What are the advantages of a Zero Turn mower over a Riding Tractor mower?

zero turn mower is an advantage over riding tractor

The advantages a Zero Turn brings are significant advances in Productivity and Quality of Cut.

Customer testimonies

When we speak with new Z owners about how their Zero Turn compares to their previous lawn tractor we typically get the following feedback:

  • It has cut their time by half to two thirds. (what took 3 hours with the riding tractor is now taking between 60 and 90 minutes)
  • The quality of cut is smoother and cleaner.
  • The ride quality is rougher.

How and why is the cut time faster, the quality of cut better and the operator's ride quality worse?

To answer that question, let’s consider a few things:

The Cut Pattern

With a tractor, most people mow in circles which is inherently inefficient, as is all the backing up and turnarounds required to do a line pattern with a typical tractor. A zero turn is naturally efficient to cut a line pattern as turnarounds are quick. By mowing in straight lines the deck is cutting cleaner and more efficiently allowing faster clean cutting speeds.

You may have noticed when cutting with a tractor in a circle pattern, it is in the turns that sprigs and cut quality are at their worst. Cutting in straight lines makes it easy to keep the deck over uncut grass more of the time.

When mowing in circles the operator is constantly having to look for the edge between cut and uncut grass, constantly making adjustments and often finding the tractor will not turn tight enough to follow the edge, resulting in wasted time mowing over grass that has already been cut.

Mowing a line pattern it takes very little concentration to keep the mower on its straight line course. Even in the summer when the grass is thin and it’s hard to see the edge of the cut grass except from a distance you can still site the straight line from a distance and know exactly where you are supposed to be even though you can’t see the line immediately in front of the mower.

The line pattern, quick efficient turnarounds and increased clean cutting speed drastically reduce your cut time while requiring little concentration or mental fatigue from the operator. Sometimes it is assumed that if you are mowing wide open space with no trees or obstacles that there would be little benefit to having a zero turn. That's not the case at all, the faster cutting speeds of a zero turn can be even better utilized in those wide open spaces.

The Cut Quality

We already talked about cleaner cutting due to cutting a line pattern, but there is more. A front engine riding tractor has a pivoting front axle. This means if there is a high spot that passes under one of your front wheels then the axle will tilt to accommodate the contour, however the deck will not follow this change in angle of the front axle which will result in scalping.

Fixed Frame

But with most zero turns and all TORO zero turns they have a fixed frame. Meaning when a front wheel rolls over a high spot, it lifts not just the front axle but the whole mower including the deck.

This greatly reduces scalping issues leading to significantly better cut quality.

Blade Tip Speed

Tip speed is also part of the productivity and quality of cut equation. There is a law of diminishing returns at play in blade tip speed that results in an ideal blade speed of between 18,000 and 19,000 feet per minute. That's about 205 to 215 miles per hour.

Most zero turns and all Toro zero turns are engineered to perform in this range while most riding tractor blade tip speeds are significantly slower.

Ride Quality

It is mostly about operator comfort but it can also become a productivity issue if you are having to slow down because of the rough ride. Just like driving a car across a pothole or traffic bump, the faster you go the more it is going to jar you, and the same is true when going faster on a mower.

We regularly hear from customers that they love the increased speed and cut quality of their new zero turn but it is beating them to death. The best solution to this Poor Ride Quality is TORO's MyRIDE Operator Suspension System.

It would take a lot of words to explain exactly what it is, but let's just say you owe it to yourself to sit on a mower with this MyRIDE feature before making a buying decision. It is game changing comfort at a fraction of the price of back surgery.

What about Hills and Slopes?

Riding tractors and zero turns have two entirely different problems when traversing across slopes. Because of the riding tractor's pivoting front axle under the engine, this puts the pivoting point for this heaviest end of the machine right in the middle under the engine. If instead the front axle were fixed perpendicular to the engine then the pivoting point would be the down hill edge of the front downhill tire and it would not roll so easily, but that would lead to traction issues in the rear on uneven ground which is why front engine rider front axles are always designed to pivot.

Zero Turns on the other hand have the engine and drive tires on the same end of the machine which allows the frame to be fixed without creating traction issues. This makes the typical zero turn mower very resistant to rolling on its side, much more so than the typical riding tractor.

However, a zero turn has a new problem on hills that tractors don't. That problem is steering. With a riding tractor the operator can change the angle of the front wheels (via the steering wheel) to pull the front of the tractor up the hill.

With a zero turn you wield the nose of the machine with leverage from the rear of the machine. This is very similar to the way you wield the nose of a grocery cart with leverage on the grocery cart handle.

Imagine for a moment if you were pushing a grocery cart along a sidewalk that was sloped to the right. If you pushed equally on both sides of the handle then the grocery cart would run off the sidewalk to the right side. To make it stay on the sidewalk you would need to push harder on the right (downhill) side and may even need to pull back some on the left (uphill) side. Something you would do without even thinking about it is to spread your hands apart as far as possible to give you more leverage to more easily steer the grocery cart.

With a zero turn mower, the equivalent to spreading your hands apart on the grocery cart handle is spreading the rear tires further apart. This is why narrower zero turns, like a 32", are pathetic at handling hills. 42" machines tend to be mediocre on hills, and 48"+ machines tend to be excellent.

There are some other factors, like having a lower center of gravity and bigger tires. Another factor is how slippery the turf is. A zero turn mower always has better traction when the turf is dry and therefore challenging areas should be mowed when traction conditions are at their best, not first thing in the morning when there is dew on the grass.

What about towing yard equipment?

It is not unusual for customers to tell us they thought zero turn mowers were not supposed to be used to tow. The overwhelming majority of TORO zero turns include a towing hitch and those that don't include it already, have one available as an accessory. These mowers and hitches are appropriate for towing typical yard implements like aerators, yard trailers, etc. Like anything they have their limits and you shouldn't be launching boats with your lawnmower.

Learning to Drive a Zero Turn

Learning to drive a zero turn is sometimes a concern to riding mower owners considering the upgrade to a Z. Let me start by saying that if you were to pluck a person from a 3rd world country who had never driven any vehicle or equipment, then there is no doubt it would be far easier for them to learn to drive a zero turn than a riding tractor. But of course here in our world we have driven steering wheel equipment for years and years and a steering wheel is second nature to us.

Another thing that is second nature to us is the operation of a grocery cart. Navigating a zero turn is done with two control bars. Using these left and right control bars is nearly perfectly mimicked by the controlling of a grocery cart with the pushing and pulling that we do on the left and right side of a grocery cart handle.

We have taught hundreds of new users to drive a zero turn in our warehouse and most become comfortable with the controls in just a few minutes. One notable customer was a woman in her late 80's who loved mowing her yard but had lost much of the use of her feet and legs and was no longer able to safely operate a riding tractor. Within a couple of minutes she was comfortable on the zero turn and grinning from ear to ear because she could now mow again without needing to push any pedals.

Our experience has been that anyone who wants to learn to drive a zero turn can easily learn.

There is more to mower performance than just cut width and horsepower.

At the time of this writing Toro offers a 24.5 HP 50” cut mower for under $3,000 and also offers a 20.5HP 48” cut for over $8,000.

Most of what you pay for in a mower comes down to durability, performance, and operator comfort. The needed durability for a mower that is going to be used once a week to cut one yard is completely different from a mower that is going to be used all day every day.

Spending a couple extra thousand dollars to tweak out 30% more performance probably isn’t worth it for the homeowner that would be looking at reducing a 30 minute cut to a 20 minute cut. But for the contractor that can take on another 15 yards because of the time saved, or can take an extra day off because of the time saved, well now that’s worth a couple of thousand extra dollars.

There are many crucial parts to a mower’s function. But perhaps the most important variance from one mower to the next is the cutting deck, as this is where the job is done, where tall grass becomes short, where clippings are mulched, where grass clogs and clumps, or does not clog and clump, where sprigs are left standing or not.

Many companies build frames with engines and wheels that travel. Few companies specialize in the science and technology of cutting blades of grass cleanly and efficiently. At Toro this is exactly their game. They don’t build farm tractors, they don’t build bulldozers, their focus is turf grass.

One of the advantages of dealing with a company like Toro that offers so many models of zero turns and a dealer like us that stocks the 45+ most popular models is that it allows you to see the differences for yourself to help figure out what features matter to you.

We can point out the differences from one mower to the next and answer your questions to help you make a well educated purchase, which we hope will be from us, but either way it will be our pleasure to have a helpful and respectful conversation with you.

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