If lawn tractors are the Cadillac of lawn mowing, then zero-turn-radius mowers are the hot rods. The past few years, zero-turn mowers have taken the lawn-care market by storm, and for good reason. These machines are nimble, and they make manoeuvring around trees, flower gardens or other obstructions a breeze.
A zero-turn mower can pivot in a 360-degree rotation around its rear wheels. No conventional lawn tractor can even come close to that. Anyone who has tried to make tight turns with a conventional tractor will appreciate not having to make multiple passes to reach all the grass around trees or lampposts. And with the wide range of models now on the market, there is a zero-turn mower available to meet nearly every homeowner’s needs. Manufacturers offer deck sizes from about 36 inches to over 70.
The drawback: Zero-turn mowers are designed to do only one thing — cut grass. The lawn tractor design evolved from a machine intended to pull rotor tillers, wagons and a variety of other attachments. But if your lawn tractor is primarily or, as is often the case, exclusively a lawn mower, then consider a zero-turn mower for your next upgrade. When it comes to speed and efficiency, the zero-turn mower leaves the ordinary lawn tractor in the dust — or, more accurately, in the grass clippings.
LOOK FOR FASTER BLADE SPEEDS
Zero-turn mowers on the market have varying features, but most good-quality models offer faster mower blade speeds. “The faster the blade speed, the better,” says Adam Haney, marketing specialist for Kubota turf products. The faster the blade rotation, the more suction that is created under the deck. That pulls the grass upright allowing for a complete and even cut, something that’s especially important in tall or damp grass.
Kubota’s zero-turn mower blades rotate at 17,000 to 18,500 feet per second (FPS) at the tips, while lawn tractor blades typically spin at 11,000 to 12,000 FPS. So you can imagine the difference that makes to the quality of the cut. And aside from leaving a better cut, these speeds allow the mower to travel faster. “You can mow easily at 12 km/h,” says Haney.
Some models offer a maximum travel speed of up to 17 km/h, which is as fast or faster than most lawn tractors. But the real advantage from all this speed is the reduced time actually spent cutting. “[Zero-turn mowers] cut the mowing time to half of conventional tractors,” says Haney.
Driving a zero-turn is like operating a skid-steer loader. With hydrostatic drive, the operator handles two levers that control forward and reverse speeds along with turns. To slow down or speed up to match operating conditions, you just adjust the lever positions. There is no need to change gears. And hydrostatic drive means there fewer — if any — drive belts to wear out.
With the engine and components close to the ground, these machines have a low centre of gravity, making them more stable than lawn tractors. But these mowers still have enough ground clearance to be easily loaded onto a trailer.
And when it comes to operator comfort, you won’t have to sacrifice anything there, either. Convenient controls and optional high-backed seats can make them feel like an easy chair on wheels. Also, most models have a flat deck for your feet, with no transmission hump to straddle.
Manufacturers are offering zero-turn mowers in a wide range of standards up to heavy commercial grades that are pretty durable. And some models, like Kubota’s Z-series, offer engine choices ranging from 22-horsepower, air-cooled gas power plants to liquid-cooled diesels up to 31 horsepower.
With plenty of brands to choose from, there are a variety of designs that offer differing features to match nearly every landscape condition. New Holland’s G-5000 mowers, for example, offer a mower deck linked to the front axle rather than the frame to give it better floatation over uneven contours.
This efficiency comes, as you might expect, with a higher price tag. While you can pick up a conventional, economy lawn tractor for a little over $2,000, a zero-turn machine will run you considerably more. If you want a major brand name, such as John Deere, their website lists prices starting at about US$3,000.
And with a zero-turn mower, you’ll have more time to sit on the patio deck and admire your lawn, rather than look at it from the seat of a lawn tractor while you cut it.
Scott Garvey specializes in writing about tractors and farm machinery technology for publications in Canada and Great Britain. He’s also a former affiliate member of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). He farms near Moosomin, Sask.