How Zero-turn Mowers Work

Max Swisher really loathed mowing the lawn, so he set his sights on coming up with ways to make it as painless as possible. He would anchor his lawn mower to a tree, for example, and let it propel itself automatically in gradually shrinking circles until all the grass was cut. But perhaps his most ingenious contribution to the realm of lawn upkeep was his 1956 alleged invention of the zero-turn mower. Unlike other types of riding lawn mowers built based on front-wheel-steering designs, zero-turn mowers pivot around the rear wheels and turn on a dime. Unfortunately for Swisher, however, it's not the only company claiming dibs on the creation of the zero-turn lawn mower [sources: Swisher, Maxwell].

There's also the story of John Regier told by the folks at Hustler Turf. According to this claim, the invention of the zero-turn lawn mower didn't take place until 1963, when Regier adapted the steering system and transmission designs used in some agricultural equipment he helped develop while working at the Hesston Corporation, to create the first zero-turn mower. Apparently it was his wife's dislike of lawn care that spurred Regier on [source: Hustler Turf].


Most zero-turn riding lawn mowers don't come with a steering wheel; instead, they frequently have two levers that control two motors connected respectively to each rear wheel. They typically steer something like this: Pushing both levers forward causes the mower to move forward, while pulling them back causes it to reverse. The farther you push in either direction, the faster you go. To curve right, you push the left handle farther forward than the right handle, and vice versa if you want to curve left. If you want to make a swinging turn -- which leaves no grass uncut and sets you up that much faster for your next pass down the yard -- simply push the appropriate handle forward while keeping the other one in neutral, causing the mower to pivot around the stationary wheel. You can also spin around completely in place by moving one lever forward and pulling one lever back with equal force, in which case you'll be pivoting the mower around the central point between the two drive wheels.

Many zero-turn mowers are more appropriate for larger commercial or industrial applications, but some are small enough to be useful (and reasonably priced) for practical residential use. On the next page, we'll learn about this inspired system, as well as the benefits it brings to sweaty people mowing on steamy summer days.


The Benefits of Zero-turn Mowers

You can generally tell you're looking at a zero-turn mower if it has two control levers instead of a steering wheel. Occasionally, you'll find one that sports a steering wheel or even a joystick at the helm.

If your lawn is on the small side, a zero-turn mower might not be worth the investment. But if you have a lot of ground to cover, literally, then it could be worth the cost. Here's one suggestion for sizing up your lawn mowing needs.

Lot size:


  • Up to half an acre: a reel mower, battery-powered mower or electric mower
  • Between a half-acre and an acre: a gas-powered push mower
  • Between one and three acres: a riding mower

[source: USA Today]

But if you have a big lot and not a lot of patience when it comes to mowing the lawn, not just any riding mower will do. That's because one of the main perks of zero-turn mowers is how much time they save over regular riding lawn mowers. According to one avid fan, the switch from a traditional riding lawn mower to a zero-turn model cut back mowing time by 70 percent [source: Maxwell]. Other estimates also tend to be very favorable, albeit slightly more conservative.

Zero-turn mowers help save time because they're easy to handle, highly maneuverable and constantly in action. Plus, with a zero-turn mower, you can cut closely around obstacles like bushes and flowerbeds, eliminating the need to waste time trimming with a weed whacker.

The concentration of obstacles and floral features in your lawn will be a factor when determining which zero-turn mower to buy, because one thing to consider during the purchase is cutting deck width. Too wide and you could have trouble squeezing the mower into all the little nooks you need to reach; too narrow and you won't be saving as much time. Options like cruise control and a variety of attachments are also available on different models, so consider carefully which features will be beneficial to you depending on your situation.

With a new zero-turn mower, you'll be zipping around the yard in no time, but it's not all fun in the sun. On the next page, we'll consider a couple of drawbacks to purchasing a zero-turn mower.


The Drawbacks of Zero-turn Mowers

Despite the many advantages of zero-turn mowers, there are some downsides to consider. For starters, if your yard has areas that slope at angles greater than 10 to 15 degrees, a zero-turn riding mower isn't a safe bet in those spots because it could roll over. But if you only have limited areas that slope steeply, you can compromise by using a push mower or hand trimmer to take care of just those vicinities. Mowing on wet terrain can also increase the chances of sliding and losing control, or lead to lawn damage because of the weight of the mower, so only mow when the lawn is sufficiently dry. Whatever you do, if you are taking your zero-turn mower along a gentle slope or across a patch of damp grass, take it easy, stay alert for trouble spots, never rush and adhere closely to the manufacturer's safety guidelines.

It can take a couple of turns around the yard to feel comfortable at the helm of a zero-turn mower. Since a few different variations on the basic steering system configuration exist, it's a good idea to take any mowers under serious consideration for a test drive before you slap down the couple of thousand dollars one will typically set you back.


There's also the matter of pollution. Lawn mowers and other gas-powered garden equipment might not leap to mind when you consider sources of air pollution, but they're actually significant contributors for their size, especially older models that lack catalytic converters. Running a typical gas-powered lawn mower for an hour produces the same amount of smog-generating hydrocarbons as driving an average car for close to 200 miles (321 kilometers) [source: EPA]. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has instituted stricter regulations to go into effect across 2010 and 2011, which include measures such as required catalytic converters in small engines aimed to both decrease emissions and cut fuel waste.

In their defense, gas-powered zero-turn mowers do generally get the job done significantly faster and with more fuel efficiency than other types of riding lawn mowers. While this helps ease some of the pollution and fuel concerns, they're both still factors you might want to take into consideration.

When it comes to sparing the environment -- and neighborhood lungs -- from air pollution, some manufacturers are taking matters into their own hands. Although currently available only in more industrial models, some companies are starting to offer zero-turn mowers that run on compressed natural gas (CNG). CNG is still a fossil fuel that produces greenhouse gases, but it burns cleaner than gasoline, diesel or propane. In comparison to gasoline, CNG emits an average of 80 percent less ozone-forming emissions [source: Consumer Energy Center]. Electric zero-turn mowers are also beginning to hit the market, although they're still perhaps a bit cost-prohibitive for average consumers [source: Popular Mechanics].

For more information about mowing the lawn -- and saving money and the planet from the comfort of your own home -- cruise through the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

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