Staying busy in the off-season

In the South, where the weather stays warm and the grass grows year-round, a grounds maintenance technician performs the same tasks day in and day out, but when the weather turns cold in the North, mowing schedules slowly diminish. One might think this would leave equipment technicians with a chance to catch their breath after a long season of regular mowing, but that’s rarely the case.

Winter in the North can be a busier time for a maintenance shop than the summer. Even though grounds equipment is used less, equipment technicians find themselves doing more season-related tasks. Plus, there is plenty of work to be done that is dedicated to the off-season because of the equipment’s lack of use.

Keeping your mowers sharp

Since they are not being used for mowing, the off-season is the perfect time to sharpen cutting units. While there are several types of cutting surfaces that need to be kept sharp, it is reel blades that require the most attention. Bedknives, rotary blades and flail-type blades can be sharpened, but eventually they are discarded. Although reels eventually will need to be replaced, they have a longer service life. When properly sharpened and maintained, reels can last for several mowing seasons.

The long-standing debate with regard to sharpening reel blades is whether to spin grind or relief grind. Spin grinding uses a grinding wheel that traverses back and forth across the reel blades as they are rotated. Relief grinding puts “relief” on each individual reel blade, which is to grind the backside of the reel blade at a certain angle. Most reels come from the factory with relief ground into them. Adding relief to a reel blade reduces the load required to turn the reel, thus increasing the efficiency of the machine driving it. However, relief grinding is more time-consuming because each individual blade is sharpened. Spin grinding sharpens all the blades at once, making it quicker per reel. Some spin grinders actually do add relief to the reel blade, as well.

Due to the efficiency and ease of use of the machinery, spin grinding is the most common type of reel sharpening used on golf course equipment, but is it worth it? According to Bernhard and Company, makers of reel and bedknife grinders, relief grinding does not keep blades sharper for a longer period of time. On their Web site, they say, “relief grinding is carried out on the back edge of the blade and serves only to relieve the drag caused by contact between cylinder and bedknife. It is the front edge of the blade where cutting takes place.”

No matter what type of reel grinding is used, some basic items must always be observed. First, always check the condition of the reel bearings before sharpening, especially when spin grinding. Loose or worn reel bearings will affect the accuracy of the grind. Check the reel bearings in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations and replace any damaged bearings before grinding. After grinding, always check and adjust all the reels’ settings per the manufacturer’s specifications. Don’t assume the settings remained the same. Grinding removes material from the reel blade—adjustments will have to be made to compensate for that. Lastly, apply a light coat of oil or grease to the reel blades. This prevents the freshly ground metal from rusting. This is the most critical over the winter months, as weather changes and lack of use make the exposed metal more susceptible to the elements.

Photo courtesy of Magna-Matic.
Sharpening a mulching lawn mower blade with the MAG-8000 Universal Lawn Mower Blade Sharpener.

Protecting your water systems

During the winter months, anything that normally uses water is prone to the effects of freezing and thawing. Spraying equipment, irrigation systems and pond aerators can suffer damage over the off-season if they are not properly protected. Damage from lack of proper seasonal maintenance could be costly.

Spraying equipment is easily damaged by changing temperatures if not protected. Water left in spray systems that is exposed to the elements will freeze and thaw, which can cause plastic hoses and fittings to crack. This can be prevented by treating the spray system after its last use with RV antifreeze, available at most auto parts and camping supply stores. Add the antifreeze to the spray tank, following any recommendations on the bottle, and run the pump and all attachments (spray nozzles, spray guns, etc.) to spread the antifreeze through all the components.

Even though most of the components are underground, irrigation systems are still vulnerable to temperature changes. According to Rain Bird (, manufacturer of irrigation products, the following steps should be taken to winterize an irrigation system. First, shut off the main water supply to the irrigation system and drain the pipes. Most systems have a drain valve, either manual or automatic. Pipes can also be drained using compressed air. Second, insulate any aboveground piping using insulation tape and/or pipe insulation foam, available at most hardware stores. Insulate any shutoff valves with foam insulation tape and a plastic bag. Lastly, remove any exposed electronic devices and place the irrigation control system in “shutdown” or “rain mode.” This shuts off the signals to the valves, but retains your timer settings.

If there are pond aerators, they may have to be removed from the pond for the winter. The possible freezing and thawing of the pond could damage the aerator. However, there are exceptions. Otterbine Barebo, Inc. (, manufacturer of pond aeration systems, recommends that any aerator that has a motor cooled by the water in the pond must be removed from the pond. Aerators with oil-cooled motors can remain in the pond for the winter, but the company recommends that the aerators run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to prevent ice accumulation and damage.

Pushing paper

The off-season is a perfect time to catch up on some paperwork. Recordkeeping is an important adjunct to an equipment technician’s job description, but it is often swept under the rug. Repairs and maintenance usually take preference, but recording and organizing your equipment servicing and parts inventory is an ideal task for the winter months.

Keeping turf equipment repairs and maintenance recorded serves two purposes: it provides an easy to locate reference for past repairs and maintenance, and it helps schedule future needed services. Individual records help differentiate which pieces of turf equipment have had specific repairs or maintenance done. Plus, maintenance records may be needed for warranty consideration with certain manufacturers.

If you keep any inventory of parts, you should consider recording which parts you keep and how many of each. Make a record when you use a part and in what quantity, and also record when and in what quantity you order to replenish your stock. Keeping track of your parts inventory and usage helps determine when you need to reorder and how much. It also accounts for what inventory you keep.

The author is a service writer for a commercial turf equipment distributor in the greater Philadelphia area.