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!
Congrats on the fix! That’s great!
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.
We have! And we’ve definitely seen a lot of options we love. Someday…
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.
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.
Nice job!!! Now how can I motivate my hubby to do something like this?? :)
Erin @ Domestic Adventure says
You two amaze me with your creative and witty blog post titles!
liz @ bon temps beignet 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.
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.
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.)
Jessica @ How Sweet 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. ;)
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.)
[email protected] 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.
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!
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!!
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…
We inherited my grandmother’s old corded electric when she sold her house and moved to an assisted living home. We LOVE LOVE LOVE it! The amount of vibration on our hands is so much less than our gas mower. It also is MUCH more quiet. We could mow at 6am and I think our neighbors would hardly notice! I would only trade it in for a battery powered electric!
How long does it take you to push mow your yard?! Save your pennies for a riding lawnmower.
The front and back yard only take John about an hour to complete, so it’s actually not bad at all!
We got our push mower through the exact same situation & feel the same way about it as you did yours. Now, we just hope it lasts one more summer before we move! We’ll pick our next mower based on the needs of our next yard.
My husband and I are in the process of becoming first time home owners. It hit me earlier this week that we’d need a lawn mower. Even though my grandpa owns a small engine business (you know, retirement was too boring!), I’m afraid of owning a gas mower than needs maintenance, with a not-so-handy husband who will be consumed by a PhD program. A reel mower, particularly the Fiskars, is currently in first place. Funny how one can romanticized a lawn mower can get.
Don’t feel bad, John. I didn’t even know a mower HAD an air filter, let alone where to locate it :P
great job JOHN!
that’a way to DIY that mower right back into shape!
CC hubby also recently did a bit of an oil change on our mower (left by previous homeowners – SCORE) and that did the trick! you’re smart to keep looking to solve the problem…such a smarty pants, googler :) cheers – CC
Jennifer S. says
Ditch it when you can! We haven’t used a gas mower in 5 years and have no regrets. We chose an electric over a solar (cost) or a reel (our yard is big). It’s really lightweight and quiet. Being attached to a cord makes me think I’m vacuuming instead of mowing.
Great step by step advice… I may need it as a new home owner with a hand me down of my own. I tried the “green” route with the traditional reel mower from Sears – my parents got it for my birthday (isn’t it nice how the gifts seem to change once you get a house?)
At first, I was excited but then, not. It left our yard choppy and looked unkept. I could deal with it in between the major cuts if I had to, but my fiance is a perfectionist. So, we took it back and gladly accepted a hand me down from my parents. With a few tweeks it runs perfectly and gets the job done. BUT here is my tip to you:
Use premium gas instead of the regular unleaded. Apparently it works wonders. The person that recommended this to me said his mower was on its last life and he replaced the gas with the fancy premium and, like magic, it got a second life!
My husband hates gas powered mowers and even electric ones. He bought a manual push mower. He loves it. I hate the thing. It’s big and heavy and doesn’t do a fabulous cutting job at all. At any rate, it’s way too heavy for me to push around, so he’s the sole lawn mower. So, wait… maybe I love it after all. ; )
Excellent job, John on fixing the mower yourself.
We live in a condo and one of the trade offs of community living is that we don’t have to mow our own lawn.
Our mower has been “on its last mow” for some time now. We honestly thought after it would not start last fall that we would be getting the green mower of our dreams this spring, but when it was time to mow, it started like a champ. Go figure.
We’ve still got our electric mower stored useless in our garage if you’d like to come up to NJ and take it away from us! :)
The only problem with them is (and your lawn seems to be a comparable size to my previous one) the cord gets annoying at longer distances.
When we first got it, my sister conveniently mowed over the cord and cut a chunk of it off….
John, you guys may have already seen them, but Newton offers a pretty cool cordless mower. My MIL bought one a couple years ago and loves it. I’ve used it a couple of times just for fun and it seems pretty good. Supposedly, the battery recharge uses much less energy than a corded option, but don’t know for sure. Probably doing more for the environment by keeping your old one (reuse).
Amanda Drury says
Glad you fixed your mower!
Just out of curiosity, if you HAD to buy a new mower, what would you get? We’re leaving the land of renting and buying our own house this month and are trying to figure out what we’re going to get.
No idea! We haven’t done the research yet. Someday when the time comes we’ll have fun with that though…
You might look at the Neuton electric mowers; rechargeable battery makes it green and very quiet. The company has great customer service too.
I have been wanting one of the push reel mowers. I always am reminded of the push mowers from days of yore, that were hard to push and would get all rusty and nasty. But the ones they have nowadays are so much easier to use! I think whenever I do buy a mower, it will be one of those – so eco friendly!
Ashley E says
We bought a reel lawnmower for this summer. We were VERY fortunate, that we mentioned to a friend that we were thinking about getting one. The had bought a reel lawnmower the summer before, used it once, hated it, and stored it for a year. We bought it off them for $40!
We LOVE it. It is very lightweight. It doesn’t like big weeds (and it hates those little seed things that pine trees drop) but it is so easy to mow our whole yard and not break out in a sweat!
Sarah B says
I’m glad I’m not the only one! My mower is also a hand-me-down. It’s made funny noises from day one and now the self-propelled feature is no longer working and actually seems to act like BRAKES now. No fun. I’m even planning on taking it to my mower-doctor (my dad!) tonight to see if he can work his magic–after reading this I might see if he can help me with the oil and filters, too!
Laura in LA says
Ol Smokey. Ha! I laughed out loud.
We have a giant lawn currently, which requires the use of a riding mower…and even with that it still takes my husband about an hour and a half to mow the whole thing. I’m not a fan of large expanses of lawn, given how finicky and needy turf grass is, so this fall I hope to start creating (and expanding) our landscape to seriously minimize the amount of turf we have to deal with. I would LOVE to reduce it to the point where a non-electric reel mower was the tool of choice, but I suspect my husband will fight to keep the riding mower in use somehow. :D
If your old mower works well with minor maintenance, then hang on to it! We have a 20+ year old push mower that we inherited from my in-laws. It broke down the day before we were supposed to have a BBQ. Well, we went to a local equipment rental place and rented their so-called “top of the line” commercial-grade mower. Well, it was a disaster! It did not work nearly as well as our trusty old one! We had to mow the entire lawn twice and it still was patchy. After that, all talk of buying a newer model ended. They really don’t make them like they used to!
Good work! We have a reel mower that has worked great for us, and of course is eco-friendly. But it badly needs a blade sharpening. You just motivated me to do a little research and figure out how to sharpen the blades myself! Thanks for the inspiration!
Jason Beaird says
Congrats on the oil change and clean filter. I used to give just as little attention to our mower, but after our massive DIY sod project last year (which involved a bobcat rental, a few tons of fill dirt, and 16 pallets of sod), I’ve learned a lot about maintaining both mowers and yards. As Mandi already pointed out, if you haven’t sharpened the blade since 2006, it’s definitely overdue. Having a dull mower blade will tear up then ends of your grass leaves and take them longer to recover from being cut. To keep myself from getting lazy about changing the blade, I keep a sharp one in the shed ready to swap out when I notice the one on the mower is too dull. When I get a chance, I take an angle grinder with a metal grinding wheel to the dull blade to put a new edge on it. I’m sure I watched a YouTube video to figure that one out too, so be sure to look it up.
Yeah Jason (and Mandi) I think a blade replacement is next on my list of things to tune-up the poor ol’ thing. Thanks for the reminder!
I have a smallish suburban yard (6,000 sq. ft.) and my old-fashioned reel mower is the shizzle dizzle. It’s efficient, quiet (I can carry on a conversation while I mow, and I can mow any time of day without disturbing the neighbors!), and eco-friendly.
I bought a $99 dollar model from Home Depot and 2 years on, it hasn’t needed sharpening!
Plus, you get more exercise mowing the yard this way than with a conventional mower.
Laura B. says
Congrats on the fix! Though we haven’t had lawnmower problems (no lawn to mow!), we’ve had vacuum woes. We have an Australian Cattle dog who sheds like crazy, and one day his hair started spitting out of the vacuum along with smoke! The vacuum was a gift from my husband’s grandma, and it was pretty pricey. I didn’t want to let it go even though my husband told me it was “its time”…I took it over to ACE Hardware. I don’t know how they did it, but they fixed the clog for $5 and I felt victorious.
[email protected] says
We’ve got a pretty good series all about lawn mower maintenance. Glad you got yours back up and running!
Jen H. says
Just to echo previous comments: They definitely do not make them like they used to! I’d keep fixing up the one you’ve got for as long as possible.
We bought ours (also a Briggs & Stratton) used from a guy up the street who buys/fixes/resells mowers. I think we got it for $65 four years ago. Aside from taking it back for a minor tuneup once last spring (for $20), it’s been golden. I imagine it’s probably at least ten years old, but it works much better and is more reliable than the parade of new electric/solar/gas mowers my inlaws have tried in the last three years.
jennifer f says
wow that’s awesome you were able to solve the prob! I feel like an idiot because even though my hubby is in charge of mowing the lawn, I don’t think he realized we actually have to maintain our mower. How often are you supposed to get sharpen the blade? and change the air filter? and anything else? We literally fill it up with gas and oil when it’s empty and let er rip! Ooops!
Hey Jennifer F,
Clearly I’m not the expert on mower maintenance, so I’d recommend scrolling up to Ethan’s comment above and follow his link to One Project Closer. They’re definitely much more versed in tool and equipment maintenance than I am!
Carol N. says
We have had a Honda mower (this is our second) for many years now…probably over 20. Hubs does yearly mainttenance on it and the current one has lasted probably 12 years now. They are expensive but worth it in the long run. And here in Alabama there are many weeks he has to mow our 1 1/2 acres twice a week – plus he does my mom’s yard!
I have an electric lawn mower (Black and Decker lawn hog) and it works great! Quiet, no fumes, no oil changes. Folds up small, lightweight, I love it. But it wouldn’t be that convenient if I had a huge lawn…
Saving it from the landfill – yeah for you, for the landfill and the environment!!
Good job on fixing your mower! I admit to owning a good ol’ fashioned rotary mower and it definitely gets the job done. one thing I *don’t* like about the old fashioned mower is that it doesn’t give you that pretty “grass sticks up in a rigid line” after effect of a freshly mown grass. It sort of mats the grass down as opposed to stricking up straight like soldiers. Fortunately, we only have grass in the backyard, so nobody sees it but us, but since it’s eco-friendly and we have an uber-small yard, then we really don’t mind it at all!
Good luck when you have to replace your mower, though – you guys have a lot to mow!!!
just a note on mower air filters. we recently had issues with ours and someone shared a tip with us. you can cut a piece of a home A/C filter to use for your mower. a money saver, for sure. you can get at least a years worth of filters out of one.
Great tip! Thanks so much for sharing it.
HA, great job! You had better luck than us; both mowers didn’t work this year when it came time to cut! After attempting to fix them, we conceeded to taking one to our local small engine repair and $80 later….but I suppose it’s better than having to buy another one!
ALSO, here’s a eco-friendly consideration next time you need to overseed the lawn — a grass seed from a nursery called Wildflower Farm out of Canada (though they have a warehouse here in NY). You can read about its qualities from the link below, but in short it only needs cutting very few times a season, doesn’t need watering (though in sunny spots it could use it in summer) – read less water use, no chemical runoff from fertilizers and less emissions from a mower! We use it here in Richmond, though this is the lowest zone it will grown in (Zone 7). In fact, once summer has gotten hotter, the grass grows even slower and my husband can get away w/mowing once a month! Very soft to walk on too! Here’s the website to the nursery: http://www.wildflowerfarm.com/index.php?p=home
Oh, and knowing how you like to keep it all budgeted – it’s a bit expensive when you add in the shipping, but I think it evens out when you consider you don’t buy the fertilizers that other lawns need throughout the year.
My wife bought me the Neuton mower two years ago & I love it. Super quite & easy to store away. Feel proud of doing something for the environment. Hope u check it out. I think they have a trial period. Good Luck! -Mark