Choosing A Zero Turn Mower

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Easily maneuverable and time reducing, zero turn mowers are the fastest-growing category of riding mower today.  Zero turn mowers turn quickly thanks to independent rear-wheel drives (hydraulically operated transaxles or wheel motors) and front caster-style wheels.  You can cut tight contours, such as around trees and garden beds, without having to reverse.  Zero-turns also have a visibility advantage over tractors, as there is nothing in front to obstruct your view.

To control ground speed and direction, most zero turn mowers have highly responsive lever controls instead of foot pedals and a steering wheel. Push more on the right and you turn left. Pull back on the left at the same time, and you turn 360 degrees in a counterclockwise direction. Close cutting is on the left, where the discharge chute is not in the way. Recently, Toro has introduced steering wheel zero turn mowers, where the operator uses a steering wheel and foot pedals to control the speed and direction. It’s a great option if you’re not comfortable with levers, giving a more intuitive feel to steering.

Residential and commercial zero turn mowers are grass cutting machines, but they are also quite versatile. Most come with a standard hitch that allows you to add a number of accessories such bagging systems, dethatchers, sprayers, aerators and utility carts, just to name a few.  Take a look at this video to see more options.

What to Look for When Buying a Zero-Turn Mower

There are significant differences in performance and price between zero-turn models.  The difference is even greater between residential and commercial models.  Your best bet is to buy the best mower you can afford, so in order to be a smart buyer you need to know what makes a quality machine.

The most important factors that determine durability are overall sturdiness of the frame and deck construction, a high-quality engine, and the load capacity of the drive system.  A higher quality machine with lower maintenance costs and a longer life span may have a total annual cost that is less than a lower priced machine.  Relative sturdiness is evident in a side-by-side inspection.  Compare such specifications as tubular-steel frame dimension, gauge of steel (the lower the gauge number, the thicker the material), and the protection surrounding the rear-mounted engine. Video – Zero Turn Mower Comparison

Durability and Sturdiness

Commercial-grade mowers typically have fabricated decks, made of several pieces of continuously welded heavy gauge steel.  Many residential models have stamped decks, made by forming lighter-gauge steel in a press.  Some decks combine both stamping and welding to approach the durability of a true fabricated deck.  Anti-scalping wheels—small wheels that raise the deck on uneven terrain to prevent the blades from making contact with the ground (scalping)—are common on decks 48-inches or wider.  One, two, or three rollers may be employed, and are sometimes made adjustable to suit different cutting height ranges.

If your lawn has some rough patches with stones and stumps, opt for a rugged deck, which is reinforced with a welded-on steel bar.

With the maneuverability of zero-turn mowers, the rear engine is vulnerable to damage. Look for a model with a solid frame.

Most stamped decks on zero-turn mowers have the same cutting chamber depth on the left and right.  A tunnel design maximizes efficiency by tapering the deck so it is taller on the discharge side, where the volume of clippings cut by three blades is the greatest.  This translates into finer clippings when and more efficient side-discharged or bagging.

To minimize noise and vibration choose an overhead valve (OHV) or overhead cam (OHC) engine design. For durability, look at the engine brands on professional equipment then compare to residential-model engine brands.

To minimize noise and vibration choose an overhead valve (OHV) or overhead cam (OHC) engine design. For durability, look at the engine brands on professional equipment then compare to residential-model engine brands.

Twin-cylinder OHV engines, widely used on zero-turn-radius mowers, are more powerful, run smoother (less vibration), and are more durable than single-cylinder models.  Do not place too much value on horsepower ratings, which range from 15 to 24 mph.  Manufacturers size horsepower based on the model and cutting deck.  As for engine brand, commercial mowers are a good indicator of which engine brands are the most durable.

Commercial mowers use separate, heavy-duty hydraulic pumps and wheel motors.  Almost all residential zero-turn mowers use less complex, less expensive transaxles more suited to the vehicle’s weight and service purpose. The hydraulic pump, motor and reduction gears are in a single, sealed house.  The quality of these components varies, with the quality, size, and price of the mower.

The cutting height should be easy to adjust.  A foot assist is easier than a hand lever and allows you to quickly raise the deck for a short period of time, over an exposed tree root for example, without taking a hand off the drive levers.  Avoid units where you have to get off the machine and turn a crank to raise and lower the deck.

Wider tires distribute the vehicle’s weight over a larger area and thus are less damaging to the turf.  They can also offer better traction depending on tread pattern, and four-ply rated tires are more durable than two-ply ones.  Tire sizes are determined by the load rating on the axles in the transmission, and are defined by three numbers representing the diameter, width, and wheel size (i.e.: 18″ x 9.5″ x 8″), however you sometimes may only find the numbers for diameter and width as these are the most relevant.


If  you’re planning to mow often and for longer periods of time, comfort is important. Do not forget to compare seat comfort and the ease of adjustment (when there is more than one user).  Is the control panel easy to see and reach from your seat?  Is there an hour meter to help make it easier to follow a recommended maintenance schedule. Lastly, if accessorizing is important to you, make sure the manufacturer recommends or sells the accessories you want before you buy the mower. A sunshade for those hot days, or even a step-kit if you need a little more assistance getting on and off. Your local outdoor equipment dealer will be a helpful resource to find the best riding mower for your needs. Happy mowing.