Pros: Fast, clean mowing, loaded with features, relatively reasonable price, fun to drive
Cons: No fabricated deck, flexible frame, messy oil changes
I've been on a lawn & garden equipment jag lately. With the acquisition of a house with a lot of yard, I've purchased equipment I've never needed before. Mowers, chipper/shredders, weed whappers, roto-tillers, etc. But the king of all my recent purchases is this big Husqvarna Z5426 zero-turn mower.
You've probably seen zero-turn mowers before--most professional landscapers use them. They look unique, with two control levers instead of a steering wheel, and swivel casters up front and big tires out back. The mowing deck is suspended underneath. The reason these are so useful is that, as their name suggests, they can turn within their own length making them very maneuverable. With a zero-turn (or ZTR for Zero Turn Radius) mower, you'll be able to get much closer to trees, flower beds and other obstacles than you could with a lawn tractor. ZTRs use hydraulic pumps to drive the rear wheels--one for each wheel (a conventional hydrostatic transmission tractor uses one of these for both rear wheels). With two pumps, one wheel can turn forwards while the other can turn backwards, giving you the zero turn radius. Neat.
I spent a long time looking at mowers--so long, in fact, that I had to hire a crew to mow my lawn a few times while I deliberated. For what a mower would cost, I could probably buy a year of professional service (@ $100/week for my yard). But a mower would last many years, so it was an easy decision. I asked around, looked here at Epinions, visited Lowes and Home Depot to see their stuff, and read magazine articles. With a big purchase like this, I didn't want to make a mistake.
A friend bought a used commercial ZTR mower made by Encore, and likes it a lot. Since it is designed to run 40 hours a week, by using it only 80 hours a year, he was going to have something that would last forever. I looked for a used commercial mower, but they're hard to find in decent condition (there's a reason landscaping companies turn them in--they're very beat-up), and still expensive. Strike out there.
Ultimately, I found a Popular Mechanics article that rated some heavy-duty lawn tractors. The lowest priced one was a Husqvarna tractor which they rated very highly. So I looked a little closer at the Husqvarna brand. I found very few people who are dissatisfied with their Husky equipment (on-line anyway, which is where the complainers usually end up). I had concerns about buying expensive equipment from a big box store because of service concerns--they just send it out and who knows when you'll get it back. So I went to my local Husqvarna dealer and spent a lot of time talking to them about what I wanted.
What I really wanted was a ZTR mower with a fabricated mowing deck instead of the more typical stamped deck, which uses thinner steel. A fabricated deck is made of 7-gauge steel more than 1/8" thick and is formed with separate side walls and a top welded together. To get that, you usually have to buy commercial-grade equipment. So I looked at Husky's commercial-grade mowers with fabricated decks. And they're nice. Very nice. Besides the fabricated deck, they offer beefier tubular steel frames and larger hydraulic pumps (which drive the wheels). Obviously, all this extra stuff costs more, and the lowest-grade commercial model I wanted cost $4700. Yowza!
"OK," I said to the guy. "Show me something else that won't give my banker a stroke." We ended up with the Husqvarna Z5426. The Z5426 is what I call "homeowner grade" equipment, not designed for constant hard commercial use, but way more than adequate for once a week. Also, it was new with a warranty, and by buying it locally, fast and responsive service is more likely. I didn't pay any more than I would have at a big box store and supporting the little guy means something to me.
Interestingly, the Z5426 uses a 3-blade, 54-inch stamped deck, not the fabricated deck I wanted, but the exact same deck the commercial models use when you order the 54-inch deck. Only a 48-inch deck is available in a fabricated version. So my deck, at least, is rated for commercial use despite being stamped. A little confidence there.
The Z5426 is the biggest of the homeowner-grade machines, with a 26 horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine (again, the commercial stuff only offered a 17 horsepower Kawasaki). I wanted big because it would shorten mowing times and allow the machine to also pull a modest garden trailer.
The most significant difference and one that I wish I could have upgraded is the stamped sheet metal chassis. The pro machines use tubular steel frames, while this one is several thinner stampings welded together in a sandwich. Going over rough patches, I can definitely feel it flexing ever so slightly under my feet and I'm sure the tubular steel wouldn't do that. Whether this is good or bad I can't say: metal fatigue from the flexing may eventually be a remote possibility many years down the line. On the other hand, it may contribute to a better ability to climb over rough terrain.
Overall mowing performance is outstanding. I purchased the $49 mulching kit which includes different mowing blades and a block-off plate for the discharge chute to keep the grass under the deck. In operation, there are very few visible clippings or clumps--the grass is ground very fine and distributed back into the soil. No bagging required and no rows of dead grass clumps on my lawn. On longer, thicker grass areas, there may be some visible clippings, but going over them a second time eliminates them completely. If you're not an absolute perfectionist like I am, it won't bother you.
The machine has eight height settings adjustable from a convenient foot pedal. Initially, I used the highest setting, which is about 4.5 inches (oddly, the heights are labeled with letters, not actual numbers indicating mowing height). Any lower and I would have to slow down to make sure there are no clumps because my grass was very long and thick (it had been three weeks since it was last mowed). I've gradually lowered it to about 3.5 inches and keep it there with outstanding results. Very smooth, clean and neat with those cool rows you see on a baseball field.
Another benefit of the ZTR mowers is speed. This unit can go up to 6 MPH by pushing both control levers all the way forward. 6 MPH doesn't sound like much, but imagine pushing a push mower at a quick jogging pace and it'll give you an idea. You can cover a lot of ground in not a lot of time. Since my yard is pretty flat and open, I'm able to take advantage of this speed quite a bit and really scoot across the big area. Between the big deck and the speed, I can mow my two acres of grass in about 1 hour, 15 minutes.
The drive system takes some getting used to. The first few times I mowed, it was difficult to turn, go straight and get close to obstacles. Your first instinct is always to mash the levers into full forward and/or full reverse to get out of trouble. What this usually does is spin the tires and damage your lawn. In time, I learned that finesse and a light touch on the controls works much better, and doing the zero-turns should be slow and in the same direction. For example, to turn left, push the right lever just a little farther forward than the left one, not right lever all the way forward and left lever all the way back as you would instinctively do. Keeping both wheels moving in the same direction, but not necessarily at the same speed, is the key to smooth steering. Going straight is best accomplished if you learn to look far ahead rather than at the ground right in front of you. By training myself to look towards the end of the row, my lines are razor-straight.
Another problem, if you can call it that, is that on wet grass, in a rut or on a slope, one wheel can lose traction. At that point, you'll find that you can only turn in one direction and it's usually the wrong direction. I was mowing a sloped area at the back of my yard near the septic tank where it's always damp. I found myself sliding into a giant rose bush out of control (this was at mostly due to operator error and poor judgment). I panicked and jammed the levers exactly wrong (remember: little, smooth movements in the same direction) and have a lot of pinholes in my flesh to show for it. To its credit, the mower didn't get stuck in the wet grass and mud, and by getting both wheels going the same direction, it pulled itself out of trouble. I mow that area with my push mower now. Bottom line: practice makes perfect with a ZTR, and expect it to take 4 or 5 sessions to really become comfortable with the controls.
The Z5426 features an hour meter for maintenance. Be careful, though: it's tied to the ignition switch, so if you leave it in the on position, even if the engine isn't running, it'll keep counting up the hours. Turn the ignition all the way off and it's not a problem. The manual recommends changing the oil after the first 5 hours and every 50 hours after that or once a season, whichever is sooner.
Some models, including the Z5426, also feature neat headlights located in the rear fenders. Not that I'll be mowing at night, but I appreciate the added visibility when mowing close to the road out in front of my house. They are activated by turning the ignition key to a position that operates the engine and turns the lights on. No separate switch required. Cool.
The Z5426, like most ZTRs, has an alternator, a starter and a battery, so it's like your car--it starts right up and as you mow, it recharges the battery. It should be a low-maintenance system. The engine always fires right up with just a little choke.
The control panel is to your right, and includes the ignition switch, throttle control (you use a ZTR at full throttle at all times), choke (used only for starting when cold) and the blade engagement switch. The Huskys use an electric power take off (PTO) to engage the blades, so you pull up the big red knob and the blades come on-line, push it in and the blades stop. It is a smart safety feature to make the button big, red and easy to reach, and to push rather than pull to stop the blades.
Speaking of safety, there's a parking brake below the seat by your right ankle. The engine won't start unless the blades are disengaged and the parking brake is applied. You have to have the control levers in the neutral position and splayed outwards to push in a neutral safety switch. There's a sensor in the seat that determines whether you're sitting in it or not. While I don't understand why, putting the controls in neutral and engaging the parking brake kills the motor. Putting them in neutral alone, the motor keeps running. Put it in neutral and get out of the seat without disengaging the blades, the motor dies. Disengage the blades, put it in neutral and then you can get out of the seat without it dying, but don't apply the brake. I guess that makes sense, but if you don't get the combination just right, you have to restart the engine. I get out of the chair often to move sticks and branches, and lately the little yellow flags the utility company has been planting in my yard. Meh.
The fuel tank is mounted in the right rear fender, and holds about 3.5 gallons. Mowing my lawn takes about half of that, so you should be able to get about 2 to 2.5 hours of mowing on a tank. Not great gas mileage, but it is a big frigging motor, too. 26 horsepower is about as big as you can buy (insert Tim Allen manly-man grunt here).
The Z5426 can pull a trailer. When we bought the mower, we also bought a matching 1000-pound capacity metal garden trailer. Since it has 2 hydraulic pumps, the Z5426 should not have any durability issues. Garden tractors have only 1 pump and are rated to pull such trailers. Oddly, most Husky ZTRs have a trailer hitch tab, but there's no hole in it for attaching the trailer. I drilled my own in the bracket obviously designed to be a trailer hitch, and no problems. I wonder why they don't drill the hole for you when they build the hitch. No big deal, just be sure to treat the hole with some kind of rust protectant paint or else you'll have rust in this area pretty quickly. It pulls the trailer very easily, though you have to be extra careful about turning--wide radius turns are the order of the day. Doing a zero-radius turn with a trailer attached is a recipe for disaster, or at least some broken parts. Perhaps this is why they don't drill the hole for you--if you're smart enough to figure out how and where to drill the hole, you're probably smart enough to avoid killing yourself with a trailer attached.
Oh, and there's a cup holder. Use a water bottle to hold your beverage, because anything with an open top will fill with grass debris sooner or later. There's also what I might call a glovebox by the cupholder for loose items.
To keep it healthy for a good long time, plan on cleaning the underside of the deck after each use. The fabricated decks are more resistant to neglect, and to prevent rust from starting in the stamped deck, get the grass clippings out from underneath after every mow. I just blow it off with an air hose then use the garden hose to get the grass chunks out from under the deck. Takes about 5 minutes and it looks good as new. The engine features an oil filter and pressure oiling, so like your automobile, change the oil and filter at least once a season and keep your engine healthy. My dealer said one of the biggest reasons for engine trouble is that the cooling fan on top of the engine gets clogged with lawn clippings and the engine overheats. Keep it clean to avoid this. One cool thing I noticed on the Husky that I didn't see on other brands was that the hydraulic pumps underneath have their own cooling fans, too. Very nice.
Maintenance is a mixed bag. The air filter is easy to locate and reach. The oil filter is down low and on the side of the motor, but still reachable with your hands. The oil drain plug stinks, however. Because of the engine and/or deck's design, the oil drains out the side of the crank case. There's a fitting with a nipple to which you attach a tube (supplied, which was thoughtful, even though it's about 10 inches shorter than ideal), then pull the fitting which opens the drain. It's probably best to let it drain overnight--it is S L O W, barely a trickle and you have to get 2 quarts out of it. The oil filter, when you remove it, also makes a mess on the deck because there's no opening below it to drain the oil inside. So it goes all over the place on the engine deck. Fortunately, you only have to do this once a year, but be prepared for a lengthy, messy project. HELPFUL TIP: Some paper towels and non-chlorinated brake cleaner, available at any auto parts store, will clean up the oil easily and not leave a greasy film to which grass clippings will stick. It will also clean the oil off your hands and any stains out of your clothing (no, I'm not kidding--it's great stuff).
I use hearing protection when I mow--it's loud, despite a considerably oversized muffler. Actually, most of the noise comes from the spinning blades, not the motor itself. But combined, it's pretty noisy to be sitting right on top of everything. Use hearing protection for yourself, but your neighbors won't complain about the sound it makes.
We used Husqvarna's financing to buy all this equipment. If you spend more than $3500, can get no payments for 12 months, or 24 months with no interest. We took the 24 months no interest. A wealthy friend told me once to spend other people's money whenever possible, and zero interest is the smart way to go. We'll pay it off easily in two years. When we purchased it, they were running a promotion that gave us a free Husqvarna 124C weed whapper, too. In total, we got the Z5426, a Poulan push mower, a new weed whapper and a 1000-pound dump trailer for under $3800 with 24 months to pay it off. That's pretty darned hard to beat. We bought it at Turney's Power Equipment in Chesterland, Ohio, where customer service was top-notch. Delivery was free, too.