Equipment buyers ask several questions when deciding on a piece of equipment: features, performance, price, comfort. And what may be the most difficult question of all: “How long will it last?” This question is the most difficult to answer because of all the variables that can affect equipment longevity. Regardless of the quality of a mower when it rolls off the assembly line, it won't even outlast the warranty period if it's not maintained properly.

The lifespan of a machine is directly affected by how many people operate it. It's well known that a machine used only by its owner will outlast a machine run by a never-ending series of crew members. The reason is simple enough: An operator who depends on his machine for a living has a vested interest that an hourly worker doesn't. An operator who runs the same machine daily also is more in tune with the machine and therefore more likely to notice a strange noise or vibration that could indicate a developing problem.

Another variable is geographic location. For example, in northern states, mowers often are “put to bed” for the winter, whereas Southern turf managers typically operate their mowing units year-round. Thus, a “year” for a mower in the South can amount to a great deal more than a “year” for a mower in the North.

Predicting how long your equipment will remain productive may not be easy, but everyone agrees on this much: you want your equipment to last as long as possible. So how do you get the longest life from your equipment?

A complete maintenance program is the answer. A complete maintenance program is more than changing oil, sharpening blades and fixing things when they break. Some operators feel that they don't have the time or money for a by-the-book maintenance program. However, thorough preventive maintenance will, in fact, prevent downtime and costly repairs. It is an investment well worth making.


The first step to a successful maintenance program is to set a schedule. The schedule should be based on the manufacturer's suggested maintenance intervals. The best way to remind yourself when to perform maintenance is with an hour-meter and good record keeping. Every piece of equipment you have should have a log book in which you record routine maintenance as well as any other repairs. These records should be kept in book form so they can be used in your maintenance shop; a back-up copy is a good idea, too, and should be kept on your computer.

A systematic, scheduled approach to maintenance offers tangible benefits.

  • You'll perform repairs in a timely manner, not when someone happens to think about it. This prevents many problems altogether, and keeps small problems from becoming big ones. For example, if your schedule calls for an inspection of the equipment before each shift, things like leaking tires, loose belts and oil leaks will be spotted before they turn into costly, unscheduled repairs.

  • Records help reveal operator-related trends in breakdowns and downtime, showing when your equipment experiences problems, and helping you determine if they may be operator-caused. Requiring each operator to sign out a piece of equipment and perform a pre-work inspection helps reveal who is caring for your equipment — and who isn't. The mere fact that operators may be held accountable should help increase their vigilance.

  • Certain trends may start to become apparent in your records. For example, you may notice that two of your three mowers required a new drive belt at about 300 hours. This should be a cue to have one on the shelf for the third one. When it goes down, you won't have to wait for the part.

  • The life of your equipment will be extended, reducing capital outlay and increasing the bottom line. Unless a machine is obsolete or damaged beyond 50 percent of its replacement cost, it is always cheaper to keep what you have — and when you have excellent maintenance records, you know what you have. This is certainly more than you can say about buying a used machine.

  • Good maintenance records are a great sales tool. When the time comes to update your fleet, you'll find the resale value of your well-documented machine to be higher than that of the typical used piece of equipment. People who buy used equipment are more interested in how it's been taken care of than how old it is. Being able to tell them with certainty that the engine in the mower was replaced only 300 hours ago, for instance, increases your chance of getting your price for the equipment.

  • A well-cared-for machine is safer to operate. Items such as safety switches, guards and OSHA-required gear should be inspected regularly and replaced when necessary. Keeping items like this on your checklist will ensure your compliance with workplace safety rules and reduce your liability.

So, the first step is record keeping; a job you must insist on from every operator. Develop a basic pre-work inspection sheet for each piece of equipment. It should list items to be checked, along with space to note problems that are discovered during inspection. These sheets should find their way to your maintenance foreman's clipboard every day. Problems should be addressed quickly and not allowed to snowball.

Consistency is a must. Always noting repairs in your records is the only way to fully benefit from a preventative maintenance program. Noting the hours when the oil was changed is great, but also note the type of oil you used, the brand, and perhaps the condition of the oil (watery, overly dirty, etc.) can only help determine problem areas. (For more on what your oil can tell you about your engines' condition, see the sidebar on page 16.)

Properly noting dates of repairs is also helpful in getting warranty coverage. If you have the proof that you put a starter on your grounds mower on a certain date, it is easy enough, if the starter fails again, to confirm that it is under warranty. No digging through file cabinets looking for the sales receipt that you hope you kept. Just look in the record book, determine the date of installation, and you can find the rest from there. Just one more way that tuning up your maintenance practices adds to your bottom line.


The next step is to keep a reasonable stock of parts on hand to maintain your fleet. This is where the records really help out because they can help predict when you will need a specific part for a machine. This is important because you can't stock everything — you have to anticipate which parts you'll really need.

At a minimum, you should always have enough parts on hand to completely service each machine you own. After you've kept records a while, you'll add to that inventory those items that often break or wear out. This, too, requires you to keep records so that your stock of parts remains adequate.

Paul Peterson is a repair technician for a large rental company. He has managed small engines shops, set up parts departments and worked in the outdoor power equipment rental business for the past 10 years (Bristol, Va.).


In the realm of preventive maintenance, there's an almost endless list of things you can inspect for problems: belts, hoses, coolant level, oil level, chromium, tin, aluminum, cadmium, antimony, nickel, silver…. What's that? You aren't familiar with some of the items on this list? Perhaps you should learn more about oil analysis. What's in your oil can tell you a lot about the shape your engine is in. (Too much tin may be a sign that your main bearings have seen better days, for example.)

Erik Wangsness, director of marketing and sales for Titan Laboratories (, a Denver-based firm specializing in oil analysis, says there are three ways that analyzing your oil can really pay off:

  1. Predictive maintenance

    “Through a laboratory analysis of used oil or coolant, [a lab] can determine the condition of your vehicles and equipment, pinpoint specific problems and provide recommendations for correcting those problems.” So, if a potential problem is identified via an oil analysis, the lab will notify you and you can take action to correct the problem and prevent downtime.

  2. Extend the drain interval

    “Optimal drain interval can be determined using oil analysis,” according to Wangsness. Translation: you may be able to go longer between oil changes.

  3. Certify the condition of new or used vehicle prior to purchase or sale

    “We have found our customers like the option of testing equipment they are interested in purchasing. They don't want to buy someone else's problems and oil analysis can give them a snapshot of the health of the equipment and provide a bit of peace of mind. Also, when they sell their equipment, our customers find they can sell the equipment quicker and for more money when they can show a track record of oil testing with engine analysis reports.”

So, how do you go about testing the oil in your fleet? Contact a lab that specializes in this type of service. They'll be happy to help you set up an oil analysis program, order the right test and answer any questions you may have. Local phone directories should be helpful, and internet searches should yield useful contacts as well. The cost of oil analysis varies. Titan Labs offers them for $10 to $20 per kit. Wangsness points out that, “By identifying one engine overhaul you can pay for several years of testing.”

Once you have a sampling kit in hand, simply follow the directions to get the required amount of oil needed for the test. Four ounces is typical. There are three ways to get the sample: from the drain plug, with a vacuum pump (which is even better) or with a sampling tool (some kits provide them).You can simply mail the sample back to the lab.

At Titan, they run the oil analysis within 24 hours of receiving the sample. “If a sample shows a serious problem we immediately re-test the sample for accuracy,” Wangsness says. “Then we call the customer to discuss the results and discuss maintenance recommendations or possible solutions.”

The City and County of Denver offers a testimonial to the value of oil testing. Denver began using oil analysis to direct their maintenance program and achieved the following results:

  • Before the program, 30 percent of their fleet was down at any given time. This figure was been reduced to 1 percent after testing began.

  • Service calls were reduced from 500 per week to 19 per week in spite of increasing the fleet size by 200 to 1725.

  • Transmission rebuilds are a small fraction of what they were before Denver used oil analysis. (Transmission oil also can be tested.)

It's important to note these results were achieved by incorporating oil analysis into a total preventative maintenance program. With the one-two punch of a good maintenance program and oil analysis, you may find your maintenance budget back in the black — with more green in your pocket.

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