Here are some helpful tips on buying and maintaining a new or used tractor-mowing system.
First of all, the units at the big box stores are comparable to those of the same brand sold at small stores. The ones at small stores sometimes have an extra feature or two or a slightly more powerful engine; otherwise price should be a deciding factor.
I have only one warning regarding big-box stores: these stores sometimes have some non-mechanic install the seat, steering wheel, and oil. Upon delivery or receipt you should check these items over carefully and make sure they were done right according to the instructions in the Operator’s Manual. All are easily correctable. Even if the oil is overfilled, it's generally pretty easy to drain out some oil. To drain oil, you attach a plastic hose to the drain valve and direct it to your container. Then you turn a kind of "valve", usually plastic, that releases the oil. Sometimes you need to remove a drain plug. Loosen it with a wrench and then finish removing it with your fingers, letting the oil drain into a pan. Adding oil is a snap.
Let me mention a few things about maintenance. If you are the least bit mechanical or handy, and maybe even if you’re not, you should be able to do your own annual maintenance and storage on almost any front-engine tractor without putting out big bucks. Perform your maintenance at the end of each mowing season, just prior to storage or winter use.
- The air filter and pre-cleaner are dropped into a compartment that snaps or screws closed or they are mounted on a spindle at the front of the engine (Kohler Pro models) like the old circular car filters with a screw-in cover. Total time: 5-10 minutes.
- The fuel filter is located in the gas line on the side of the motor. It’s made of plastic and pretty obvious. This one is the hardest to change because gas will come out of the inlet hose and the filter, but this can be mitigated. Use plastic or latex gloves to protect your hands. Total time: 10-15 minutes.
- Have your new filter unpacked and ready.
- Put a small pan and/or rag under the existing filter.
- Use pliers to move the clips up the hose on each side of the filter.
- If your fuel line has a shutoff or if you have locking pliers, block the incoming fuel line to prevent gas from draining out
- Carefully remove the filter from each hose. If you have not already blocked the incoming fuel line, block it with your finger or some kind of small rubber stopper after you remove the filter from that hose.
- Insert the new filter ends on the two hoses, making sure the flow direction arrow is pointing in the correct direction, towards the engine and away from the tank.
- Move the clips back so they hold the hoses tightly. Once the filter is in place there is rarely a leak so you can take your time with the clips.
- After running the engine for a minute or so to warm the oil without making it overly hot, drain the oil as described above. Once complete, remove the hose and CLOSE the valve or drain. Now, if the engine has an oil filter, place a rag under the filter on the side of the engine and unscrew the filter. Using a cap wrench can make this an easy task. As it comes off, tip it downward so it holds the oil inside. A little will get on the rag. Rub some oil around the ring of the new oil filter and install it, turning it about ¾ turn past hand tight. Wipe up and put in fresh oil, checking to make sure you don’t overfill. Total time: 10 minutes.
- Remove the plug wire(s). Change the spark plug(s) using a small plug socket. Turn about ¼ way past hand tight to compress the washer. The plug will be at the front of the motor on a single cylinder. A plug will be located on each side towards the front on a V-Twin. Both are easy to get at. Total time: 10 minutes.
- Sharpen or replace blades. You can sharpen blades on the machine if you can put the front of the tractor on small ramps. Use a file to bring back the edges. You can also remove the deck and sharpen blades. Finally, you can remove the blades and have them sharpened or replace them. Total time: 10-30 minutes.
- Obtain a small grease gun and grease each of the zerks. These are usually located on both sides of the axle, inside each front wheel, and on each mandrel on the mower deck. Consult your manual for locations. Total time: 15 minutes.
- If winterizing, remove all gas by running it out of gas or siphoning it out. You can go over the winter by using Stabil in your gas. Total time: 15 minutes or less.
- Check your tires to ensure there are no damages and if leaving over the winter, add a couple of pounds with a hand pump to “round up” the tires for storage. In spring, return all tires to their proper pressures (10 lbs front, 14 lbs rear). Total time: 15 minutes.
Features to Look for in a Front Engine, Tractor-Style Mower
Remember, there are various compromises depending on what your priorities are.
Hydrostatic Automatic (sometimes called Hydro-Drive) or Full CVT Automatic Transmission
A hydrostatic transmission is like that in a car. Generally these operate on foot control or a hand lever (by the seat or on the dash). Hydrostatic automatic transmissions are generally sealed systems and require no maintenance except to keep the housing clean to prevent overheating. Some allow for fluid changes. Several brands now offer a true CVT automatic operated via a foot pedal. These are just a bit less smooth than their hydrostatic counterparts, but are very reliable and generally only require a new belt if they have problems, since they rely on a pulley system to alter speed. These CVT transmissions are acceptable too. However, some brands tout multi-speed (6 to 8 settings), shift-on-the-fly “automatics” or “CVTs” on their entry-level units, but these are really toggle-controlled, clutchless manual transmissions, which just allow you to move through the gears when in motion using a dash lever. Since you also have to adjust the throttle, these are much more cumbersome to use. They lose precision (gearing) over time, usually quite quickly. We do not recommend any machine with this transmission.
Manual transmissions usually have 6speeds, but sometimes have anywhere from 4 to 7 speeds. A manual transmission requires that you select a gear to start in and then accelerate using the throttle. For grass cutting primarily, you can adequately operate almost all the time in one gear by simply letting out the clutch gently and throttling up to speed. You can switch to another speed for precision cutting or moving across a property (with the deck up) at accelerated speed. If you have a large, relatively flat or even lawn, a manual is quite adequate. These are very durable if gear-driven, as most are, since they’re pretty simple in design. However, if you change overall speed a lot, or plan to use the tractor for such things as snow plowing, spreading fertilizing, de-thatching, and/or more, definitely select an automatic because you'll have plenty of other controls to attend to while doing your work. Driving the tractor like a car or using a single hand lever will make things altogether easier.
Cast-Iron Front Axle
Some low-end machines, and even some middle-line units, have molded steel axles that are somewhat more prone to bending and damage, particularly on rough terrain. This is only an issue if you have ruts, boulders, a low step, or some other obstacle that your tractor might hit or go over.
Engine with Full pressure Lubrication and Spin-On Oil Filter
Look for one with a car-type, spin-on oil filter, rather than no filter at all. This adds to engine longevity because there is a pump that pushes the oil through the motor and an automotive filter to remove any dirt. This is called full-pressure lubrication. Briggs and Stratton and Kohler are the most common brands. Both are fine brands. Don't worry about small differences in horsepower since horsepower is a subjective rating anyway. Displacement is a better indicator of performance. Certain engine brands offer slightly better quality and increased longevity depending on the engine model. With proper maintenance, almost any brand’s motors will last a long time. Those rated for more hours usually have some higher quality components (e.g., chrome valves, hydraulically operated valves, forged crankshaft, larger air and oil filtration systems, etc.) for increased durability. Most lawn and yard tractors have single cylinder motors that are more than adequate in power (about 16-20 HP). A V-Twin will be quieter and run smoother. These usually come on the higher-end machines. Kawasaki and Honda also make engines, limited to high-end machines. Right now, we prefer all of Briggs and Stratton V-Twin engines for their smooth, quiet operation and long life. Briggs and Stratton’s high-end engines are designated ELS (Extended Life Series) and Vanguard, the latter of which is top-of the line and comparable to Kohler’s Command Pro. The mainstream engines are usually labeled I/C (Industrial/Commercial), I/C Quiet, INTEK, and INTEK Plus. Kohler offers the Courage, Courage Pro, and Command PRO models. All have full pressure lubrication. The only difference between the Courage PRO and Courage lines is the size of the air filtration box and filter and the size (length) of the oil filters used. Believe it or not, should you purchase a Courage V-Twin, you can convert it to Courage PRO simply by installing the taller air filter, retainer spring, and cover and the premium oil filter. Again, we prefer Kohler’s V-Twin engines, which offer increased torque, pulling power, smoothness, and noise reduction like their Briggs and Stratton counterparts.
WARNING: After Kohler’s most recent design change around 2003 to their single cylinder engines (rated at 18-21 HP), we’ve found that many of these engines have failed owing to cracked engine blocks. We have seen this in models as recent as 2007! There is a design flaw in the air filtration system that restricts air intake under certain conditions, which can lead to overheating. This causes cracks in the engine block, rendering the engine unusable. Kohler has not issued a recall. Until this problem is corrected, we advise against buying any tractor with this engine.
Lawn tractors are really easy to maintain yourself. The spark plug is right on the front (two on the front at each side for V-Twins) and take minutes to replace. With a little care (a rag and a plastic, oil drain hose), it's easy to change oil. Air filters are a breeze; they just snap into a chamber. The fuel filter is on the side in the gas line and again with care (plastic gloves and a small pan to catch gas in the line) very easy to change. Buy a file to sharpen your blades periodically (while the blades are on the machine). You can remove them (after taking off the deck) for sharpening with a grinder, professional sharpening, or replacement. Refer to the detailed instructions above on maintenance.
Weight makes a difference. Check the net weight of the product. A high-end machine will weigh near 500 lbs or more while an entry-level machine will weigh 400-475 lbs. Look for a welded channel frame or a fully boxed steel frame, meaning the frame is boxed in cross-section. Altogether, it's about how well the whole machine is constructed. Entry level units have lighter gauge steel and are often manufactured by MTD (e.g., 2007-on Craftsman entry-level Lawn Tractors (known as LT series, which are often gray), Yard Man, Yard Machines, Troy-Bilt Pony, some White Outdoors, and others). AYP (American Yard Products), owned by Husqvarna, makes most of the better machines, e.g., Craftsman Yard Tractors (now red with rounded nose and dash) and selected non-entry models from other brands. Husqvarna also manufactures Poulan Pro, Weed Eater, and Ariens. The Husqvarna line is very well-made and receives most of the premium features available. Other Husqvarna-made equipment is built on the same two platforms and shares the same parts bin. Feature-for-feature, these are equally good machines. We prefer the larger Husqvarna (AYP) chassis. You will note the heavier steel of the body, rolled edges on the rear, and overall finer controls and construction. The entry chassis is also reasonably well-made and acceptable. The latter is somewhat more cramped with less space between the seat and the dash. It can be spotted by its separate footrests, compressed length, and narrow, roughly 6” step-through area. John Deere machines, although they perform well in tests, are known to be prone to problems and are more expensive to repair, owing to their more complex designs. Snapper, Cub Cadet (2000 Series and up), and Simplicity build mostly high-end machines but these days are not worth the additional expense. Note that Snapper now makes Craftsman’s top-end machines, which are priced at extremely inflated levels. Simplicity’s Coronet series rear engine riders are especially nice, but are quite expensive. Finally, the Toro LX series and Cub Cadet 1000 series tractors are also made by MTD and offer pretty much the same quality, underpinnings, and overall design as their MTD counterparts from Troy-Bilt (Bronco and Super Bronco models), MTD Gold, and Yard-Man (DLX series). All of these machines use the same Briggs and Stratton and Kohler engines as the comparable MTD brands and offer little advantage in durability. The Toro and Cub Cadet machines command significant price premiums owing to the name recognition. In the end, most tractors are made by two companies MTD and AYP (Husqvarna). John Deere, Snapper, and Simplicity make their own equipment.
Medium- or High-Back Seat with Sufficient Padding
This will pay off in the long run. ‘Nuf said.
Heavier Gauge Deck
It may weigh a bit more, but it will not rust through or damage easily. Look for a 12-gauge or heavier (lower gauge) deck.
Select the deck according to your needs. Factor in the size of your yard, your storage area, and any pass-throughs (gates, trellises, etc.). 42-inch decks (with two 21-inch blades) are most common and adequately handle ½ to 1.5 acres in sufficiently brief time. 46- and 48-inch decks are somewhat more cumbersome (and heavy) and are fine if you have the space. They reduce cutting time by roughly 15%-20%. Larger decks, 46-inches and up, have three instead of two blades that aren't all the same or common in size. A 54-inch deck is great for someone with a big field, but generally not practical for the typical homeowner. 38-inch decks (two 19-inch blades) are occasionally found on lower-end machines. The trade-off in time is not worth the savings gained here.
Smaller deck sizes of 26- to 32-inches are often found on specialty and commercial rear- or mid-engine mowers. Refer to the section below entitled, 'Alternative Configurations to Front Engine Mowers', for further information on this topic.
Anti-Scalp Wheels (sometimes called “gauge wheels”)
Two usually at the back of the deck are adequate, four are better, and four fully adjustable wheels (using pins) are the best. You can add non-adjustable wheels as accessories (usually 2) on most low-end units. These wheels prevent the deck from going below a certain point as you traverse uneven terrain. When manufacturers don't have these wheels, they try to make it sound like a feature, by calling the deck a "full-floating deck." This just means it doesn't have the wheels!
Visible Fuel Level
A fuel level indicator is a nice feature. When the gas tank is mounted in the front against the dash panel or in the rear (under the seat), most often there is a visible fuel level indicator. It is usually located on the lower dash or dash side for a front tank and beside the seat or on the gas cap for a rear tank. When a transparent gas tank is under the hood without an indicated, you can just take a look when you stop to see the level.
Deck Height Adjustment
Almost all mowers have 6-position decks. Some high-end or specialty mowers may have a dial, usually located on the lower dash, that allows more precise (infinite) adjustment over the same range. Check how the handle for this operation works. Some mowers place a large upright handle on the right side of the dash; others place this beside the seat on the body (MTD and AYP). Simply make sure you are comfortable with the adjustment mechanism, usually spring-assisted, and its ability to raise the deck all the way up (and on some machines, while maintaining the selected return-to, cutting height set via the adjustment dial) when you are moving the mower and not mowing.
Look at the mounting mechanism for a bagger. Some machines, e.g., from Husqvarna, Craftsman, Poulan Pro, etc. all of whom share the same system) and John Deere use a very efficient, twin-bagger mount where there is a center support that simply mounts to the rear of the mower. On the AYP-made machines, the mount slips over and down on four bolts protruding from the rear of the mower. Three-bin baggers get an extra support or twin post mounting bracket. Honda also uses a simple twin-post design for its twin baggers. Other brands, e.g., from MTD, have more complicated setups that are a little more involved. When storing your mower, easy-to-attach and remove components can make a difference. Watch out for machines that claim "easy-attach system" if they don't live up to their promotional literature. Some MTD-brand mowers have an easy-attach system, but the attachments are not widely available and there are few aftermarket manufacturers. So, you will probably pay more for the attachment. Here Husqvarna et al have the edge. Consider this carefully if you plan to buy any of your attachments used (Craftsman are most widely available since Sears covers about 70% of the tractor market).
Things that are not Particularly Significant
There's not a whole lot of difference in maneuverability between machines these days. All have tight turning radii. Look for 18 inches or less. Some of the latest front engine tractors have front wheels that turn almost to a perpendicular angle to the machine. These allow for very tight turning (12” or less) almost comparable to zero-turn mowers!
PTO or Power Take-Off (this is the engagement for the blades)
There's not much difference between a manual and an electric PTO. The electric is surely more convenient and easy to turn on and off since you simply pull a button for ‘on’ and push the button for ‘off’. A manual PTO is less likely to break. About the only thing that can go wrong is a cable or lubrication problem, both inexpensive to repair. To engage an electronic PTO, you usually turn a lever on the dash or pull/push a lever in a track either on the dash or elsewhere. Almost anyone is strong enough to just move the lever! Electronic PTOs add another electro-mechanical component to the tractor that can fail. Sometimes these fail on older machines since they are controlled by solenoids. An electronic PTO is expensive to replace. If the one you want has it, great! Otherwise, don’t sweat it.
Most tractors come with 15-inch front wheels and 18-inch rear wheels. This is the overall diameter of the entire wheel and tire (unlike on a car). 20-inch rear wheels are nicer, allowing for better traction and more attachments (small ground-engaging equipment). Rear tire width is between 8 and 10 inches. Most now have about 8-inch width tires. Wider tires provide more distributed weight to the lawn and slightly better traction in severe conditions.
An hour gauge simply tracks the number of hours the key is in the on position in the ignition. Some folks have left the key in by mistake, draining the battery entirely, and adding many non-working hours. It's as good as the user and helpful to the next buyer of your equipment. A battery gauge is useful since it provides charge information. Most other gauges, except the fuel gauge, add very little.
Almost all tractors have headlights. These are actually driven by the alternator and not the battery and therefore only go on when the tractor is running. The standard bulbs are not powerful enough for work at night, which in either case, is not generally recommended. They can come in handy for moving the mower for storage when there is little light available. When using a tractor for snowplowing or snow blowing, headlights can be important. We recommend that such users install high-power LED bulb replacements, which do not draw any more electricity than the standard bulbs, for night use. On the whole, very few homeowners ever need or use headlights.
Alternative Configurations to Front Engine Mowers
Specialty and commercial rear- or mid-engine mowers often have smaller single-blade decks of around 26 to 32 inches. These operate extremely well in tighter spaces and provide improved maneuverability, an open view of your lawn and where you’re heading (like a zero-turn), and better "finish mowing." For the most part, these units, especially those from Honda, Simplicity, Snapper, and John Deere, tend to be extremely durable and offer relatively low maintenance costs. The decks tend to be of reasonably heavy gauge. They allow for easier blade sharpening more frequently since there are only two cutting edges, one at each tip of the blade. We still like quality, rear- and mid-engine machines as reasonable, highly maneuverable alternatives to their front engine, big brothers and much more expensive, zero-turn cousins.
Presently, we are not enamored with zero-turn mowers designed for homeowner use. Zero-turn mowers rely on counter-rotation of the rear wheels for their outstanding maneuverability. This requires hydrostatic transmission output to both rear wheels. Commercial-grade zero-turn machines employ dual transmissions, one for each rear wheel, that have hydrostatic fluid drains (and filters) and are almost always constructed of cast-iron. The owner can change the fluid in each hydrostatic unit frequently to ensure a reasonably long life. Even so, if one hydrostatic unit should fail, repair cost is quite high. On the other hand, zero-turn mowers designed for home use often use a single, sealed, aluminum hydrostatic transmission to drive both rear wheels. Since this single unit has to drive both rear wheels, uses a weaker, aluminum housing to dissipate heat, and cannot be maintained periodically, the projected life of the transmission is severely reduced. Should the transmission fail, it would be prohibitive to repair. Finally, all zero-turn mowers use two bars that extend to the user’s hands for steering and turning. This operational mode is not intuitive to all owners and can be uncomfortable, especially at speed, for some buyers. As a result of all of these issues, as well as advancements in front engine mower maneuverability, we do not recommend homeowner zero-turn mowers. Should you insist on purchasing a zero-turn, we encourage you to (1) consider only commercial-grade, dual-transmission machines and (2) ‘test drive’ your choice before buying to make sure you are comfortable with how it operates.
Some Good New Machines
And, there are many more. 1
- Craftsman Sears Model #28856 or similar - Craftsman 42" 24hp V-Twin Briggs & Stratton Turn Tight™ Hydrostatic Yard Tractor at $1599
- Husqvarna Sears Model #24046 (Husqvarna #YTH21K46, also at Lowes) or similar - Husqvarna 46" Kohler 20 hp Gas Powered Riding Lawn Tractor at $1599
- Poulan XT Home Depot Model #960460022 Poulan XT 42 in. 19.5 HP Briggs & Stratton 6-Speed Front-Engine Riding Mower
Good, solid basic machine with manual 6-speed transmission especially if you can get an additional 10% off for vets or moving promotion - Notice how this model resembles Sears Yard Tractors; it's likely made by AYP for Husqvarna, the parent company, priced at $1099
- Ariens Home Depot Model #960460024 - Ariens 42 in. 19 HP Kohler Engine Hydrostatic Riding Lawn Tractor
Good features (Kohler, Hydro, high-back seat, electric PTO), solid machine (483 lbs) at an attractive price of $1399
- Cub Cadet Home Depot Product Model #13RX90AS056 - Cub Cadet 42 in. 19 HP Kohler Automatic Front-Engine Riding Mower
Very similar to Ariens, feature-laden, and solid (483 lbs) with hydrostatic automatic, also at $1399 (Note: Cub Cadet has had higher repair rates than some other machines.)
- Ariens Home Depot Model #960460025 - Ariens 42 in. 22 HP Briggs and Stratton V-Twin Engine Hydrostatic Transmission Riding Lawn Mower
A lot of machine with the benefits of a V-Twin for $1499 - Very Good Value
- Cub Cadet Home Depot Product Model #13RX91AT056 - Cub Cadet 46 in. 20 HP Kohler Hydrostatic Front-Engine Riding Lawn Tractor
Nice solid machine with foot-pedal operation at $1599
- Ariens Model # A22KH46 - Ariens 46 in. 22 HP Kohler V-Twin Hydrostatic Front-Engine Riding Mower
This one has a lot going for it with Kohler V-Twin, Hydrostatic, foot pedal operation, and 46 inch deck. Its only drawback is the lack of a cast-iron front axle. Priced at $1784
1 All selections and prices cited are listed as of the date of publication, May 21, 2011.
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