The sounds of summer aren't all too far off: birds chirping in the trees, kids laughing in the yard, and the rev of an engine—of your lawn mower, that is. A lawn mower is the most important tool for keeping the lawn looking trimmed and tidy. But it's about more than aesthetic: Proper mowing is necessary to keep your grass healthy and looking its best. It's important to mow your grass frequently, being careful not to cut more than a third off the height of the grass. If it's cut shorter than this, the grass will become distressed and the lawn will suffer. Oftentimes, this occurs when people go on vacation—they try to compensate ahead of time by cutting the lawn shorter than they usually would. Instead, make arrangements to have someone mow the grass while you're away. If it's left to grow longer than this, the grass becomes harder to mow and, consequently, results in more wear and tear on your mower.
"Before you use a mower, trimmer, blower, chain saw, pruner, or other piece of outdoor power equipment this season, it's important to refresh yourself on handling and safety procedures," advises Kris Kiser, president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), an international trade association representing outdoor power equipment, small engine and utility vehicle manufacturers and suppliers. "We're all eager to get outside and enjoy the living landscape after a long winter, but take the time to do basic maintenance now to ensure your equipment operates safely for the season and is ready to get the job done."
Lawn mowers come in every shape and size whether they be powered by gasoline, battery, or a hybrid of the two—but the decision in choosing one starts with you. "First ask yourself, 'What are your needs?'" Kiser suggests. "Do you have an acre? Or live on a hill? Do you prefer battery-powered or gasoline?" As with any lawn mower, read the owner's manual to learn how to care for it. Then, follow these main guidelines to keep your mower running at its best.
Maintenance is more than beneficial for the lawn. When you regularly tend to the grass, the lawn provides better conditions for your mower. "If your grass is wet or there are clumps of pollen, it's harder to mow in tall grass," Kiser elaborates. A lawn mower should maintain a level height with the grass it's cutting. One of the simplest and most effective ways to keep a mower working well is to keep the underside free of caked-on grass. If kept clean, the airflow beneath the mower will be sufficient to lift the grass straight up and provide a better cut. The cleaning process is simple: Disconnect the spark plug, then tilt the mower on its side, and scrape down the underside of the mower with a paint scraper. As for those grass cuttings? No need to bag them for hauling out to the curb, says Kiser: "It's a terrific natural fertilizer."
Maintaining the Air Filter and Fuel
Keep an eye on two key components: the air filter and fuel. "Those are the two things that will determine the longevity of your mower," Kiser remarks. A clean air filter keeps your mower working efficiently; follow the owner's manual for detailed instructions on installing a replacement filter. Always use fresh fuel—only E10 or less—labeled with the date of purchase and ethanol content for proper storage in a cool, dark place. "If you're in a humid area, your fuel will stale more quickly," Kiser warns. Never leave fuel sitting in the gas tank of your mower for more than 30 days. Untreated gasoline (without a fuel stabilizer) left in the system will deteriorate, which may cause problems starting up the machine and even damage it. Kiser adds, "At the end of the season, run the machine all day to empty it of fuel." Once spring returns, refill the mower with fresh gasoline. Give your mower a regular inspection, checking for loose belts and missing or damaged parts. Replace any parts needed or take your mower to a qualified service representative for servicing.
Changing the Oil
There's one telling hint to the health of your mower, and that is the oil. Consult your owner's manual for the right method and type of oil to use. Monitor the oil level in your mower and look for floating debris or oil that appears discolored. Old or contaminated oil should always be drained and replaced. To change the oil, remove the drain plug underneath the mower and allow it to drain completely. If your mower doesn't have a drain plug, you'll need to carefully tilt the mower on its side and drain the oil through the fill hole. Dispose of the oil properly. Most towns have oil recycling centers available for free.
Keeping the blade sharp will give you a consistently clean cut. Kiser compares your mower to another household necessity: "It's like scissors," he explains. "If you're getting an uneven cut on the grass, it's time to sharpen your blades." Depending on how often your mower is out on the lawn, the blade may be sharpened a few times during the summer months. A garden shop equipped with a professional grinder will give the best results. For servicing, you can either take the entire mower to the shop or remove the blade with a wrench. If you chose to remove the blade yourself, first unplug the spark plug, and be sure to wear a pair of sturdy work gloves to protect your hands whenever handling a sharp cutting part.
And what if something gets caught in your mower? Simply turn off the machine, inspect the undercarriage, and remove the lodged item from the bag catcher or discharge. "If you take care of it," as Kiser says, "it's almost indestructible."