Open public spaces may call for wide area mowers and smaller units with great maneuverability and traction on slopes.
Photo by Steve Trusty.
At GIE+EXPO back in October 2013, I followed the round of press conferences and new product introductions. With this article already assigned, I added a lot of eavesdropping and question-asking at both the indoor and outdoor booths as mowing contractors assessed equipment with their specific needs in mind. To all of you who took the time to share your ideas on improving mowing productivity - thank you!
Dependability and durability
The top issue by far is the dependability and durability of the mower. Mowers need to be out there, performing consistently, hour after hour, day after day. Part of that equation is an easily accessible and cooperative servicing dealer that can keep them up and running. Even better is a dealer that understands that time is money, so it will supply a loaner when downtime will be more than a day - or even just a few hours.
Feedback confirms that mower manufacturers are listening to contractors and fine-tuning products to fit their needs. Two factors often repeated are improved maneuverability for highly landscaped areas and cutting capability to handle both thick, wet turf and the slower-growing, stressed-out grass of hot, dry conditions.
Covering the basics
Those who continually work on strategies to improve mowing productivity already understand the challenges of maintaining their region's turf types in their region's climatic conditions. Beyond that they have analyzed their accounts in terms of property size, usage, landscape elements and customer expectations. All of those will affect mowing productivity in varying proportions.
But the basics of area coverage provide a means of direct comparison for hourly mower productivity on flat terrain.
For ride-on mowers, start with the manufacturer's top recommended operational speed for that unit. At a speed of 7 mph, with 5,280 feet in a mile, the mower can cover 36,960 feet (7 x 5,280 = 36,960). Multiple that distance by the size of the cutting swath of the mower, measured in feet, to determine the number of square feet mowed per hour. With a 60-inch (5-foot) cutting swath, the total is 184,800 square feet (36,960 x 5 = 184,800).
To be realistic, anticipate that productivity will drop from 100 percent to around 80 percent due to turns, trimming and overlap. So 80 percent of the square footage per hour is 147,840 (184,800 x .80 = 147,840). To convert that figure to acres per hour, divide by the number of square feet in an acre, 43,560. That comes to 3.39 acres per hour (147,840 <0x00F7> 43,560 = 3.39).
Using the same calculations for a mower with operational speed of 7 mph and 72-inch (6-foot) cutting swath and 80 percent productivity, the coverage would 177,408 square feet or 4.07 acres per hour. Those additional 12 inches of cutting swath result in a 20 percent increase in area covered.
Walk-behind mowers obviously have slower speeds, which vary by type of machine and the stamina of the operator. At a speed of 3 mph and a 48-inch (4-foot) cutting swath and 80 percent productivity, the coverage would be 50,566 square feet, or 1.16 acres per hour.
At a speed of 3 mph and a 60-inch (5-foot) cutting swath and 80 percent productivity, the coverage would be 63,360 square feet, or 1.45 acres per hour. Here, the extra 12 inches of cut results in an increase of over 25 percent in the area covered.
If deck size was all that mattered, the choices would be easy.
The more hours spent cutting, the greater the advantage in productivity. That becomes even more obvious with faster mowing speeds and larger decks that cover more area per hour. Using the numbers above, compare 37.12 acres, which is the total area covered by the 48-inch walk-behind mowing eight hours a day for four days, with 55.68 acres, the total area covered with the same mower working eight hours a day for six days.
Then, compare that to 108.48 acres, which is the total area covered by the 60-inch ride-on unit mowing eight hours a day for four days, with the 162.72 acres, the total area covered with the same mower working eight hours a day for six days.
So another way many companies increase productivity is by taking advantage of longer daylight hours to shift to 10-hour work days, up to six days a week. Savvy staffing makes this scheduling workable without overly stressing employees or upping costs with overtime hours.
Some opt for 10-hour days Monday through Thursday for their full-time mowing crews, then bring in steady part-time workers for 10-hour shifts on Friday and Saturday, using the trucks and equipment of a full-time crew.
Others develop mowing crews almost entirely composed of part-time workers that have two to four days open each week due to scheduling of their other full- or part-time positions, college classes or other training programs.
Many of these part-timers are mature individuals with a long history of dependability that return to the seasonal mowing "team" year after year. Though scheduling these work hours is a bit more complex, the advantage is keeping each machine spending more hours actually cutting lawns.
While off-hours mowing may only work for a limited number of residential clients, owners of commercial properties such as office parks and manufacturing plants often prefer the early morning mowing close to the buildings before their workers arrive. Saturday mowing is rarely a problem for them.
Consider the operator
Ease of operation is increasingly important for companies drawing a new crop of crew members that are more techies than tinkerers. It's rare to find an applicant with experience operating tractors, forklifts or even stick-shift trucks. Easy-to-operate mowers reduce initial training time and cut the likelihood of operator error, increasing productivity.
Obviously, operator comfort reduces fatigue, keeping them more alert and productive after long hours of mowing. Adjustability was put to the test at the outdoor exhibits as multiple crewmembers operated the same machine and discussed their personal pros and cons. Most then moved on to try out a similar mower from a different manufacturer.
With the same deck size, and the horsepower, operational system and mowing speed all closely matched, operator comfort could be the deciding factor for increased productivity.
The range of mowers that landscape pros consider buying must meet the demands of their particular customers and their properties. These vary from company to company. Several shared the requirements they'd established and the type of machines they were comparing to meet them.
Mowing in tight, confined spaces is a major issue on properties ranging from condominiums to apartments to small residential yards and highly-landscaped areas. For some, access to fenced-in yards through 42-inch-wide gates presented another restriction.
Options considered here typically consisted of units with a 36- to 40-inch deck in both walk-behinds and ride-on zero-turns. Maneuverability, area covered per mowing hour and quality of cut were often the deciding factors.
Some contractors reported they had tested the time difference between mulch/recycle and blow in these tight spaces as compared to catching clippings. For several of those with multiple hardscaped areas and mulched plant beds, catching clippings won. For them, placement of the catching unit and ease of attachment, dumping and reattachment became another consideration. One of these noted that after switching to catching clippings they'd received feedback from several clients with small children and/or pets who appreciated the reduction of debris tracked into their homes.
A few of the contractors I met at the GIE Show were checking out wide-area mowers to cover contracts such as parks and other public spaces. Along with area covered per mowing hour, they were comparing size options and performance on uneven terrain.
For some looking at the larger deck zero-turn ride-ons, stability and performance consistency on berms and hillsides were a point of comparison.
Other contractors prefer to keep their crews close to the turf and gravitate toward stand-on units as an alternative to the walk-behind mower and sulky combination they had been using. They were checking the adjustability to fit differences in operator height and comparing maneuverability and weight distribution with the platform in the down and flipped-up positions.
In all these situations, the closer the mowers match in-use demands, the greater the productivity.
A couple companies shared scheduling tips that also had improved their productivity. Coordinated routing to specific sections of a city reduced driving time between stops. Grouping each day's stops by type of property reduced the number of mowers loaded on the trucks or trailers. This resulted in faster off and on time at each stop, freeing more time for mowing.
Suz Trusty brings more than 40 years experience participating in and reporting on the green industry. You can comment on the article or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.