Whether your mower, lawn tractor, or zero-turn-radius riding mower is new or old, some midseason maintenance can keep it cutting cleanly and reliably for years to come. Otherwise, you may face the same situation of one Keith Walendowski of Milwaukee, who shot his Lawn-Boy mower because it wouldn't start. (In all fairness, here is one opinion that insists the mower got what was coming to it.)
I asked Peter Sawchuk, our lead tester of outdoor power equipment, about the best ways to extend the life of a lawn mower or tractor, including zero-turn-radius mowers. They're a smarter, cheaper, and safer alternative to going postal in your backyard:
Clean the deck regularly. Make it part of your mowing routine to wash out the underside of the deck with a hose after each mowing. Clipping buildup reduces mulching performance and corrodes the metal over time, particularly when those clippings include fertilizer. Do it immediately after mowing, before clippings dry and harden.
Many tractors and zero-turn-radius mowers come with washout ports that accept a hose. Some models also accept retrofit ports. (Among walk-behind mowers, newer Toros are among the models that include washout ports.) If you have to wash out a riding mower manually, get a set of automotive ramps and simply drive the front of the tractor onto the ramps for easier access beneath.
An extra tip: After washing the underside of the deck, consider spraying it with an organic-based, non-toxic lubricant to help keep clippings from sticking next time around.
Keep blades sharp. Especially during the hotter, dryer part of the season, sharpen the blade(s) or have it done. Optimally, you'll do it at the start of the season and monthly thereafter—more often if you do lots of heavy cutting. Dull blades damage the grass as they cut, leaving unsightly brown-tipped grass in their wake. You'll also pay more in gas, since dull blades make your mower work harder and longer. Buying spare blades means your lawn won't overgrow while you get the first sharpened.
Check the oil. Walk-behind mower engines typically give out after 150 to 200 hours of use—or about eight to 10 years. But you can easily cut that lifespan if you let the oil level on four-stroke engines get too low on the dipstick or don't change the oil as often as the manufacturer recommends. Each time you mow, check the oil before you begin, and add more when the level drop to halfway point or lower. But filling above the "full" mark can also shorten engine life by causing the oil to foam and fail to lubricate critical parts.
Check the tires. For a tractors or riding mower, midseason is also the time of year to check tire pressure. As with car tires, those on mowers gradually lose air even without an actual leak, making the machine harder to steer and damaging the tires if air pressure gets too low. A rear tire that's low can also affect traction, making it easier to tear grass or slide on inclines.
Consider a new mower if your old one is tired. As with appliances and most products we test, it typically makes sense to replace rather than repair if the fix costs more than 50 percent of what you'll pay for a comparable new model. A timely benefit to newer gas mowers and tractors: They tend to run more efficiently and use less gas. If you're considering an electric mower for a smaller property, check with your local government for trade-in programs (like this recent one in Chicago) that let you swap a gas-powered mower for a less-polluting new battery-powered one.—Ed Perratore
Essential information: We tested more than 70 mowers and tractors (including zero-turn-radius mowers) in time for the early mowing season, but you can still find models in stores if you need to shop now. Here's advice on mower types, mowing safety, emissions, and robotic mowers. View Ratings of push and self-propelled mowers and tractors and our repair-or-replace charts (available to subscribers).