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Preseason mower maintenance tips from the pros

It's a good time to check the oil, sharpen the blade, and replace parts

Last updated: March 16, 2016 02:00 PM

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The relatively mild winter, at least from the number of storms, means that your lawn could need mowing earlier this spring than last year. In other words, this is prime time to to get your mower or tractor ready so that it will start when you need it. Here’s how to get your gear in shape:

Fuel comes first

Any gas in your walk-behind mower’s fuel tank? If you added stabilizer before the winter, you should be able to start the mower right up. Similarly, if you ran the mower dry last fall, you can add stabilized gas now. Otherwise, siphon out the degraded gas before adding new. Tractors, with their larger engines, are less susceptible to fuel problems. Still, fuel up with gas to which you’ve added stabilizer.

Check or change oil

If you didn’t change the oil at the end of last season, do it now—a mower can overheat and fail prematurely from dirty or insufficient oil. For a mower, change the oil when the fuel tank is empty to avoid spilling. Position an auto-style drain pan beside the mower on the side of the dipstick cap. Remove the cap and tip the mower over the pan to drain the oil. Refill to the dipstick marking. A tractor needs an oil change only as specified in your manual. At the very least, check the level and add as necessary.

Sharpen those blades

Dull blades rip rather than slice the grass, and that makes your engine work harder than it needs to. To remove your mower’s blade, wear heavy leather gloves, remove the spark plug wire, and jam in a short 2x4 to keep the blade from turning as you loosen the bolts. (An outdoor-gear dealer will sharpen the blade for about $10.) Even tractor blades should be sharpened three times a year.

Mind the electrical

Your spark plug needs changing about every 100 hours of  operation; if not, it can affect engine startup and overall performance. If you don’t know when you last changed it, do it before using the mower. With the mower off, remove the spark-plug cap and use a socket wrench with a spark-plug socket to remove the old plug. Take it to an auto-parts store or outdoor-gear dealer and get a new one. For a tractor, most manuals instruct you to keep the battery indoors on a trickle charger. If you didn't, fully recharge the battery before starting the season, or you’ll reduce battery life. The engine alone can’t fully recharge the battery.

Change or clean filters

A dusty filter won’t prevent your mower or tractor from starting, but a clean one protects the engine. On your mower, it’s paper and can be removed in seconds. Take the old one to an outdoor power gear dealer if you’re not sure which one to get. For a tractor, replace your carburetor’s air filter if it’s paper. If it’s foam, wash it in soap and water. Rinse and squeeze it dry. Some manuals suggest you also oil a foam filter with engine oil. If so, squeeze the filter dry again before you reinstall it. Tractors have a fuel filter, too. Check your manual for the proper maintenance schedule and procedure.

Need a new mower or tractor?

We’ve completed our tests of 40 new walk-behind mowers, lawn tractors, and zero-turn-radius riders and have added their results to our lawn mower Ratings for a total of more than 175 models. Before you go shopping, check out our lawn mower buying guide for mowers, tractors, and riders.

—Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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