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Come on, start your engines

March 31, 2003|by Chris Copley

Goo and sludge. No, that's not what you found when the snow finally melted off your yard. That's what you'll find in your lawn mower engine if you don't prepare it properly for the mowing season.

"A good 75 percent of the time, when people bring in their mower to us, that's what we see," said Bill Mason, owner of Uvilla Small Engine Repair in Shenandoah Junction, W.Va. "The gas is thick, like molasses. We've got to go in and clean it out."

As area residents pull out their lawn and garden equipment after a long, cold winter, Mason said replacing an engine's fuel is more than a good idea. It's vital.


"The gas is a big issue, but a lot of people just don't understand," he said. "We tell people, 'You have old gas.' They look at us like we're stupid."

Gasoline is a composite fluid distilled from petroleum; oil companies enhance gasoline further by adding ingredients to boost octane or promote cleaner burning. Mason said these different ingredients start to separate after three weeks. Volatile compounds evaporate. Varnish forms. Sludge congeals. That's not good for a carburetor.

Replacing or treating the gas in the tank prevents problems, said Jeff Semler, extension educator with the Washington County office of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

"It depends how much is in the tank," he said. "You could mix the fuel with new fuel in at least a one-to-one ratio. Or get one of those additives they have at lawn and garden shops and put it in the fuel tank. Get one prepared for motors of that size."

Replacing the gasoline is only one aspect of preparing your mower and other outdoor equipment for spring and summer, Semler said. The first thing to do is simply examine everything.

"I would do a complete inspection," he said. "Remove shrouds and covers. Look for little mammals that have built nests; those are fire hazards."

Spark plug

Take out the spark plug with a wrench, Semler said, and look at the sparking gap. If it is black, scrape off the carbon with an old toothbrush. If the plug is older than two years, consider replacing it with another of the same type (the plug's model number is printed on the porcelain part of the plug).

Screw the plug in and tighten it completely. Put the wire back on tightly.


If you have a riding mower, remove the blade, Semler said. If you use a push mower, simply turn it on its side to get a good view of the blade.

"Leave the blade on and sharpen it in place," he said. "Use a flat file to touch it up." Or, he added, put a small grinding wheel on an electric drill or hobby drill to sharpen the blade. If you remove the blade from the mower, it can be sharpened on a bench grinder.

If the blade is not in good shape - if it's cracked or bent or badly nicked - replace it with another of the same length and shape.


Keith Marshall, who repairs lawn and garden equipment for Gravely Lawn and Power in Hagerstown, said batteries need a look in rider mowers.

"Number one, if it's an electric start, the battery needs to be checked," he said. "Cold weather takes its toll on batteries."

Semler said the easiest way to test a battery is to try to start the engine. If the engine won't start, turn the ignition off and check the battery. If there is corrosion on the battery terminals where the wires connect, remove the wires and clean the terminals with a stiff-bristle brush. Replace the wires and try again. If it still won't start, take the battery to an auto shop and get it charged.


Manufacturers suggest changing the oil every 25 hours of lawn mower use. Mason said he changes his oil every year as part of his annual equipment maintenance, even if he hasn't run his mower 25 hours.

To remove oil, let the engine run for five minutes until the oil has warmed. Then drain the oil into a sturdy plastic jug, such as an empty laundry jug. Refill the engine with SAE 10W30 or SAE 30 auto-engine oil. Watch for overflow; most engines take less than a quart.


Harold Eby, owner of Eby's Lawn and Garden in Hagerstown, said belt maintenance is a problem that sneaks up on some mower owners.

"Check belts for cracking or showing signs of wear," he said. "They'll dry-crack over the winter. People will get one or two mowings in, and, bam, the belt will break."

Marshall said belt maintenance is trickier than it looks.

"There's one thing do-it-yourselfers don't think of about belts," he said. "They'll put a new belt on a motor and it breaks. And the cause of it was the pulley. They'll put a new belt on, and it runs for five minutes and it breaks. They think it's the belt, but the pulley needs to be adjusted."

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