Photo courtesy of Toro

Pushing a spreader and dragging a spray hose may soon be distant memories for lawn care operators. That’s because more LCOs are embracing ride-on spreader/sprayer machines as technology for the equipment advances.

“It’s an extremely active area of the marketplace,” says George Kinkead, president of Turfco, which makes the T3100 spreader/sprayer in Blaine, Minn. “There’s been a giant jump in technology.”

Getting more done.

Three major market forces are causing the surge in tech. The first is the need to increase productivity. With ride-on machines, LCOs can spread and spray at the same time. “You’re able to get two applications done at once,” says Dan Shiplov, a new product consultant at PermaGreen.

Applications get done faster and require only one employee instead of perhaps two or three. “They get more production done out of these applicators because the machines are getting more work done,” Shiplov says.

As such, manufacturers are developing ride-ons that are quicker and more powerful. Z-Spray machines by L.T. Rich Products (acquired by Toro in 2018), for instance, run up to 8 miles per hour.

High-capacity liquid tanks mean LCOs can cover more ground without refilling. Lebanon, Indiana-based Steel Green has a machine with a 60-gallon liquid capacity. Turfco offers a 15-gallon, 3-in-1 auxiliary tank that can be plumbed to increase total capacity to 33 gallons or kept isolated for herbicide or specialty chemical applications.

Versatility is a design priority. “We want to make one machine for all properties,” Shiplov says. At PermaGreen, this ranges from wide-open turf to properties with lots of trees, trim work, gate access, even steep slopes. When faced with such tricky terrain, the drop-down handle bars on the PermaGreen Triumph let the operator walk behind the machine.

Toro’s lean-to-steer unit likewise lets operators “feed and treat all turf types with one multi-use machine,” says Chris Vogtman, the company’s senior marketing manager. They can spray hedges, bushes and weeds up to 75 feet away thanks to the machine’s integrated hose reel.

Turf renovation can be a lucrative add-on service. “The mow/trim/blow guys – if they can add this into their service, they will see a nice profit bump for their companies,” Vogtman says. Contractors often can pull in enough revenue in a week or two to pay off a ride-on machine purchase, he says.

Making it up elsewhere: With many companies facing tight labor help, spreader sprayers can help do the job of three with one operator.

Keeping employees happy.

Another factor driving spreader/sprayer technology is the challenge of attracting and hiring young workers.

“They’re not willing to walk a yard and push a yard all day long every day; that’s just not their deal. This has really accelerated the ride-on phenomenon,” Kinkead says. And if employees who are walking yards see that a competitor has ride-ons, they may jump ship. This is forcing companies to upgrade to machines to retain employees and reduce turnover, he says.

Manufacturers are designing machines that are more comfortable and less fatiguing. “The work is essentially more enjoyable” as a result and that helps retain employees, Shiplov says.

They’re also making machines easier to operate so new employees can get trained and up and running more quickly. “The faster he’s trained on it, the sooner you’re making money with it,” Kinkead says.

Turfco innovations want to make the controls and operation of its machine “super simple,” Kinkead says. An example: the steering wheel. “The reason we went with a steering wheel was because everyone knows how to drive a car,” he says. The T3100’s front axle follows the terrain and absorbs a lot of the bouncing so the ride is less tiring, he adds.

Being precise about it.

The use of chemical products is under greater scrutiny. As such, manufacturers are developing more precise ways to apply them.

“We went to a mechanically regulated system where everything is regulated off the ground speed of the machine. That makes sure that everything is coming out accurately,” whether liquid spray or prills, Shiplov says.

Coverage no longer relies on the walking speed of the applicator, which can vary and cause product to be under- or over-applied. Either can result in unhappy customers and costly callbacks.

To help ride-on applicators improve accuracy, Turfco built in a wheel stop. When the steering wheel is turned all the way to the right or left, it locks and the machine automatically lines up the next pass so applicators don’t have to guess or follow tire tracks.

Z-Spray machines use a marking system that drips foam so operators can see where they’ve already applied product. Digital speedometers and built-in calibration charts help them calculate the appropriate amount of product to apply.

At GIE+EXPO this month, Toro will debut “smart control” technology featuring a rocker switch and digital integration to improve the precision of its lean-to-steer machine.

Another tech trend is low-volume spraying, which uses less water but the same concentration of product to control fungi, grubs or other pests. In most situations, spraying a quart per 1,000 square feet has proven to be just as effective as spraying a gallon per 1,000 square feet, Shiplov says. PermaGreen’s low-volume, low-drift spray technology lets LCOs treat 1 acre per 12-gallon tank. The Steel Green dual-boom sprayer applies high volume out of one set of nozzles and low volume from a second set of nozzles, so operators can apply liquid fertilizer while simultaneously spot-spraying for weed control.

Drop-down shields and hard trim features on some machines apply granular product right up to the edge of a hard surface without over-spreading and having to clean up granules with the broom or blower.

“It’s an extremely active area of the marketplace. There’s been a giant jump in technology.” George Kinkead, president, Turfco

Building for longevity.

Manufacturers also have improved machine durability and ease of repair, so equipment is less likely to sit idle.

Steel Green tanks have overfill protection to keep spills away from expensive electrical and hydraulic components. Tanks also have a sump and drain so they can be completely drained without removing the hose. And spray nozzles are easy to reach and change.

PermaGreen spec’d in stainless steel parts to protect equipment against corrosion from fertilizer and other chemical products.

Companies have also upped their support of operators. “They want replacement parts the next day. They want a customer service representative who answers the phone and responds to emails – and even Facebook messages – for advice or troubleshooting,” Smith says.

At GIE+EXPO, Toro is introducing Crew IQ, a business management software program designed to increase profitability and help “control the chaos” of daily operations. It lets managers schedule jobs, track the location of crews and remotely bid projects.

Integrated with Quickbooks, it tracks and invoices for services, especially add-ons easily forgotten like weeding and watering. Turf science is built in, as well, with guidance on which products to use and how much to apply based on soil analysis.

Crew IQ is meant for users of any brand of lawn care equipment. People can enroll in the beta program for free at the EXPO.

More innovations coming.

Ride-on spreader sprayers continue to evolve. Some are being developed for specific kinds of use, properties and jobs. “The growth of specialized companies is increasing. There are a lot of companies chasing this,” Kinkead says.

The key is choosing the right machine for your needs, so do your research and ask questions, he advises. Will you use the machine for 100 hours a year or 300-plus hours? Will it be used primarily for large commercial properties or smaller residential ones? What do owners of three- and five-year-old machines say about maintenance and repair? “It’s a big deal to make sure you’re picking the right machine,” Kinkead says.

The much-larger mowing industry likely will pave the way for innovations in noise reduction, electric motors and rider-less equipment.

“The space where I think autonomous would be the most appealing would be in turf renovation,” Vogtman says.

For sure, manufacturers expect the demand for ride-on spreader sprayers to increase. There’s going to be more and more people going to ride-ons as time goes on,” Shiplov says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Illinois.