Keep Up with Large Equipment Upkeep
By Tim Nephew
Seasonal maintenance will help ensure your mowers, tractors, and implements stay running smoothly all year long.
This past fall, I changed the oil and spark plug on my lawn mower, added fuel stabilizer, and ran the gas out before I stored the mower for winter. It’s the same process I go through every fall in anticipation of getting another good year out of my 12-year-old mower. The following spring, after adding new gas – I always use premium gas in my outdoor equipment – I primed and pulled the recoil cord, and the mower started on the first pull. It ran great for a few minutes, but then the engine started to misfire horribly. I checked the spark plug wire and then started the mower up again, only to be met with the same rough-running machine.
I hadn’t budgeted for another mower, but after 12 years with my old one, I figured I’d gotten my money’s worth. So, I took my old mower to my local dealer, thinking it might be worth a few dollars in trade. I explained my predicament to the dealer, and even started the mower up for him to inspect himself. He asked me if I’d replaced the air filter, which I assured him I’d done the previous fall. He then opened the air-filter housing and removed a filthy filter. After replacing the filter, I started the mower up, and it ran like new. My trip to buy an expensive new mower turned into an $8 purchase. While I was a little embarrassed by my perceived ignorance of mower maintenance, I soon remembered that I hadn’t been able to find the correct air filter when I’d looked the previous fall. Although I’d intended to replace it in spring, I completely forgot.
Image John Deere
If there’s a moral to this story – other than that memory tends to fail a little more frequently with age – it’s that seasonal maintenance can save you from costly equipment repairs and premature replacements.
Seasonal lawn mower maintenance requires only minimal mechanical skills, and most mower owners can tackle the project themselves with a few basic tools.
If you purchased your mower new, you should have an operator’s manual that will provide a suggested maintenance schedule. If you purchased a previously owned mower without a manual, you can likely find one online by searching for the mower’s make and model.
Whether you have a push mower, self-propelled mower, or riding lawn tractor, the process and maintenance requirements are similar. As I mentioned before, it’s good practice to replace the spark plug or plugs annually, as well as change the oil and oil filter. And don’t overlook that air filter! It’s vital for engine performance.
Changing the oil and oil filter can seem like a daunting task at first, but it’s actually a simple job, and it requires only a little preparation. First, you’ll need to determine if you have a two- or four-cycle engine. If you add oil to the gasoline, you have a two-cycle mower that doesn’t require oil changes. If you add only gasoline to the mower, you have a four-cycle mower that requires oil to be added to the engine for lubrication.
To change the oil on push or self-propelled lawn mowers, first disconnect or pull the spark plug wire so the mower doesn’t accidentally start. Then, locate the oil reservoir plug and remove it from the mower. Tip the mower on its side, with the air filter and carburetor facing up so oil doesn’t spill inside. Then, drain the oil into a container large enough to catch the waste oil. (Expect about a quart or more, depending on your model and engine size.) When all the oil has drained out, tip the mower back down, replace the oil reservoir plug, and add the recommended amount and type of new oil for your make and model.
Once you’ve changed the oil, move on to replacing the spark plug. Consult the owner’s manual for the recommended replacement plug and the correct spark plug gap (the distance between the center and side electrodes of the plug, which is set by using a gapping tool that can be purchased for a few dollars from where you buy your spark plug).
Next, check the air filter, and replace it if it’s exceptionally dirty. The air filter will be located inside a housing on the engine, near where the carburetor is located.
Lawn mower blades also need periodic attention, so check those during your seasonal maintenance as well. You can either sharpen the blade yourself, or have it sharpened at a repair shop. The blade will be affixed to the underside of the mower by a bolt. Wear a pair of gloves when handling the blade, and hold the blade firmly, or wedge a piece of wood between the mower deck and the blade to hold it in place, as you loosen the nut. Make note of how the blade comes off, as there will be a top side and a bottom side. If installed incorrectly, the blade will tear the grass instead of cutting it cleanly.
If you have a lawn tractor, the seasonal maintenance is similar to that of a push or self-propelled mower, with a few differences. On a lawn tractor, you’ll need to replace the oil filter as well as change the oil. The mower will have an oil drain plug located on the underside. Lawn tractors may have multiple spark plugs to replace, depending on the mower’s engine size. Many lawn tractors also have multiple mower blades to cover the expanded deck size, and you may need to drive the mower up a ramp to reach the bolts to remove the blades for sharpening. Inspect the air and fuel filters, and replace if needed.
If you have questions about the timing for specific maintenance, refer to your owner’s manual. Drain the gasoline if you’ll be storing your mower for a long period of time or over the winter months, or add a fuel stabilizer to the existing gasoline, and run the mower briefly to circulate the stabilizer through the fuel system.
Image Massey Ferguson
Subcompact and Compact Tractors
If you’ve invested in a subcompact or compact utility tractor, you’ll need to protect that investment through proper maintenance. Because of a tractor’s utilitarian capabilities, we often task them with long hours of work – sometimes in extreme weather conditions – making maintenance essential to their longevity. Even if you don’t put a lot of hours annually on your tractor, it’s still important to keep a regular and seasonal maintenance schedule. Although different tractor models may have different suggested maintenance schedules, most compact and subcompact tractors have similar requirements. You should consult the owner’s manual for your specific make and model for maintenance guidelines, or talk to your local dealer, but here are some basic recommendations to keep in mind.
If your tractor was purchased new, most manufacturers recommend “break-in” maintenance at about 50 hours of use. This break-in period is crucial for a tractor’s engine, as well as its hydraulic and transmission systems. It’s also a good idea to check the coolant levels during this time, as well as check the torque on the wheel bolts, and grease all fittings on the tractor.
Image Massey Ferguson
If you’re able to transport your tractor to a dealer, it’s best to have trained technicians give your tractor a thorough inspection at the 50-hour mark, which may even be covered under the tractor’s warranty. (Alternatively, some dealerships can provide tractor transportation to and from their service center, or send a service technician to your home.) During this inspection, technicians will change the engine oil and filter, the hydraulic fluid, and the front-end oil, if these steps are specified for your make and model. Oftentimes, manufacturers will also provide model-specific videos and tutorials online to assist tractor owners who are comfortable doing these tasks on their own.
After the initial 50-hour service, the next maintenance for your tractor will be due at 100 hours of use. (To keep track of the maintenance schedule, start a log and keep it up to date.) This maintenance should repeat a lot of what was done at the 50-hour mark, but you’ll also need to check for additional wear and tear, and replace air filters, hoses, and belts, if necessary.
If you’re like me and you don’t use your tractor on a daily or even weekly basis, you may find that it could take quite a while to reach the 50- and 100-hour maintenance marks. Regardless of the number of hours on your tractor, if you haven’t met one of the suggested service intervals within a year, you should change the oil and oil filter, the fuel filter, and the air filter. Also, check your tractor manufacturer’s suggested time frames for fluid changes and lubrication. A small investment in maintenance on an annual basis will pay off in the long-term life of your tractor’s engine and drivetrain.
Image Massey Ferguson
Besides the major maintenance recommendations specified by your owner’s manual or dealer, you’ll also need to check coolant levels periodically (after your tractor has cooled down), and check the battery a few times during the year. Clean the battery terminals, and refill fluid levels if they’re low. If you live in a cold climate and don’t use your tractor in winter, disconnect the battery, and, if possible, store it in a warmer environment until spring.
While regular and seasonal maintenance are important, you should also perform daily maintenance every time you use your tractor. John Deere recommends doing the following inspections before each use:
- Give your tractor a visual once-over. Look for things such as leaks, wear or damage, tire condition, and buildup of dirt and debris. Also, check the hoses, belts, cables, and drain plugs.
- Check the fluids and fuels. Leaks may indicate low levels of oil, diesel, lubricants, or other fluids. Even without leaks, tractors lose fluid over time. Top off your fluids to the recommended levels.
- Check the battery to make sure all connections are secure and clean.
- Check the tire pressure of each tire to make sure they’re at the recommended level for the type of work you’ll be doing.
- Test the safety systems. This includes seat belts, lights, and flashers. Make sure the rollover protection and safety shields are in place and operating correctly.
Trailers and Tractor Implements
Seasonal maintenance doesn’t end with things that have a motor. You should also take the time to check over your trailers and implements, especially any parts subject to excessive wear and tear.
Some trailers see extensive use during the year. Whether you haul livestock, hay, gravel, or even your own equipment, simple trailer maintenance can prevent equipment failure later on. Most trailer manufactures recommend repacking trailer wheel bearings either annually or every 12,000 miles. You can likely repack the bearings yourself, depending on the size of your trailer and your mechanical skill level. Look online for how-to videos to walk you through the process. Also, pay close attention to the wear on your trailer tires, and replace them if needed. At least once a year, you should also check the hitch coupler, lighting, and wiring.
Image John Deere
Tractor implements also benefit from annual maintenance. Most implements have multiple moving parts, as well as grease points, or “zerks,” to help keep those parts moving smoothly. Grease all the manufacturer-recommended parts on your implements at least annually, and more often if you use the equipment on a regular basis.
If the implement requires power takeoff (PTO), make sure the PTO connection stays lubricated and free from debris when in storage. Visually inspect your implements for damage or wear before each use. Fix or replace any damaged or missing safety mechanisms, such as protective shields or guards, before operating the equipment.
Tim Nephew writes frequently about equipment for Grit. He lives on 80 acres of wildlife habitat in Minnesota.
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