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Maintaining your lawn and garden equipment

These simple steps boost savings and safety

Last updated: July 2013

Yard equipment is expensive to purchase—and can become dangerous and prone to costly repairs if some simple maintenance checks aren't followed.

For example, the average lawn mower needs to be replaced every six years, but you can extend its life by keeping the blade sharp and following these tips from one of our readers to regularly clean the mower deck. Lawn tractors are among the most repair-prone products we test, but again, some regular precautions (including proper battery storage) will ensure trouble-free operation.

Hedge and string trimmers, garden tillers and chain saws require less maintenance, but will last longer and cut better if you perform a few simple maintenance steps. One especially crucial one is to run the machines' gas tanks dry or stabilize the gasoline before storing them away for the winter.

The links at left detail simple checks and essential maintenance you should perform before, during and at the end of the season for each of these types of lawn equipment. You can also share tips and pitfalls to avoid in our lawn mower and tractor and other lawn and garden equipment forums.

Lawn-mower care

Mowers are replaced every six years, on average, according to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, an industry trade group. But yours can last much longer than that with the right care. Simple, routine maintenance can also save you the $50 to $75 per hour you'll pay a repair shop and the $300 to $600 or more you'll shell out for many new push and self-propelled mowers. (See our Ratings and recommendations for push mowers and self-propelledmowers.)

Clearing away small stumps, bricks, and other obstacles is one way to protect your mower from an early death, since hitting them with the blade is a common way to destroy these machines. Here's what else you can do and when to do it:

When the mowing season begins:

  • For four-stroke gas mowers, check that the oil dipstick level is at or near the full mark. Add more if necessary, but don't overfill. Too little oil can damage or destroy the engine by leaving parts unlubricated; too much can also underlubricate by causing air bubbles.
  • For two-stroke gas models, mix fresh gasoline and two-cycle oil according to the ratio recommended in the owner's manual. Too little oil can damage the engine by underlubricating vital parts; too much can cause poor running, excess exhaust emissions, and fouled spark plugs.
  • Hose or scrape off old clippings from beneath the mowing deck using a plastic putty knife immediately after each mowing. This way clippings do not dry to the deck, which makes them harder to remove. Caked-on clippings can compromise mulching and bagging by upsetting airflow beneath. Clippings can also corrode metal decks--one reason why mowers are replaced. Caution: On gas mowers, disconnect the spark-plug wire first.
  • Check a gas mower's pull-start cord and replace it if it's frayed.
  • Check an electric mower's power cord and replace it if it shows cracks or other damage.
  • Have any mower's blade sharpened if you didn't do it before winter storage. Blades should be sharpened at least once each mowing season to cut evenly and avoid tearing the grass.

During the mowing season:

  • Hose or scrape off old clippings from beneath the deck.
  • Remove grass and debris from a gas engine's cooling fins, engine covers, and air-intake screens after each use to help prevent engine overheating.
  • If your mower has a manual engine-speed control, be sure it's properly adjusted.
  • Regularly check belts/chain drives for wear and tightness.

Before winter storage:

  • Add stabilizer to a gas mower's fuel tank at the end of the mowing season. Let the engine run until fuel runs out.
  • Remove a gas engine's spark plug and pour an ounce of oil into the cylinder. Slowly pull the starter cord to distribute the oil on moving parts and help prevent rust. Then reinstall the plug.
  • Replace the spark plug every 100 hours of operation (roughly every four years). Have the blade sharpened.
  • Replace a gas engine's carburetor air filter if it's paper. Wash foam filters in soap and water, rinse and squeeze dry, then oil with engine oil and squeeze dry again before reinstalling.
  • Replace old engine oil on four-stroke engines and properly dispose of it at a collection center. Two-stroke engines don't require this, since they burn a small amount of oil with the gas.
  • Fold the handlebar to save space, then store the mower in a dry, ventilated area. On concrete floors, put plastic beneath the mower to help prevent moisture from corroding the deck.

See our Ratings and recommendations for push mowersself-propelled mowers, and lawn tractors).

Lawn-tractor care

Lawn tractors are among the most repair-prone products we test, according to our annual surveys. At several hundred pounds, they're also a handful to transport to the repair shop, where you'll typically pay $50 to $75 per hour once you get an appointment. While new-tractor prices have dropped in recent years, you'll still pay $1,500 or more for most competent models (See our lawn tractor Ratings and recommendations.)

Some simple at-home upkeep can help you avoid those expenses and the time and hassle of getting a broken tractor to a shop. Much of that maintenance involves the gas engine that runs all lawn tractors. Here's what to do and when to do it:

When the mowing season begins:

  • Unless the battery is maintenance-free, check its electrolyte level and top off each cell with distilled water as needed. Some batteries are mounted beneath the seat, some under the hood.
  • Tighten the two cables if they're loose on their terminals--a common no-start culprit.
  • Recharge the battery if needed. Use a portable charger or power pack.
  • Check connections to other electrical parts, such as lights, gauges, and the ignition key, and tighten or clean as needed.
  • Hose off or scrape old clippings from beneath the mowing deck. (Hint: Drive the front of the tractor onto car ramps for access if the deck lacks a garden-hose connection.) Caked-on clippings compromise mulching and bagging by upsetting airflow beneath. When using a hose, avoid getting the engine and transmission wet.
  • Have blades sharpened if you didn't do it before winter storage. Blades should be sharpened at least once each mowing season.
  • Be sure tires are properly inflated. Most require 10 to 14 pounds per square inch (psi); check the owner's manual.

During the mowing season:

  • Check that the oil-dipstick level is at or near the full mark. Add more if needed, but don't overfill. Too little oil can damage or destroy the engine by leaving parts unlubricated; too much can also underlubricate by causing air bubbles.
  • Check tires visually before each use.
  • Hose or scrape old clippings from beneath the mowing deck.
  • Regularly check belts/chain drives for wear and tightness.

Before winter storage:

  • Have blades sharpened.
  • Replace spark plugs.
  • Replace the carburetor air filter if it's paper. Wash foam filters in soap and water, rinse and squeeze dry, then oil with engine oil and squeeze dry again before reinstalling.
  • Replace the fuel filter. You'll find it on the hose leading to the carburetor.
  • Replace old engine oil and dispose of it properly at a collection center.
  • Add stabilizer to the fuel tank at the end of the mowing season. Let the engine run until fuel runs out.
  • Remove and keep the battery charged with a trickle charger during long storage.

See our Ratings and recommendations for push mowersself-propelled mowers, and lawn tractors).

How to maintain your hedge trimmer

Powered hedge trimmers save you the effort and elbow grease required by manual shears and loppers. Most are corded electric trimmers, which typically cost $30 to $70 and require less maintenance than gasoline-powered models (about $200 to $300). But even pricier gas trimmers can keep trimming reliably for years if you follow some simple steps:

When the yard-care season begins:

  • Be sure the blades are sharp. A tip-off to dull blades: The engine or electric motor labors during operation or the blades snag on branches. Some trimmers have blades that can be sharpened. (You can do it yourself with a flat crosscut sharpening file.) On others, the blades must be replaced.
  • Replace the spark plug on gas-powered trimmers.
  • Check that the handles and their attaching nuts and bolts are secure.
  • For gas models, mix fresh gasoline and two-cycle oil according to the ratio recommended in the owner's manual. Too little oil can damage the engine by underlubricating vital parts; too much can cause poor running, excess exhaust emissions, and fouled spark plugs.
  • Be sure the debris shield that protects your hands from the reciprocating blades is securely attached and in good condition.

During the season:

  • Check that the intake vent near a gas trimmer's carburetor air filter is clear of debris so that the engine runs efficiently.
  • On gas trimmers with a clutch, check that the blades don't begin moving at idle until you increase the engine speed. Reduce the engine idle speed if needed by turning a screw on the carburetor.

Before winter storage:

  • Add stabilizer to the fuel and run the engine to distribute the stabilized mixture through the fuel lines and carburetor.
  • Disconnect the spark plug, thoroughly clean all outer surfaces, and clear all intake and exhaust vents of debris.
  • Spray a light coating of machine oil or resin solvent on the blades.
  • Hang or store the trimmer in a clean, dry area.

String-trimmer care

At as little as $60 to $80, competent gas and corded electric string trimmers also cost less than mowers, tractors, and other machines. (See our string trimmer Ratings and recommendations.) While that often makes buying a new trimmer more feasible than repairing a broken one, the right care can help stave off both scenarios.

Electric trimmers need little beyond periodic checks to be sure that straps, handles, and bolts are secure. But trimmers with a gasoline engine need regular upkeep to maintain their superior cutting power. Here's what to do and when:

When the yard-care season begins:

  • Replace the cutting line with fresh line at the start of each season. Many cutting lines age quickly and become brittle so that they break more easily, requiring repeated line feed. Fresh line holds up better.
  • Replace the spark plug on gas-powered trimmers.
  • Carefully balance the trimmer by setting the handles so they're comfortable for trimming or edging. Make sure the debris shield over the cutting line is free of cracks and other damage; replace the shield if needed.
  • Most gas string trimmers use two-stroke engines that require a mix of fuel and oil. Check your owner's manual for the proper ratio. Craftsman and Troy-Bilt are among the few brands that have offered four-stroke trimmers with a separate oil reservoir. Check that the oil-dipstick level is at or near the full mark. Add more if needed, but don't overfill. Too little oil can damage or destroy the engine by leaving parts unlubricated; too much can also underlubricate by causing air bubbles.

During the season:

  • For gas trimmers, be sure intake vents near the air filter are clear of debris so that the engine runs efficiently.
  • Clean or replace a gas trimmer's air filter as needed--more frequently in dry, dusty environments.
  • Some gas trimmers have a centrifugal clutch that keeps the cutting head from spinning until you squeeze the throttle. (You can tell by looking at the head when you start the engine.) On these, the carburetor idle speed should be slow enough so that the cutting head doesn't turn.

Before winter storage:

  • Add stabilizer to the fuel and run the engine to distribute the stabilized mixture through the fuel lines and carburetor.
  • Thoroughly clean outer surfaces and clear all intake and exhaust vents of debris.
  • Remove a gas trimmer's spark plug and pour an ounce of oil into the cylinder. Slowly pull the starter cord to distribute the oil on moving parts and help prevent rust. Then reinstall the plug.
  • Hang or store the trimmer in a clean, dry area according to manufacturer's directions.

Garden-tiller care

Some garden tillers require adding grease to the transmission once a year.

Power tillers can whisk away weeds and break up clumps of soil far more quickly and easily than you could by hand. While gasoline-powered tillers tend to perform best overall, the best in our tests use four-stroke engines that run more cleanly than two-stroke versions and spare you the hassle of mixing oil with the fuel. But some corded electrics also cultivate competently, and all eliminate a gas engine's pull-starting and upkeep.

Whichever tiller type you have, these steps will help protect your roughly $200 to $300 investment:

When the yard-care season begins:

  • For four-stroke, gas-powered tillers, be sure the oil level is at or near the full mark. Add more if necessary, but don't overfill. Too little oil can damage or destroy the engine by leaving parts unlubricated; too much can also underlubricate by causing air bubbles.
  • For two-stroke, gas-powered models, mix fresh gasoline and two-cycle oil according to the ratio recommended in the owner's manual. Too little oil can damage the engine by underlubricating vital parts; too much can cause poor running, excess exhaust emissions, and fouled spark plugs.
  • Check the air filter and clean or replace if necessary to keep the engine running efficiently.
  • Some models require adding grease to the transmission once a year; check the owner's manual.
  • Replace the spark plug on gas-powered tillers.
  • Remove the tines and sharpen them with a sharpening file.
  • Make sure pneumatic tires on larger tillers are properly inflated.
  • Lubricate control levers, connections, nuts, and bolts with silicone, and be sure they're secure and operating correctly.
  • Adjust handles and controls so they're easy to reach and use.

During the season:

  • Before each use, check all moving parts to see if they are operating properly.
  • Make sure nuts and bolts are tight.
  • After each use, thoroughly clean all dirt and debris from the tiller before it has a chance to harden. Let the tiller dry to prevent rust.

Before winter storage:

  • Disconnect the spark plug on gas models and thoroughly clean the tiller's outside surfaces, including the tines and wheels or tires.
  • For gas-powered models, add stabilizer to the fuel to distribute the stabilized mixture through the fuel lines and carburetor.
  • Hang or store the tiller according to the manufacturer's directions.
   

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