Zero turn mowers are everywhere these days. From the huge selection available on dealers lots, to giant commercial landscaping crews, to residential backyards these machines have become an increasingly common sight. The growth in usage of these grass cutting machines in the past few decades is a testament to the multitude of users who have recognised how incredibly useful their speed, durability, fuel-efficiency and zero-turn-radius manoeuvrability can be.
Zero turn mowers can trace their origins back to John Regier who worked for the Hesston Corporation. The Hesston Corporation was a well-known and respected manufacturer of agricultural implements. While working for Hesston Regier was inspired by a device they produced called the swather. Crucially this device, for cutting hay, allowed counter-rotation. Realizing the potential usefulness of counter-rotation, Regier set about transferring this concept to lawnmowers. This was the genesis of the idea which would revolutionize the mowing industry.
Working in a backyard in Moundridge, Kansas Regier came up with the first prototype zero turn lawn mower. Unfortunately for Regier, like visionaries in many fields, his invention was ahead of its time and its usefulness was not initially recognized. After building 24 of the machines to sell, Regier found that the market for such a product just didn’t exist yet. Disheartened, he was eventually forced to sell his patent to his employer, Hesston, which eventually become Excel Industries.
Hustler Turf, whose parent company is Excel Industries recognized the potential of Regier’s work and employed him. The rest, as they say is history and today Hustler Turf famously produces the Hustler Turf and BigDog range of zero-turn mowers. Grasshopper and Dixon were also early pioneers of the zero turn concept in grass cutting. Today there are almost forty manufacturers producing zero-turn mowers.
Hustler didn't have far to look for their competition. In 1969 another Zero-turn-radius pioneer, Grasshopper, was also founded in Moundridge, Kansas! Indeed, even today, Grasshopper are based in, and have a gigantic manufacturing plant, in Moundridge. Grasshopper claim to have introduced (in 1969) the first commercially viable zero turn radius lawn mower, although other companies would take issue with this statement. Moundridge can quite accurately be described as the birthplace of the zero turn mower.
The fact that they have been in use for decades means that the technology has sufficiently matured enough to make them of interest to a wide range of users, without the need to worry about durability or reliability issues. This maturity has also allowed a wide network of dealers to be set up and provide advice, parts, accessories and after care.
Zero turn mowers are ideally suited to their task, which can often catch users moving from other riding mowers and lawn tractors by surprise. In particular their speed can be quite shocking when viewed in comparison to their lawn tractor cousins. New users should get accustomed to their new mower on a wide open, obstacle free piece of land before attempting to mow a prize lawn for the first time!
Time-wise zero turn mowers will also trim mowing times by a huge amount in comparison to other options. Some people have said that their mowing times have dropped by a third when switching to a ZTR mower. This is hugely significant for commercial operators for whom time really is money and also for the time-starved homeowner user who has a significant size of lawn to tackle.
Control options vary. Some zero-turn-radius mowers feature a "joystick". Others have two levers from which the operator controls the rear wheels. Some manufacturers (John Deere in particular) offer the option of steering wheels, which certainly reduces the culture shock of moving from a lawn tractor. The new owner of a model without a steering wheel will very quickly get accustomed to the unfamiliar steering setup however. In no time at all it will be virtually second nature.
The position of the deck is also an important consideration. A mid-mount mower, whereby the user sites over the blades (so to speak!) feels very similar to a traditional riding mower. A mid-mount mower will also be a lot more compact than front mounted variants. This may be important if the primary use of the machine will be in smaller areas with many obstacles. The compact nature of the mid mount also lends itself to much easier transportation with its shorter length, although it will still be relatively heavy.
There are many benefits to a front mounted mower though. Some users claim that the front mount allows them to watch where they are mowing without constantly having to look down to the side. A front deck does however add to the length of the mower and this makes transportation harder. The pros-and-cons of both would have to be carefully considered before a purchase was made.
There is a huge price range in the ZTR market. In general terms those aimed at the residential market will be the lowest priced, while those for the commercial user will be much higher priced. While they are usually more expensive than a riding mower, a zero turn mower does have long term cost savings. Better fuel economy is often a factor. Shorter run times mean less wear and tear in general on components such as belts and pulleys. Quicker mowing times also means time can be better spent elsewhere.
The price will also vary according to what optional extras the potential owner needs or wants. Attachments such as baggers, aerators and snow plows for example, will vastly extend the usefulness of zero turn radius lawn mowers but will of course bump up the price significantly. Potential new purchasers will often find it extremely helpful to talk to an experienced user (or relatively impartial dealer if you can find one!) Many professional landscapers will be more than willing to spare you a minute or two to discuss the relative merits of their mower. A good idea might be to see what the big commercial grass cutting crews in your area are using. They will only buy machines that will stand up to hard daily use and are easily maintained.
Luckily, there is a thriving market in used zero turn mowers meaning that an interested party can get a great deal and make huge savings by buying a second-user mower. Many people will shy away from used, and seek to get the security of a manufacturers guarantee from an official dealer. John Deere, for example offers the John Deere Extended Service Plan for people wishing to extend their peace of mind beyond the official manufacturers warranty. Kubota also offer an owners club for all purchasers of their mowers. Such online portals are a great way to link the new user to those more experienced while also offering exclusive deals such as trade show invites and great deals on parts and accessories.