Mower Technology Takes Leap Forward
New commercial models feature advanced electronics, fuel choices, time-saving design
Exmark's RED technology incorporates a variety of alarms to alert operators about potential problems with critical systems. The control panel also replaces a traditional throttle with a rocker switch featuring three different modes; the technology reduces fuel use by up to 41 percent.
Photos courtesy of Exmark.
Technology can make things more complicated (tried to change the channel on your car radio lately?), but it can also make our lives easier and better. High-tech doesn't have to mean greater complexity. The best advances in design and innovations in technology actually make things simpler, better. That's the goal of mower manufacturers, as they introduce models with new features that boost productivity and increase performance while lowering maintenance and reducing operating costs.
Perhaps the most talked-about advance in mower technology recently has come from Exmark, with its RED Onboard Intelligence Platform. RED is basically a computer (intelligence) that Exmark created and integrated within the Kohler EFI E-Gov engine.
"It enables us to monitor key systems on the machine. For example, we can look at engine temperature and oil pressure, and alert the operator when the machine is being operated in a condition that may potentially be catastrophic for the engine," explains Daryn Walters, Exmark's director of marketing. "If it senses there is a problem or some sort of abnormality with one of the primary systems, the machine will go into limp mode, which shuts the blades off but still allows the operator to drive the machine safely back to the trailer or shop."
While the warning system may activate only in emergency situations, the RED technology also provides a benefit that operators will experience on a daily basis: up to a 41 percent reduction in fuel use. The fuel savings are achieved while actually improving mower performance largely by eliminating the throttle on the mower. In its place is a rocker switch for "Low," "Efficient" and "Max."
Traditionally, when a mower gets into thick grass operators can hear the engine pull down, so they push the throttle up all the way and mow the whole yard in that manner, whether all of the horsepower is needed or not, Walters points out.
"With this integrated system, we can pull back slightly the RPMs in efficient mode, drawing down slightly the blade tip speed and maximizing the fuel savings without sacrificing the quality of cut," he says, simplifying the way in which the technology works.
"You never get a droop - it doesn't pull the engine down - because it's digitally controlled," Walters adds. "You get this consistent performance no matter how high the grass is; if you're in 'Efficient' mode you're going to be running the same horsepower and same blade tip speed you would be if the mower was sitting in a parking lot."
One added benefit of the RED controller is a Clutch Saver feature, which eliminates the common problem of operators throttling the engine all the way up and then pulling the PTO switch. "That's very violent and creates a lot of stress on the system," says Walters. Because there is no throttle with RED, the system can instantly draw back the horsepower whenever the PTO lever is activated. Once the clutch is engaged, the power is instantly returned.
EFI early adopter
Kohler's EFI engines are becoming more popular in commercial mower applications recently. Walker Manufacturing has actually been using this technology in its mowers since 1998; in fact, more than 20,000 Walker mowers with EFI have been manufactured over that time. The company reports that, in 2012, 40 percent of Walker Manufacturing customers opted for EFI engines.
Walker cites fuel savings as one of the primary benefits of this technology, with savings (compared to carbureted engines) ranging from 17 percent on its MBS mowers up to 30 percent on its MBK mowers. While the technology costs slightly more up front, the reduced fuel costs cover the difference in just about one season of commercial use, the company states.
Other mower manufacturers are also now turning to technologically advanced EFI systems. Grasshopper, for example, introduced two new electronic fuel injection mowers in 2013 - the mid-mount 327EFI and front-mount 727TEFI - powered by enhanced second-generation, fuel-efficient 747cc Kohler Command Pro closed-loop EFI engines.
Not all technology is electric. Grasshopper's new PowerVac Model 15B HighLift collector is one example of technological innovation taking on mechanical form.
Photo courtesy of Grasshopper.
This technology offers "increased fuel efficiency and performance for end-users and, with automotive-style, plug-in diagnostics, speedy diagnosis and service of performance issues," explains Mike Simmon, marketing coordinator with Grasshopper.
Toro has recently expanded its use of EFI technology in its commercial mowers. The company reports that the Kohler Command Pro closed-loop EFI engines used on its Commercial 3000 Series, Professional 5000 and 6000 Series, and GrandStand stand-on mowers automatically adapt to load, weather, fuel and altitude changes for faster response and up to 25 percent better fuel economy.
"Toro has continued to invest in EFI technology because it helps our customers reduce their fuel costs while reducing overall engine emissions," says Chris Hannan, marketing manager for Toro. Those who purchase certain Z Master Professional 6000 models can also opt for Toro's new Horizon technology, which performs in a similar manner to the Exmark RED technology described earlier.
Altoz Precision Mowers has gained a lot of recognition for the sleek and distinctive appearance of its new zero-turn mowers, but company CEO Dennis Brazier says it's the mowers' technology and innovation that are most important. "Looks are one thing, but the mower has to perform," says Brazier.
The SmarTrac display used on the Altoz Precision Mowers XC720Z incorporates a low oil pressure alarm, along with hydro temperature alarms. The system also displays both analog and digital tachometer readings, as well as battery volt data and other information.
Photos courtesy of Altoz.
One area where Altoz has employed technology for practical purposes is its SmarTrac digital displays.
"In our research, we came to the conclusion that lack of maintenance was one of the major reasons why people have problems with their equipment - they either don't get around to it, or there isn't significant indications or signals that the unit needs maintenance," says Mark Reese, chief engineer at Altoz. "We tried to make a display that's easy to read and gives you head's-up information, like your car, and warns you when you may need to look at something."
The system display incorporates a low oil pressure alarm, along with hydro temperature alarms. Having a warning can allow for a quick, easy fix (adding oil or cleaning grass clippings off the hydros or cooling fans, for example), rather than a costly repair, Reese notes.
The system also displays battery volts; hour meters to track maintenance intervals; both analog and digital tachometer readings; historical information on past temperature and RPM max readings; and more. People are accustomed to getting this information from their car, and today's mowers are so sophisticated - and expensive - that it only makes sense that they display important data, as well, says Reese.
Not all new technologies are electronic. John Deere, for example, has introduced its Mulch-on-Demand (MOD) deck, which allows operators to easily convert their mowing deck from a true side-discharge deck to a true mulching deck by simply moving a lever from the operator seat.
Photos courtesy of John Deere.
"The MOD benefits the user in two ways," explains Nick Minas, product manager with John Deere. "First, by being able to quickly change from side discharge to mulch, they can quickly adjust the deck performance to the job requirements without any additional tools or even stopping."
Second, he notes, cleanup time is reduced because the operator can close the discharge chute when mowing alongside walkways, driveways, pools, planting beds or anywhere else where grass clippings are not wanted.
With a similar goal, Kubota has created "operator-controlled discharge chute" (OCDC) technology for its new Z700 zero-turn mowers.
"We have a lever that controls the opening. So if operators are mowing around parking lots or people or other property they can block off the opening and minimize the dispersal," explains Christine Chapman, product manager with Kubota.
John Deere's MOD deck technology allows operators to switch from mulching (top) to side-discharge (bottom) mode with a simple lever control.
A number of other engineering advances were incorporated into the Z700 mowers, adds Chapman.
"We wanted to design a machine that provided minimal downtime, meaning more time on the turf and less time performing regular maintenance," she explains. For example, flat-free, semi-pneumatic front casters were used to reduce the time spent on repairs.
"Also," Chapman adds, "through researching spindle design, we have incorporated sealed spindles on the decks - a larger spindle shaft and a much stronger spindle bearing. So the life of that spindle will be longer, but there will also be less maintenance because they're sealed, so the operator won't have to worry about greasing those spindles."
Kubota's Z725 incorporates flat-free, semi-pneumatic front casters and sealed deck spindles, among other innovations, designed to reduce maintenance and downtime.
Photo courtesy of Kubota.
In designing the new mowers, Kubota engineers also provided better access points to service items, such as filters. "It's a very sleek design, but it's also very accessible," says Chapman. "And the time it takes to replace belts has been decreased tremendously."
Another example of technology taking on mechanical form is Grasshopper's recently announced PowerVac Model 15B HighLift collector for the company's 700 and 900 Series FrontMount mowers.
"It allows operators to raise the collector and empty clippings from the seat with ease, putting them precisely where they want them into the center of a pickup bed or trailer," explains Simmon.
A technological advancement that is instantly recognizable is Cub Cadet's pioneering use of steering wheel technology on its pro-level TANK SZ and Z-FORCE S COMMERCIAL zero-turn mowers. Cub Cadet reports that this - along with the company's Synchro Steer Technology, which adds four-wheel steering to the mix - improves traction on steep slopes while also protecting the turf. On those models the steering wheel tilts for operator comfort; on Cub Cadet's commercial zero-turns with lap bar steering, the lap bar can be adjusted to make it more comfortable during mowing, while also allowing the operator to get on and off the unit more easily.
Hustler Turf's X-ONE zero-turn mower incorporates the company's SmoothTrak steering system, along with its VX4 deck technology. Hustler's goal from a manufacturing standpoint is to be able to include these types of innovations, while still keeping pricing at a point where the mower is affordable, explains Brad Unruh, product manager at Hustler Turf.
Photo courtesy of Hustler Turf.
Hustler Turf also places an emphasis on steering innovation. "We pride ourselves in our SmoothTrak steering," says Brad Unruh, product manager at Hustler. "It's a very easy-to-learn and 'true' steering system. When you move the levers, the mower reacts instantaneously to the movements." This not only gives experienced operators greater control, but also lessens the learning curve for new hires, allowing them to quickly get up to speed and be productive on the job.
Some technological advances are harder to see, but become apparent when the mower is used. For instance, Hustler's VX4 deck technology, as the name indicates, features four separate design innovations incorporated to improve performance. For example, the front inner wall of the deck is adjustable to let the operator customize performance for the type of grass being cut and the conditions. And the shape of the deck itself was designed to move more grass through the chamber at a greater velocity, while also creating more lift for a cleaner cut.
"We spend an extensive amount of time testing decks and getting the cut quality correct," explains Unruh. The challenge, he says, is to come up with a design that performs well in all conditions, no matter the grass type, area of the country, time of the year, etc. "We test in all different parts of the U.S. and in all different conditions, and try to make adjustments," he notes.
Altoz Precision Mowers has made a number of design improvements to its mower decks, says Mark Reese. "We went through great efforts to not have a lot of protrusions into the cutting chamber," he explains. There's a lot of volume passing through that area, so even small bolts or welds can start picking up grass clippings, which in turn pick up more clippings in an exponential process, Reese notes. That company also designed its front suspension using elastomer rubber springs to help minimize the vibration that can wear down an operator over the course of a long day.
Technological advances are giving lawn care professionals more choices when it comes to selecting a fuel source for their commercial mowers.
"Customers are looking for alternative fuel choices and for ways to decrease operating costs," observes Nick Minas with John Deere. John Deere offers gas, diesel and propane fuel systems in its commercial mowing equipment. "Additionally, John Deere introduced a Flex Fuel model in 2013," adds Minas. "With components specifically designed and tested for use of E85 gasoline, this mower offers fuel flexibility as the demand for E85 continues to grow."
John Deere also recently unveiled an optional dealer-installed propane conversion kit (designed and manufactured by EnviroGard) for its ZTrak zero-turn, QuikTrak stand-on and commercial walk-behind mowers.
Toro recently introduced its Z Master Professional 6000 Series propane mowers with closed-loop electronic fuel injection propane engines. The company reports that this updated line of EFI propane mowers can reduce fuel costs by up to 25 percent and require less maintenance when being compared to similarly sized carburetor engines.
"Landscape contractors want the advantage of a cleaner-burning and more efficient engine without sacrificing power and results," says Hannan.
In the name of giving customers options, Hustler offers its X-One and Super Z zero-turn mowers with gasoline engines, with the Super Z also available with a 25 hp Shibaura diesel engine. In addition, Hustler offers the Zeon, an all-electric zero-turn mower.
Kubota has long been a leader in diesel technology, but the company also offers its commercial mowers in both air- and liquid-cooled gasoline models, emphasizes Christine Chapman. "We also have a propane unit," she adds.
Grasshopper currently offers gasoline (carbureted), EFI gasoline and clean diesel fuel options. "Clean diesel is the most economically and environmentally responsible fuel choice for landscape contractors," states Simmon, pointing out that the online fuel calculator available on the Grasshopper website can help operators compare the costs of different fuel choices.
Mean Green Products uses new generation lithium battery technology to produce commercial mowers with extended run times. As with the company's zero-turn units, the new Stalker stand-on mower offers reduced weight and noise levels when compared to comparable gas mowers.
Photo courtesy of Mean Green.
Some of the most technologically advanced mowers on the market use no fuel at all, but rather rely on electric power. Mean Green Products, for example, has recently introduced commercial zero-turn and stand-on mowers using lithium-based battery packs. "It's the same technology being used in the newest electric cars," explains Joe Conrad, president of Mean Green.
One of the key benefits of this new technology is extended run times. "Most customers need anywhere from three hours to seven hours of actual mowing time, depending on whether they're going from job to job or work on one job all day," says Conrad. "We can actually mow all day with our battery packs, and that's something that's never been done before." "Intelligent chargers" are used to properly charge the high-tech batteries and then shut the process off when the batteries are full before over-charging occurs.
The new lithium battery technologies offer not only longer run times, but also result in mowers that weigh less than early generation electric mowers, or comparable gas mowers, which helps boost performance, says Conrad. Being able to place the batteries near the bottom of a lowered chassis also creates a low center of gravity and more stability, he adds. Mean Green's new Stalker stand-on mower takes particular advantage of this fact for especially good performance on hilly terrain, he notes.
Electric mowers also generate less the half the noise of gas mowers, which is a benefit for property owners, their neighbors and the operators, he points out. But what attracts most commercial users, he says, is the economic savings that result from not having to purchase gas or oil, and the resulting maintenance costs saved from not having to change those fluids. "There's not even any hydraulic fluid - there's not 1 ounce of liquid on our mowers," states Conrad. There are no belts or pullies either; each blade is run by a separate electric mower.
Patrick White, who lives and works in Middlesex, Vt., is a freelance writer who has covered the green industry for the past 16 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.