Choosing productive mowers

Grounds-care professionals always are looking for ways to control their budgets and increase their productivity-without reducing the quality of their services. Whether you are responsible for maintaining city parks, sports fields, running your own landscape-contracting business or maintaining a golf course, you're bound to feel the pressure to contain costs.

To evaluate total mowing costs-a substantial portion of expenses in most operations-it makes sense to asses all the expenses associated with operating and owning mowing equipment on a per-hour basis. It's tempting to focus on the most obvious factor in mowing costs: the initial price of the equipment. However, the purchase price is only a small part of the total cost of owning and operating a mower. Nearly 85 percent of the cost of mowing is in labor, maintenance, downtime and fuel. Thus, to run the most cost-efficient mowing operation without sacrificing quality, you need to take a hard look at the total cost of mowing.

The most underrated factor in choosing the turf-maintenance equipment that's right for you is productivity. As you will see, productivity entails more than simply how much a mower can cut in an hour. It's more useful to think of how much it will mow in its lifetime, as well as how easy the unit is to maintain and repair.

What is productivity? In a general sense, productivity is a measurement of the rate at which work is performed. Manufacturers often publish productivity information in acres per hour as part of product specifications. If you know the speed and cutting width of the mower, you easily can determine how much area your mower can cut in an hour:

Acres per hour equal cutting width (in inches) multiplied by speed (in mph) divided by 100.

These figures are usually based on straight-ahead mowing with no allowances for overlap, stops, turns, trimming or maneuvering around obstacles. Therefore, besides looking at cutting width and ground speed, you should consider other factors that affect the speed with which you can complete a mowing job. Experience is helpful in estimating specific sites because no hard-and-fast rules exist for adjusting estimates to account for trees, obstacles, slopes, grass height, etc.

To determine how much it will cost you to own a particular mower, you need to consider several factors beyond purchase price and relate these costs to the unit's life expectancy as follows:

Your hourly cost is equal to the total cost of mowing (purchase price plus maintenance costs, plus repair costs, plus fuel costs, plus labor costs) divided by total in-use hours (for the life of the mower).

Ask before you buy If you're comparing the productivity of different mowers, you'll want to look at expenses in terms of total cost per acre. This is simply the hourly cost divided by the acres the mower can cut in an hour (see "Calculating mowing costs," page Contractor 14). To make a decision about which equipment will ensure the lowest total mowing expenses, it's critical to consider both the cost of ownership and raw productivity.

In addition to cost and productivity, you also need to ask yourself these questions: * Does the engine have enough power to cut heavy grasses at high ground speeds? At top speed, will you still get a high-quality cut? * Is the deck designed for maximum grass throughput with minimum power? * Does the mower have features that improve trimming and facilitate slope operation, such as individual wheel brakes or twin wheel motors? * What is the mower's trimming capability? * Do the cutting units float to enable high ground speeds without scalping? * Does the mower have adequate traction and side-hill stability to eliminate hand mowing on slopes? * Is the mower designed to reduce operator fatigue with features such as comfortable seats, arm rests, sufficient leg room and automotive-type speed-control devices?

Floyd Perry, a grounds-maintenance consultant for athletic fields, believes ease and efficiency of maintenance also are key to achieving maximum productivity. He advises his clients to make sure they easily can perform three basic, daily checks before investing in new equipment: "Find out if you easily can check the oil, the hydraulic system and the general air cleaner. Those are the issues that matter when it comes to productivity. Otherwise, you are wasting time."

Putting a price on reliability Productivity over the lifetime of a piece of equipment depends heavily on its reliability. Perry says one of the secrets to running an efficient grounds-management operation is to put a price on reliability. He urges professionals to pay attention to what's behind a name and select a high-quality brand. Perry puts faith in the distributor or dealer (along with brand reputation) at the top of his list for determining the value of mowing equipment.

"If you don't take a look at those two factors, you may get your equipment at a cheap price, but look what you're getting," says Perry. "If you make your decision to buy based on purchase price alone, you stand to lose a lot of time and money later."

"Ask yourself if the distributor or dealer can get to equipment quickly if there's a problem,' advises Perry. "Do they have 24-hour service, reliable parts and necessary replacement parts? Do they have overnight delivery? Do they have loaner equipment? Can they get you, your people and your equipment back on the turf as quickly as possible? Good service is the No. 1 feature to look for when you are buying equipment."

Paul Swaska, head grounds manager for the Baltimore Orioles, agrees that finding reliable equipment is one of the keys to success. "I've learned that you have got to have reliable machinery from a manufacturer with a reputation you can trust. And not [only do you need] just reliable equipment and a quality manufacturer, but [you also need] a distributor who will be there after you make the purchase. Anyone can sell you the equipment. I have to know ahead of time I'll get good service, fast, if I've got a problem with my equipment."

Estimating maintenance costs Grounds managers, landscape contractors and sports-field managers agree that maintenance costs and downtime are critical factors in their turf-management operations. Maintenance is the largest single item of equipment-related expense. If a blade, belt or pulley breaks, a mowing contractor loses an average of $40 an hour while a unit is down. During an 8-year period, you may spend an amount equal to 100 percent of the purchase price on repair and maintenance.

You can estimate preventive-maintenance costs such as oil changes and engine tune-ups on a per-hour-of-operation basis with the help of an owner's manual and historical information. In addition, you can calculate repair rates by estimating the cost and frequency of major expenses over a product's life. A reputable supplier, other equipment users and your own historical records can help you arrive at a reasonable estimate.

Selecting a product with the right features can make a startling difference in the cost of maintaining equipment. The features that reduce maintenance costs are high-capacity filters, the right engine type for the job, a high-quality transmission (or pumps and wheel motors) that will last for the life of the mower, a strong deck design, an adequate engine-cooling system and ample frame sizing and structure for the mower.

To establish your total maintenance costs per hour of operation, add the preventive-maintenance cost per hour to the repair cost per hour. Although many grounds managers and landscape contractors complain they don't have time to keep detailed records, the fact is that good record keeping and aggressive preventive-maintenance practices are vital to getting the most out of your equipment and cutting costs over time.

Working smarter: managing downtime costs When you have an unplanned problem with your equipment, it's likely to lead to another infuriating situation: idle hands. No grounds manager wants to pay people to sit and wait while equipment is being repaired. Thus, the smart manager will take every step possible to avoid downtime costs. Excessive downtime usually results from poor equipment, failure to stick to a preventive-maintenance program or the inappropriate use of light-duty mowers. High levels of overtime, excessive transportation expenses and unnecessary equipment purchases are some of the annoying consequences of downtime. To figure the total downtime cost, multiply the downtime cost per hour by the average percent of downtime. Downtime can cost you from $10 to $45 per hour, depending, for example, on whether you have backup equipment available.

Mowing on the competitive edge To be competitive in this industry, you'll also need to look at fuel costs, labor costs and depreciation costs (the price you pay minus the price you sell for) before deciding which piece of equipment will give you the maximum productivity. If you take the time to look at lifetime cost and reliability, you can measure your mowing productivity. The right mowing equipment will require fewer operators, reduce downtime costs and result in long-term cost savings. With careful planning and record keeping, productivity-smart turf managers can demonstrate top-level accountability. If you look beyond the initial price of your equipment, you will be ahead of the game. Business owners who understand and practice smart mowing economics will not only save time, money and headaches, they'll gain a competitive edge.

Rick Rodier is senior marketing manager of grounds business for The Toro Company (Minneapolis, Minn.).

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