegen says. “Functionality is No. 1.”

Attachments

There are several factors contractors consider when looking at new mowers.

One factor that manufacturers have been focused on is versatility. The more jobs crews can get done with one piece of equipment, the more efficient and productive they will be.

“Using zero-turn maneuverability to perform edging, leaf blowing, vacuum collection, aeration, snow removal and spray application in addition to mowing results in maximum efficiency, superior customer satisfaction and saves time, fuel and labor costs for increased profitability,” says Stan Guyer, president, The Grasshopper Co., Moundridge, KS.

“Landscapers can provide full service to their accounts and efficiently optimize labor without having to maintain a myriad of stand-alone implements by using their front-mount mower to power close-coupled implements with all the benefits of zero-turn maneuverability,” Guyer continues.

Of course they can only accomplish that goal if attachments are easy to mount and change.

“Ease of operation is one of the top concerns for commercial operators, as less time training and learning new equipment impacts the bottom line,” says Allen Baird, product manager, Cub Cadet, Cleveland, OH. “New equipment that works on a variety of terrain is also important. For those with customers across a large geographic area, it is very important that tools function properly on all landscapes.”

Alternative fuels

As gasoline prices near and surpass $3 gallon, there seems to be some renewed interest in alternative energy options.

According to LM’s Mower Survey, the split on operating mowers that consume alternative fuels is nearly even. Just over one in 10 (11%) say an alternative fuel is “very important” when they make mower purchasing decisions. Another 38% believe it is “somewhat important.” The remaining 51% say owning a mower that uses propane, electric, bio diesel or some other power source “doesn’t play a factor” in purchasing decisions.

Teegen would like to see electric mowers one day become the norm.

“If they made a stander that could go half a day on a battery and we could charge it at lunchtime and then finish the day with it that would be pretty cool,” Teegen says.

For his part, Miller says he would like to see a more cost effective diesel mower. The general rule of thumb for diesels is that the rest of the mower will wear out before the diesel engine does.

For now, Acres Group is looking to replace some of their two-cycle equipment with electric alternatives. The mowers will have to wait until the technology is more developed.

“We and our customers like to have options and understand that alternative fuels are becoming more popular,” Baird says. “We are researching opportunities to implement more alternative fuel-driven products and feel that our current line of propane, high-efficiency diesel, gasoline and even new lithium ion equipment satisfies the current market demand.”

Grasshopper is looking at the diesel option.“Diesel is a sensible alternative to ethanol and other alternative fuels because its greater power density allows completing more work in less time,” Guyer says. “This adds to the fuel savings and emissions reduction realized simply by the efficiency of the diesel engine itself. Compared to gasoline, propane or LNG, diesel uses as little as .6 or .7 gallons per hour and can save up to $1,750 per 1,000 hours in fuel costs alone when prices near $2.50 per gallon.”

That said, the most popular alternative fuel is still propane.

According to Rob Torango, landscape manager, Elite Grounds, Pleasant Grove, UT, it comes down to making sure an alternative fuel delivers the same performance as gasoline. Environmental impacts and cost are factors in the decision making, but ultimately he wants to know if the mower can stand up to daily workloads. “It comes down to power; if it bogs out going up a hill or cutting through wet grass,” Torango says. “We don’t want to become complacent. Everything is worth looking at.”

Concerning propane,  statistics from the Propane Education and Resource Council (PERC) say:

  • Propane is the leading alternative fuel in the U.S., and the nation’s third most common vehicle fuel, after gasoline and diesel.
  • More than 29 models of propane-fueled commercial lawn mowers are available today from more than 12 industry-leading brands.
  • Propane-fueled mowers reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 50% over gasoline; and carbon monoxide emissions by more than 80% compared with gasoline-powered mowers.
  • Propane is one of the cleanest fossil fuels. It is an approved clean alternative fuel under the Clean Air Act of 1990.
  • A proven model exists for propane refueling. The forklift market has established a fuel delivery and cylinder exchange structure that is directly applicable to the commercial mower market.
Rob Torango

Headshot: Rob Torango

Know when to hold ’em

While the trend toward efficiency has not abated, there are some things the economy has had a direct impact on. It seems contractors are willing to hold on to their mowers a little longer — the economy has had an affect on mower purchasing habits. Some 65% of respondents to Landscape Management’s Mower Survey said budget constraints have impacted their mower replacement schedule.

Acres Group has about 370 rider, stand-on and walk-behind mowers and another 100 push mowers. The company currently replaces its mowers every four to five years, Teegen says. He would like to move that to every three or four years.

Acres Group’s replacement time is pretty typical according to the survey. Only 14% of respondents replace their mowers less than three years old. Another 13% change mowers out after three years. The largest majority (43%) replaces mowers every three to five years, while members of the next largest group (30%) keep their mowers more than five years.

About the Author:

Jacobs is a former editor-in-chief of Landscape Management.

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