Easily maneuverable and time reducing, zero-turn mowers are the fastest-growing category of riding mower today. Zero-turn mowers turn quickly thanks to independent rear-wheel drives (hydraulically operated transaxles or wheel motors) and front caster-style wheels. You can cut tight contours, such as around trees and garden beds, without having to reverse. Zero-turns also have a visibility advantage over tractors, as there is nothing in front to obstruct your view. Residential zero-turns range in price from just under $2500 to almost $6000. Commercial models sell for even more.
Residential zero-turn mowers are grass cutting machines. Most manufacturers offer few, if any accessories beyond a grass collector and tow-behind trailer. Commercial models, on the other hand, can be equipped with a wide range of accessories, in part because of tougher transmissions and beefier wheel motors. If you buy a zero-turn mower that straddles the line between residential and commercial, you may find more accessories are available, including utility carts (with caster wheels), a snow blower, a sweeper, and several types of grass collectors.
To control ground speed and direction, you use highly responsive lever controls instead of foot pedals and a steering wheel. Push more on the right and you turn left. Pull back on the left at the same time, and you turn 360 degrees in a counterclockwise direction. Close cutting is on the left, where the discharge chute is not in the way.
What to Look for When Buying a Zero-Turn Mower
There are significant differences in performance and price between zero-turn models. The difference is even greater between residential and commercial models. Your best bet is to buy the best mower you can afford, so in order to be a smart buyer you need to know what makes a quality machine.
The most important factors that determine durability are overall sturdiness of the frame and deck construction, a high-quality engine, and the load capacity of the drive system. A higher quality machine with lower maintenance costs and a longer life span may have a total annual cost that is less than a lower priced machine. Relative sturdiness is evident in a side-by-side inspection. Compare such specifications as tubular-steel frame dimension, gauge of steel (the lower the gauge number, the thicker the material), and the protection surrounding the rear-mounted engine.
Durability and Sturdiness
Commercial-grade mowers typically have fabricated decks, made of several pieces of continuously welded heavy gauge steel. Many residential models have stamped decks, made by forming lighter-gauge steel in a press. Some decks combine both stamping and welding to approach the durability of a true fabricated deck. Anti-scalping wheels—small wheels that raise the deck on uneven terrain to prevent the blades from making contact with the ground (scalping)—are common on decks 48-inches or wider. One, two, or three rollers may be employed, and are sometimes made adjustable to suit different cutting height ranges.
If your lawn has some rough patches with stones and stumps, opt for a rugged deck, which is reinforced with a welded-on steel bar.
Most stamped decks on zero-turn mowers have the same cutting chamber depth on the left and right. A tunnel design maximizes efficiency by tapering the deck so it is taller on the discharge side, where the volume of clippings cut by three blades is the greatest. This translates into finer clippings when and more efficient side-discharged or bagging.
Twin-cylinder OHV engines, widely used on zero-turn-radius mowers, are more powerful, run smoother (less vibration), and are more durable than single-cylinder models. Do not place too much value on horsepower ratings, which range from 15 to 24 mph. Manufacturers size horsepower based on the model and cutting deck. As for engine brand, commercial mowers are a good indicator of which engine brands are the most durable.
Commercial mowers use separate, heavy-duty hydraulic pumps and wheel motors. Almost all residential zero-turn mowers use less complex, less expensive transaxles more suited to the vehicle’s weight and service purpose. The hydraulic pump, motor and reduction gears are in a single, sealed house. The quality of these components varies, with the quality, size, and price of the mower.
The cutting height should be easy to adjust. A foot assist is easier than a hand lever and allows you to quickly raise the deck for a short period of time, over an exposed tree root for example, without taking a hand off the drive levers. Avoid units where you have to get off the machine and turn a crank to raise and lower the deck.
Wider tires distribute the vehicle’s weight over a larger area and thus are less damaging to the turf. They can also offer better traction depending on tread pattern, and four-ply rated tires are more durable than two-ply ones. Tire sizes are determined by the load rating on the axles in the transmission, and are defined by three numbers representing the diameter, width, and wheel size (i.e.: 18″ x 9.5″ x 8″), however you sometimes may only find the numbers for diameter and width as these are the most relevant.
You are almost ready to buy. Do not forget to compare seat comfort and the ease of adjustment (when there is more than one user). Is the control panel easy to see and reach from your seat? Is there an hour meter? Having an hour meter makes it easier to follow a recommended maintenance schedule. Examine the air filter: more pleats mean a larger surface area, so it will have better filtering. If accessorizing is important to you, make sure the manufacturer recommends or sells the accessories you want before you buy the mower.