Landscape company owners can't compete profitably in today's crowded and price-sensitive market with yesterday's technology. Similarly, given their shrinking budgets, institutional grounds pros can't manage large areas of turfgrass with inefficient mowers.
Avoid the logic that there's nothing new on the market and that the type or brand of mower that has worked in the past remains best for your operation. You can't stand still when it comes to mowing or you'll get run over. In these times you must find ways to mow more property in less time, and safely, too. Don't forget quality of cut, either, as it remains critically important in customer retention. Manufacturers realize this as well and are responding. "Customers are looking for ways to reduce or eliminate turf damage, compaction, scalping," says Isaac Roth of Ventrac Products.
Each year mower manufacturers work hand-in-hand with experienced contractors to improve their offerings. For example, in December the Toro Company hosted a group of knowledgeable landscape pros, seeking their input on the design and suitability of its equipment offerings, including its mowers. This is a common practice in the industry and valuable to manufacturers and end users.
"In every aspect of the product development cycle we seek and act on our customers' suggestions," says Rick Olson, president of Exmark. "Oftentimes this results in significant improvements to existing products and provides the basis for new innovations."
Walker, an early adopter of EFI technology, now has three options and expects its popularity to grow in commercial mowing because of fuel savings.
Indeed, every year equipment manufacturers offer machines that cut faster, are more maneuverable and more comfortable to operate. Your challenge is to keep up on product upgrades that will boost the productivity and reduce operating costs for your particular operation.
For example, if you move from site to site regularly, equipment size and maneuverability are tops in your selection process. The kind of turf you maintain is another vital element in choosing the right equipment for your jobs. Some manufacturers offer units that mow faster under certain conditions while others offer various deck options that improve cut quality as conditions change.
Involve your operators
Do your homework. Review the newest innovations of the various brands and models. Include your operators in the selection process. Let them demo various brands and models. They're the ones that will be on these units eight hours or more daily during the season. You want mowers that will increase productivity, provide the level of service your customers demand and keep costs (fuel, maintenance, repair) under control. Your operators have more to do with this than you can imagine.
And, yes, there are differences among the many brands of commercial mowers in the market, and that's not just in their color or other cosmetic features. The differences can be significant.
Husqvarna propane-fueled PZ Series
"We're introducing a hot oil shuttle and more robust industrial slipper pumps to the hydro system on our new Super Z Hyper Drive," says Frank Nuss, marketing and product specialist for Excel Industries, manufacturer of the Hustler brand. "This hot oil shuttle moves hot oil directly and consistently from the wheel motor via a third hydraulic line, right to the oil cooler. This results in a cooler running hydro drive system."
John Deere also has been working on extending the life of hydraulic pumps, so critical to the longevity of mowers. Its ZTrak Pro 900 Series models feature a cross-porting system that routes the coolest hydraulic fluid to the pump doing the most work, along with the Tuff Torque transmission with 13cc piston style pumps and 13cc wheel motors.
Productivity is the name of the game for commercial landscapers, says Bill Shea, vice president of sales & marketing, commercial products for the Briggs & Stratton Yard Power Products Group and the Ferris brand. "We invented and patented suspension technology, and now we've integrated that technology into the Ferris Evolution. The Evolution line-up features four models from 19 to 27 hp with 48-inch and 52-inch mowing decks," says Shea. "The Evolution can mow up to 5.1 acres per hour based on 80 percent efficiency."
A closed-loop EFI system allows the engine to automatically adapt to weather, fuel and altitude changes.
Alternative fuels on the rise
With the price of gasoline approaching $3.50 in much of the United States, mowing pros look for ways to get fuel costs under control. One of the biggest trends in commercial mowing the past five years has been the growing popularity of propane-fueled mowers. These include gasoline-powered units that contractors convert to propane and to a growing selection of production models. Indeed, most major mower manufacturers now offer these alternative fuel mowers through their dealers.
"Our industry will continue to see demand for fuel efficient products," says Rick Olson, president of Exmark Mowers. "We also understand that at the core of this challenge is that the solutions must be practical. As such, we have developed an extensive lineup of LP-powered products and the broadest selection of EFI engine power options.
"We fully anticipate growth in this category in the coming years. They're not only environmentally beneficial, but they also offer significant fuel savings without compromising performance."
Kubota is one of the latest manufacturers to produce propane-fueled mowers with the recent introduction of the propane zero-turn ZP330P-60 and 72, with 60- or 72-inch decks respectively. Two 33.5-pound propane fuel tanks feed the 31-hp units.
Husqvarna now has propane-fueled units in its PZ series of zero turns, which feature seven-gauge, 6-inch-depth decks, Hydro-Gear pumps and Parker wheel motors. The units come with 7-inch cooling fans and oversized 1.5-gallon oil capacity for extended service life.
Diesel a strong option
Not every manufacturer is joining the propane bandwagon, however. The Grasshopper Company says that its lineup of clean-diesel-burning tractors give contractors calculable savings when production is measured against fuel used.
"Grasshopper has been a pioneer in alternative fuels, offering propane units over 30 years ago and recognizing diesel as the best answer for productivity and fuel efficiency since 1983," says Trent Guyer, marketing coordinator. He points to the power density (50 percent more than LP, the company claims) in the emission-compliant Grasshopper MaxTorqueT diesel engines.
"Grasshopper operators can do more work in less time using less fuel and therefore produce significantly fewer overall emissions," claims Guyer.
Other major manufacturers offer diesel-powered commercial units. In spite of costing more than comparable gasoline or propane-powered units and being heavier, many contractors appreciate the muscle, durability and longevity of diesel units.
Hustler is bringing a new diesel machine, the Hustler Diesel Z, to market, which will feature the company's VX4 deck technology. "The VX4 deck allows for faster mowing speeds, handles all varieties of grass, will handle a greater volume of clippings and discharge them quicker. It also has adjustable baffles and mulch capabilities," claims Nuss.
Deck design advances
Deck design obviously is an important feature for many mowing pros as evidenced by the continuing popularity of the 7-Iron (7-gauge steel) mowing decks and Cub Cadet's now three-year-old Select Cut System. Other manufacturers tout the unique features of their products' mowing decks, as well.
For example, Roth points to Ventrac's MJ 840 Contour mower deck as providing operators a wider width of cut and less "handwork" trimming. Similarly, Scag promotes its Velocity Plus cutter deck for "an unmatched quality-of-cut."
EFI the way to go
Chris Hannan, marketing manager for Toro, agrees that rising fuel prices are a huge concern for professional property maintainers. He says Toro is incorporating automotive-type technology, such as electronic fuel injection (EFI), into their newer models.
John Deere ZTrak Pro mowers feature the rugged 7-Iron, stamped 7-gauge steel decks.
"EFI mowers allow contractors to cut their fuel expenses without the effort of converting their fleet over to alternative fuel sources," says Hannan, "The Z Master and GrandStand EFI models feature a powerful Kohler engine with a closed-loop electronic fuel injection system. This closed-loop system allows the engine to automatically adapt to load, weather, fuel and altitude changes. Since the engine is continuously running at optimal levels, fuel consumption and emissions are dramatically reduced."
In spite of the increased attention given to EFI technology in commercial mowers, it's been around longer than most landscape company owners realize.
"We teamed up with Kohler engines 13 years go to introduce EFI into commercial mowers," says Tim Cromley of Walker Mfg. "Walker currently has three EFI options: MT26 (Kohler 26 hp), MTL31 (Kohler 31 hp) and the MBS26 has just been updated to a 29 hp Kohler EFI. I believe that other OEMs will continue to see overwhelming benefits of EFI and the consumer will begin to ask for it."
Keeping pace on the EFI front is John Deere with its Z925 EFI with a closed loop fuel injection system. "With a closed loop system, the engine actually checks for unused oxygen in the exhaust multiple times per second. This means the engine can fine-tune the amount of fuel injected into the engine, resulting in up to 25 percent fuel savings in real-world use," says Jamie Palmer, John Deere product manager.
Drives like a car?
Another automotive-style feature now available to mowing pros is the Synchro-Steer technology on Cub Cadet Commercial Z-Force mowers. Contractors can purchase Cub Cadet zero-turn units with either the more traditional lap bar or with the steering wheel, four-wheel-steering Synchro-Steer that provides increased stability on hills and reduces the likelihood of "turfing" during zero turns. The Synchro-Steer models are especially popular with grounds pros tasked with mowing slopes.
Rick Cuddihe is president of Lafayette Consulting Co., owns a maintenance company and works with contractors to improve their businesses. He serves on PLANET's Landscape Management Specialty Group, Safety and Governmental Affairs Committees and is a PLANET Trailblazer. Contact him through LawnSite or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. Contact him at rhall@moose .