Do-it-yourself maintenance helps you save on lawn mower repairs

Ken Spivey is president of Spivey Mower, a family business on 3645 N 50th St. in Tampa. He says he began at the age of 2.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Ken Spivey is president of Spivey Mower, a family business on 3645 N 50th St. in Tampa. He says he began at the age of 2.

It's summertime. The sun is blazing and sprinklers are gushing over the lush green plain of your front lawn, which stretches skyward, just begging you to drag out that rusty mower and take a blade to it. But as any mechanic will tell you, a piece of equipment that has been neglected for months is bound to try to get even with its owner. Engines won't start. Or they cut off after a short time. Smoke billows from the motor. The whole machine vibrates excessively. The grass cuts unevenly, or not at all. These are some of the common problems with which local lawn mower repair shops are inundated this time of year. Call around and you are bound to be told that the wait time for repairs stretches for weeks.

Repair specialists agree that the best way to avoid costly lawn mower repairs is simply to take proper care of the equipment. Most repairs that local shop owners receive can be attributed to people not changing the oil, not keeping the air filter clean, using the wrong kind of fuel, or otherwise not caring for the engine.

"It's hardly ever the lawn mower's fault. It's the owner's fault."

That's George Pickelman, the owner, for 32 years, of Pickelman's Lawn Mower Repair in St. Petersburg. More often than not, neglecting basic maintenance leads to a host of problems, he says.

Donald Spivey, owner of Spivey Mowers in Tampa, concurs.

"I deal with machines that are assassinated," he said. "They did not die of natural causes."

Here are a few simple things you can do to extend your mower's lifespan along with a few suggestions about what you need to do if you do start to have problems.

A good mower needs good fuel to thrive

About 80 percent of the repairs Spivey sees are attributable to owners using the wrong kind of fuel in their mower. Ethanol-based gas eats away at the lawn mower's innards, Spivey says. When the equipment is left to sit for a number of months before its next use, those problems can come about suddenly.

"The problem with ethanol is it destroys rubber components," Spivey said.

Running your mower on ethanol-based fuel significantly cuts the engine's life span. A well-maintained mower is likely to last between 10 to 15 years. But a steady diet of ethanol-based gas almost guarantees that you will need to buy a new one within a year or two, Spivey says.

Spivey recommends using gasoline with an 89 or 93 octane rating, if you can afford it. The fuel is slicker, which means it won't hang around on your engine valves and other internal parts, eating away at the rubber.

If you know your mower is going to sit for an extended period of time, run the engine until all the fuel is burned off. Gasoline that is more than 30 days old can cause the engine not to start.

Start simple and consult resources

The do-it-yourself approach works best if your problem is easily diagnosed.

If you are mechanically literate, the Web can bring you numerous videos and fact pages on how to conduct basic repairs on your mower. These include tutorials on basic engine maintenance and how-to videos on troubleshooting common mower problems.

Try to identify the problem before taking your mower to a repair shop. Simple things like replacing the engine oil, tugging on the brake cable before pulling the starter rope, and emptying the engine of leftover fuel are sometimes all that are needed.

Carburetors, damaged parts and more

Basic repairs to a lawn mower will typically run between $50 and $70, depending on the source of the problem.

Often the issue is in the carburetor, which needs to be cleaned periodically. Old fuel and various debris can collect inside gaskets in the carburetor. Cleaning the gaskets is a simple process, but one that should be carried out only by an experienced mechanic, as it involves disconnecting the fuel tank from the rest of the mower.

Fouled spark plugs are another common source of lawn mower problems. Old plugs need to be removed and examined for rust or other damage. Mechanics can also test the plugs to ensure that they still produce spark. A new plug is fairly inexpensive and easily replaced.

An old engine air filter, clogged with grass and weeds, can also lead a mower not to start. Regularly replace the air filter, also an inexpensive item, to prevent the engine from choking.

When it's time to buy a new lawn mower

If your repair estimates range into the hundreds of dollars, it might be best to simply buy a new mower.

When buying a new mower, it is important to know what you are getting. Some make the mistake of putting their hands on the first mower they see when they walk into a box store.

"People buy a mower and no one helps them set it up," Spivey said. "There is no one there to educate them about the proper use of the equipment."

It is best to treat a lawn mower as you would any major purchase and shop around. Visit two or three locally owned lawn mower dealers and ask the owners what they might recommend for your needs. Different mowers work better depending on what kind of lawn you need to mow. You can also inquire about pricing and compare the brands between different shops to ensure you stay thrifty while getting the best product for your dollar.

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What tips do you have for saving money in this awful economy? Share your secrets for publication in a forthcoming feature. Send an email to heresthedeal@tampabay.com.

Do-it-yourself maintenance helps you save on lawn mower repairs 06/28/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 28, 2012 3:01pm]

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