How Does a Zero-Turn Mower Work?

No one likes mowing the lawn. Well, there’s probably someone out there who does (not judging). As for the rest of us, the faster we can finish the deed, the better. Any sort of device or technology that helps make life easier is undoubtedly welcome. Zero-turn mowers do just that. So, how does a zero turn mower work, exactly? Join us as we break it down for you.

What is a Zero Turn Mower?

Before we get into how they work, we should start with a little intro about what a zero turn mower is. There is a simple explanation. Zero-turn mowers can turn in one spot – 360 degrees – with no forward or backward movement needed whatsoever.

The point is to maximize efficiency by adding a level of precision you can’t get with other types of ride-on mowers. Using less space to make a turn means saving time. This also allows you to get off the mower as quickly as possible and back to enjoying life.

The Explanation of “How Does a Zero-Turn Mower Work?”

There are a few main differences between zero-turn lawnmowers and traditional mowers. We’ll go over the big ones below, and also explain how they can affect the mowing process in general.

The lap-Bars

Zero Turn Mower with Lap Bars
ZTR with Lap Bars

You might be a little confused when you hop on to a zero turn mower for the first time. You’ll see two levers in front of you where you might be expecting a steering wheel. Models with a steering wheel also exist – we’ll talk about those a little later – but the vast majority feature what are called “lap bars.”

The lap-bar controls are specially designed to work with the rear-wheel steering of zero-turn lawnmowers. To operate the mower, you push both levers forward to move forward and pull both back to move in reverse. Push or pull both levers an equal distance to move in a straight line.

The Wheels

The lap-bars are not the only difference compared to typical ride-on mowers. Most of the magic happens in the rear wheels. The back wheels control the steering, which allows zero turn mowers to pivot in one spot.

We all know the fun part of these mowers is the turning. The lap-bars allow you to control each wheel independently from one another. To perform a perfect zero-turn, all you need to do is pull one lever back while pushing the other ahead. Pulling the left one back and pushing the right one forward will turn the mower to the left. Do the opposite for the right turn.

It’s also important to note that just because you can perform a zero-turn, it doesn’t mean you have to. To gently turn while maintaining forward motion, push one of the lap-bars forward more than the other. Push the left bar further ahead to turn right and vice versa.

We can’t completely answer the question of “How does a zero turn mower work?” without mentioning the front wheels. They’re the final ingredient that makes the entire system work as well as it does. They move freely, allowing them to pivot as needed.

Think of the wheels on a shopping cart. They spin around loosely. They’re not connected to any steering mechanism or drive train whatsoever. They make sure your turns are as smooth and tight as possible without damaging the grass.

How Does a Zero-Turn Mower Work to Make Your Life Easier?

A traditional ride-on mower utilizes a front-wheel steering system, not unlike what you see in an average car or truck. Those systems require you to maintain forward motion to perform a turn, which causes your front-end to be in a much different spot than when you began your turn.

Since mowing involves precision, turning the old-fashioned way adds extra time to every turn. You need to drive past your ideal turning spot by at least a full mower’s length, if not more, to ensure you’re in the proper position to start the next section of the lawn.

A zero-turn mower eliminates this extra time by keeping you in the right spot. As soon as you finish one strip of grass, swing around, and you’ll be perfectly positioned to begin the next. The bigger the lawn, the more turns you’ll have to make. That extra 20-30 seconds each time adds up quickly.

They also save time when maneuvering around obstacles — no more switching from forward to reverse six times to get around a rock or tree. A zero-turn mower will swing around any object flawlessly, even those that are oddly shaped.

Disadvantages of Zero-Turn Mowers

Most zero turn mowers, especially those with rear-wheel steering, are considerably larger than the average residential ride-on. This means that most of them are not suited for small lawns. You’ll typically see them in use on large commercial or industrial properties.

Remember the free-spinning wheels we mentioned earlier? While those are great at helping to achieve a genuine zero-turn, they have one glaring flaw – slopes. Even gentle slopes can cause massive problems for these mowers. With no control over the front wheels, gravity will pull them down.

Once you start going down a hill on one, that’s the direction you’ll be going until you make it to the bottom. Trying to turn on a slope could also lead to tipping over.

The Inventor of Zero-Turn Mowers

Max Swisher is the man most widely credited with the invention of the zero-turn mower. Legend has it that he despised mowing so much that he once tied a self-propelled mower to a tree with a rope. The mower made continuous circles in an ever-shrinking diameter as the rope wrapped around the tree – quite a genius idea.

Eventually, in 1956, he created the rear-steering system we commonly see used in zero-turn mowers to this day. There are some people out there who dispute that Max is the real creator, arguing that a Mr. John Regier invented the technology in 1963. Without these guys, we wouldn’t even be asking how does a zero turn mower work.

The world may never know the absolute truth about who invented the zero-turn mower. One thing is for sure; whoever did create it made life easier for countless people across the globe.

Steering Wheel Zero-Turn Radius (ZTR) Mowers

Zero Turn Mower with Steering Wheel
ZTR with Steering Wheel

Although less common, steering wheel zero-turn mowers are becoming more popular because of their superior ability to handle slopes compared to lap-bar models. Steer wheel variants control the front wheels instead of the back. They do this by including two transmissions to control each wheel independently.

The disadvantage here is the higher cost of maintenance due to the more sophisticated technology. Still, if you have a smaller yard, a steering wheel model might be best for you. They’re typically available in smaller sizes and can better handle uneven terrain.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to note that zero-turn mowers can be quite expensive. We think the time saved over the lifetime of your mower is well worth the initial investment, but others may feel differently. On the other hand, if you’re purchasing a mower for a large commercial property, a zero turn mower is a no brainer. The reduction in labor expenses will more than make up for the initial costs.

Hopefully, we were able to answer your question of “How does a zero turn mower work?” As the technology becomes cheaper, you’ll likely see more and more zero-turn mowers being used everywhere you look. They may eventually phase-out standard ride-on mowers in the not too distant future.

Whatever happens, there will always be more grass to mow. We should all be thankful for the people out there working to make the task more bearable for everyone.

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