Turf Magazine - April, 2008

NATIONAL FEATURES

Getting a Grip

An in-depth look at ergonomic controls on walk-behind mowers
By Dexter Ewing

You might have noticed the increasing number of midsize walk-behinds that are outfitted with ergonomic hand controls. These new-style controls reduce operator fatigue associated with squeezing pistol-grip controls all day long, as well as eliminating the possibility of contracting something more serious later down the road, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, due to the repetitive hand motion associated with operating these types of mowers. Aside from reducing fatigue, these ergonomic controls also enhance operator comfort and productivity, while at the same time placing the operator’s hands within a safety zone. This safety zone prevents the operator’s hands from coming into contact with stationary, immovable objects when trimming close to structures, therefore eliminating physical injury. Midsize walk-behinds, both gear-drive and hydro varieties, have for so many years come with pistol-grip controls. Pistol grips are intuitive, and they are familiar to those of us who have used this style of mowers for a number of years. However, the proliferation of the ergonomic hand controls on the market today has brought about a revolution in the way these midsize walk-behinds are perceived among landscapers. It seems that each mower manufacturer has a mower in their product lineup with these ergonomic hand controls. While it is impossible to cover every single one on the market in this article, we will examine the newest and most popular and how they work to make the mower safer and easier to operate.

Left: Toro’s original ergonomic controls, the T-Bar handlebar system.

Below left: The new Split T-Bar controls allow operators to make precise maneuvers while mowing with a hydro-drive mower.

Below right: 3. The Split T-Bar controls operate the mower similar to that of a zero-turn rider.

Toro was the first commercial mower manufacturer to break out of the mold and experiment with ergonomic hand controls. As a result, for the model year 1984 the company released its now well-known T-Bar handlebar system on two gear drive walk-behinds: models 30108 (8 hp) and 30111 (11 hp). This T-Bar system eliminated the typical hand pressure points associated with operating a pistol-grip walk-behind mower. Says Ross Hawley, product manager for Toro’s Landscape Contractor Equipment division; “The original T-Bar controls have been extremely popular on gear-drive machines for many years, due in large part to the ease of operation, even for novice operators.” The T-Bar is intuitive: push to go forward, pull back to reverse, turn left to go left, and right to go right. In the years since its introduction, the T-Bar has undergone some slight changes to make the mower safer and easier to operate. In 2007, Toro broke new ground again by offering a modified version of their T-Bar for their hydro-drive walk-behinds, dubbed the Split T-Bar. “While some operators really liked the T-Bar control system on hydraulic-drive models,” Hawley explains, “The T-Bar was much more sensitive in this configuration, making it more difficult for most operators to make precise maneuvers.” So, Toro engineers went back to the drawing board to devise ergonomic controls that operated similar to their T-Bar, but allowed operators to execute precise maneuvers while mowing with a hydro-drive mower. “The Split T-Bar controls use straightforward control logic to precisely and effortlessly control the machine,” says Hawley. Two, independent levers comprise the Split T-Bar controls, and they operate the mower similar to that of a zero-turn rider. Thus, there is a small learning curve in learning how to operate a Split T-Bar walk-behind. “The controls have lower activation forces as compared to other control options, reducing fatigue on the operator, again leading to higher productivity,” Hawley says. Dual reference bars permit the operator to execute exact movements in forward or reverse directions by allowing them to steady the movement of the levers.

Scag Power Equipment recently made their entry into the ergonomic controls foray with the new Pro V midsize, walk-behind. The V-Bar steering system allows the operator to control the direction and speed without removing a hand from the controls. Chris Frame, Scag’s manager of marketing and strategic technology, says they incorporated an operator presence system that eliminates squeezing. “The hand fatigue factor is virtually eliminated,” he says. “Special operator-sensing grips eliminate the operator presence ‘paddle’ lever that can reduce comfort after hours of use.” How easy is it to master the maneuvering of the Pro-V? According to Frame, “The learning curve is easy and short. The method of operation is extremely simple and intuitive,” he says. “The same V-Bar you use to steer the mower is used to control the forward and reverse speeds.” Pivot the V-Bar left or right to steer left or right, push down on it for forward, lift up for reverse. To put the mower in neutral, simply let go and the V-Bar will default to neutral.

The V-Bar steering system is available on Scag’s Pro V midsize, walk-behind mower. Scag’s V-Bar steering system eliminates squeezing, which can cause in hand fatigue.

Exmark Manufacturing offers ergonomic hand controls on their walk-behind mowers. Their ECS (Enhanced Control System) controls can be found on the company’s Metro series of gear-driven walk-behinds, the Turf Tracer HP and Turf Tracer hydro models. The ECS incorporates a bullhorn-style handlebar that has a topside and inward positioning of the hands to accommodate a more natural angle of the human wrist, as well as placing the operator’s hands within a safety zone, preventing injuries from accidental contact with immovable objects. “With a tremendous amount of innovation being directed towards the mid-mount zero-turn market, Exmark felt there was a tremendous opportunity to dramatically improve the operational performance of our walk-behinds,” says John Cloutier, marketing manager for Exmark. The ECS system made its public debut in 2004 on the Turf Tracer HP hydro walk-behinds. With the advent of the ECS, this control system permits Exmark to address four key areas of walk-behind operation, according to Cloutier. First, the ECS is easy and intuitive to master. Second, less fatigue on hands, back and arms. Pistol-grip controls have a low, outward positioning that puts strain on these three body parts. Third is the reduced risk of injury from impacts during use. Again, the user’s hands are placed within a safety zone, preventing contact with objects. Finally, improved performance with the use of a sulky. Most pistol-grip controls are engineered for use without a sulky. Adding a sulky to the mower adds some height, forcing the operator to reach a bit further to actuate the levers and steer the mower. This is what causes the strain and fatigue in those three key areas. For those who prefer pistol grip, Cloutier says they will continue to offer traditional pistol-grip controls on all their midsize walk-behinds.

Right: Exmark’s ECS (Enhanced Control System) controls incorporates a bullhorn-style handlebar that has a topside and inward positioning of the hands for a natural angle of the wrist.

Below: The ECS is available on Exmark’s Metro series of gear-driven walk-behinds, the Turf Tracer HP and Turf Tracer hydro models.

Hustler Turf Equipment has introduced several innovative features and products over the years. One of those innovations was the H-Bar steering system, which was first introduced in 1997 on Hustler’s ShortCut series of compact, zero-turn riders. It was not until 2000 that the H-Bar was available on a walk-behind—their Hydro WalkBehind model. The H-Bar featured a motorcycle-style handlebar and grips, and the user could vary the forward or reverse speed simply by rolling the grips forward or back. To steer the mower left or right, it’s just as easy as turning the H-Bar in the direction you wish to go, similar to riding a bicycle. Though the ShortCut and Hydro WalkBehind have been discontinued for some time, the H-Bar has resurfaced again in the form of an improved H-Bar Plus that is found on the company’s Trimstar series of hydro walk-behinds. What are the differences between the original H-Bar and the present H-Bar Plus? “The H-Bar Plus features a speed control lever that sets the top speed,” says Ken Raney, advertising manager for Hustler Turf Equipment. “Also, the twist handles are now spring-loaded, so that when the operator relaxes his grip the speed decreases. The original H-Bar was the reverse of that.” To get underway, move the speed control lever upwards and that governs forward speed. From that point, one can turn the H-Bar Plus to steer the Trimstar. Roll back on the grips and the mower slows down; and the further back you roll the mower will come to a stop then reverse. Even no-scuff zero-degree turns are possible with the Trimstar. Roll back on the grips to bring the mower to a stop, then turn the H-Bar Plus in either direction and that will run one drive tire forward, the other backward. To come out of the turn, let the H-Bar Plus straighten up, then let the grips roll forward to return to your set forward ground speed.

Left: Hustler’s improved H-Bar Plus features twist handles that are springloaded so that when the operator relaxes his grip, the speed decreases.

Below: The H-Bar Plus is found on Hustler’s Trimstar series of hydro walk-behind mowers.

How is the learning curve with the H-Bar Plus? “The H-Bar Plus is so much easier to learn,” answers Raney. “It is way more comfortable to operate than pistol grips.” There is also a safety zone with the H-Bar Plus, as the operator’s hands are kept inboard of the width of the handlebar supports and drive wheels, preventing impact injuries while trimming close to structures. With the H-Bar Plus, Hustler incorporates a unique operator presence system. There are two oblong, metal loops in the rubber grip area. When one places their hands on the grips, the metal loops move upward, triggering a couple of microswitches. If the blades are engaged and both of the operator’s hands leave the grips, the mower will shut off. This type of operator presence safety system eliminates secondary levers.

Above: One feature of BOB-CAT’s Z-Controls is a steering dampener similar to those found on zero-turn riders. The dampeners smooth out the user’s hand movements, making them less jerky, and smoothing the operation of the mower.

Right: BOB-CAT’s ergonomic Z-Control dual-lever steering controls.

BOB-CAT has long been a dependable name in midsize walk-behinds of both the gear-drive and hydro-drive varieties. To further bolster this reputation, the company has given its customers a choice in controls for its dual hydro-drive walk-behinds. These mowers can be purchased with traditional pistol-grip controls or with the ergonomic Z-Control dual-lever steering controls. The Z-Control, like Toro’s Split T-Bar controls, is of a dual-lever variety that is similar to operating a zero-turn rider. BOB-CAT has integrated some neat features into their Z-Control to make them more operator friendly and making the mower smoother and safer to operate. First, there is an adjustable forward speed reference bar, by which the operator can limit the maximum forward travel speed. If one is operating the mower on rough terrain or hilly terrain and would like the stability of speed, they can limit the forward speed and still be able to grasp both the levers and the reference bar for even forward speed and direction. This adjustable reference bar is also helpful to slow the machine down for new operators, so they can get a feel for the mower. Another feature BOB-CAT uses is the levers use a steering dampener, similar to those found on zero-turn riders. The dampeners smooth out the user’s hand movements, making them less jerky, and smoothing the operation of the mower. BOB-CAT definitely has an ergonomic control system in place that will make mowing more comfortable with less fatigue and more control over the mower.

The increasing use of more comfortable, non-pistol-grip-style of controls for midsize walk-behind mowers is demonstrating that commercial mower manufacturers are being proactive in making their mowers more comfortable to use, safer and easier to control. Nearly every manufacturer has at least one model of walk-behind with ergonomic controls, and as time progresses without a doubt we will be seeing more come on the market. If you are considering the purchase of a walk-behind with these types of hand controls, it may be wise to demo one prior to making your decision because each one is different, and this is pretty much a personal preference thing. So, be sure to try a few out and see for yourself which has the best feel, handles the best and, most importantly, gives the best quality of cut for your application.

The following ergonomic hand control systems are also available: Husqvarna ETS, Gravely Pro Steer, Yazoo-Kees PPS, Bunton Z-Control, Snapper Comfort Loop and Wright Manufacturing Quad Lever.

Dexter Ewing is a freelance contributor based in Winston-Salem, N.C.