By Jeff Salem
It might not feel like it quite yet, but spring is almost in the air. The time has come for contractors across much of the country to put away the snowplows and start prepping their mowers, blowers, trimmers and trailers for the busy season just around the corner.
There’s one crucial component in particular to spring equipment preparation that, if given the proper attention in the spring, can pay dividends all season long in the form of increased productivity and less downtime. So, while it’s important to sharpen mower blades and re-spool the trimmer wire, it pays to give some extra attention to equipment power sources.
“Productivity is the top goal for all contractors, because equipment that doesn’t quit adds to their bottom line,” said Jim Cross, marketing manager at Briggs & Stratton Commercial Power, which manufactures the Vanguard brand of commercial engines. “Increasing productivity — and limiting downtime — is what commercial engines are designed to do, and there are a few steps contractors can take in the spring to help maximize what they get out of their engines, and ultimately their equipment fleet, all season long.”
Here are four engine tips and tricks to help keep equipment out of the service shop and at work in the field.
1. Fuel your productivity
Just as an engine is the backbone of any quality mower, the power source can only go as far as the fuel in the tank. It pays to fuel properly.
“An engine can only reach maximum productivity if you’re fueling it with care,” said Tom Billigen, service training manager for Briggs & Stratton. “The most common reason we see a reduction or altogether stopping in the performance of a commercial mower’s engine is because of something fuel related. These issues can all be avoided by using the right fuel, and caring for the fuel even after it’s in the tank, which, in turn, protects the entire system.”
“The first mistake to avoid is pumping the wrong fuel into the tank,” said Billigen.
Use a fuel with an octane rating of 87 to ensure proper performance — any higher usually won’t yield any real advantages due to most designs using modest compression ratios. Eighty-seven octane will ensure quality starting performance even in cool weather, too. It’s also important to note that depending on location, the fuel chemical makeup is altered to aid in cold-weather starting. So hanging onto a large amount of fuel from fall to run in the spring may cause issues like vapor lock to occur. Similarly, if summer-blend fuel is used in fall or winter, starting performance will be dismal.
Also, contractors and their crews need to be educated on ethanol, Billigen added. Many fueling stations now offer ethanol blends up to 85 percent, which is incompatible in most small engines. According to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a gasoline blend with more than 10 percent ethanol in outdoor power equipment, including commercial mowers, can corrode metals and distort rubber components and, above all, cause engines to run poorly with increased operating temperatures due to a leaner mixture being burned.
Billigen also pointed out that once the right fuel is in the tank, its quality — and performance — will continue to decline unless proper measures are taken. Fuel stabilizers and treatments keep fuel fresher longer to help maximize engine performance.
“We’ve seen contractors cut corners to save a few bucks by not using fuel additives continually, but some of them learn the hard way that these additives are of critical importance to a mower fleet’s productivity, especially if some units sit idle during slower periods in warmer climates,” said Billigen.
2. Check the valve lash settings
“Another often overlooked step in prepping for the cutting season that can really impact engine performance is not properly maintaining the valve lash settings,” said Billigen. “Prior to spring is a great time to take a look at the current valve lash settings to ensure they’re ready for the season and provide maximum performance.”
Valve lash is the gap maintained between the rocker arm top and the valve stem. Most engines in production today have some form of adjustment for the air gap. As the engine accumulates hours at work and wear takes place, this gap will typically widen. This will cause lost motion from the camshaft, and since the tappet, pushrod and rocker are not following the camshaft lobe profile as exact as possible, there will be a reduction in performance of the engine — not to mention fuel economy. Consult the engine’s operator’s manual or service manual for recommended service intervals, and lash settings and procedure.
3. Refresh the oil
Don’t forget to start the season with an oil change. Then, changing the oil every 100 hours of operation for larger equipment and every 50 hours for smaller utility pieces of equipment is paramount to operating a productive fleet.
Small air-cooled engines are especially hard on engine oils. Their oil operating temperature is often approaching 300 Fahrenheit, depending on ambient conditions. When oil is in service for longer than recommended periods of time at elevated temperature during operation, it forms a tar-like substance that makes it difficult for the oil to lubricate, clean and cool the engine. According to Billigen, checking, adding and changing the oil regularly is the best defense against oil breakdown and engine failure.
Also, using the best oil for the engine being operated will help performance. The Society of Automotive Engineers has developed a categorization of motor oils that will indicate the viscosity (thickness) and temperature in which engine oil can be used. This is typically called the weight of the oil, which is printed on every bottle of oil. It also will indicate whether or not the oil is synthetic. Check the owner’s manual for the optimal oil, but Billigen says a SAE 30 oil is typical for most engines operating in 40 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer.
4. Get some fresh air
Without access to clean air, a small engine can become the subject of a dirt ingestion failure fast. The engine air filter should be changed every 100 to 250 hours, depending on how dirty the environment is in which the contractor is working. A clogged or old air filter will restrict airflow and adversely affect the air-fuel mixture. That will result in decreased horsepower, poor fuel economy, slow response, tough starting and, ultimately, shorter engine life if the filter begins to bypass.
Jeff Salem is a public relations counsel at Swanson Russell, Lincoln, Neb. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.