© Lucy Williams

At Sun Valley Landscaping in Omaha, Nebraska, the equipment service area is divided into zones where a “tag out” space holds mowers and equipment that are waiting for service, and a red zone is occupied by broken equipment that need complete repairs. Chris Smith is the caretaker of all 26 mowers and other equipment the full-service commercial company operates. After 22 years in fleet management, Smith has engine maintenance down pat.

The No. 1 overlooked component, in his opinion? The air filter.

“It’s not the most important factor for a running engine, but you want to make sure the air filter is clean and clear, so you aren’t allowing contaminants to enter the engine,” he says. “Air filters tend to be out of sight, out of mind, hidden under a plastic cover. But if you’re in a dusty construction environment or it’s dry, that air filter is sucking in dust, pollen and debris.”

And when an engine’s starving for air, it runs hotter.

“Heat is an engine’s biggest enemy,” Smith says, adding that fuel flow and engine oil are other small things that can cause big problems if ignored. “We’re running these mowers full-throttle for hours a day, and if you’re low on oil, the crankshaft and rod bearings don’t get enough lubrication. When you build up too much heat, parts begin to warp and crack.”

For a couple of bucks invested in a quart of oil, and a few seconds to check the oil daily, a crew leader can help preserve the life of an engine.

But, the reality is, engine maintenance is often a challenge for busy landscape companies for several reasons. “In the past, we relied on crew leaders to bring the mowers in to be serviced when they needed,” says Rafael Gonzalez, shop manager, Gachina Landscape Management in Menlo Park, California. Gachina has four regional branches, each with a shop mechanic. Overall, the company has 500 21-inch mowers and 225 trucks that require regular maintenance.

“We are in the process of updating our fleet management software and we are hopeful we can get on a better schedule with servicing intervals,” Gonzalez says. The company tends to get long life spans from equipment. However, an improved fleet tracking system would help document and keep service on a smooth schedule, he says.

At Perficut Lawn & Landscape in Des Moines, Iowa, owner Kory Ballard says they follow manufacturer recommendations. “That said, we certainly have fallen behind at times, but now we have a program in place that rotates units based on time (weeks/months) rather than tracking individual machine hours,” he says.

The key: Make engine maintenance a scheduled activity – not a rainy-day project. “One lesson we have learned is to make service a top priority,” Ballard says.

Time out for maintenance.

At Gachina Landscape Management, crew leaders are trained to perform basic maintenance tasks, and each branch has a shop manager. “Often, landscape companies don’t invest in trained personnel to service the engines,” Gonzalez says. “This causes engines to wear and tear more quickly.”

Constant training updates are the key. “It’s critical, especially because we have had challenges with our mulching mowers, primarily during the heavy leaf season and winter pruning,” he says. “Training for new gardeners is critical to ensure that mulching leaves and small plant material is done correctly without placing too much stress on the mowers and engines.”

Smith also relies on crew leaders to identity potential issues with mowers. “A lot of our crewmembers have their favorite pieces of equipment – the mowers they always use,” he says. “When their machines are not working quite right, they might not want to bring it in for a repair because they’ll lose the mower for a day or two. I just have to say, ‘Be mindful. If you let it go down, you’ll lose the equipment and you’ll have to use something else.’”

Maintenance “is a huge teamwork effort,” Smith says. “There has to be communication between the fleet operations manager and the crews out in the field, because they’re using the equipment every day. I know how a machine runs when it’s perfect, and when it has been abused. They are running the machines every day and they know how it sounds and its motions – they can tell when it sounds or feels different, and let me know as soon as possible.”

At Sun Valley, maintenance is based on the manufacturers’ recommendations, but Smith takes it a step further and tends to perform maintenance more frequently. “As a landscape company, we are a heavy commercial user, so I put my own spin on the recommendations,” he says. “Each mower is mowing anywhere from 12 to 25 lawns per day.”

For example, Smith says oil should be checked daily. Lubricating grease points weekly is also important. “There are a lot of moving parts on mowers – levers, actuators, blades, spindles,” Smith says. “You’ve got to keep them greased up.”

Gonzalez says crews constantly check air filters, blades, oil and hydraulics.

Squeezing engine maintenance in during busy mowing days is sometimes impossible. That’s why many companies choose to service machines at night. “Adjust to evening hours for a mechanic if you need to, or in a small operation, pick your service day and stick to it,” Ballard says. “Think of it as just as valuable as a work day in the field. Because, at the end of the day, the value may be even more.”

Also, Ballard advises to “fix things as they break” instead of allowing repairs to build up. “They will accumulate and become overwhelming, and then you have a bigger cost all at once,” he says.

Set an example of how to care for equipment. A tone of operate-with-care starts at the top. “Employees tend to treat equipment the way you do, so set the standards and communicate those with your team,” Ballard says.

“Employees tend to treat equipment the way you do, so set the standards and communicate those with your team.” Kory Ballard, owner, Perficut Lawn & Landscape
Repair or replace?

Do you repair or replace the engine, or just buy a whole new machine? “This decision can be made with data, a gut decision or combination of both,” Ballard says.

Ballard considers the age of the equipment, hours on the engine, condition and repair history, plus the expected life span of the machine. “With the rising cost of new equipment, we tend to lean on the side of continuous care and repair vs. replacing the entire machine,” Ballard says, adding that keeping up with replacement parts and repairs is beneficial for getting more value out of a machine when it is time to replace it. “If you sell or trade the unit down the road, you’ll get more for it at that point.”

Gonzalez say sometimes they wait too long to replace a piece of equipment, but the company tries to make repair that would be more cost-effective if they purchased a new piece of equipment.

He looks at how long the machine has been in service, how many repairs were completed, and the cost of the repair compared to buying a new mower. “Occasionally, I will buy an engine to replace an inoperable one,” Gonzalez says.

Sun Valley usually turns over its machines every three to four seasons. But if the machine is still strong after several seasons, the company will continue to repair it. There is careful cost analysis. For example, a new engine for a 36-inch walk-behind mower can cost roughly $900 to $1,200, Smith says. A brand-new mower could run about $5,000. “If the mower has a good body, a good hydraulic drive train and it looks appreciative, then it is worth putting $1,200 into it for a new engine,” Smith says

On the other hand, if the mower is beat up and looking aged, it’s time to move on. “A lot of people have a run-it-until-it-dies mindset, and we used to be that way,” he says. “But, as we grow, we have more of an established reputation with higher-end properties. You don’t want to pull up to a half-million-dollar house with a rusty mower.”

If mowers are still in good running condition, they can be sold. “We might put it on Craig’s list and sell it to someone who just needs to mow their big lawn every week,” Smith says.

At the end of the day, communication and training are just as important as doing the actual repairs. Setting expectations for how equipment should be cared for in the field, and teaching crew leaders and team members to do basic maintenance checks, goes a long way toward preserving an engine – and the entire machine.

“My best advice is to invest in good mechanics and train crew leaders on the basics of equipment maintenance,” Gonzalez says.