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.
Lawn tractors are really easy to maintain yourself. Here’s why. Tractor engines are very simple, since they have only one or two cylinders and all accessories and components along either side of the motor. Secondly, because the engine is mounted up front on top of the tractor chassis and the typical tractor hood open up and forward and can usually be lifted up for easy removal, everything you need to get to is extremely accessible. Basically, the motor on a walk-behind lawn mower has pretty much the same configuration and most of the same components, however, the tractor motor is much, much larger, in a sense magnifying everything so you can gain access without any problems.
For instance, the spark plug is right on the front on single cylinder engines. There is one plug on each side for V-Twin (two-cylinder) engines. These take minutes to replace. With a little care, it's simple to change the oil, and spin-on oil filter if applicable, using a rag and a plastic, oil drain hose. Air filters are a breeze; they just snap into or mount on a spindle(s) within a chamber. The fuel filter is usually on the side in the gas line and again with care, using plastic gloves and a small pan to catch any gas in the line, very easy to change. Changing the fuel filter is best done after you use up or drain the gas in the fuel tank and are ready to store your tractor for the off-season.
Refer to the following detailed instructions for tuning and storing your tractor after each mowing season.
1. Before you perform any maintenance or cleaning of your tractor, REMOVE THE SPARK PLUG WIRE(S) from the spark plug(s) so that the engine cannot start and the blades cannot turn while you are working on the tractor. This step is CRITICAL.
2. The air filter fits into a compartment either on the top, side, or front of the engine. The compartment is made of black plastic and either snaps open or opens via a retaining knob(s) or clips.
Total Time: 2 minutes.
2a. Most late model, Briggs and Stratton, single cylinder engines have a large plastic clip on top of the motor that you lift up to release the side door of the filter compartment. You just lift out the filter and pre-cleaner (if applicable) and replace them in the compartment. Then you clip the door closed.
2b. Earlier, Briggs and Stratton, single cylinder engines have a fitted box beside the engine. You unscrew the retaining knob on top to remove the cover. Then you unscrew the inner retaining nut that holds the air filter in place. You replace the filter on the spindle, put the filter retaining nut back on, and then secure the cover with the outer knob.
2c. Briggs and Stratton, V-twin engines employ a fitted air filter cover on the front of the engine. You simply unscrew the two, built-in, retaining, knobs, pull back the cover, replace the filter and pre-cleaner, replace the cover, and screw the two knobs back in.
2d. Kohler Pro V-twins use a circular air filter like the old circular car filters. Everything is mounted on a spindle that protrudes directly out from the front of the engine. The procedure is the same. You remove the single knob in the cover, remove the filter nut, replace the filter with its placement disc and pre-cleaner, reinstall the filter retaining nut over the disc, and secure the cover with the knob.
3. The fuel filter is located in the gas line on the side of the motor. It’s made of plastic and pretty obvious. Note the direction of the arrow on the side of the filter. It shows the direction the gas follows to the engine. Make sure you install the new filter with the arrow pointing the same way.
Changing the fuel filter is the hardest step because gas will come out of the inlet hose unless:
(1) You clamp the incoming fuel line. Here, vice-grip pliers work nicely.
(2) Your fuel line has a fuel shut-off valve, in which case close the valve and run the engine until it stops to use up the fuel in the line.
(3) You perform this step when the tractor is out of gas, e.g., at the end of the season when you remove or run out any remaining fuel.
Wear plastic gloves to protect your skin from any gas exposure.
Total Time: 10 minutes.
3a. Have your new filter ready (unpacked). Note that arrow, which shows the direction the filter should face, i.e., with the arrow towards the carburetor.
3b. Put a small pan and/or rag under the existing filter.
3c. Use pliers to move the “squeeze” clips along the hose on each side of the filter beyond the filter’s nipples.
3d. Carefully remove the filter from each hose and, if necessary, block the incoming line from the fuel tank with your finger or some kind of stopper. You can use a pair of pliers to squeeze down the entire hose beyond the nipple to stop the flow of gas from the fuel tank. Be prepared for some gas to come out of the filter itself.
3e. Insert the new filter in place facing in the proper direction (using the arrow on the side of the filter). Attach each hose end to each nipple on the filter, again making sure the flow direction arrow is pointing towards the hose to the carburetor.
3f. Move the clips back over the nipples adjacent to the filter so the clips hold the hoses tightly. Once the filter is in place there is rarely a leak so you can take your time with the clips.
3g. Wipe up any spilled gas to prevent any kind of accident.
4. After running the engine for several minutes to warm the oil, without making it overly hot, drain the oil. On most mowers there is either a plastic, twist valve (Craftsman), drain pipe with drain plug bolt, or drain handle. Replace the oil and, if applicable, the oil filter.
Total Time: 15-20 minutes.
4a. For Craftsman (and some other brands), remove the yellow cap over the drain opening. Don’t worry; no oil will come out yet.
4b. Attach your clear plastic ½ inch diameter drain hose (about 12 inches long) to the exposed, drain nipple. Ensure that it is secured tightly. Direct the other end of the hose into your used oil container. [TIP: A heavy plastic laundry detergent bottle works great! Make sure you’ve cleaned out any residue first. Also make sure that whatever container you select has sufficient capacity for all of the oil, i.e., at least 2 quarts.]
4c. For other brands, place your used oil container under the drain pipe and loosen the square-ended drain plug using a heavy wrench. No oil should come out until you remove the plug almost completely. Unscrew the plug the rest of the way by hand, being careful not to spill oil. [TIP: Rubber gloves are a great help.]
4d. Allow the oil to drain completely. You can leave it for about 10 minutes or more until there is no trickle.
4e. If your engine has an oil filter (i.e., fully pressurized engine lubrication), place a pan and/or rag under the filter mounting surface on the side of the engine. A small amount of oil will spill from the filter when you remove it. Unscrew the filter by turning counter-clockwise. Using a cap wrench can be very helpful. As the filter comes off, try to keep the mounting surface upright so that it retains as much oil as possible within the cartridge. Apply some oil to the rubber gasket on the inward facing side of the new filter. Install the new oil filter by spinning it on clockwise. Use your filter wrench to ensure it is secured properly (according to the manufacturer’s instructions, often appearing right on the filter). [TIP: The Purolator Classic #L10241 (or equivalent) oil filter, available at most automotive stores, fits virtually every tractor engine. Since it is about an inch longer than a standard tractor filter the engine will take slightly more oil.]
4f. Once the oil is completely drained and the new oil filter is in place, remove the plastic hose and CLOSE the valve. MAKE SURE YOU CLOSE THE VALVE. Wipe up and put in fresh oil through the oil filler tube. Always check the oil dipstick to determine when your oil level is full. Do not overfill.
5. Now let’s change the spark plug(s). 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 extremely easy to get at. First, remove the plug wire(s), by pulling gently so it unclips. (This should have been done for safety before you started your maintenance session.). Remove the spark plug(s) using a socket wrench and a spark plug socket (usually 5/8-inch). The most common plugs for tractors are Champion RJ12YC and Champion RJ19LM or equivalent. Thread the new spark plug by hand. You can use the socket alone to facilitate getting the plug hand tight. Tighten lightly using the socket wrench. Once it is “hand tight”, turn about 1/4 further to compress the plug washer.
Total Time: 2 to 5 minutes.
6. Let’s turn to maintaining your deck.
Total Time: 10 to 60 minutes.
6a. You can use car ramps or some stepped blocks or planks to lift the front of your tractor off the ground to clean the underside of the tractor, to sharpen blades during the season, to replace blades, or to change the belt. For safety, ensure that the tractor’s parking brake is engaged and that there are tire stops behind the rear wheels. Also, lift the deck to its highest position to allow better access.
6b. Clean excess grass clippings and debris from the underside and outside of your mowing deck.
6c. You can use a metal file or blade sharpening drill attachment to sharpen your blades periodically, either while on the machine or upon blade removal.
6d. Another option for working on your mowing deck is to remove it while the tractor is stationary. This is a relatively easy task. This gives you access to the drive belt (to the transmission), pulleys, frame, and entire underside of the tractor. Follow the instructions in your Owner’s Manual to disengage and remove the deck, best done while the tractor is on a flat, grassy surface. [TIP: there are usually about 5 cotter pins, each holding a component that secures or engages the deck. Try to remove these in a specified order and note where each component hooks up to the tractor. When you reinstall the deck, follow your notes in reverse order.]
6e. Once the deck is off, you can do interim sharpening, remove the blades for professional sharpening, or replace the blades. Use a file to bring back the edges during the season. Always file towards the blade edge. Remove the blades to sharpen using a power grinder or at a power equipment store. Replace blades if they become bent, have severe chops in the cutting edges (outer 3 to 5 inches), or the edges have been worn back 20% or more. Always ensure that the blade remains balanced, i.e., equally sharpened on each side such that the blade hangs level from a pencil or small pipe.
7. 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: 5 minutes.
8. Check your tires to ensure there are no damages and pump them up to recommended operational tire pressure, usually 14 lbs front and 10-12 lbs rear.
9. For off-season storage add the following steps:
9a. Remove all gas by running it out of gas (dry) or siphoning the gas out of the fuel tank and running the engine until it is dry. You can leave gas in the fuel tank over the winter if you use Stabil in your gas when it is fresh. Stabil must be added within 10 days of obtaining the gas. Emptying the fuel tank and running the gas out of the carburetor and fuel lines (i.e., running the engine dry) is best. Always drain fuel into an approved container. This step will prevent gum from forming in the fuel system and carburetor. Perform this step outdoors.
Total Time: Variable.
9b. Next, remove the spark plug(s) and pour about one ounce of engine oil into each cylinder. Replace the spark plug(s) and crank the engine slowly to distribute the oil in the cylinder(s).
Total Time: 10-15 minutes.
9c. Clean the engine and transmission of surface debris to ensure proper air cooling in the spring. Use an engine cleaner and rinse to clean the engine (follow the instruction on the can). Use a brush to clean accumulated grass cuttings, dirt, and other debris from the transmission housing. Be careful not to damage the cooling fan usually located above the transmission.
Total Time: 20-30 minutes.
9d. Check your tires to ensure there are no damages. Add about 5 extra pounds (no higher than recommended maximum tire pressure) using a hand pump or electric pump to “round up” the tires for storage. In spring, return all tires to their proper pressures (usually 14 lbs front, 10-12 lbs rear).
Total Time: 10 minutes.
9e. Disconnect the negative, black terminal wire on the battery so the battery does not discharge over the winter. If you leave both attached, the battery will slowly lose power owing to non-use until it is completely discharged. Alternatively, you can use a trickle charger at the 2 amp setting to keep your battery fully charged while it remains connected during storage.
Total Time: 5 minutes.
9f. Select a clean dry area to store the machine. Do NOT store in any area where there is any appliance, such as a stove, furnace, or water heater, which uses a pilot light or a device that can generate a spark. Since gas fumes fall to the lowest area in a room, a flame or spark could ignite the fumes and create a fire hazard.
Total Time: 5 minutes.
9g. Follow any additional instructions for Off-Season Storage provided by the manufacturer in your lawn tractor owner’s manual and in your engine owner’s/operator’s manual.
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