How to Cut Grass on a Steep Hill with a Riding Lawn Mower
Most riding mowers are not designed to mow slopes steeper than 15 degrees and will indicate that in the manual. So what do you do if you’re wondering how to cut grass on a steep hill safely?
There are some more expensive riding mowers that can accommodate larger slopes if it is essential to mow steep slopes on your property. You can use an ATV as an alternative (use them with pull-behind mower attachments).
You can mow smaller slopes, but riding mower operators must use extra caution. In these situations, safety is vital; risk of injury or death is not worth the manicured grass.
In this article I’ll provide my top tips to tell you how to cut grass on a steep hill safely. I’ll also help you decide whether you should use a riding mower or try another method.
Go Slow and Know When to Stop
Slow down and take your time while you work on mowing a slope. Use the lowest possible gear on the transmission.
Ensure properly functioning brakes so that you can stop the machine properly on a hillside. If you notice that your front tire is not making grooves while going uphill, then slowly turn to go downhill; if the front end starts to come up, then the weight of the back wheels will certainly roll it backwards down the hill.
Avoid stopping, starting, or turning directly on the slope. Wait until you are on a more level part of the ground to do so.
Go Up and Down the Hill (never side-to-side)
It is better to mow up and down the hillside on a riding mower. This can help you avoid sliding or rolling sideways down the hill.
This type of accident could lead to you being crushed by the mower if it rolls sideways. If the hill is too steep, then avoid mowing up the hill and only mow down the hill.
This may mean that you need to find a wide berth around to get back to the top of the hill. Make sure the path you choose isn’t as steep.
Lumps, Bumps, and Edges
Be on the lookout for any uneven sections or obstacles in the lawn. Rocks, lumps, and holes can all increase the risk of the mower tipping over.
The edges of ponds and embankments are also to be avoided as the soil several feet around the edge of the embankment can quickly become waterlogged or filled with loose soil that will tip the mower.
Never Mow Wet
Mowing wet grass is never a good idea because it gets heavy and can clog up the mower.
Using a riding mower on wet grass is especially dangerous when mowing on a slope.
Wet grass creates a slippery surface for a riding mower and makes it more likely that it will slide or end up rolling over.
Consider Alternatives When You Need to Cut Grass on a Steep Hill
If you have a fenced in area, consider livestock that will happily eat the grass on your hillside to keep it at an acceptable length.
Another option is to turn the area into a work of landscape architecture or a hillside garden with terraces … something that doesn’t require mowing at all.
You could even consider sowing wildflowers and turning your hillside into a wildflower garden and sanctuary for pollinators and wildlife.
Most importantly, read your operating manual to see what slopes you can safely mow and then judge what alternatives will work best for the slopes that are too steep for your riding mower.
Use a weed-wacker or string trimmer. This can be a good choice on smaller slopes if you’re determined to keep them grassy.
A smoking lawn mower is never a good sign. Whether the smoke is blue, white, or black, here’s how to identity and address the issue without the help of a professional.
By Glenda Taylor and Bob Vila | Updated Sep 24, 2020 1:40 PM
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Q: Recently, my mower started billowing smoke when I powered it up, so I shut it off immediately. Why is my lawn mower smoking? And is it a fire hazard? I want to know how to proceed so I don’t harm the machine.
A: Your lawn mower can emit smoke for numerous reasons—many of which don’t require the services of an expert. A homeowner can usually identify the reason for a smoking lawn mower by gauging the color of the Cloud coming around the engine, then fix it accordingly before lasting damage occurs. Keep in mind that all mowers with internal combustion engines contain the same basic parts, but the configuration of those parts varies widely, depending on manufacturer and model. Consult your owner’s manual if you’re unsure how to access a specific part of your lawn mower’s engine.
White or blue smoke may indicate an oil spill on the engine.
If you’ve recently changed the oil in your mower and the engine is emitting white or blue smoke, it’s possible that some of the oil spilled onto the engine. Similarly, you could’ve spilled oil on the engine by mowing on a slope greater than 15 degrees or tipping the mower on its side. The smoke may look disconcerting, but it’s completely harmless. Solve the problem by restarting the mower and allowing the spilled oil to burn off. If you tip the mower often for cleaning or maintenance, check your owner’s manual to determine the best way to reduce the risk of oil leaks.
An overfull oil reservoir may also cause white or blue smoke.
Ensure you didn’t overfill the mower by checking the oil level with the dipstick located on the reservoir. To do this, remove the dipstick cap, wipe off the stick with a rag, and reinsert it into the reservoir. Then remove the dipstick once again and determine the oil level in comparison to the recommended “fill” line on the stick. If the level is too high, drain the oil (consult your owner’s manual for instructions), then refill the reservoir with it. Start checking the oil level with the dipstick after you’ve added about ¾ of the amount recommended in the manual. Continue to add small amounts of oil until the level matches the recommended “fill” line. Also note that using the wrong grade of engine oil may cause blue or white smoke. Consult the owner’s manual for the exact type of oil recommended for your mower.
Black smoke may indicate that the mower is “running rich,” or burning too much gasoline.
Your lawn mower’s carburetor regulates the ratio of gasoline to air mixture. If the carburetor isn’t getting enough air, the mixture has a higher percentage of gasoline, which can create black exhaust smoke. It’s possible that a dirty or clogged air filter is preventing sufficient airflow into the carburetor. Try replacing the air filter. (Note: air filters vary by mower model; view example air filter on Amazon.) Next, run your lawn mower for a few minutes. If the black smoke still appears, the carburetor might need to be adjusted in order to increase airflow. Either take the mower to a professional or adjust the carburetor yourself with instructions in your owner’s manual.
Take your mower to a repair shop if necessary.
If the previous steps don’t correct blue or white smoke, your mower could have a more serious problem, such as an air leak in the crankshaft (the cast iron or cast aluminum case that protects the moving parts of a mower’s engine). Continuing blue or white smoke could also indicate that some of the engine’s components or seals are worn out and need replacement. Similarly, if black smoking still persists after you’ve replaced the air filter and adjusted the carburetor, you could be facing a more serious mechanical issue. All of these problems require the help of a professional. If your mower is still under warranty, check with the manufacturer for the location of the nearest servicing dealer; problems stemming from a factory defect or poor workmanship may garner free repairs. If your mower is not covered under warranty, a reputable small-engine repair shop should also be sufficient to get the job done.
Tractor Loses Power Going Uphill: Likely Causes
Even if your tractor runs just fine at any other time, the fact that it loses power when going uphill does indicate a problem. Fortunately, this problem isn’t usually too hard to fix.
Common causes of a tractor losing power when going uphill:
As long as you can figure out what is causing the loss of power, you should easily be able to address it. Read on to learn more.
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How Are Tractors Powered?
In order to better understand why a tractor would lose power going uphill, it’s good to understand a little bit more about how tractors are powered in the first place.
Generally, they are powered by large diesel engines, although some smaller tractors can be powered by gasoline or liquefied petroleum gas, also known as LPG (source).
I’ll cover the primary issues for both models but note that if you have a diesel tractor, it won’t have a spark plug or carburetor.
Modern tractors have power take-off (PTO) switches. These are typically rotating shafts at the back of the tractor that can be adjusted to transfer the power from the engine of the tractor to another implement.
When the implement is hooked to the back of the tractor, it will be connected to the PTO, so that the engine of the tractor can power not only the tractor itself but also the machinery that is connected to it. If a tractor is pulling powered machinery, it will go relatively slowly because some of the power is being distributed to the other machinery.
This can actually help you understand why a tractor would lose power in other situations, such as if it is going uphill. If there is power being diverted to something else, this power will be taken away from the tractor itself.
Note: Read our troubleshooting guide if you are having trouble with your tractor’s PTO not engaging.
Why Would a Tractor Lose Power Going Uphill?
There are a few common reasons why a tractor would lose power going uphill. The course of action that you should follow depends on the specific cause of the problem.
Not Enough Fuel in the Tank
If the fuel in the tank is at a low level, you can probably still get the tractor started and maybe even drive it on flat ground just fine. However, when it goes uphill, the little bit of fuel in the tank could move to the back and away from the inlet for the fuel hose.
As simple as it sounds, this could be the cause of low power when going uphill. I know it sounds obvious but before we get too deep into this, just make sure that you have enough fuel.
Other Fuel-Related Problems
Even if there is enough fuel in the tank, there can be other problems related to fuel that prevent your tractor from having enough power when going uphill.
One example is a clogged fuel filter. The engine won’t work properly without pure fuel going into it. A fuel filter will prevent impurities from going into the engine and jeopardizing its performance but they do that by trapping the impurities and those build up over time, impeding the flow.
Fuel filters need to be changed at regular intervals. It’s good practice to do it annually.
It is also possible that a vacuum could be present in the fuel tank. In order to correct this, you would just need to take the fuel cap off and see if this causes any changes in the way your tractor operates (source).
It’s possible to clean the fuel cap vents but sometimes it’s easier to just replace them if you find this to be the issue.
Another possibility is just that you are using the bad fuel in your tractor. If you are using old fuel or poor-quality diesel, you might want to upgrade to a higher-quality fuel in order to correct this issue.
Clogged Air Filter
The internal combustion chamber needs clean fuel, but it doesn’t end with this. It also needs to pull in clean air in a precise ratio (source).
If your air filter is clogged, unwanted debris could get into the internal combustion chamber and ultimately damage the engine.
The more likely issue though it that it just won’t get enough air for the combustion process when under load. So, the tractor may start and run just fine until you start uphill, at which time is can lose power and even stall.
In order to prevent this from happening, make sure to check your air filters regularly and replace them when necessary.
This YouTube video does a great job of walking you through changing the air filter:
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Your Zero Turn Mower Loses Power (Solved!)
You’re mowing the lawn as usual, but this time the engine doesn’t seem to give the power it once did. You know your mower best. When you notice this loss of power, it’s important to find the cause.
It could be something as simple as a maintenance problem or operator error. It could also be a more significant problem that can cause engine damage if it is not addressed.
A zero-turn lawn mower may experience a loss of power when an increased load is placed on the engine due to operating at a fast ground speed; cutting wet or tall grass, or having a plugged mower deck. An air or fuel restriction; low engine oil level; or poor air circulation can also cause a loss of power in your zero-turn.
Follow all safety instructions provided in your equipment operator’s manual before diagnosing, repairing, or operating. Consult a professional if you don’t have the skills, or knowledge or are not in the condition to perform the repair safely.
Reasons Your Zero Turn Mower Has No Power
Zero Turn Has Too Much Load Placed on the Engine
When too much load is put on your engine, you can lose power. This extra load requires the engine to work harder. These are items that can put your zero-turn under load:
Ground Speed is Too Fast for Mowing Conditions
Mowing your lawn at too fast a speed can put extra load on your zero-turn. Slow down the speed to match your mowing conditions. For example, your engine works harder to mow thick lawns over thinly covered lawns.
You need to operate your zero-turn at a slower speed when mowing thick lawns. Operate your mower slower when on inclines. Mowing inclines makes your engine work harder.
Mowing Wet or Tall Grass
When mowing wet or tall grass, you are making your engine work so much harder than mowing dry grass with a manageable length. Mow your grass when it is dry.
This puts less load on your engine and reduces the number of grass clippings clumping and collecting under your mower deck.
It is best to mow regularly to prevent your grass from getting excessively tall. When mowing tall grass, adjust your mower deck to its highest setting for the first cutting and then lower the deck for the next cutting.
Avoid mowing in these conditions if possible. If you do need to mow this type of grass, slow down your zero-turn speed to not overwork it.
Grass Buildup Under Your Zero Turn Mower Deck
Keep your mower deck clean so the blades can spin freely. When dirt and grass clippings plug the mower deck, the engine is required to work hard to turn the blades through the buildup with each revolution.
Regularly scrape your deck to remove debris. Avoid mowing in wet conditions as the grass is more likely to build up under your deck. Not only does this extra debris under the deck cause your engine to work hard and lose power, but it also causes your zero-turn to give you a bad cut.
Running Dull Zero Turn Mower Blades
What further magnifies the lack of power received when mowing with a clogged mower deck, is mowing with dull mower blades and a clogged mower deck.
Check your blades and sharpen or replace them if needed. You can find more information on inspecting your blades and the sharpening process here.
Plugged Zero Turn Air Filter
When you feel you are losing power when running your zero-turn, check your air filter. A plugged air filter can cause a power loss.
Your engine requires air to run. When it no longer gets the air it needs, the engine may run sluggish and possibly quit. Regularly check your air filter condition. Clean and replace as needed.
How to Clean Your Zero Turn Paper Air Filter Element
- Remove the air filter from the air filter housing.
- Wipe out any remaining dirt in the housing with a dry cloth. Be careful not to allow dirt to fall into the air intake.
- Tap your air filter against a solid surface to knock as much dirt loose as possible.
- Hold your filter up to a light source.
- Reuse your filter if you can see light through the paper element.
- Replace with a new filter if you can’t see light through the paper element.
Old Fuel in Your Zero Turn Mower
Fuel that has been sitting around for long periods can break down and become less effective. It can develop gummy substances and deposits that can cause blockages in your fuel system which can result in a power loss.
Most people don’t realize fuel can begin to become less effective and unstable as quickly as 30 days after purchase. It’s important to use the fuel in your zero-turn quickly. If you are unable to use your fuel timely, use a fuel additive to stabilize your fuel.
Drain your bad fuel into a container for recycling. Refill with fresh fuel. Most gasoline-powered zero-turn mowers use unleaded gasoline that has a minimum octane rating of 87 and a maximum ethanol content of 10%.
Do not use a fuel with a higher ethanol content because ethanol is not good for small engines. Learn more about the right fuel to use in your zero-turn and stabilizing your fuel with an additive in my other articles.
Clogged Fuel Filter or Fuel Lines on Your Zero Turn
Dirt and the substances left behind by running old fuel can cause your fuel filter to become plugged and your fuel lines to become clogged. This fuel restriction can cause your zero-turn to feel a loss of power and run sluggishly.
It is good practice to replace your fuel filter annually when performing your routine zero-turn maintenance. This filter is a rather inexpensive part that can prevent fuel supply issues and significant engine damage if it fails to strain dirt efficiently.
Check for clogs in the fuel lines by starting and stopping fuel flow using the fuel shut-off valve located on the bottom of your fuel tank or by crimping the fuel line. Stop your fuel flow.
Remove the end furthest from the fuel tank of one section of the fuel line and place it in a container. Start flow to check for blockages. Continue checking other sections of the fuel line.
When you find a clogged fuel line, remove the section of the line and spray carburetor cleaner into the line. This should help loosen up the clogs.
Follow this by blowing compressed air through the line to free the obstruction. If you cannot remove the blockage or you notice your line is dry and cracked, replace it with a new fuel line.
How Steep is 30 Degrees?
Dirty Carburetor on Your Zero Turn Mower
Your carburetor is an important component of your mower. It regulates the correct amount of fuel and air allowed in the cylinder for combustion.
The substances left behind by running old fuel can collect in your carburetor preventing it from providing the fuel needed to run. It may even keep your zero turn from starting.
When this happens, the dirty carburetor can cause your mower to experience a loss of power. Clean a carburetor that isn’t allowing fuel to get to the cylinder. Before you tear your carburetor apart, remove the air filter and spray carburetor cleaner into the air intake.
Start your engine to see if it will run. If it runs, but it won’t stay running, you need to clean your carburetor. Refer to the article to find step-by-step instructions to clean your zero-turn carburetor.
Bad Spark Plug Causes a Zero Turn Mower to Lose Power
A fouled spark plug in your zero-turn can cause an intermittent spark that can cause a loss of power. Inspect your spark plug for signs of carbon, dirt, and oil buildup on the tip.
If you find a dirty or damaged spark plug, I recommend replacing it with a new one to ensure you’re running a good plug in the mower.
If you choose to, you can attempt to clean it with a wire brush and reuse it if the spark plug is in good condition and not very dark in color.
Low Engine Oil Level on Your Zero Turn Lawn Mower
When your zero turn doesn’t have enough engine oil in the crankcase, the engine will experience a loss of power. The lack of lubrication from not having enough oil causes increased friction.
This friction builds heat and causes the engine to get extremely hot and suffer from power loss.
If a low engine level isn’t caught quickly, the increased heat will cause internal engine parts to melt. This can result in a significant engine repair bill or possibly an engine replacement.
Routinely check your engine oil level before each mowing. This doesn’t take too much time and can help you catch oil leaks or engine problems early. Always run the correct amount of oil in your engine. Not doing so can cause running and overheating problems.
When you find your engine doesn’t have enough oil, add oil to bring the level to the manufacturer’s recommended level.
If you continue to have engine problems, running your zero-turn mower with low engine oil could have caused internal damage that needs to be diagnosed by an experienced small engine mechanic.
Too Much Engine Oil Causes a Zero Turn Mower to Lose Power
Overfilling the crankcase with engine oil will cause your engine to smoke. Increased pressure builds as a result of too much engine oil and oil can be pushed into the cylinder through the valve train. When this happens, a bluish-white smoke is emitted when the oil burns in the cylinder.
This thick Cloud of smoke can plug your air filter causing running issues because your engine isn’t able to get the clean air it needs. Check your air filter and your spark plug, and clean or replace them if needed.
Continuing to run your zero-turn with too much oil can cause seal damage, the engine to hydro lock, and a bent piston rod. Correct an engine with too much oil by removing a little oil. You can do this by using an oil evacuator, a drain plug, or even a turkey baster.
Zero Turn Engine Air Circulation is Blocked
Your engine needs to be kept cool to prevent it from overheating and losing power. Make sure your engine has good air circulation by removing any grass clippings, dirt, and debris that may be collecting around your engine.
Remove all the debris that has been collected under your engine shroud.
Engine Cooling Fins are Dirty on Your Zero Turn
The cooling fins are essential to circulating air around the engine to keep it cool. Just like you need to remove debris from collecting around your engine so your engine doesn’t overheat and experience a loss of power, the same is true of your cooling fins.
The fins can become plugged with mud and grass clippings inhibiting the amount of air is it able to push to the engine. Clean out debris around your cooling fins and replace any broken fins to make sure it is functioning properly.
Still Experiencing Loss of Power in Your Zero Turn?
While most reasons your zero turn has no power are due to a lack of air or fuel, there are a few other electrical and internal engine issues that can result in a loss of power.
If you are still experiencing problems after you have checked the items listed above, it’s time to take your mower to a knowledgeable lawn mower mechanic for further diagnosis.
Still Experience Problems with Your Zero Turn Mower?
Many different types of problems can develop in a mower. It doesn’t matter what brand you own.
While some mowers are built with stronger materials, bigger filters, better engines, and tougher spindle housings, they are all going to break down and cause issues at some time. Some may just not develop problems as quickly as others.
I put together a guide with common things that go wrong on zero-turns. In this guide, you will find a list of causes and solutions for a mower dying, smoking, vibrating, not starting, having cutting issues, and more.
If you still can’t find the solution to your problem or you don’t feel comfortable troubleshooting or repairing your mower, it is best to have an experienced mechanic check out your mower.
You can visit your local dealership that provides repair support for your brand mower. You may also find a lawn mower repair shop with experienced small engine mechanics.
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