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Winterize your mower now so it works in the spring

Neglect your riding mower and you'll be sorry come mowing season

Published: October 09, 2014 04:30 PM

Once you’ve paid the typical $1,500 to $4,000 for a lawn tractor or zero-turn-radius rider, you want to make sure you maintain it well enough for the machine to last the expected 20 years. These tips from Peter Sawchuk, Consumer Reports’ chief tester of outdoor power equipment, will help keep your machine running well through next season.

Fuel gets first priority. Unlike walk-behind mowers, there’s no easy way to drain the fuel to protect your engine. One option is to add a fuel stabilizer designed to counteract the effects of ethanol to the gas and then run the tractor a few minutes to work the stabilized gas through the lines. Then top off the tank so there's no room for condensation. “You could also run the machine dry,” says Sawchuk, “but be sure it’s stabilized gas you have in there—so that it’s in the lines—or you’re not doing your machine any favors.”

Give your battery a charge. The charging system on most lawn tractors or riders isn’t capable of fully recharging a low battery, so you have to keep your battery fully charged, or at least periodically recharge it. Neglect this chore, and your battery could fail sooner than you expect. Your best bet: Even if you have to store the tractor outdoors, buy a trickle charger for this type of machine and just keep the battery indoors. This matters most when temperatures outside go below zero, a range that compromises a battery’s ability to recharge.

Hour meter on Husqvarna YTH22V46

Some toil for the oil. Depending on how much you used the tractor or rider over the season, you’ll need to at least check the oil and fill it to the “full” mark. Many tractors and riders have hour meters; if not, you can buy one separately. Either way, the manual will tell you how often (in operating hours) to change the oil, along with what grade to use. If you can’t recall when you last changed the oil, change it now; most riding mowers have a drain plug that’s easy to access. Whenever you change the oil, replace the oil filter too.

Decked out and clean. Optimally, you should clean clippings from the deck every time you mow and the washout ports on many riding mowers make this easy. If you haven't done this all season and the clippings are heavily packed, the washout port won’t suffice.You'll have to scrape them off by hand with a plastic putty knife. “If there’s only a little bit,” says Sawchuk, “you can break loose the encrusted clippings by mowing a pile of dry leaves, which will scour out the bottom of the deck.” Once you’re done, this is the time to remove the blades and get them sharpened.

Give your tires a pressure check. You should check tire pressure every spring anyway—soft tires make steering less responsive and also force your engine to work harder. If you didn’t do it then, do it now. Inflate them up to normal, as the manual specifies, but it doesn’t hurt to overinflate by a few pounds; there’ll invariably be some loss of tire pressure over the winter. Neglect this step, and you could be replacing a damaged tire come spring, when you expected to get out and mow.

If this is your annual tune-up, there are other things that need occasional attention or replacement. For example, some components of the steering mechanism come with grease fittings, as your manual will identify; add grease using a small grease gun. Your air filter needs swapping out about once a year. So does your fuel filter, though you’ll need to clamp off the fuel line to do this without spraying yourself with gas. Again, your manual will specify the proper schedule and procedure for that model.

We’ve tested more than 70 lawn tractors and riders, along with almost 100 walk-behind mowers, and we’ll be adding more to our lawn mower Ratings by next spring. Be sure to check out our buying guide before you shop.

—Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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