A Lawn Tractor Buying Guide

Tired of trudging around your yard week after week, pushing the lawn mower? A self-propelled lawn mower takes some of the effort out of mowing, but you still have to walk around behind the machine. If you have a small yard, you may not mind so much. If your yard is a half-acre or larger, you may be fed up with the amount of work it takes to mow.

You've admired riding mowers for years, and now it's your turn. Before you head for the nearest home improvement store, there are some things you need to know about these handy, helpful machines. Otherwise, you may end up with a purchase you're not really happy with.

Riding mower or lawn tractor?

The first thing you'll need to consider is whether you're looking for a riding mower or a lawn tractor. A riding mower, also frequently called a zero turn radius or ZTR mower, is a very nimble machine that can make incredibly tight turns. The engine on these mowers is in the back, under your seat. When riding, your feet rest on a platform above the cutting deck. These mowers are typically driven with dual hand controls. If you have a large yard with a lot of obstacles, from trees to yard ornaments, this kind of mower is an excellent choice.
Pros:

  • Highly maneuverable, even in tight spots, which cuts down on mowing time.
  • Good front visibility.
  • Most can bag, side discharge or mulch.

Cons:

  • Not very safe on hills, can tip, especially with a full bag.
  • Engine less powerful than a tractor.
  • May not offer attachments for additional yard maintenance.

A lawn tractor looks like a miniature version of a farming tractor, with the driver riding behind the large engine. Your feet rest above the cutting deck, which is situated between the front and rear axles. The mower is driven with a steering wheel. These machines are best in a large yard without a lot of trees, flowerbeds, or other obstacles to mow around.
Pros:

  • Powerful engines.
  • Can bag or mulch, though some can only discharge.
  • Can use attachments such as rollers, spreaders, snow plows and lawn vacuums.

Cons:

  • Not very safe on hills, can tip, though more stable than riding mowers.
  • Poor front visibility
  • Not as maneuverable as other mowers

There is a third option, called a garden tractor. These are typically larger and heavier than lawn tractors, with a greater variety of attachments, such as tillers and pull-behind plows. They are ideal for very large yards, areas with difficult cutting and other cultivation needs.

Size

Now that you know the difference between a riding mower and a lawn tractor, it's time to consider the width of the cutting deck and the size of the engine that will be appropriate for your yard. Here's a tip: an engine that is underpowered will not mow as cleanly or precisely, and may not last as long as a bigger engine would in your yard. Also, an engine with more horsepower is vital when you're planning on using attachments.

  • If your yard is up to an acre in size, the ideal cutting width is 30-42" (76-106cm). To avoid being underpowered, or putting too much strain on the engine, make sure your mower or tractor offers a minimum 14 horsepower. Riding mowers are the most commonly purchased for lawns this size.
  • For a yard that is between one and three acres, you'll reduce your mowing time with a cutting width of 42-46" (106-116cm) and a strong engine up to 16 HP. Typically people purchase lawn tractors for yards of this size.
  • If you're mowing more than three acres, you'll need to look at the garden tractors, with cutting widths up to 54" (137cm) and at least an 18 HP engine, preferably bigger.

Engine Details

Horsepower is not the only thing you'll want to consider about the engine when buying a riding mower or tractor. There are engines that run more efficiently and will last longer than others.

  • Look at the cooling system. Are there good fans to keep the engine's temperature down?
  • Is the oil filtering system efficient? Is it easy to service, since you may be changing the filter or checking/adding oil yourself?
  • How many cylinders does it have? Riding mower and tractor engines are either single or twin cylinders. Typically twin cylinders are offered in engines with greater horsepower (18+). Twin cylinder engines tend to last longer, run cooler, and generate more power than single cylinder engines. However, if your yard is less than an acre, you don't really need more than a single cylinder.

Transmission

Just as cars offer a choice of manual or automatic transmissions, so do riding mowers and lawn tractors.

  • Automatic, or Hydrostatic, transmissions make it easy to control the speed of the machine without worrying about hitting the clutch or shifting gears. Models may offer speed control with a foot pedal or a hand shifter located near the driver's seat. This type of transmission has a top speed limit, but allows you to drive any speed you want up to that limit. The variable speed options make it easy to slow down in your yard's tricky spots without sacrificing faster mowing in smooth areas.
  • Manual, or Gear Driven, transmissions require you to use the clutch when you change speeds. Also, speeds are set according to the gear you're driving in, so if you need to slow down near an obstacle, you have to change gears to do so. This can be difficult at first, and if your yard is full of trees and flowerbeds, or if you have difficult terrain to mow, you'll be best served by an automatic transmission.

Safety features

Lawn mowers in general can be dangerous, but riding mowers and lawn tractors are even more so. Some models have better safety features than others. You'll want to look for, at the very least:

  • A system that prevents the engine from starting unless the blade is disengaged and the machine is in neutral.
  • An automatic blade shut-off that stops the mowing blades if you stand up rather than sit on the machine, or if you leave the mower/tractor.
  • A system that stops the blade if you shift into reverse, or at least a lock that requires you to make a deliberate decision to mow in reverse.

Now you know how to compare models of riding mowers and lawn/garden tractors. The rest is just a question of how much you want to spend and what make and model you prefer. These machines range from $1,000 to $4,000 or more. Some manufacturers have a better reputation for quality than others, so shop wisely for a machine that will make mowing your yard easier and faster for many years to come.

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