Lawn Mower Fix: Cleaning An Oil-Clogged Air Filter

Our lawn was making me feel like a terrible neighbor last week. Sure, I had good reason (i.e. the ol’ newborn excuse) but surely the people driving by our house everyday didn’t know my airtight excuse. So to put my guilt to rest I resumed my Friday evening mowing routine. That is until our mower started spewing white smoke and sputtered to a stop. I was left with a dead lawn mower and two buzzed stripes in our yard. Awesome.

To be honest, I was more annoyed at my incomplete mow job than my busted equipment. In fact, some of you on Twitter and Facebook probably saw us seeking recommendations for mower replacements mere moments after the incident.

Why so quick to ditch our current clipper? It was a super old hand-me-down from a friend and we frankly never grew that attached to it. They were moving and we happened to be closing on our house in the same week so it was easier for them to offload the mower on us for a few bucks than transport it to their new casa.

For the four years that we’ve owned our Troy-Bilt it’s been the “mower to tide us over until we buy our own.” We even have big dreams of upgrading to something greener when that time comes. In a way, we’ve kinda been hoping it would kick the bucket so we could get something newer and more planet-friendly. Maybe that’s why I inadvertently / subconsciously neglected any sort of care or maintenance on our hand-me-down (after all, in my mind it’s been “on its last mow” for a while). That means – prepare to gasp – no oil changes, no filter cleanings, no blade replacements, literally no more than simply dusting off grass clippings since 2006. I know, it’s not like us at all.

But even though I went to bed dreaming about what shiny new (electric? reel?) mower would be coming home with me on Saturday morning, somehow I woke up the next day with a Mr. Fix-It attitude and decided I’d put in one last ditch effort to repair ol’ smokey. You know, in the spirit of working with what we have and keeping a perfectly workable mower from the landfill. So I grabbed a bunch of tools (since I had no idea what the heck I would need- a hammer might come in handy for changing oil, right?) along with my computer and crossed my fingers that Google would somehow magically turn me into a lawnmower mechanic.

Well, it didn’t. But YouTube came close. Thanks to this video from Lowe’s I actually managed to change my mower’s oil. Sweet victory indeed. I didn’t end up needing my hammer, but I was able to use some old cardboard to substitute for a drop cloth and an empty paint can for a used oil receptacle.

My first ever oil change solved half of the problem. It breathed life back into the mower, but unfortunately that breath was still white and smoky. Boo!

That’s when I turned to another tactic suggested by our friendly and always helpful Facebook and Twitter folks: cleaning the air filter. First challenge: finding the air filter (yes, I really was that helpless). Luckily the Briggs & Stratton website came to my rescue (they’re actually the makers of our lawn mower’s engine). With this diagram I was able to figure out where my air filter was (eureka!), unscrew it, and do my darndest to clean it by hand (it desperately needs a new filter, but that’s obviously not something I had on hand).

Notice how I’m not showing you any pictures of this. Not just because I didn’t take any pictures of the process, but also because I think I’ve embarrassed myself enough without you seeing exactly how dirty my old oil-clogged air filter was. But my embarrassment ends here because (shockingly) my efforts paid off. Within a couple of minutes my mower was running smoke and sputter free. Victory!

I celebrated my new status as amateur lawn mower mechanic by completing my previous day’s mow job and shelving my dreams of a new mower (at least temporarily- we still have our eye on some non-gas options for the future). Plus now that I’ve learned a bit of lawn mower care by experimenting on this guy, I feel better equipped to maintain the next one that comes home with us.

Have any of you found yourselves in a similar lawn mower pinch? Any other lawn care equipment maintenance tips to pass along to hopefully help us and a slew of other readers avoid situations like this in the future? Here’s to all of us moving one small step closer to being mower mechanics!


  1. Tawny says

    Have you looked at a reel mower? Our parents may not have liked them back in the day but they are now much lighter than the older versions and of course are eco-friendly! The only thing it does not do well is dandelions or sticks. Otherwise ours works great and my husband only brings our the gas mover once or twice per year.

  2. says

    We bought our house in the winter and didn’t need a lawnmower until the spring. We don’t have a garage or a shed and didn’t want to put gasoline in our basement. We ended up getting a great Black and Decker MM875 corded electric mower and it has been working great. We have a small lawn so the cord is not a big issue. The best part though is the lack of fumes in our basement and that it was less than $100 on Craigslist.

  3. Gina says

    When we moved into our home, our go-to lawn mower was a hand-me-down electric one that my parents bought in the 80s and rarely used. It’s been 2 years and we’re still going strong! I dread the day that I have to go shopping for a new one.

  4. says

    Too funny. I would have gladly donated our mower if you wanted to come all the way to San Diego to pick it up. We could have traded it for in house decorating tips while y’all were here.

    My MIL has an electric mower. Its so funny to watch her mow her lawn cuz she goes back and forth in a ‘V’ pattern so it looks like she’s vacuuming the lawn.

  5. jcl3341 says

    Good work! A quick bit of research can save you lots of money with a few simple fixes.
    Just picked up the Black and Decker CM1936 and will be using it this weekend. I’ve heard really great things about this gas-free cordless alternative.

  6. Mandi says

    Congrats, that’s not a small thing to learn about! I think we have EXACTLY the same mower, purchased at Lowe’s four years ago LOL! We also treated ours to a new mower blade this year . . . I am not confirming nor denying reports that I mowed a large rock last year *whistling innocently* If your blade is still balanced and intact, it could probably at least stand to be sharpened, which you can definitely do yourself as well. Your grass leaves will thank you (and not develop little shredded-looking brown edges shortly after mowing.)

  7. says

    The only lawn pinch I have been in the past 2 years is trying to convince my husband to stop messing up our yard and hire someone!! He is not so handy when it comes to landscaping. ;)

  8. Kevin M says

    Well done, sir! I tried the same thing with our old mower last summer, but alas, this year it still sputtered and smelled like gas. We broke down and bought a new one with a CARB – Honda engine, supposedly a little greener. It runs like a champ and doesn’t make me reek of gas fumes when I’m done. (We gave the old mower away via Craigslist.)

  9. says

    This happened to us after eight years of home ownership and dedicated lawn maintenance. The trimmer/edger broke and the mower went kaput two months later. In our case my husband had already done a number of repairs on each. He had also become extremely busy at work. So now we pay someone to mow. It’s not the best economic decision and it’s also annoying sometimes when they do stuff in a way we wouldn’t. But we still do all the rest of the lawn and garden maintenance ourselves.

  10. Maria says

    Nice job fixing the mower! We just bought our first mower a few of weeks ago and as a former NYer who’d never mowed before I didn’t want to shell out big bucks for a task I wasn’t sure I’d want to continue to DIY for the long run. So we found a guy by our house who buys broken mowers for $20 bucks, fixes them and sells them for $50. After reading your post it makes me wonder how many mowers were sold to him for only $20 when all they needed was an oil/filter change!! So far we’re happy with our little $50 mower but I definitely hope there’s money in the budget next summer to have someone else do it!

  11. Barbara says

    Gotta tell you, a Troy-Built mower is what real gardeners use. You can’t kill them. You’ll have that mower for years if you maintain it. Next will be your spark plug replacement!!

  12. b says

    Yes! I cannot tell you how many mower issues i have had lately. I am now on my 4th mower in 6 months! 1) $40 used mower off craigslist, lasted 3 years then died 2)traded the previous mower to mower repairman plus some cash for a barely used one, lasted 2 months and died 3) inherited a corded electric mower, dont bother-no power and the cord is just ridiculous 4)brand new husqvarna mower from sears works like a champ.

    I actually still have the barely used mower so perhaps i should try what you did although i have checked the filters and spark plug and all seems good. even the oil seems good but perhaps i will try changing it since a running mower would sell better on craigslist.

    one suggestion is to make sure that you keep the underside of the deck clear of grass, especially wet clumps. this can choke the blade and engine if the holes feeding the underside of the mower are clogged. not that you want or need advice from someone who has gone through 4 mowers quicker than a box of girl scout cookies…

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