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Tuesday, October 4, 2011 - Page updated at 06:00 p.m.

Mower maintenance for fall

By John Shultz
McClatchy Newspapers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — That first taste of fall means the beginning of a big run of goodbyes: so long to summer vacation, goodbye grilling season and farewell to football-free weekends.

But before you give a hasty send-off to the mowing season, be aware that there's a pretty decent checklist of prescribed fall lawn-mower maintenance tasks you might want to tackle.

Sure, most people may equate lawnmower maintenance with early spring, but experts say fall is a fine time to do upkeep on the old reliable walk-behind.

A bit of work now will save you quite a bit of time and money when it comes time to roll the mower back out of the garage next year.

"Maintenance makes equipment easier to start," said Roy Berendsohn, senior home editor at Popular Mechanics. "That may or may not result in direct cost savings, but it certainly reduces the wear and tear on you. Few things are as frustrating as trying to start a cranky piece of outdoor power equipment. Nobody needs that frustration on a busy weekend."

When it comes to maintaining machinery, clean is important.

Before you even put the mower away for the season, one particular aspect of fall presents its own challenges for mowers: leaves.

"The best thing to do during fall use is to double-check your air filters," said Ryan Hays, manager at Rick's Lawnmower in Blue Springs, Mo. "The air filters get dirtier faster when you mulch leaves. If they get stopped up, they have to suck air from somewhere, and then they'll suck unfiltered air, and you can damage the motor. "Also, some manufacturers tell you to change the oil in the fall because the dirtier and dustier conditions from leaves can impact the oil faster."

Another key through-the-season task: Keep a sharp blade, particularly with the added strain of leaf mulching.

"You can use better than 20 percent more fuel with a dull blade," said Peter Sawchuk, program leader for home improvement with Consumer Reports. "I always recommend people buy a second blade for the mower. It's usually under $10."

Keeping the mower deck clean is also an important task — certainly before you stow away the mower for the year.

"Having clippings and debris build up on the underside cuts the air flow and dramatically impacts the effectiveness of the mower," Sawchuk said.

At the end of the season, Sawchuk recommends turning the mower on its side with the carburetor facing up and cleaning the undercarriage with a hose. "If you leave clippings under there at the end of the season, it can start to rust and corrode."

Changing the oil is more of a judgment call. Most experts recommend changing the oil frequently during the mowing season — as often as every 25 hours of mowing time. As for prior to storage, though, mower maestros are split.

"That's a tough call," said Popular Mechanics' Berendsohn. "Some people recommend an oil change at the end of the season because it prevents dirty oil and sludge from sitting around in the engine's crankcase over the winter.

"I think it's better to change the oil in the spring before beginning the next mowing season. That ensures that the oil is as fresh and clean as possible at the beginning of the season."

So far, so good. It's all pretty much the same advice passed down from dad, granddad, and, quite possibly, great-granddad.

One topic your predecessors may not have worried about — but that you absolutely need to keep in mind — is alternative fuel. And failure to do so may lead to a significant headache and a significant repair bill.

"Ethanol is creating some problems in small engines," Sawchuk said.

Explains Rick Muscoplat, contributing editor at the Family Handyman magazine: "Oxygenated gas only has a 30-day shelf life. After that, the ethanol starts to separate."

That ethanol falls to the bottom of the tank, he said. And ethanol will absorb any moisture present in the air into the gas tank.

That water can work its way into the carburetor, leading to corrosion.

"If you leave that gas in all winter, your carburetor can be toast by next spring," Muscoplat said.

And a carburetor repair job isn't cheap — anywhere from $70 and more for a walk-behind to $200 and up for a riding mower.

One fix, thankfully, is cheap: a bottle of gas stabilizer, $7.

Fuel stabilizer can accomplish several tasks, Berendsohn said: it increases the life span of stored gasoline, it helps it burn more cleanly and efficiently, and it can prevent the separation that leads to corrosion.

Own a riding mower? A lot of the advice is the same, but the job ahead of you is a bit bigger.

Clean the deck, naturally, watch the oil, filters and gas. Maintain the air pressure in the tires. Wheel bearings may need lubrication.

"You'll also have to charge that battery over the storage season, or you have to buy a new one every other year," Sawchuk said.

David Fittje, department manager of seasonal at the Lowe's in Kansas City, Mo., said that riding owners may want to make sure they check their belts on the rider. If it's a little worn, over the winter it can crack or break.

"Spending the 20 minutes prepping a mower for winter can save you a lot of hassle come spring."

FALL MOWER MAINTENANCE

John Deere provides these tips to ensure you're getting the best cut quality and longer life from your equipment.

• Tighten all nuts and bolts.

• Check all belts, filters, safety shields and guards.

• Replace any damaged or missing parts, including spark plugs.

• Check tire tread and pressure.

• Add a fuel stabilizer to the gas tank.

• After adding stabilizer, run the engine for five minutes.

• Change the oil (or in the spring).

• Replace the filter.

• Sharpen the blade, but be careful not to sharpen it to a razor's edge — it will crack, peel back and hack grass to shreds. Leave a thickness of about 1/64 of an inch to keep the blade strong

• Balance the blade to prevent vibration. Put the center hole of the blade on a nail hammered into a garage stud. If one side goes down, file it until it becomes level.

• Do not store in an enclosed place where fuel fumes can accumulate or be exposed to an open flame, spark or pilot light.

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