All Hands on Deck

Ask any lawn maintenance contractor what the key to customer retention is and he’ll say, “quality work at a fair price.” Have you ever thought about the vital role your mower’s deck design plays into this concept?

“There are so many zero-turns out there nowadays that quality cutting has been lost in some instances,” says Edric Funk, marketing manager for Toro Landscape Contractor Equipment. “Today’s landscape contractor does need equipment that’s productive and durable. But he also needs equipment that will help distinguish his company from others in a business where everyone is doing the same thing.”

When selecting the absolute best zero-turn mower money can buy, what should you look for in deck design? There’s a lot to consider, because pristine mowing is truly a fine art.

THE SCIENCE OF QUALITY MOWING

Blades – “There’s a real mixture of art and science to get your mower to cut perfectly,” Funk points out. “The sail on the blade and the precise length of the blade are very important. Blades with a higher sail are better for demanding conditions because they help stand the grass up straight when cutting it.”

Thickness is also important because the blade needs to stand up to hits without flexing. “If the blade flexes, you’ll end up with a wavy-looking cut,” Funk adds.

Airflow & Grass Lift – Ask your dealer about the airflow produced by the deck, because airflow also assists in making the grass stand tall.

“Depth of pan can play into this,” says Ron Marcellus, director of national accounts for Ariens Company. “A deeper pan can create a higher volume of air and vacuuming action. Some decks out there only have a 3-inch-deep pan, but the Gravely X-Factor deck, for instance, has a 5-inch-deep pan.”

Blade placement can also help. “One unique thing about the Tunnel Deck on our EverRide Warrior is that the blades are set back 4 inches,” Marcellus says. “That feature really allows the grass to stand up tall.” (See photo on page 16.)

If you’re looking to collect clippings, mowers with integrated vac systems, such as Grasshopper’s PowerVac Collection System and Walker’s GHS Deck, are specifically designed to suck the grass up, resulting in a cleaner cut.
Clippings Dispersal – But if you’re not looking to bag, a very important consideration is how well the mower disperses clippings. Cleanly cut blades of grass won’t mean much if you’re leaving them in clumps all over the place.

“Our Extreme Discharge System utilizes high-lift blades and front and rear baffles that provide the necessary lift to stand grass up so you get a clean cut—and then discharge the grass with an even dispersal pattern,” says Schiller Grounds Care’s Tony Weber, product manager for BOB-CAT and Bunton Commercial Mowers. “Additionally, our Versa-Flo adjustable deck opening allows you to adjust the deck for different types of grass and conditions.”

Toro’s Turbo Force Deck features an adjustable baffle, allowing operators to “open up” in heavier conditions, or “tighten up” in dry or lighter grass. Funk says this feature is especially beneficial when a double-cut is necessary. “The operator can set the baffle wide open for that first pass, and then close it back up a bit for the second cut so the clippings get chopped up finer and dispersed more evenly,” Funk explains. (See photo below.)

Ask your dealer about the size of the discharge chute, as a wider chute will facilitate better clippings dispersal. “The Tunnel Deck on our EverRide Warrior models features a 149-square-inch discharge opening,” Marcellus says. “On top of that, the Tunnel Deck design directs clippings away from the cutting edge of the deck so it won’t get plugged.”

Deck Float – Once you’re getting up into the 48-inch cut width range, a floating deck becomes imperative. Then, anti-scalp rollers placed in optimal locations ensure that the deck can follow the contours of the terrain without scalping. Some decks offer four rollers, while others offer up to seven.

Bill Shea, vice president of sales and marketing – Commercial Products for the Briggs & Stratton Yard Power Products Group, says another important thing to look for is the location of both the drive wheels and caster wheels in relation to the deck. “As the wheels travel over uneven ground, they carry the deck with them,” Shea explains. “If there’s significant distance between the wheels and the deck, the chance of scalping increases. That’s why you want your wheels as close to the deck as possible.”

To further enhance the quality of cut its machines produce, Briggs & Stratton (Ferris and Snapper Pro) touts its patented IS independent suspension system, which allows each wheel to move up and down independently. The deck then works in conjunction with the suspension system to provide a consistent cut.

STRENGTH WHERE YOU NEED IT

Even if your mower is all decked out (pardon the pun) with the necessary bells and whistles to provide an immaculate cut, a deck that can’t withstand the rigors of daily use will not perform consistently. “Your mowing deck must be durable, and it must hold its shape so it continues to cut the same way it did when you first bought it,” Funk says.

But keep in mind that strength and weight must be a balance. “You want a deck that’s heavy enough to withstand abuse, but not so heavy that it impedes overall performance in terms of traction and maneuverability,” Weber points out.

Seven-gauge steel, which is 33% thicker than 10-gauge, has become more common in deck construction. But Shea says you should dig deeper than that. “A lot of manufacturers talk about 7-gauge these days,” Shea says. “But some just take a piece of sheet metal and fabricate a deck out of 7-gauge. They think they’ve done the operator a world of service because it’s heavier material, but all they’ve done is add a bunch of weight where it isn’t needed.”

It’s all about having added strength where you need it most, which is why many of today’s decks feature a reinforced top, front edge and side skirt. Shea says manufacturers can adequately reinforce the necessary areas of the deck with double-thick 10-gauge. Still, some use 7-gauge with additional reinforcements.

Toro simply uses 7-gauge high-strength steel throughout its Turbo Force deck shell. Funk says high-strength steel has a higher yield strength than ordinary commercial steel—but isn’t any heavier. “Yield strength is the lowest stress that gives permanent deformation,” Funk explains. “Thus, high-strength steel is 31.6% stronger based on material property alone. This in itself does not add weight. And that’s important to consider. While 7-gauge steel is heavier than 10-gauge, once you start adding reinforcements, the potential weight savings of a thinner material is lost.”

STRONG SPINDLES HOLD IT ALL TOGETHER

Shea says spindles are one of the biggest keys to both durability and cut quality. “If you hit something, and the spindle is small and lacks durability, the top of the deck could end up kinked, resulting in a poor cut,” Shea explains.

Cast-iron construction adds to spindle durability, and is especially beneficial on larger models of zero-turns. But Funk says you have to be careful. “Cast-iron is a strong conductor of heat, so it can begin to swell if there’s a lot of heat. Then, if there’s an impact, you’re more likely to end up with damage to the spindle shafts or bearings. Toro uses a cast-iron housing and very large mounting surface so impacts are absorbed across a larger area of the deck.”

Staying on the topic of spindles, many manufacturers offer “sealed and maintenance-free bearings and spindle assemblies”—a popular feature for lawn maintenance contractors who’d rather be working on growing their businesses than performing equipment maintenance. However, Funk says many veteran contractors who are operating larger mowers still prefer to grease the bearings and flush contaminants out of the system. If you’re one of those contractors, ask your dealer how accessible the grease points are.

Still searching for the best deck your hard-earned money can buy? Don’t forget to also ask your dealer about the following:

• Belt, idler and pulley design
• Ability to handle different grass types
• Blade tip speed and the speed at which you can effectively mow
• Mulching capabilities (especially if you’re in the Southeast)
• Deck serviceability and warranty

See, there’s a lot more to choosing the right mower than just horsepower, cut width and price. In fact, the information can be a little overwhelming. So quiz your dealer, talk to other contractors, and be sure to demo equipment in the same conditions you’ll be operating in.

When it’s all said and done, you’ll become the proud owner of a shiny new mower that will help you stand out in the increasingly crowded business of lawn maintenance.

HOW TO BECOME A MASTER MOWER

• Specific grass types require different mowing heights. Become familiar with these to provide the best appearance and keep the lawn healthy during the growing season. And remember, these heights may also vary throughout the year.
• Higher cutting heights may cause more grass to be missed,
but cutting too low may damage the turf.
• Adjust mowing speed based on density of grass. Fast is not always best, but slow may not be either.
• Adjust mowing speed based on moisture in the lawn, as this can help prevent clogging and clumping of clippings.
• Vary the direction of cut each week to prevent forming tracks or ruts.
• Tractor should be operated at full RPM to allow the deck to work in its optimum design condition.
• A clean deck and discharge chute are critical to moving grass out from beneath the deck housing.
• Make sure blades are sharp, balanced, not too worn and definitely not bent. Be careful with aftermarket blades, since many are not made to OEM standards (thinner blades can cause flutter and a variation in the finished cut). It also helps when they are installed correctly (not upside down).
• Deck leveling is critical. This is done by properly controlling tire pressure and height adjustment mechanisms.
• Be careful to control the tractor properly on turns. Slow down and make a gentle turn. It is not natural for a 1,000-pound machine with a 200-pound operator to come to a sudden stop on turf, as this will definitely affect the finished look of the yard.

Information provided by Walker Mfg. (walkermowers.com)

Loading