MOWER Innovations

Manufacturers seem to have limitless creativity when it comes to engineering mowers.

Grounds managers and commercial cutters continue to look for that competitive edge in mowing — a little faster speed, a little extra productivity per day, a little more efficiency in operating costs. It's crucial to find a way to keep ahead, whether you're a facilities manager fighting labor shortages or a lawn care firm protecting its profit margins in a highly competitive business.

Manufacturers have responded. In fact, with more players in the industry, mower makers are going all out to maintain their own competitive edge. The results are added benefits for buyers and more convenience for operators. The difficulty is comparing all those brand new features and benefits to figure out which ones will give you the biggest “bang” for your buck. We've polled several manufacturers to compile some of the latest “cutting-edge” technology.

What's new in engines

The trend continues toward higher horsepower and liquid-cooled power plants in riding mowers. John Deere is adding more horsepower to its engines on commercial mowers. Deere's Gregg Breningmeyer says the company will introduce “as many as six new platforms with several new models later this year.”

Deere also plans to bring out a “stand-on” mower to compete with existing models from Great Dane and Wright Stander. Breningmeyer says the primary advantage of stand-on mowers is their compact design, which allows commercial users to get more equipment on a trailer and increase productivity at job sites.

Bob Walker says more Walker mowers will be equipped with V-twin liquid-cooled engines this year, too. “Liquid-cooled engines tend to run a little leaner and operate somewhat quieter,” he says. “Some claim maintenance is less, but that's debatable. While keeping air-cooled engines clean is paramount, so is keeping the radiator clean on liquid-cooled engines.”

Another trend, according to Walker, is the growing use of electronic fuel injection (EFI) in mower engines. Both Walker and Exmark pioneered the use of EFI a couple years ago. “We were extremely cautious,” says Walker. “We only built 100 machines with EFI the first year.” However, Walker was “pleasantly surprised” at the acceptance of the mowers and the low incidence of problems in the field. “Last year, 18 percent of Walker mowers had EFI engines, and this year close to 25 percent of our production will be so equipped.”

Although the computer equipment for EFI adds about $400 retail to mower costs, Walker says users have been more than pleased with the payback. Fuel savings is the primary benefit, but reduced emissions and better power response under loads are EFI advantages, too. Walker says small-engine manufacturers are working to adapt automotive EFI technology to the smaller configurations required for mowers.

Magic Circle Corporation has introduced the “Velvet Touch Control” system of hydraulic drive train for its Dixie Chopper brand of commercial zero-turning radius lawn mowers. “For years we've been searching for ways to make the drive systems run cooler and live longer,” says Art Evans, Magic Circle Corporation president.

This system is a compilation of several factors that include proprietary modifications to the Hydro-Gear hydraulic pumps as well as a new oil developed by the company. And according to Evans, his new oil is the key that makes the whole system work. “Of course, the amount of heat generated by the hydro system has a monumental influence on the overall life of the hydraulic system components. We have proven during our testing that this new ‘VTC’ oil that we have developed will add an extraordinary amount of life to the Dixie Chopper hydro-drive system,” Evans says. Operators can also use the oil on other brands of zero-turn mowers as well, he adds.

Exmark is riding the more-power, liquid-cooled trend as well with its new XP Series 60- and 72-inch Lazer Z mowers. For the first time, Exmark is incorporating Daihatsu engines in their mowers, offering both a 27-hp diesel and a 31-hp gas engine with the XP Series. John Cloutier, Exmark marketing communications manager, says the new XP mowers answer a demand for extra power for tough mowing conditions and mulching work.

Along with the new engines, Exmark has introduced its new DynaFocal engine iso-mount system to reduce vibration. The design is patterned after jet-engine mounting technology, Cloutier says. “We've also introduced a new unitized, tubular frame to absorb vibrations better and extend frame life. Our new XP mowers also feature an innovative dual mule deck-drive system to deliver more power to the cutting deck and maximize stability.”

Emissions are a growing concern in urban areas. Grasshopper has decided to get ahead of the curve by using only CARB II certified engines on their commercial mowers with liquid-cooled engines, according to Patsy Penner, marketing coordinator for Grasshopper. “Grasshopper made the decision to meet impending standards in advance of their implementation,” she says.

Grasshopper offers a special front-mount mower, the 725K/LP municipal model, with a dual fuel gasoline or LP engine that makes the unit operable on ozone non-compliance days in certain cities. Or, says Penner, the optional LP mode allows the unit to be used inside with a sweeper or other attachment.

What's new in mower decks

A deck is a deck? Maybe, but there are plenty of variations within both stamped and fabricated deck designs. Deere already has adapted its 7-Iron technology to most mulching and side-discharge decks. Breningmeyer says the 7-Iron design will be available on 36-inch decks by the 2003 model year.

The heavier steel (0.177 inch thick) adds durability, Breningmeyer says, and the stamping process allows for a cleaner, more uniform product. “The downside is increased manufacturing cost, but fortunately Deere has the facilities to handle it efficiently.”

Encore has adapted floating-deck technology to its mid-cut models, and the company is offering end-users a $100 factory rebate with each Prowler Mid Cut to draw attention to the feature. Encore's Dick Tegtmeier says it's the only mid-cut in the industry with true articulating deck action. The key is the three-point pivot system between the deck and mower frame that allows the deck to “float” over bumps, holes or uneven terrain.

“The front wheels act as caster wheels to maintain ground contact from side to side and front to back,” Tegtmeier says. “Stability and contour cutting become even more important at today's faster mowing speeds. A true floating deck smoothes the ride for the operator and reduces turf scalping.”

Cub Cadet Commercial features new “Command Cut” floating decks for its commercial riding mowers, now built in a state-of-the-art facility separate from consumer products. Command Cut decks are fabricated with 10-gauge tops and 7-gauge steel skirts with welded steel bars for extra reinforcement. Extra-deep design enhances airflow and better dispersal of clippings, say Cub Cadet engineers.

Cub Commercial says its Marbane blades overlap up to 50 percent more than most mower designs, which provides more uniform cutting, especially in turns. Decks also have an extra 1.5-inch lip on the underside to hold clippings longer for better re-cutting. And, the deck's new rear roller design produces better striping for manicured lawns.

Kubota enters the zero-turn market with new ZD18 and ZD21 mid-mount mowers, offering 54-inch and 60-inch decks and an optional 12-bushel clippings collector. An innovation is the built-in jack system and pivoting front axle that can be cranked up for easier maintenance and service — without removing the mower deck.

Kubota also offers a 48-inch deck for its G-series tractors, including a “direct chute” for clippings pick-up through the center of the unit, allowing for a more compact design and eliminating the need for a blower.

Grasshopper introduced its new line of DuraMax decks late last year, featuring deeper 5.5-inch sides and 6-bolt spindle design to enable faster mowing speeds. This spring, Grasshopper brought out a new bagging system for its mid-mount mowers, to complement the DuraMax Decks. The “Power-Vac Collection System” is designed specifically for Grasshopper M1 52- or 61-inch decks and includes twin bags that hold up to 8 cubic feet of material, according to Penner. “A single pin change converts the vacuum system to side discharge configuration, and an optional mulching package is available with the same deck,” she says.

Scag Power Equipment recognized its customers' need for increased productivity and introduced the Advantage Deck. “Commercial cutters require increased productivity to remain competitive,” says John Crowson, vice president of sales and marketing for Scag. “We have responded to this requirement by developing the Advantage Deck that delivers a superior cut in a wide variety of grasses and significantly reduces double cutting. We have also increased the horsepower on our riding mowers to provide greater ground speeds and more power to the cutting deck, again boosting cutter productivity.”

Lesco now offers all-fabricated decks on its entire Viper line of ZTR mowers, and has added a 48-inch deck to its previous 54- and 60-inch models. The 48-inch mower is powered by a 19-hp Kawasaki engine.

John Vyn, Lesco director of equipment marketing, says they have made more than 40 enhancements to the Viper line this year, including realigning deck geometry and blade offset to increase cutting performance.

Operator controls get upgrades, too

Grounds managers and contractors want more productivity, but too often they find themselves breaking in new mower operators during the season. Manufacturers are addressing this situation with new controls and operating features that make the learning curve shorter.

Exmark has introduced an Enhanced Control System (ECS) to its Turf Tracer line of walk-behind mowers. ECS improves operator control, and enhances ergonomics and safety as well, says Exmark's John Cloutier.

“What ECS does is position the operator's hands, arms and back more naturally, to reduce fatigue. The ‘inward’ tilt of the controls allows for better control and protects the operator's hands when mowing along a fence or wall.”

The ECS design, an option for Turf Tracer models, includes a thumb-operated neutral lock system for engaging and disengaging the cutting deck.

Later this year, Deere will introduce its new B-Series walk-behind greens mowers with an 18-, 22- and new 26-inch model, the 260B. All three models will be equipped with Deere's new floating handlebar design that allows the operator to rest his or her hands on the handlebar without affecting quality of cut.

“Instead of rigidly mounting the handlebar, we have attached it with two pivot points that allow the handle to float up and down,” says Deere's Chuck Greif. “Slots allow for adjusting handlebar pins up or down to fit the operator's height. The slots also let the handlebar float up and down, so cut remains constant even when the operator varies hand pressure on the handlebar.”

Bush Hog offers a unique foot-controlled height adjustment for its new mid-mount zero-turn mowers. The “Quick Foot” control provides cutting height adjustment from 1.5 to 5 inches in 0.25-inch increments. “You can lock the deck up or down with the foot pedal, and adjust cutting height just by tilting your foot forward or rearward,” according to Jack Harrington, senior product manager. “Bush Hog's new line offers commercial cutters four engine choices and three deck choices, including 54-, 60- and 72-inch widths,” Harrington says. A full suspension operator seat is available as an option.

Excel Hustler incorporates a unique park-brake system into the steering levers of its new mid-mount Hustler Z. “It's a real safety feature,” says Excel Advertising Manager Ken Rainey. “When the operator releases the steering levers, the parking brake engages. It not only saves the operator a step, it eliminates the chance of he or she forgetting to put on the park brake.” The Hustler Z also features a spring-assisted foot control for deck-lift and height adjustment.

Rainey says the new Hustler Z is a real “hustler” on slopes, with lower seat height and 80 percent of the tractor and operator weight over the drive tires. The Hustler Z comes with 52- and 60-inch deck choices. Excel will introduce a new “Super Z” this summer with a larger engine, 60-inch deck and forward speed up to 15 mph.

Excel also added a 37-inch deck to its 48- and 54-inch walk-behind hydro mowers. “We have also added a new sit-down/standup sulky for our walk behinds,” says Rainey. “It can be hooked or unhooked quickly with just two pins. The operator can mow flat terrain without getting so fatigued. When he comes to a bank or berm, he can unhook the sulky in a few seconds, mow the slope, then reattach the sulky.”

Operator comfort no longer takes a back seat

After years of catering to the consumer market, Dixon introduced its commercial design ZTR 8025 three years ago. Now, Dixon brings out the companion diesel model, the ZTR 8026D, with a 26.5-hp Daihatsu diesel engine. Both models offer 60- and 72-inch decks, with cutting height from 1.5 to 6 inches. Both mowers also feature Dixon's patented “Z” drive transaxle and hydrostatic drive.

Dixon's focus for commercial users is “a good cut with a good ride,” says Claire Splittstoesser, Dixon vice president of engineering, as he describes the iDixon “big rig” seat suspension system. “We decided one of the best ways to improve productivity was to make the operator more comfortable. Dixon 8025 and 8026D mowers both feature our full seat-suspension system, supported by springs and adjustable shock absorbers. Combined with a high-back seat, it really reduces operator stress and fatigue.”

Husqvarna zero-turn mowers focus attention on ergonomics as well. The cutting height lever is designed for easy cutting height adjustment in 0.25-inch increments, and an optional foot-assist deck lift can be added.

Keith Lutz, Husqvarna's marketing coordinator, says the new ZTH6125 is engineered with isolated engine mounts and a patent pending isolated seat mount to reduce vibration both for the operator and the machine.

Golf and specialty mowers

National Mower Company in St. Paul, Minn., has built affordable reel mowers for golf-course use for years, and they have specialized in units that effectively cut slopes, berms and bunkers. This year, National's 8400 triplex mower comes with out-front power steering, hydrostatic drive and a single-switch electric clutch for turning the reels on and off.

According to National spokesman Stan Kinkead, the key to the 8400's slope stability is a combination of the unit's weight and balance and low center of gravity, plus the wing units that are designed to act like stabilizers.

Also new from National this season is the IM25 “infield mower.” “The IM25 is the only walk mower with a built-in back-lapping device,” says Kinkead. “It's also the only walking reel mower that will cut up to 2-inch turf.” While designed specifically for manicured mowing and striping of baseball infields, the IM25 will undoubtedly find favor with sports turf managers in many venues.

Toro introduced its new Flex 21 greens mower this spring, with a new floating-head cutting unit that follows highly contoured greens while cutting down to 1/16 inch. “The cutting unit flexes both side to side and front to back, enabling fine cuts in today's ultra-dwarf bermudagrasses and bent grasses,” says Toro's Dana Lonn, director of engineering.

The traction unit and cutting head are connected at the center pivot points so that the head is free to flex in both directions, but puts enough weight on the front roller for aggressive penetration and mowing of the turf.

Deere expands its lightweight fairway mower line with the 3225B, a 100-inch swath mower with five 22-inch cutting heads. “This unit fills a niche between the 3215 and the 3235,” says Chuck Greif. “It features Deere's ESP (Extra Strengthen and Precision) cutting suspension unit and a 38.5-hp liquid-cooled diesel engine. The 3225 will work in all types of grass, North or South, and cut ⅜- to 3-inch grass, so it can be used in roughs, too.”

Meanwhile, Jacobsen has introduced its new LF-4675 and LF-4677 lightweight fairway mowers. Peter Whurr, vice president of product management at Textron Golf, Turf & Specialty Products, says the new 7-gang mowers are based on the Jacobsen's current 3400 and 3800 Series. “However, we have re-engineered the design and materials of the new mowers to reduce weight and minimize compaction,” he says. “The 4675 and 4677 actually have two more cutting units, yet are the lightest fairway mowers in their size range.” The LF-4675 weighs 3,180 pounds and the LF-4677 weighs 3,450 pounds.

Both mowers are powered by Kubota 4-cylinder turbocharged low-emissions-certified diesel engines. The 4675 comes with 5-inch diameter reels; the 4677 has 7-inch diameter reels.

Gary Burchfield is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Neb.


Imagine a day at your favorite golf course, perhaps five years from now. The operator brings in the fairway mower, dismounts a digital camera from the frame and hands it to the golf course superintendent. The superintendent downloads the images to his laptop computer, cranks up the software and prints out a map of the course with different color codes that indicate where the grass needs extra fertilizer or where the sprinklers need to be turned on first thing in the morning.

Toro's Dana Lonn says that technology is progressing rapidly and this could well be reality within the next few years. Using existing GPS and GIS capabilities, turf managers will soon be able to determine turf health using sensor equipment and software that accurately identifies various turf conditions. Agriculture already employs similar technology to apply varying rates of fertilizer and pest controls to crops.

“Both universities and commercial organizations are working on ways to bring this to turf management,” says Lonn. “The objective is to give the superintendent and turf manager the means to more efficiently manage and maintain turf. The manager can focus attention on those areas where the grass is stressed or needs extra work.”

Noise and emissions are continuing concerns, especially in urban areas. Lonn says Toro is building a prototype fuel-cell-powered mower, but fuel-cell technology is not yet advanced enough for commercial application.

John Deere's Chuck Greif says electric drive will be a factor in future golf-course mowing equipment. “At some point, I think we'll see both electric traction power and electric cutting units.”

Textron's Peter Whurr says combinations of engine and battery-powered equipment may come first. “The typical complaints of noise and emissions may well dictate the switch to mowers and other equipment that operate on batteries, supplemented by smaller combustion engines.”

Whurr also envisions mechanical noise-reduction designs that, for example, might include a “sandwich” design consisting of some form of fiberglass that is layered between sheet metal to deaden noise and help protect against corrosion.

GPS and GIS technology may someday make golf-course management less stressful for superintendents, too, says Whurr. “Say the superintendent sends his fairway mower out to mow, but an early round of retirees is already on the course. By using his GPS equipment, the superintendent can direct the operator to vacant fairways to continue mowing, instead of sitting idly waiting for golfers to clear the area.”

Similarly, you will be able to program future equipment to alert you when it's time for a lube and oil change, adding to equipment longevity. “Future technology will allow the golf course superintendent to be more proactive in his management, which will make him more effective and his job less stressful,” Whurr adds.

Such predictions don't seem so far-fetched when you realize that robotic lawn mowers already are available to homeowners. Imagine, you install a wire around your yard, much like an “invisible” dog fence, charge the battery on your “mower droid” and set it off to mow and mulch while you tend the grill or relax.

Not convinced? Husqvarna already offers its Auto Mower, a battery-powered unit that even knows how to return to the charging unit on its own. Friendly Robotics offers its Robomower, also battery-powered, though it doesn't return on its own to the charging unit. These are consumer products and cost quite a bit compared to conventional mowers. However, expect prices to drop as popularity rises.

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