Every professional landscaper loves zero-turn mowers. They are the lawn mower equivalent of Superman, able to cover acres of grass in minutes. But just like the man of steel, they, too, have their kryptonite: hills.
However, there are loads of YouTube videos that suggest the dangers of zero turn mowerson hills are exaggerated. Are zero-turn mowers actually fine on slopes, or does it depend on the skill of the driver?
This article will answer these and other questions, including the one scenario in which you MUST never use a zero-turn lawn mower.
Dangers of Zero Turn Mowerson Hills
There are a few dangers to be aware of when using a Zero Turn Mower. One is that the mower could easily slide and cause you injuries. Another is that these mowers can easily overturn, so it’s important to always be aware of your surroundings and never operate the machine while impaired. Finally, these mowers can easily lose traction. So ensure you are not mowing at a speed exceeding 5 mph.
Is it Safe to use a Zero Turn Lawn Mower on a Hill?
As much as possible, avoid using zero-turn mowers on hills. If you must, some manufacturers recommend that you should not use a zero-turn mower on side hills of over 5 degrees, inclines of over 10 degrees, and declines of over 15 degrees.
There are several reasons why zero-turn mowers are not good on hills.
1. The caster wheels
The caster wheels or front wheels on zero-turn mowers are great for making those sudden zero-degree turns, but they have no traction.
That means when you are ascending or descending a slope, you will only rely on the rear wheels for traction, which is impossible.
If you think about cars, even front-wheel drive can barely handle slopes. Now imagine driving on a hill with two front tires that are bald. So, while caster wheels are perfect for flat lawns, they are entirely useless on slopes.
2. The weight distribution
Unlike a riding tractor, the mower deck of a zero-turn lawn mower is in front of the driver. This means that majority of the weight is not centrally located but rather focused toward the rear wheels.
Again, this is fine on flat lawns but is a rolling or tipping hazard on a hill.
3. Rear parking brakes
Most zero-turn mowers don’t have brake pedals. Instead, you control deceleration by pulling both levers backward. Due to the whole caster wheel situation, you only have rear brakes on zero-turn mowers.
What this means on a hill is that if you pull the levers suddenly, it can cause the mower to slide. In some of the accidents we’ve seen where the zero-turn mowers slid into ponds, the brakes didn’t work as imagined.
However, there are other reasons why a zero-turn lawn mower could slide, and we’ll discuss that later.
What are the Dangers of Using a Zero Turn Mower on a Hill?
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there are over 30,000 riding mower accidents each year, and zero-turn mowers account for roughly 15%.
However, a high percentage of the 70 fatalities per annum is due to zero-turn mowers, and a significant number comes from operating zero-turns out of their designated zones.
That is why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandated safety features for riding mowers.
Due to their fast speed and peculiar shape, zero turn lawn mowers are vulnerable on hills. Some of the dangers are:
When a decline is too steep, zero-turn lawn mowers won’t have enough traction, and they can begin to slide.
If you started mowing on an incline beyond 10 degrees (from the bottom of the slope), you would probably only reach a few feet before you slide downwards.
This might cause minor bumps and bruises but nothing too serious unless the slope leads to a lake, pond, or embankment.
Many people have ended up drowning this way as the weight of the zero-turn mower held them in the water or pinned them after a fall.
As you can imagine, this is much worse when you try to mow on a decline and slide all the way down the hill.
2. Loss of traction
As mentioned earlier, the caster wheels on a zero-turn mower are for direction control and not for traction, meaning they have no treads.
If you’re mowing on a hill at a speed exceeding 5 mph, you could easily lose traction and veer off course. The rider could slam into an object like a tree, slide down the hill, or roll over.
Of all the risks associated with using a zero-turn mower on a hill, this is probably the easiest to mitigate.
As long as you move at a decent pace, you will be able to put the brakes when you feel yourself losing traction without causing any damage.
3. Roll-over risk
This is probably the most talked about risk associated with zero-turn mowers. It is also the reason why roll-over protective structures were recommended by OSHA.
When a zero-turn mower isn’t balanced on a hill, it could tip over or roll over instead of sliding down. When the mower doesn’t have ROPS, it will pin down the driver, causing serious injuries. In some cases, this also led to death.
Zero-turn mowers have been known to roll over on flat lawns when operating at too high speeds mixed with a sudden turn, so you can imagine how much more devastating it will be on a hill.
At this point, you may be wondering if there is light at the end of the tunnel or if it’s all doom and gloom. Well…
Is it Possible to Safely Use a Zero-Turn Mower on a Hill?
Yes, there are ways to safely use a zero-turn mower on a hill while minimizing risk. After all, many landscaping projects along highways are on slopes, and it would take a ridiculously long time with a push mower.
By following very strict guidelines, you’ll be able to safely mow on decent slopes. However, bear in mind that these guidelines only apply to zero-turn mowers that have been tested by their manufacturer.
If you are yet to purchase a zero-turn mower, look at our list of the best zero-turn mowers for hills.
What are the Safety Precautions for Using a Zero-turn Mower on a Hill?
1. Tires with good traction
Before you take out your zero-turn mower every day, you should always check the tire pressure. While you do that, you should also check to ensure that the tire treads haven’t worn out.
If you’re not sure about the traction, you can get Kenda Super Turf tires, which offer superb traction for steep hills, or Carlisle Super Lug.
2. Rollover protective structures (ROPS)
ROPS are lifesavers. Their introduction has protected countless riders from many ghastly accidents. As the name implies, ROPS are designed to protect you if the zero-turn mower should roll over.
Not only will ROPS protect a rider from being pinned, but it will also provide space for you to crawl out to safety.
It is important to emphasize that ROPS aren’t perfect, so you still need to be careful, and they can break depending on how far the mower falls.
Most zero-turn mowers have the option, but not all come with it. You may need to request it specifically when buying.
3. Seat belt
If a zero-turn mower doesn’t have a seat belt, don’t ever get into it, not even for flat surfaces.
When operating at its top speed, a zero-turn mower can fling a person across if it should turn or brake too suddenly or run into a large enough rock.
A seat belt will also keep the rider in place in case of a rollover, with or without ROPS. With these safety features in place, you are ready to move on to the proper mowing procedure for slopes.
How to Safely Use a Zero-Turn Mower on a Hill
These guidelines are for slopes not exceeding a 10-degree incline or a 15-degree decline, using a zero-turn mower that can handle such slopes.
1. Study the terrain
As with all professional mowing jobs, you should always study the terrain before you begin. When working on a hill, you first want to ensure that all of the slopes are within a reasonable range.
Use an inclinometer for precise readings. If any part of the project goes beyond 15 degrees, you should use a push mower or standing mower for that region.
Also, make sure there aren’t any structures that can send you flying like a boulder hidden behind tall grass.
2. Mow slowly
Nearly every accident involving a zero-turn mower has to do with speed, which isn’t surprising considering how fast they go.
The average top speed of a zero-turn mower is 7 mph, while that of a riding mower is 4 mph, which is the same as a brisk walk.
Some zero-turn mowers can hit 12 mph. When cutting a hill, resist the urge to try and finish quickly instead of safely. Even if you studied the terrain, you might have missed something so go slowly.
Do not exceed 5 mph when cutting on a slope, no matter how low the incline. If you have a 42-inch deck, you will still be able to mow one acre in under an hour at this rate.
3. Start at the bottom of the hill
A lot of groundskeepers and YouTubers will tell you to start on top of the hill because it is quicker, but this is bad and very dangerous advice.
As mentioned earlier, zero-turn mowers run the risk of rolling over, losing traction, or sliding, even on a decline of fewer than 15 degrees.
To lower this risk, you need to start at the bottom and see how well your zero-turn mower is performing.
If you notice any lost traction before you get too high, you can stop and change tires or use a push mower instead.
However, if you start on top and you lose traction, you can slide all the way to the bottom and then roll over.
4. Cut from side to side, not up and down
Your best chance of maintaining control when mowing on a hill with a zero-turn is to move from side to side.
Mowing up a hill will require more power to work against gravity, and if you push the levers too far, the front of the zero-turn mower could lift off the ground.
Cutting downhill also won’t give you a lot of traction, so the zero-turn mower will move ahead of you.
When cutting side to side, ensure the front wheels stay slightly ahead of the rear wheels. Gravity will try to pull the caster wheels down, and if it does succeed, you could start sliding.
If you begin to slide, turn the zero-radius mower fully towards the bottom of the slope and ride it out, then crawl back up to where you stopped.
When changing directions on very steep slopes, do a 3-point turn instead of a zero-radius turn, as this will provide more control.
5. Be careful when braking
As much as possible, you want to avoid aggressive braking, even if you are sliding or going downhill. When mowing downhill, pulling the lap bar too far will cause the tires to skid and lose traction.
What you want instead is to make small movements. Of course, don’t move at a speed that will require you to brake suddenly.
When Shouldn’t You Use a Zero-Turn Mower?
1. On a Steep Hill
Nearly every accident that happens with a lawn mower is because the rider did not follow the manufacturer’s specifications.
No matter what your best friend said or did, do not use a zero-turn mower on an incline that exceeds 15 degrees, not even 16 degrees!
You may not be able to tell the difference just by looking at it, but every degree increment adds new risks.
2. Wet Lawn
Given how poor the traction is, you should not use a zero-turn mower on a wet hill. With an incline of 5 degrees or less, you might be fine, but that is a risk you shouldn’t bother taking.
When mowing on wet grass, you not only lose control, but the brakes will also fail to hold you in place.
3. Near dropoffs
Only use a zero-turn mower when the bottom of the slope is flat ground. Too many heartbreaking stories come from zero turns, falling off an embankment, or sliding into a lake.
This is another important reason why you should survey the terrain before you start the job.
Zero Turn vs. Lawn Tractor, Which Type of Riding Mower Is Better for Hills?
A lawn tractor is more suitable for mowing a hill than a zero-turn mower. That’s because lawn tractors don’t possess any of the design limitations of zero turns.
All four tires on a lawn tractor are treaded, meaning they all give excellent traction. The weight is focused in the center of the riding mower, so you don’t have to worry about tipping or rolling over.
You can also apply the brakes to all tires without fear of skidding or sliding. A riding lawn mower is also not as fast, and the design does not permit sharp turns.
However, if you are cutting a very slight slope, a zero-turn mower would be the preferred option due to its speed and maneuverability.
Living Dangerously with Zero-Turn Mowers
There is no investment quite like zero-turn mowers. The time it saves is staggering compared to riding lawn tractors and other mowers. While there are dangers of zero turn mowerson hills, you can use them safely.
It is also worth noting that some of the conditions in which you shouldn’t use a zero-turn mower also apply to other mower types.
So, is using zero-turn mowers on a hill worth it? Only if you do it the right way!