If you don’t know how to drive a small zero-turn your lawn may end up looking like wild hogs played soccer on your lawn.
Do you need a zero-turn mower?
Update 2021: Almost three million people have read this article over the last 8 years. There have been some significant changes made to homeowner zero-turns in the last three years so it’s time to update this article!
In this article on zero-turn mowers I am going to:
- Help you determine if a Zero-Turn is what you need.
- Help you determine if a residential zero-turn is what you need.
- Help you determine if a landowner zero-turn is what you need.
- Tell you the real truth about saving time with a zero-turn.
I like zero-turns! I have owned many over years from a 30 inch Dixon to a $45,000 Kut-Kwick Super Slope Master. They are fun and enjoyable to use.
But they are not for every yard. Please read this entire article to see if a zero-turn mower is for you!
When you decide that a zero-turn mower is the best choice for you check out this article: The Best Residential Zero Turn Mowers 2021
Is a Zero-Turn what you need?
Everyone has been trying to tell you that a zero-turn mower is what you need to mow your lawn. The advertising tells you that you can mow your lawn in half the time. The dealers tell you they have the best zero-turn mower. But zero-turns or a brand from your local dealer may not be the best answer you. Why? Because you have to learn how to drive one so you can mow your lawn without tearing it up. Many versions especially the inexpensive, homeowner models do not work on slopes, ditches or hills. They are designed to mow healthy, flat lawns and little else. If you work them too hard the drive systems may fail prematurely. They are more expensive than lawn tractors to buy and they can be more expensive to repair. A 42-inch residential zero-turn that uses the same deck as your $1800 lawn tractor is $2800 or more. A good estate (landowner) zero-turn that will actually cut your mowing time in half is anywhere from $3200 to $7,000. So, let’s go through the facts and fiction about zero-turns.
Zero turns are made for one purpose only, mowing grass. They mow quickly and will save you time trimming around obstacles. A 42-inch residential zero-turn is NOT designed to pull things. Yes, some have a hitch and you can pull a small yard cart or spreader but you will destroy the transmissions in them if you try to pull loads of dirt, firewood, or a leaf vacuum regularly. (There are models with heavier transmissions that cost $4000 and up) Most are not balanced properly to use baggers on slopes and require expensive counterweights in the front.
Am I an Expert at Zero-Turns?
Yes and No. I was one of the first commercial lawn care businesses in the Chicago area to start using zero-turns back in the early ’90s. By 1996 I was using crews of 2 people with zero-turns to do more work than my competitors were doing with crews of 7 using conventional Toro Groundsmasters and commercial walk-behind mowers. I have owned zero-turns as small as a Dixon 30 inch and as large as the $45,000 (Kut-Kwik SuperSlopemaster.)
I have hundreds of hours actually driving zero-turn mowers. I am particularly fond of stand-on models. Many of the problems with zero-turns that I will caution you about I have experienced myself. I have had them slide down slopes and into ponds. I have knocked the decks completely off from hitting obstacles too hard. I have owned a few that I would NEVER recommend to anyone and a few that are the best mowers on the market. Currently: I sold the lawn care business a while back and moved to Iowa but I still use zero-turns on my own yard. Here is a collage of mowers I have owned over the years: Mowers I have Owned
I am not an engineer, but I can talk about the physics and practical reasons why zero-turns act the way they do. I’ve known many of the original engineers over the years (for example, Dane Scag and Gary Kunz) and we have spent many hours discussing the fine points of mowers. For example, a 2-inch shift in where the engine is located on a residential zero-turn means a 50% difference in traction, steering and digging up your yard. I can explain why the original Dixon ZTR was one of the best residential zero-turns and why it’s no longer made.
The real truth about saving time with a zero-turn.
The general advertising states you can cut your mowing time in half using a zero-turn mower instead of a traditional riding lawn tractor. That is partially true.
– The maneuverability of zero-turn mowers allows you to easily mow around trees, flower beds, and other obstacles in your yard more easily than a riding lawn tractor. Not having to back up and go forward or making multiple circles around a bush does save time. Compared to a conventional lawn tractor like a Craftsman or John Deere, this can save you a lot of time.
-There are two styles of residential zero-turn mowers, mid-mount, and front mount. With mid-mount zero-turn mowers, the deck sits under the mower, like a lawn tractor. They are the most common but they do not eliminate trimming completely. In fact, they leave just as much grass to trim as your conventional lawn tractor. Front Mount zero turn mowers, where the deck sticks out the front of the unit do trim better than your old lawn tractor. They will get under fences, under bushes, and around poles easier and faster than mid-mount ZTR’s.
-Residential zero-turn mowers under $3000 typically use the same decks as lawn tractors. What that means is they don’t mow any faster in a straight line as a good yard tractor. The time savings comes from their ability to turn around faster and make tighter turns when trimming. Most residential zero-turn mowers over $3400 have fabricated decks and are designed to cut grass faster than traditional lawn tractors. With a fabricated deck zero-turn, your straight-line mowing speed is improved. When you move up to these higher-priced units you will see significant time savings. For example, a typical lawn tractor cuts at a speed of 3-4 mph. A residential zero-turn will cut about 3-5. If you spend the extra money to buy a landowner grade though you can increase your mowing speed to 6-8 mph.
– So where does the advertised time savings really happen? Once you learn how to turn your new zero-turn without making holes in your lawn you can “zero-turn” on the ends of your long open areas. When you get to the end of your yard and turn around to make the next pass, you can literally spin 180 degrees and come right back without having to back up and cut the strips of grass you would miss when making the turn with a lawn tractor. No more three-point turns.
When you are just mowing large areas back and forth even the residential zero-turns save time on the ends this way. There are also advanced techniques like the “reverse-zero turn-forward” maneuver that will cut seconds out of each turn-around. Over a full day of mowing, those seconds can really add up.
In summary, Inexpensive residential mid-mount zero-turns do not cut better or trim closer than lawn tractors. But once you move up to the fabricated deck models your speed and efficiency increase and you can see significant time savings. With heavy-duty transmissions, tall rear tires, and 48-54 inch fabricated decks designed to mow at 6-8 mph you can easily reduce your mowing time by half or more!
Time Savings – Residential Example:
I’ll use my lawn as an example. I have a one-acre flat lawn with over 40 trees, and other landscape features to mow around:
- Using a 22-inch walk-behind it takes me about 3 1/2 hours to mow and trim.
- With a conventional 42-inch lawn tractor I can cut that down to 1 1/2 hours. About 20 minutes of that is trimming.
- With a 42 inch mid-mount residential zero-turn I can mow my yard in less than 1 hour. About 15 minutes of that is trimming!
- With a 42 inch Walker Front Deck Rider I can mow the lawn in about 45 minutes. About 5 minutes for trimming.
Time Savings – Commercial Example:
Cemeteries have a lot of trimming. A typical job that requires 40 man-hours using conventional lawn tractors can be reduced to 25 man-hours with commercial mid-mount ZTR’s and even more with a front deck zero-turn. The main time savings is mowing speed and maneuverability. Trimming takes about the same amount of time. By switching to front-mount ZTR’s that original 40-hour job can be reduced to 15 hours. Both mowing time and trimming time is reduced.
Is a residential zero-turn really what you need?
Limitations for all small residential zero-turns.
Small zero-turns can be fun and can save you time mowing your yard but they may not be the best choice for you. For example, an entry-level Craftsman Zero Turn is a good dependable zero-turn mower but half the reviews I read are negative? Why? Because the owner did not understand the limitations of a residential zero-turn, not because the machine is bad. If those reviewers had purchased any other brand they would say the same things about them.
Mother Earth News is another good example. They compared a $2400 Craftsman against zero-turn mowers costing $6000 to $17,000 and then rated it poorly without explaining the differences.
Consumer Reports also wants you to be very clear about the limitations of small zero-turns and specifically cautions about using a zero-turn on slopes.
1. If you have never owned a zero-turn there is a learning curve. They are easy to use and will save you time, but it will take you a couple of mowings to get the most out of your mower. Be very careful when you first start so you don’t slam the deck into trees, foundations, rock walls, etc. Practice going around objects closely with something that will not damage the mower before you go out and mow your yard. Take the plastic garbage can, a 5-gallon bucket, or a bale of hay and practice trimming around them at first. If you think you are getting good, lay a bag of dog food, a sack of flour, or sugar on the ground and see if you can mow around it without ripping it open. Learn to keep the zero-turns rear wheels moving when practicing these maneuvers. Letting the inside wheel stop when turning will tear up your lawn.
After you master the art of driving one there are advanced driving techniques like the reverse zero-turn that will decrease your mowing time even more. These techniques are easy to learn.
2. Small zero-turns ride rough. On your typical mole-infested lawn most women have to wear a sports bra to be comfortable driving one. You need a zero-turn that weighs over 700 lbs before they start to smooth out. Even then, many of the higher weight, higher cost zero-turns also mow faster so the ride gets rougher again. More and more brands are now offering thick suspension seats and suspension platforms that smooth out the ride. The Toro MyRide is one of the best.
Note: It’s actually pretty common for people’s hands to go numb on a ZTR. You are not used to holding your arms out and having the weight of your arms resting on your fingers. That’s why many come standard with armrests. Try wearing wrist braces and do some strength exercises for your wrists and fingers. You can buy medical wrist braces at your pharmacy or sports braces at the sporting goods store. They both will work for you. Squeeze a tennis ball for a few weeks can help too.
3. Small zero-turns that are weighted so they won’t pop wheelies going uphill, but will easily get stuck in sand, mud puddles, and loose soil. If there is no turf, the front casters of a small zero-turn will plow into the soil and get stuck. Mid-priced zero-turns use larger front and rear tires that eliminate the problem.
4. If you can lift the front end of your zero-turn by yourself don’t try mowing up a hill with it. There is a fine line between designing a small zero-turn that will turn in loose sand and one that won’t tip over backward going up a hill. Brands of small zero-turns that will turn well in loose soil usually won’t go up a hill without the front wheels coming off the ground.
5. Zero-turn mowers in general don’t turn well going downhill and small zero-turns will not turn going downhill. With wet turf, drought-dry turf, and even good turf, the rear wheels can’t always get enough traction to turn the unit when it’s pointed downhill. Slow down before you go down the hill or mow the hill diagonally going down. When mowing with a small zero-turn across a slope they have a tendency to slide down the slope. This can be very embarrassing and very deadly when you slide into the pond or you slide off the lawn and over a landscape wall. NEVER, I repeat never mow a slope with a pond or drop-off at the bottom of the slope. Aways stay two-three mower widths away from the pod or drop-off. Even the most expensive ZTR’s can lose traction and slide down the slope. Plan on using a walk-behind mower or creating a nature area for those types of slopes.
Steering wheel ZTR’s are better for slopes. They will turn as well or better than your lawn tractor. They also handle slopes better than lawn tractors because both rear wheels are driven all the time.
6. Small zero-turns may tip over backward going uphill. They are much worse with a bagger attached. A good rule of thumb is to try backing up the hill with your zero-turn. If the rear wheels lose traction and start to spin the slope is too steep to mow up. If you have a walkout basement mow the slope diagonally – going downhill! Yes, it takes more time, but it is safer.
7. Small zero-turns are delivered with too much air in the tires. Read the manual and adjust the air pressure to 12-14 lbs.
8. Small zero-turns push hard when the engine is not running. The two transmission release levers may be in front of the transmission instead of on the rear frame like your yard tractor. There are two release levers. Even with the transmissions released they can still be hard to move. If you have to move one without the engine running I find that tying a piece of rope to the front of the zero-turn and pulling it is easier than trying to push it around.
9. Small zero-turns will tear up your lawn. The least expensive ones have rounded tries and tend to dig into your turf easily. Wider, flat tires work the best.
10. Small zero-turns do not have good traction. The turning traction is all on the rear wheels. They can be hard to turn on dry grass or wet grass.
11. Many retailers and most dealers have a 30-day return policy. You have a very short window to decide if you bought the right mower.
12. Many cheap zero-turn mowers do not mow in reverse. They will zero-turn (pull one lever back to rotate one tire in reverse while the other tire goes forward) but the deck shuts off when you pull both levers back. I don’t recommend disabling this feature.
13. Small zero-turn mowers will tear up and scratch anything behind them. I have a hitch on my Dixon ZTR and my wife has had it stuck in the chain-link fence around the dog yard dozens of times. Look for a zero-turn with a rounded rear frame. Also don’t buy a small zero-turn where the engine sticks out farther than the rear frame. If you get too close and hit something with the rear you can easily damage your engine.
14. Residential zero-turn mowers should not be used to pull anything over 200 lbs. Most zero turn mowers under $3000 use Hydro-Gear EZT transmissions are not designed to pull a yard cart full of dirt, a sweeper full of green grass, or especially a leaf vac. That is why most of the cheaper models do not come with a rear hitch. The transmissions are designed to give you years of use mowing your yard but they will burn out quickly if you try to pull loads like a yard cart filled with dirt or a leaf vac. If a dealer tries to tell you his zero-turn can pull a leaf vac and the mower is priced under $3000 ask him to include a lifetime warranty on the transmissions. If you would like a more detailed explanation just ask in the comments below.
15. Be very careful if the zero-turn only has great reviews. There should be reviews where people bought the wrong machine and didn’t like it or didn’t understand how to use it. Note: If the unit only has great reviews I would suspect there are paid reviewers writing the reviews.
16. Zero-turns are finish cut mowers, not field/pasture mowers. Even the $5000 to $14,000 commercial models are designed to mow your lawns beautifully but there are very few that work well on grass/weeds over 6 inches. The long grass can wrap around the components underneath (spindles) and ruin the bearing or cause enough drag to burn out the deck belts. They don’t like stumps, rocks, dirt mounds, or ant hills any better than your lawn tractor. If you want to mow the pasture when the grass is over 6 inches you will have to mow the same area at least twice.
Note. Pastures, fields, paddocks, and timber with grass and brush taller than 12 inches require a rotary cutter (bush hog) or rough cut mower. Yes, I know many of the mid-priced ZTR’s appear heavy duty enough but please don’t blame the mower or the brand when your mower requires $500 worth of repairs because you needed to mow your horse pasture. I will always suggest a rough cut mower like the Acrease rough cut or a tractor-mounted “Bush Hog” brush mower to mow pastures and fields.
17. This bears repeating: NEVER, I repeat never mow a slope with a pond or drop-off at the bottom of the slope. Even the most expensive ZTR’s can lose traction and slide down the slope. Plan on a walk-behind mower or nature area for those types of slopes.
How do you actually drive a zero-turn?
If you have never driven a zero-turn before they do take some practice. If you don’t learn to drive it properly you will tear large divots out of your lawn. Why? Zero-turn mowers do not have a differential and it is up to you to keep the wheels moving when making a turn. If you allow one wheel to stop during the turn it skids and digs a hole in your lawn. This divoting is made worse on the cheaper residential zero-turns that have cheap rounded tires installed. Lawn tractors have a differential that allows one rear wheel to travel at a different speed on a turn. In other words, it allows the inside wheel on a turn to slow down but continues to roll so it does not tear up your lawn. Depending on you and the zero-turn you are using it can take 5 minutes to 5 hours to become proficient.
Here is a video of how a differential works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F40ZBDAG8-o
How exactly does a zero-turn mower save you time compared to a lawn tractor?
Still undecided? Here is another article to help you: The Best Zero Turn Mower Buyer’s Guide – The best ZTR for you is not that hard to figure out..
Is this enough information? When you decide that a zero-turn mower is the best choice for you check out this article: The Best Residential Zero Turn Mowers 2021
Feel free to ask questions or leave comments below.