Just as a person would choose a Phillips screwdriver for one type of job and a slotted for another, various landscaping jobs call for the mower that provides optimal results. Each type of mower provides a specific function for landscapes.

While zero-turn mowers dominate the market, there is a place for walk-behind mowers. Case in point: while a walk-behind mower may be a more time-intensive choice for large areas of turf, it may achieve a better after-cut appearance in trimming around flowerbeds and on smaller properties.

“By maintaining a fleet with a good mix of walk-behind mowers, stand-ons and riding mowers, contractors can deliver an excellent outcome while being highly productive at the same time,” notes Ryan Moorlag, The Toro Company’s associate marketing manager.

Walking advantage

Walk-behinds offer several advantages over riding models, including increased operator flexibility to move obstacles out of the mowing path without getting on and off of the machine, the ability to mow in confined spaces, and increased performance in trimming applications, says Moorlag.

Walk-behinds offer versatility in steep and varied terrains, they’re durable and just about anybody can operate one for excellent results, adds John Swanson, Exmark’s senior product manager. “I’m not sure there is a walk-behind that goes more than 7 miles per hour, so an employee can’t do much damage with that equipment,” he adds.

Walk-behinds are easily maneuverable, points out Roy Dust, commercial product specialist for Briggs & Stratton. “They’re much more reliable, have better traction, better stability and so productivity and production are enhanced,” Dust says.

Historically belt-driven, most walk-behinds are now powered by hydraulics. “Now the latest and greatest way to go is the use of integrated transmissions or transaxles,” Dust adds. “There aren’t a lot of external fittings and potential leak points. You’re not using a lot of high-pressure hose connections to connect a pump to a wheel motor to make the machine move.”

That has “dramatically improved” the walk-behind’s reliability, ease of operation, maintenance and longevity, Dust says.

Brice Hill, Dixie Chopper product manager, concurs. “It’s enabled manufacturers to put more time and energy into ergonomics and controls. That, in turn, means better comfort for the end user and productivity,” he notes.

Walk-behinds remain popular for their ease of use. This operator is careful not to inflict a mower wound on this ornamental tree. PHOTO: DIXIE CHOPPER

Increased market share

That walk-behinds are an important part of any landscape contractor’s fleet is evident not only in the ongoing improvements made by manufacturers, but in the number of new models being rolled out.

Dixie Chopper has historically focused on zero-turn riding mowers. Recently, the manufacturing company – cognizant that many commercial cutters need a variety of products to meet a wider base of mowing needs – launched a walk-behind.

Dixie Chopper’s Pursuit Series features 32-, 36- and 44-inch deck sizes, an 18-hp Briggs & Stratton professional series engine, and a single or dual drivetrain.

Late last year, Briggs & Stratton rolled out new walk-behind mowers, which comprise about 10 percent of its overall sales. The dual hydrostatic Snapper Pro SW35CC and Ferris FW35CC commercial walk-behind mowers offer engine options paired with 48-, 52- or 61-inch mowing decks. To help improve ergonomics and reduce operator fatigue, the company utilizes centralized control handlebars on these models. Engine options include a 26-hp Vanguard 810cc or a 28-hp Vanguard 810cc EFI, a 20.5-hp Kawasaki FX651V or a 23.5-hp Kawasaki FX730V.

The Toro Company recently introduced its heavy-duty 21-inch walk-behind trim mowers with the Toro Recycler Cutting System, which integrates a mulching and bagging system. Operators have the choice of Kawasaki or Honda engines. Launched in 2013, the Toro TurfMaster 30-inch walk-behind mower features a twin-blade cutting system and a three-in-one design for mulching, bagging or side discharge, Moorlag says. Toro mid-size walk-behind mowers (mowing decks from 36 to 52 inches) offer TURBO FORCE cutting decks, designed for cut quality and durability. A 1-gallon fuel tank offers longer uninterrupted mowing times.

Ergonomics, unit comfort and Enhanced Control Systems (ECS) are among the top improvements in Exmark’s walk-behind mowers, notes Swanson. Standard on some units, ECS offers hand comfort in that its placement considers the hand’s natural position and is designed to protect hands from hitting protruding objects. A shorter grip distance and drive levers are designed to relieve fatigue; cushioned handles reduce vibration.

Recent improvements in fuel efficiency and fuel-injected engines, as well as alternative fuel use, also can help landscape contractors reduce fuel usage and save money, Swanson says.

Buyers’ checklist

Factors to keep in mind when purchasing a walk-behind mower:

  • Work scope. A fixed deck is best for flat terrain; a floating deck may be more appropriate for varied terrain and to provide a more precise cut, says Ryan Moorlag, The Toro Company’s associate marketing manager.
  • Durability. The machine should be able to withstand heavy usage for sustained periods.
  • Dealer support. “With mechanical systems, at some point in time something is going to go wrong,” says John Swanson, Exmark’s senior product manager. “Ensure the dealer is going to provide the support and fix the product with a good turn-around time.”
  • Ground clearance. “Getting a walk-behind on and off a property over steep curbs is important,” Swanson says.
  • Fuel efficiency. Propane and EFI are becoming popular choices to reduce operating expenses.
  • Technological advances. Manufacturers continue to add features to walk-behind units that improve ease of use and reduce operator fatigue.
  • Ease of maintenance. Parts should be easily accessed for greasing, maintenance and replacing, says Roy Dust, commercial product specialist for Briggs & Stratton. Blades should be easily removed for sharpening. Pulleys should be high-grade as to avoid wearing out prematurely. Bearings in the pulleys and spindles should be high quality and easy to service.

Landscapers’ requests

Fuel efficiency is one of several features landscape contractors demand of walk-behind mowers. Operators also want ease of operation and maintenance, comfort, reliability, simplicity and productivity. Another selling point for walk-behinds is they have smaller footprints on contractors’ trailers and clients’ properties.

“It enables them to get into tighter places in backyards, gated communities and to mow hillsides,” Swanson says. “Depending on their location, horsepower is another feature they seek. There are different types of grass; thicker, lusher green grass requires more horsepower. And price always factors into the equation.”

Swanson believes educated landscapers don’t make buying decisions based strictly on lowest price. “In the long run, the lower-priced mower may be more expensive in fuel, tougher to train someone to operate, uncomfortable and have some liability issues with operator injuries,” he contends.

Reputation for brands that have withstood the test of time is among the productivity and time-saving features to consider when purchasing a walk-behind, advises Swanson. “Downtime is very expensive,” he says. “It leads to the total cost of ownership. In the end, contractors want durability and a quality cut from their mowers.”

Comfort zone

In response to the growing demand for improved ergonomics, manufacturers are creating what they call easier-to-use walk-behinds, Hill says. “The landscape contractor wants to know if the deck lift is in a position where all operators of different heights can get to it,” he explains. “Are the controls easily accessible and easy to use?”

Fatigue has been a driving factor in manufacturers’ latest advancements. “Carpel tunnel injuries, back injuries and overall fatigue leads to employee turnover,” says Swanson. “It’s a tough job. An operator needs something that is easier on his body. You’re less fatigued at the end of the day, so you are more efficient. Productivity is maximized on the mid-sized walk-behinds because you can’t overrun the deck with the ground speed they’re set up for.”

Going forward

Looking ahead, Swanson says alternative fuel use will become more popular in the walk-behind mower category. Also, he believes more contractors will be seeking walk-behinds with fuel-injected engines. Manufacturers are in a race to develop equipment to reduce landscape contractors’ operating costs.

As components evolve, that will allow the OEMs to make the controls easier and lighten up the machines, Hill says. Look for more belt-driven mowers to be replaced by hydraulic operations going forward, Dust points out.

Dust says walk-behinds may enjoy favor by some landscape clients who perceive a smaller machine means less fuel use and fewer emissions. “In reality, it might have the exact same engine horsepower as what’s in a mid-mount,” he points out. Nevertheless, he adds, walk-behind mowers will maintain valuable positions on contractors’ trailers and remain go-to pieces of equipment for keeping their clients’ properties groomed.

Shipments of intermediate commercial walk-behind mowers have been on a downward trend since 2000. However, shipments turned upward in 2013 and that pattern continued in 2014, according to research from the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute. Shipments of commercial walk-behinds were projected to finish 2014 up 4.1 percent and post additional gains of 2.2 percent in 2015 and 1.8 percent in 2016.