Zero-Turn Mowers – Are They a Good Choice for Homeowners?
We generally do not recommend Zero-Turn (ZT) mowers for the homeowner.
ZT Mower Configurations
In order to generate the rotation required for a ZT mower, the rear wheels must have the capability to turn together at different speeds and to turn in opposite directions. In order to achieve this, there are several configurations.
Most homeowner machines have a single transmission with two output shafts that do the work. Generally, this transmission has a sealed, cast-aluminum casing that is not serviceable. Some homeowner machines have two independent transmissions, one for each wheel. However, these usually have sealed, cast-aluminum casings that are not serviceable.
Commercial-quality ZT machines use two separate transmissions that have cast-iron casings for durability and longevity. They are designed to be serviced on a regular basis, meaning the transmission fluid and filter can be changed. Machines of this caliber are extremely expensive, starting around $10,000.
As you can imagine the wear and tear on a single transmission-driven ZT is extremely high, which directly impacts the reliability, durability, and cost of owning such a machine. Should something go wrong, the entire dual-output transmission must be replaced! We see ZT machines like these fail at as few as 100-200 hours of usage.
The same applies to the dual-transmission homeowner units, but to a lesser extent. Although they employ separate transmission units like their commercial big brothers, they are not designed to be maintained regularly and they have lighter, less durable, aluminum casings. Here, each transmission takes on about ½ of the work that the dual-output, single transmission must perform. Nevertheless, these individual transmission units are still placed under significant stress owing to the need to immediately change speeds and directions to achieve rotation. So, each of these transmissions is more likely to fail under stress than a traditional hydrostatic automatic transmission as found in a typical front engine tractor. Should a twin-transmission ZT malfunction, the owner is looking at replacing at least one of the transmissions, which is still extremely costly.
Complexity of Controls
Now consider the increased complexity of controls and linkages required to properly direct such a machine. ZT equipment is inherently more complicated to design and build. Complex linkage systems are needed to communicate the intended direction, rotation, and speed of the machine from the driver to the drive and steering components (both transmission and front steering wheels if the latter are used). Operation requires different elements of the machine to work in concert with one another seamlessly. It’s apparent that this increased complexity again impacts reliability and longevity.
Maintenance, parts availability, and repairs become more critical to ZT operation and ‘up time’. Since ZT machines require precise adjustment, there is increased emphasis on frequent and proper maintenance. Furthermore, with the wide array of different configurations offered within the homeowner ZT marketplace, lack of parts availability and/or repair expertise can cause a severe interruption in machine availability during a season. Until homeowner ZTs share common platforms and mechanical components like their front engine tractor siblings, the risk of unexpected ‘down time’ remains relatively high.
Operation and Safety
Perhaps most importantly, we find that these machines are less intuitive to operate, more inclined to tip, especially on hills under odd loads (when turning), and harder to use for bagging clippings and leaves. Many users find the dual handles, which control direction and speed, difficult to use. Even though ZTs are intended for precision cutting, when performing low-speed cutting around beds and other obstacles, operators without extensive experience often encounter difficulty managing the machine. Owing to the shift in weight associated with a full bagging unit, the stability of a ZT machine can be compromised and shift in an unexpected fashion, which can be especially startling and hard to manage for the novice operator. For some, using a ZT is frustrating and offers very little benefit in terms of getting the job done. In general, ZTs are less safe to operate on less than perfect, flat surfaces for homeowners who are not using such a machine on a daily basis.
Overall, we feel that these machines are less safe and certainly less economical to own than their front engine tractor and small mid-rear-engine riding mower (near zero-turn) counterparts. If you insist on purchasing a ZT, look for mowing systems that offer the same rotational flexibility with less reliance on the rear wheels. For instance, Cub Cadet makes a hybrid ZT that employs front wheel steering along with dual output. Definitely look for a ZT that has dual transmissions. Beyond these factors, selection is a function of build quality (heavier steel with bigger channels is better), component robustness, features, and capabilities. Make sure you try out a ZT on surfaces similar to those you will be mowing before committing to a ZT.
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