BUY THE BEST RIDE-ON: commercial ride-on mower buyer’s guide
A ride-on lawnmower is an essential piece of garden machinery for professional landscapers and gardeners who have large lawns or entire estates to maintain.
But with so many options on the market, how can you be sure you’re buying the right one for you?
Our handy commercial mowers buyers guide details the different options, factors to consider, and the right questions to ask to guarantee you’ll end up with the optimal lawn mower for your needs.
How do I know if a ride-on lawnmower is for me?
Walk-behind mowers, for all their benefits, can be physically demanding if you have a large area of grass to maintain.
If you’re cutting upwards of 2,000 square metres, it’s probably time to invest in a ride-on mower. You’ll cut areas faster and more efficiently and often ride on lawn mowers are better suited to tackling rural landscapes and undulating terrain because of their power.
There are broadly speaking five types to consider, each offering its own range of benefits:
Compact ride-on mowers
Lightweight and smaller in size, these mowers tend to be for homeowners with a large lawn, rather than professionals.
They’re designed to be narrower than some of the more heavy-duty models on the market making them good for negotiating pathways and standard-width access gates in domestic gardens.
Larger than ride-on lawn mowers, lawn tractors are powerful pieces of garden machinery, making them well equipped to cope with areas from 0.5 to 1.2 hectares in size.
They’re best suited to large gardens and rural areas and will even cope with tough terrain, although they can struggle with steep sloping ground.
They come with wider cutting decks and, often, a larger set of features including hydrostatic transmission, allowing you to mow through a wide range of speeds, or the ability to use attachments such as shovels, aerators and trailers, broadening the remit of your work.
Zero-turn lawn mowers
The use of these ride-on mowers for commercial work has grown in popularity in recent years thanks to their many benefits, including being regarded as one of the most efficient ways to cut large areas from 1.2 to 2 hectares in size.
Their efficiency comes from their 360-degree turning circle, which is achieved with individual hydraulic control handles for each wheel. This equips the operator with the power to cover the entire area far more quickly than with a standard ride-on mower where each turn might involve several manoeuvres.
With this level of manoeuvrability, these lawnmowers are extremely good at negotiating close proximity for tight cutting around obstacles.
However, they can be more expensive and while they have speed and efficiency on their side, they are slightly more challenging to handle, so can take a while to operate with ease. If your budget can stretch a little further, it’s a great choice for boosting the productivity of your working day.
A front mower is any ride-on mower with a front-mounted cutting deck. Front mowers allow you a better view of the cutting area and cut around and under obstacles more easily, reducing the need for additional strimming work. There are several other advantages of choosing a front-mounted deck that we cover in more detail below.
Technically, a stand-on mower is a ride-on, because the machine is carrying the user. Stand-on mowers were developed for those who don’t want to sit for long periods, for example operators who suffer with back issues. The only real difference between the stand-on and their seated cousins is the lack of a seat, though this can bring extra advantages. For example, they can be better at cutting uneven terrain as the rider can shift their weight as needed.
Many operators prefer these machines as they make mounting and dismounting quicker and easier as well as giving a higher vantage point for a better view of the lawn and surroundings as you mow.
Size and scale
What is the size of the garden or space you have to maintain? What is the type and condition of vegetation? The more dense the vegetation the more power you need, and if you’re regularly faced with very large areas you’ll want to pay particular attention to the size of the cutting deck: a wider deck means you can achieve a wider cut in a single pass, increasing productivity and reducing the time per task.
What’s the terrain like? If you’re maintaining largely flat, open spaces, a more basic ride-on lawnmower should suffice.
If an impeccable lawn is the goal, explore a more advanced model that comes with the option to add lawncare attachments such as aerators, scarifiers, rollers and sprayers.
If you’re regularly faced with undulating landscapes, steep slopes or rough terrain you’ll need a machine with more power and, in some cases, specialist machinery such as remote-controlled slope mowers offer the safest way to cut dense growth on hillsides.
Are there any obstacles you need to navigate? A front cutting deck allows for easier manoeuvrability around any obstacles such as trees, benches and ornaments.
Frequency of use
Depending on your desired finish, some grass may need cutting several times a week during the peak growing season. This is a tall order for someone responsible for hectares of land at one time.
As a professional, you’ll need a mower that can withstand the demands of frequent use, long cutting hours and regular transportation. Durability is key and it will pay in the long-term to invest in a mower designed for commercial level use.
This type of machine can be more expensive upfront, but generally comes with a higher build quality, meaning a more reliable mower with a longer life and less downtime for your business.
Storage and transportation
Give thought to how and where you plan to store your mower. Do you have space in a garage, workshop, or shed to accommodate it? And does it need to be transported in a van or trailer? If so, be sure to check machine dimensions very carefully to guarantee it fits.
What cutting width do I need?
Generally speaking, the larger the lawn the wider the cutting deck required. The larger the deck, the fewer passes you’ll need to make of the lawn when mowing.
A lawn approximately 0.2 of a hectare would suit a cutting deck that’s up to a metre in size.
0.2 hectares to 0.8 hectares is better suited to a deck that’s 106cm to 122cm, and any lawn greater than 1.2 hectares should be mowed with a deck that’s a minimum of 127cm wide.
Front-mounted or mid-mounted mower?
Ride-on lawnmowers either carry the cutting deck at the front of the mower or at the mid-point of the machine chassis, underneath the seat of the operator. There are distinct benefits to each.
On a front-mounted lawnmower, the operator can easily maintain visual contact with the cutting deck as it’s located in front of the operating cockpit. This enables a thorough, well observed working approach and with the deck moving independently from the tractor itself, it’s able to follow ground contours, offering a smooth flow.
With front-mounted commercial mowers, the grass doesn’t get flattened by the weight of the mower prior to cutting and with the cutting deck positioned out in front it can access awkward areas or cut around branches, hedges, trees, benches and garden ornaments. The way it cuts means you can minimise the need for strimming too, saving time for the operator.
With mid-mounted commercial mowers, the cutting deck is tucked away under the cockpit which reduces the overall length of the machine.
Mid-mounted commercial mowers give a clean, sharp professional cut on grass that isn’t full of obstacles or roughage, and have the advantage of often being adaptable for other garden tasks by using attachments.
If there’s one take-home message from this guide that sticks, it should be to always buy the best engine you can afford.
The power and quality of the engine you buy will be the determining factor in how effective and long-lasting your mower is, and how varied the tasks are that you can perform.
Many leading lawnmower brands fit engines from specialist engine manufacturers, rather than using cheaper non-branded engines, and there’s good reason – a professional ride-on lawnmower is a serious machine. possibly the backbone of your business. and that requires serious, dependable and reliable power.
Horsepower is the best way to rate power in a ride-on mower. Some walk-behind mowers are rated in torque, which describes how much power goes into turning your lawnmower’s rotary blade, but horsepower is the more traditional method for evaluating power in larger machines.
Some of the more compact ride-on mowers, designed primarily for domestic use will be powered adequately by a single-cylinder engine, however, professional machinery will require twin-cylinder power to cope with a variety of terrain, grass types and cutting speeds. A 90-degree V-twin configuration causes less vibration and is more durable.
And, of course, whichever engine you choose, be prepared to look after it. Tasks such as checking and replacing oil and cleaning out the engine and filters will keep it working in premium condition for longer, protecting your investment.
Basic care and maintenance can improve the efficiency of your ride-on lawnmower.
Simple tasks such as changing spark plugs regularly can help to save fuel because a hot spark ignites the fuel faster.
Similarly, keeping the underside of the mower free from debris and wiping the mower blades to keep them clean will avoid unnecessary friction which uses more fuel.
Changing oil filters will help to increase fuel efficiency too.
The greater load you place on an engine, the more fuel you’ll use so if you don’t need to tow heavy attachments remove them.
Refer to the owner’s manual for recommended maintenance checks or before undertaking any maintenance work.
Consider your clippings
Many ride-on mowers come with a clippings catcher or bag, which is located at the rear of the mower and will catch the clippings as it cuts. It’s mess-free and convenient but emptying the bag can be time-consuming, laborious or for those mowing very large areas, impossible.
There are two alternatives – side discharging and mulching mowers.
Side-discharge mowers recycle the clippings (and the nutrients therein) directly back onto the lawn by spraying them from a dispenser chute located on one side of the mower.
It can reduce fertiliser costs and save time as there’s no bag to empty. However, the blowing out of clippings can be a little messy. Some customers may also not be keen, for example, if they want to be able to use the area after you’ve cut.
Mulching mowers also deposit the grass clippings back onto the lawn but cuts the clippings into tiny pieces before leaving them on the ground directly below where the blade is located. You need mulching capability in order to do this, because special mulching blades are required.
Either bagless option offers some great lawn benefits and will enable the operator to finish the job much faster than with its bag-carrying counterpart.
As you’ll spend riding time sitting down it’s vital you find a mower with a comfortable, adjustable seat. Some seats come with armrests or high backs for additional lumbar support. These are particularly useful on longer rides.
Other features can make your riding time more comfortable such as additional legroom, sport-style steering wheel or cup holders. What you choose is down to user preference but remember, if the mower is to be used by a team of people you’ll want easy-to-adjust features making it simple to adapt for each rider.
Low vibration models can be a good way to reduce the impact of prolonged riding, making the experience even more comfortable.
How much should I spend on my mower?
Buying a new ride-on mower can feel like a significant financial outlay, but it’s a substantial machine and you can expect to pay anything upwards of €4,000.
The more powerful the mower the more expensive it will be, especially if it’s made by a market-leading brand. But there’s no denying that with quality comes a more robust, long-lasting product, which is a must for professional landscapers and gardeners.
If you’re prepared to invest time into the upkeep and maintenance of your machine and truly look after it, you will optimise its lifespan and be rewarded with the reliability you need for your business.
Lawn tractors can pull a variety of useful attachments, enabling it to do more than just cut grass. These can include lawn aerators and scarifiers, lawn rollers, chain harrows, chipper shredders and trailers.
Whether or not attachments are worthwhile depends on the size of the area you’re maintaining. Before you go ahead and buy a raft of attachments, however, consider what you really need and if you have the space for them.
Properly considered, however, certain attachments to your ride-on can be a useful time-saver and expand your business offering to customers.
Should I listen to reviews?
Reviews are a valuable source of information that can inform your buying decision, but be careful about who you trust. Research models on reputable blogs and review sites. You might also check what landscaper ‘influencers’ such as Jimmy The Mower and John Ryan are reviewing and using.
While garden machinery dealers are of course in the business of selling products, they will have a broad range of brands and are usually very knowledgeable about the industry and available machinery. As such, they can be a great source of valuable information.
Lawnmower warranty options
In making a sound investment in a high-quality commercial ride-on mower you would hope to avoid the need to claim on a warranty.
However, unexpected issues can occur which is why it’s good to find a manufacturer who can provide a class-leading warranty offering unlimited hours cover whether you’re a commercial or private customer.
For example, Kawasaki Engines covers the first three years for four-stroke engines.
Ensure there is a clear agreement in place for replacement, repair, or refunds.
Where to buy?
While it’s possible to buy a ride-on mower online, most professionals look to a trusted local dealer.
There are hazards in buying such high-value products from online retailers. You won’t be able to try items before you buy and they’re unlikely to offer the same level of support as a dealer. from assistance with choosing the right product to after-sales care such as sourcing genuine parts.
Professional equipment and machinery is more than the item itself, but the customer care that helps to prolong its life and give you the best value for your investment over the long term.
Examples of manufacturers
Leading manufacturers offer a good range of mowers to suit all needs and requirements. Kawasaki’s market-leading 4-stroke engines power the following brands available across Europe: Ariens, ATCO, Countax, Cub Cadet, Etesia, Husqvarna, Hustler, John Deere, SCAG, STIGA, TORO, Westwood, Wisconsin.
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Ride on Mowers
Take the chore out of lawn maintenance with a Rover Ride-On Mower. Whether you have acres of grass to cut or a small residential lawn, Rover has safe and affordable lawn tractors and compact rider mowers for effortless precision grass cutting.
500 Dealers Australia Wide
67 Years in Australia
You don’t need a huge backyard to enjoy owning a lawn tractor. Rover’s smaller domestic ride-on mowers are designed for standard suburban block sizes. With their compact size, our residential ride-on mowers take up little more space than a regular push mower and can be stored in a garage or small shed. Our micro and mini rider range can also fit through a standard width garden gate, allowing you to mow from your front to back yard without leaving your seat.
Ride on in Style
At Rover, we believe mowing should be a joy.
We have developed our ride-on lawnmower range for superior ergonomic comfort; we’ve even added a handy cup holder. Your Rover Rider is built for superior safety and ease of use, offering exceptional manoeuvrability and handling. With intuitive controls and efficient operation, you can mow around obstacles with ease and get your grass cut to perfection in a fraction of the time, and with none of the effort of regular push mowing.
For over 65 years, Rover has been building exceptional quality garden and lawn maintenance equipment. Our robust and reliable ride-on mowers deliver the ultimate in cut, comfort and control.
All Rover rider mowers are manufactured in the USA and tested in Australia, for the ultimate performance and smooth handling in Australian conditions.
The Rover Rider Mower range offers a choice of reliable Rover and Kawasaki engines, and are available in either manual or automatic transmission, with a deck size to suit your lawn maintenance needs. From small suburban backyard to sizable acreage.
Our versatile lawn tractor models come with a tow hitch and are compatible with mulch plug, catcher and other lawn care accessories for improving productivity and reducing the effort of maintaining your lawn and garden year-round.
All Rover ride on mowers powered by Rover or Kawasaki engines come with our industry-leading 5-year domestic warranty on both the motor and unit for added peace of mind.
How do I know whether I need a ride-on mower?
If you find rotary push mowing to be physically demanding or tedious, or mowing your lawns takes a long time, or if you maintain a property of 1/4 acre or larger, a ride-on lawnmower is going to save you significant time and effort.
What size riding lawn mower do I need?
The size of the grassed areas you need to mow will determine the size and the width of the mower’s cutting deck you’ll require. For residential blocks up to 4000m² (1 acre), or gardens featuring irregular edges, tight curves or obstacles you need to manoeuvre around, a compact 24-inch micro rider mower or 30-inch mini-rider mower will do the trick. However, for large lawns, gardens, and broad grassed areas over 4000m², choose one of our fast, powerful 38 or 42-inch cutting deck models to have your grass cut to perfection in next to no time.
My property is sloping. Can I use a ride-on mower if the ground isn’t flat?
The suitability of a rider mower can depend on the type of terrain are you mowing. Before selecting a model, consider the condition, fall and obstacles on your property. Most Rover rider mowers excel at manicuring large flat or gently undulating lawns, but to safely mow hilly uneven terrain, you need a riding mower with a wide stance, low centre of gravity, and impressive traction to ensure your mower doesn’t slip, slide or roll. Rover’s Lawn King 21/42 Ride-on mower is the domestic lawn rider most suited to mowing on hilly terrain, or the Rover RZT S 46 Zero Turn mower features four-wheel steering control and unbeatable stability on difficult sloping terrain, including gradients of up to 20°. Alternatively, our heavy-duty commercial Cub Cadet brand offers a range of premium ride-on mower models with a low centre of gravity, Roll Over Protection System (ROPS), seatbelts and exceptional traction and stability that can mow on slopes.
Should my engine be run at full RPM/throttle?
Yes, Rover recommends running all machinery with an air-cooled engine at its highest rpm for the following reasons: A) Due to its design, the engine’s cooling and lubrication systems operate best when the throttle control is in the highest position. Running the engine at a lower speed decreases the flow of cooling air and reduces the volume of oil circulated, shortening engine life. B) The engine’s carburettor is adjusted to ensure the machine operates most cleanly and efficiently when at full throttle. Running your machine outside or below optimum speed range reduces the engine and carburettor’s power. C) The engine’s governor maintains your optimum cutting deck speed when the throttle is in the highest position. Running the engine slower will result in lower performance, excess vibration, and increased wear and tear on drive components such as the cutting deck drive belt. D) Some models have DC electric starters and battery systems and use the engine to recharge. If the motor isn’t running at full RPM, a poor battery recharge rate may result, reducing the battery’s life. On lawn tractors and other self-propelled units, the engine should be kept at full throttle whenever possible. Regulate ground speed by shifting into a lower gear or using the ground speed control. Do not use the throttle to regulate ground speed, or you will not get sufficient electrical current to maintain battery charge.
Why are grass clippings discharging in clumps, not mulching properly or clogging the chute when I use the grass catcher?
We have put together this 7 points of consideration troubleshooting list to help improve cutting performance and disposal of grass clippings: 1. CLEAN YOUR DECK. With your machine TURNED OFF, inspect the underside of your cutting deck, ensuring it is free of debris or clippings. A clean cutting deck is necessary for maintaining adequate airflow to discharge clippings properly and for mulching the clippings. 2. RUN ENGINE AT FULL THROTTLE. It is necessary always to run your unit at full throttle. Low engine RPM slows the blades rotational speed and reduces airflow through the cutting deck. 3. WET GRASS. When grass is excessively wet, clumping can occur. Ideally, try to mow only when your lawn is dry. Recent rain, fog or damp conditions may result in grass that may appear to be dry but is actually very wet. If your mower’s wheels become damp or wet when travelling across the lawn, the lawn is too wet, and your machine may struggle to move the clippings properly. 4. LONG GRASS. If the grass is excessively long poor clipping movement can occur. Only bag clippings or mulch when cutting off 2″ of the overall grass blades with the mower; otherwise, you may be trying to force too much material through the discharge opening in the cutting deck, causing overloading or clogging to occur. If the lawn is overgrown or beyond regular cutting length, it may be necessary to make repeat passes with the mower. Starting at a higher cutting height and incrementally lowering the cutting deck with each pass until the grass returns to the desired length. 5. TRAVELLING SPEED. If operating at fast ground speed, the mower may struggle to discharge the increased volume of grass clippings through the collector chute properly. Travel at a steady medium to slow pace with the engine throttled up; it is best to keep a slower tractor speed when bagging or mulching. 6. DULL BLADES. An equipment issue that can cause clumping or clogging to occur is blades that have become dull or imbalanced. To maintain optimum performance and maximum airflow., inspect, sharpen and balance blades periodically. 7. HIGH LIFT BLADES. If you have done all of the above and still have clipping discharge issues, you may wish to try fitting High-Lift” cutting blades. These blades produce maximum ejection airflow out of the deck discharge opening. Generally, larger cutting decks manage more clippings and higher clippings volume because more exit airflow moves the clippings out from beneath the cutting deck without clumping.
Where are your dealers located?
Rover Ride-on lawnmowers are for sale through out network of over 500 dealers Australia-wide, covering all major metro and regional areas. Below are just a few places you’ll find a trusted Rover sales and service partner, but to find one nearest to you, we recommend popping your postcode into our handy Dealer Locator facility. Australian Capital Territory – Canberra, Mitchell, Queanbeyan New South Wales – Bathurst, Blacktown, Blue Mountains, Broken Hill, Byron Bay, Campbelltown, Coffs Harbour, Dubbo, Goulburn, Newcastle, Parramatta, Penrith, Port Macquarie, Sydney, Wagga Wagga, Wollongong Northern Territory. Alice Springs, Darwin, Tennant Creek Queensland –Brisbane, Cairns, Gold Coast, Mackay, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, Townsville South Australia – Adelaide, Mount Gambier, Murray Bridge, Renmark, Victor Harbor Tasmania –Devonport, Hobart, Launceston Victoria – Ballarat, Bendigo, Burwood, Chadstone, Dandenong, Echuca, Frankston, Geelong, Gippsland, Melbourne, Pakenham, Ringwood, Warburton, Werribee Western Australia – Albany, Broome, Bunbury, Fremantle, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Mandurah, Perth Port Hedland
The Best Zero-Turn Mowers of 2023
These achieve the rare feat of making lawn mowing fun.
By Roy Berendsohn Published: Mar 1, 2023
When it comes to yard work, zero turn mowers do the impossible. They make lawn mowing fun. They accomplish this by putting unprecedented speed, control and maneuverability at the disposal of the person mowing the lawn. The so-called “zero turn” feature of these mowers converts a grass cutting machine into something akin to an amusement park ride. You steer the machine with two levers—the left lever controls the left wheel, the right lever the right wheel. With that steering setup, you can zoom over the landscape cutting straight lines, curves, or pivot the mower into and out of a corner. What’s not to like?
Read on to understand how these agile grass cutters work, how we go about testing them, and see some candidates that we’ve recently tested as well as some that we haven’t but that we think look particularly promising.
How Zero-Turn Mowers Work
A zero-turn riding mower consists of an operator platform, a frame and wheels, an engine (or battery bank), transmissions (or motors), and a pair of control levers commonly known as lap bars. In gas mowers, the engine powers a pulley system. One group of pulleys drives the blades, another group powers a pair of transmissions–one at each rear wheel. When you move the lap bar forward or back, you are directing the transmission to go faster, slower, or even turn the opposite way. When one drive wheel turns clockwise and the other counter clockwise, the mower pivots. When the wheels rotate at different rates, the mower turns in an arc-shaped path. When the lap bars are in the neutral position, the mower stops. Aside from a parking brake, there’s no other braking mechanism. Battery-powered zero-turn mowers work the same way, but have separate motors to drive the rear wheels and one for each blade inside the mower deck.
When it comes to transmission, most mowers have a Hydrogear EZT—a well-known and cost-effective residential-grade transaxle with a reputation for durability.
Some mowers use a deck stamped from one piece of steel, others use a deck fabricated from multiple pieces and welded together. A fabricated deck can be built from thicker steel at a lower cost than it would be able to be built otherwise. Once you’re talking about stamping metal as thick as 10 gauge (about 1⁄8 inch thick), the cost of stamping such a deck would push up the mower’s price beyond what most people are willing to pay. The decks in the mowers below range from 42 to 52 inches, a typical size in this class of product. When powered by these engines and the Hydrogear, these mowers will deliver a decent cut quality at their rated top speed of 7 mph. Note, however, that cut quality declines steeply if you maintain that speed in very thick grass or on uneven terrain.
As to the electric mowers, they represent the leading edge of the technology in this category. These are remarkable and expensive mowers powered by large-voltage lithium-ion batteries. If you’re interested in reducing mowing noise and simplifying your maintenance routine by eliminating gas and oil, they’re worth a look.
Selecting a Zero-Turn Mower
Everyone would like to select the biggest possible zero-turn mower with the hope of whittling a big grass cutting job down to size as quickly as possible. Reality usually intercedes because these machines are expensive and the wide range of options available today quickly drive up the cost. Roughly speaking, you start somewhere in the range of a mower with a 42-inch deck costing in the vicinity of 3200 to 3500 and move up in increments of 1000 to 1500 until you reach entry-level commercial-grade equipment that costs 7000 to 8000.
Again, speaking in terms of approximation, a mower with a 42-inch deck will cut a two-acre lot (that takes into account that the house, driveway, outbuildings and various landscape features are taking up some of that space). Use a mower with a larger deck to cut anything over two acres. But here’s the caveat. That entry-level ZTR mower (3200, say) with a 42-inch deck will wear out faster and need more maintenance than a mower with a 50-inch deck, a heavier frame, larger engine and higher quality transmissions, and thicker deck with more robust blade spindles, costing 4500.
In the simplest possible terms, you can cut a smaller area with a larger mower and expect more longevity out of the machine (not to mention a nicer mowing experience) or you can cut a larger area with a smaller machine and encounter more maintenance and a mowing experience that will be, we might say, a bit more rugged.
But there are still other factors to consider, in selecting a mower other than deck size and your budget. Larger mowers take more space in a garage or outbuilding. And a mower with a 50-inch or even 60-inch deck, as useful as it might be in getting the job done more quickly, may not fit through a fence’s gate, and it might be more difficult to maneuver in tight spots without creating scalp marks on the lawn from a lot of close-quarter pivoting.
Carefully consider all these factors when shopping for a mower: your budget, maintenance and whether you will perform that work yourself, mowing speed and time, maneuverability and trimming in tight areas, the importance that you place on your comfort while mowing, cut quality, longevity, storage, and access to the landscape.
How We Select and Test
There’s only one way to test a mower, and that’s to cut grass with it. But we also do more than mow.
We raise and lower the deck and adjust the seat. We look at service point access (the air filter, the spark plug, and the oil filter) and how easy it is to remove the deck. We mow approximately an acre with each mower, considering cut and mulching quality while running uphill, downhill, across washboard, and along sidehills. (On sidehills, we’ll mow surfaces pitched up to approximately 20 degrees; manufacturers generally recommend not going steeper than 10 degrees, but we like to be thorough.) We evaluate power and speed relative to cut quality—we investigate whether the mower delivers a decent cut mowing at full speed. When mowing in damp conditions, we look at whether the mower’s tires accumulate grass and how effectively it discharges moist clippings. Finally, we test maneuverability (these machines are, generally, very nimble) and how readily they come to a stop when you back off the lap bar control levers.
The Lawn Mower Buyer’s Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Buy the Right Type of Lawn Mower
Not all yards are the same, and not all mowers are either.
By Roy Berendsohn Published: May 5, 2022
Nothing kills the joy of a sunny day like the wrong type of lawn mower. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. The right type of lawn mower can make cutting your lawn a pleasure.
If you know you need a new lawn mower, but aren’t sure how much mower you need or what features you might want, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. Use this guide to select the right machine, and happy mowing.
Step 1: Walk or Ride?
The first step is the choice between two basic types of lawn mowers: riding mower and a walk-behind. Any more ground to cover than a 1/4 acre, you’ll want to ride if for no other reason than to get the lawn done faster.
From Popular Mechanics
First, make an approximation of your mowing surface. Simply walk off large rectangles. counting your steps as you go. Add up the areas of the rectangles. No need to get too precise here. An average man’s stride is about 30 inches and a woman’s stride is about 26 inches, or measure your own stride for the most accurate measurement.
An acre is 43,560 square feet, so one-fourth acre is 10,890 square feet. Anything above that threshold, and you’ll likely want to get a riding mower. In fact, the vast majority of people wouldn’t dream of cutting a ¼ acre of grass with a 22-inch walk mower, but we have to start somewhere. So think realistically about how much time you have to mow your lawn on a busy weekend and select your equipment accordingly.
For lawns from ¼ of an acre to 2 acres. you’ll most likely be most comfortable with a rear-engine riding mowers, light-duty lawn tractors, and residential-duty zero-turn mowers. Anything more than two acres and you’ll want a commercial-duty zero turn mower.
Step 2: Selecting Your Features
Once you’ve selected whether you ride or walk, there are two factors that will drive your purchase—your budget and your comfort. The more you spend on a mower, the more durable, versatile, intuitive, and probably, the quicker you’ll get the job done. The opposite is also true.
It doesn’t make as much difference with a small, simple yard. But the larger and more complex the yard, the more thought you need to give to selecting mower features.
We’ll begin with walk mowers. one of the most versatile cutting machines out there.
Walk mowers are somewhat like cars in that they are available with a wide range of options, all of which increase cost and complexity. Look carefully at the product’s hang tag and talk to the sales staff to get a better sense of whether the features are useful to you.
Let’s break down all the major components and what lawnmowers use them:
Look it at this way: You can push a mower, or the mower can push itself, in which case it’s either a front-drive or a rear-drive mower (we’ll get to all-wheel drive in a moment). A self-propelled mower makes your life a lot easier when mowing hills, or when you mow and bag. There’s nothing like pushing a fully loaded mower uphill to make you appreciate a self-propelled machine.
The Lawn and the Short of it
Front-wheel drive is best for level ground with a lot of obstacles. This allows you to push down on the handle, reducing traction on the front wheels and pivot into and out of corners.
Rear-wheel drive works best for for uphill mowing and sidehill mowing. Rear wheel drive works better here because when you push down on the handle going up a hill, the front tires will not lose traction.
Yes, a handful of mowers are all-wheel drive. built for homeowners who cut across washboard surfaces, sidehill mowing, steep uphill and downhill mowing that makes good of AWD. We were dubious when these mowers were introduced several years ago, but when we cut some very rough ground, we were surprised at how much easier AWD made things.
In this section, we’re talking about what the machines actually does with the grass. Mowers can mulch clippings (repeatedly cut and recut them), discharge them to the side or rear, or bag them.
Two-function is a mower that mulches and bags. Mulching is healthier for the lawn in that it returns nitrogen-rich grass clippings into the ground, but it doesn’t work particularly well for tall-grass conditions in the spring and early summer or early fall when the lawn bounces back from summer stress.
A three-function machine bags, mulches, and side discharges. Side discharging is useful for utility mowing (mowing areas with tall weeds and non-turf grasses). It also helps if the lawn gets away from you and you need to set the mower deck to its full height and take the grass down in stages.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of mower features. These are the more common things you’ll find on your average mower’s spec list:
Deck levers come in groupings of one, two, or four. One lever is the most convenient, but it comes with a lot of linkage that adds weight and that you have to keep lubricated if you want it to work well. Two levers are a good compromise between one and four levers. Yes, these mowers have a bit more linkage than a four-lever mower, but it’s easier to get the height right. Four levers is the standard, time-tested design.
The only way to get a sense of whether you’ll like the ground speed control is to actually get your hands on a mower at a dealership, hardware store, or home center.
The control may be integral with the handle. The harder you press forward on the drive control in the handle, the faster the mower goes. Or it may be a separate lever or even a bail (a metal rod). Squeeze the lever to increase ground speed or to activate the mower’s drive system for fixed-speed mowers.
Self-propelled mowers are equipped with three types of transmissions. Hydrostatic is the most expensive and the smoothest operating. It drives hydraulic fluid past an impeller that spins an output shaft, which controls ground speed. This is your smoothest running and most reliable transmission, but it’s also the most expensive.
The typical front or rear drive walk mower uses some form of belt-and-pulley arrangement to direct power from the engine’s output shaft to a gear box on a front or rear axle (or a gear at the wheel). There are several variations of this design, but all work well and are reasonably easy to maintain and repair.
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Gas engines sizes run from 140 cc to 190 cc. Larger engines produce more torque and are less likely to stall in tall grass at the beginning and end of the cutting season. A larger engine also helps drive self-propelled mowers more effectively uphill.
From least-expensive to most-expensive, mower engines may be traditional side valve design, overhead valve, or overhead cam. expensive engines provide increased durability, reduced noise, and less oil consumption.
The rear wheel size of a walk mower may be larger than the diameter of the front wheels. The wheels’ increased diameter helps it more easily navigate ruts and rough ground.
Ball bearing wheels are easier to push than those with bushing-type wheels. The larger your yard, the more difficult its terrain, or if you’re hauling around a bag of clippings or clippings mixed with mulched leaves, the more you want this option.
A blade-brake clutch is a feature found on high-end walk mowers. It allows you to completely release the operator control handle without stopping the engine. That way, you can pause your mowing, move whatever obstacle out of your way and continue mowing without having to restart the engine.
A range of unusual features have been introduced in the last several years to make mowing easier or the whole mowing experience better.
Some engines require no oil change. like the small gas engines made by Briggs Stratton. The feature is known as “Just Check and Add.” You just add oil periodically to replace the small amount of oil that’s slowly vaporized in the combustion process.
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Toro’s innovations have created mowers that have power-assisted reverse and a vertical-storage design that lets you fold the handle down, tip the mower back, and store it vertically against the wall.
Front caster wheels are great for elaborately-landscaped yards that require a lot of pivoting. Front caster wheels don’t track particularly well on bumpy ground or mowing sidehills. Mowox mowers have replaced dual front casters with a single front caster wheel, perhaps the most maneuverable form of mower you can get. But Cub Cadet has been among the mower manufacturers that pioneered the use of front caster wheels.
Wash-out fittings enable you to hook up a garden hose to wash accumulated grass clippings from under the deck. A clean deck lasts longer because accumulated grass holds moisture and lawn chemical residue, which causes deck corrosion. Our tests show that these fittings do help considerably, but that you still need some under-deck scraping with a putty knife.
Wide-cut mowers with decks that range from 28 to 33 inches are a fast cutting alternative to a 22-inch mower. These are still comparatively rare products made by Cub Cadet, Toro, Troy-Bilt, and Craftsman.
Finally, electric walk mowers are a perfect fit if you have a small yard (under 5,000 square feet of mowing surface) and one that’s quite manicured. However, there are three important things to keep in mind:
- Cordless electric mowers tend to have smaller decks (19 and 20-inch sizes are the most common, though a few have 21-inch decks). That means it takes you longer to mow.
- They tend to be less powerful than their gas engine counterparts. They can struggle with tall grass, wet grass, and thick grass with leaves. For intermediate mowing conditions, cordless mowers do just fine.
- The larger the lawn, the more batteries you need. Manufacturers make recommendations about run time, but that’s very difficult to do accurately. It varies widely depending on your mowing habits and the height or thickness of the grass. We recommend you buy extra batteries so that you’re not compelled to rush the cut.
If you can afford it, a riding mower is the way to go. Don’t get us wrong, we love walk mowers (goodness knows, we’ve used enough of them over the years here). But for speed and efficiency, there’s simply no comparison with a riding mower when you’re talking a large lawn.
When looking at riding mowers, you’ll likely come across three versions—lawn tractor, rear-engine riding mower, and a zero-turn mower. Let’s break them done one by one:
Many people start out with a lawn tractor. With a steering wheel and a front-mounted engine, these look and feel familiar. Engine size range from 18-25 HP and most come with a single cylinder with step-up models having a V twin. Some fancier models also feature engines with electronic fuel injection.
When it comes to transmissions, less expensive models tend to be lever-operated gear transmissions. But a step-up from there comes pedal hydrostatic or continuously variable transmission (CVT) operated by a shift-on-the-go hand lever. The CVT is an automatic transmission powered by pulley drive to a sealed and lubricated gear case. You know you’re spending serious money if you’re considering a more expensive tractor with a heavy-duty foot pedal hydrostatic transmission.
Finally, how much can it cut? Well, much more than a push mower. Deck widths range from 42 inches to 54 inches. To know what size you need, divide the mower deck size by 12 to get an approximation of the acreage the mower can handle. So residential-duty a mower with a 54-inch deck can mow up to 4.5 acres. That’s a lot of grass and would result in significant wear and tear on a residential-grade mower in the course of the season. Still, it could do it.
These kind of mowers range anywhere from 1,300 to 3,000.
Rear-Engine Riding Mower
Many people with larger lawns too big for a walk mower but too small for a tractor or a zero turn should go with a rear-engine riding mower. The specifications below apply to deck under the operator’s position and not rear-engine residential/commercial mowers with the deck in front of the operator.
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Most rear-engine mowers a single-cylinder engine ranging in size from 344 to 38 cc, estimated at 10 to 11 HP. The transmission is usually a CVT operated by a shift-on-the-go hand lever. Snapper’s famous rear-engine riding mower uses the company’s time-tested disc drive transmission, but a few rear-engine riders are offered with a hydrostatic transmission.
Deck sizes stretch anywhere from 30 to 33 inches, and operators use a manual hand lever for deck adjustment and deck engagement. That small cutting size also means a smaller price tag, ranging from 1,200 to 2,400.
In the last twenty years or so, zero-turn mowers have proved their worth to homeowners and landscape contractors alike. Their design enables forward speed and steering by means of dual hydrostatic transmissions at the rear wheels, each of which is controlled by a lap bar in front of the seat.
A pulley off the engine spins the impellers on the dual hydrostatic transmissions that power the rear wheels. When you move one of the lap bars farther forward than its neighbor, it acts as a throttle, allowing more hydraulic fluid to flow to the transmission at that wheel. This causes wheel to turn more rapidly than the opposite wheel, allowing you turn corners or pivot.
Engine size can range from 452 cc up to 700 or more, with power estimated from 12 HP to 25 HP. This is powered by either a single cylinder or commercial-duty V twin, and transmissions are either hydrostatic or commercial-duty hydrostatic.
With deck sizes ranging from 32 inches to 60 inches, these mowers cut the most grass in the least amount of time. The decks are either stamped or heavy-duty fabricated, deck adjustment uses a manual hand lever or foot pedal, and deck engagement uses a manual hand lever or an electric PTO
All that grass-cutting power comes with a price, usually ranging between 1,200 to 6,000. But now, you can knock some dollars off thanks to 2023 Memorial Day sales.
Roy Berendsohn has worked for more than 25 years at Popular Mechanics, where he has written on carpentry, masonry, painting, plumbing, electrical, woodworking, blacksmithing, welding, lawn care, chainsaw use, and outdoor power equipment. When he’s not working on his own house, he volunteers with Sovereign Grace Church doing home repair for families in rural, suburban and urban locations throughout central and southern New Jersey.