If there is one common theme in the world of local authority grass cutters it's variety, from the smooth fairway of the local municipal golf course and those tricky roadside verges to the wilderness of local authority waste ground, reports Alison Campbell.

For each environment there's a different piece of equipment. The range extends from small petroldriven pedestrian mowers to heavy horsepower tractors. Clients will select machines on a variety of specific criteria such as environment, the type of finish and how often it needs to be cut. They may choose machines with the ability to collect grass to prevent areas becoming slippery,particularly important in areas used by OAPs. Noise may also be a significant factor particularly when cutting around nursing homes, hospitals and cemeteries.

From a machine perspective noise and vibration are important issues and local authorities must relate to HSE directives. Purchase price and depreciation are key factors and these are measured against the likely productivity of the machine in order to evaluate value for money.

The big issues

Fuel is also becoming increasing important with Biodiesel, and LPG offering cleaner and quieter operation - helping local authorities meet environmental targets. The use of LPG machines, for example, brings benefits to operators who find it generally more pleasant. In addition, lower running costs can have a significant impact on overall productivity.

From a logistics point of view, access to mowing areas is important and may influence a machine size and type, and transporting machines via road or trailer will bring further considerations as far as size, weight and safety are concerned.

LAs are restricted on budget and have to maximise resources, which has spurred manufacturers into introducing products with new productivity-based features such as fourwheel suspension available in new Ferris models from IPU. LAs are also under pressure from the public in many areas to collect grass cuttings.

For this, Amazone has introduced the Profi Hopper for combined cut and collect. “Grass is easier to recycle,” explains Joe Weston, sales manager from groundcare equipment manufacturer, Amazone. “So, many local authorities are cutting and collecting where they weren't before. Public expectation has changed and LAs are responding to that pressure.” He cites two examples: London Borough of Harrow has recently changed its policy to cut and collect as has Lanarkshire County Council in high profile areas.

Vehicle costs

Raymond Warrender, sales director at specialist groundcare and John Deere dealership, Alpha Plus in Inverurie, Scotland, disagrees: “Cut and collect is not so important, the problem being that you have to keep emptying trailers. Many LAs lengthened the grass cutting cycle from 10-18 days and were using larger engine vehicles to cope with the longer grass. However, many are now reverting back to a shorter cycle, cutting little and often so that they don't have to go to the expense of collecting and putting it into landfill.”

Whatever the view one thing is for sure, that there is no blueprint for grass cutting policy. It is as changeable as the weather and seasons and also at their mercy so manufacturers keep introducing new products. Renault, for example, has introduced the Celtis range from 72-104 horse power, which has 50% load balancing on each axle, making it lighter and better for aesthetic areas such as golf courses.

Another important issue is the lifetime cost of the vehicle.Reliability is obviously important here as is service and maintenance. Often these days dealerships are offering guaranteed fixed cost deals for 3-5 years, which whilst not necessarily guaranteeing quality or reliability, can provide considerable savings over the long term.

Machines of the moment

The Profi Hopper, favoured by Kettering, Harrow and Aberdeenshire Local Authorities, is Amazone's new ride on flail collector. It has a 24 horsepower engine, and was developed as a multi-purpose machine. It is claimed to be highly manoeuvrable, can be used as a mower, mulcher or fitted with hook on reversible flail sections for leaf collection or scarifying blades. Cutting height can be adjusted from 12mm - 100mm.

It has a high lift-emptying feature, controlled hydraulically, so that material can be discharged from a height of 1.85 metres. Whereas competing models use air-blown systems to get the grass into the collector, the Profi Hopper compacts it up to 900 litres. This system also means it has a good holding capacity for leaf material.

Environmental issues are also a concern. Not only do emission levels have to comply with European directives but local authorities are having to look after more wild areas to conform to environmental pressure. These areas are far more demanding on grasscutting machinery calling for heavy-duty machines.

The Celtis from Renault provides users with an alternative heavy-duty vehicle to the agricultural tractor. Ian Thompson, groundcare product manager, from Renault explains: “It's important that they don't just rely on agricultural machinery because in certain conditions, such as when it gets wetter, it will damage the ground. We've worked with end users to develop a range of tyres to suit different conditions.”

Most local authorities need a range of equipment to service all requirements but the advantage of a prime mover unit (tractor or tractor-type) such as the Celtis is that they are versatile. Many different attachments can be used to increase utilisation of the vehicle. This is not the case with self-propelled grass cutters, which may only be used during the grasscutting season and take up valuable shed space the rest of the year.

However, these machines have an advantage over larger, heavier equipment in that they're manoeuvrable making them particularly suitable for specialist cutting operations (golf courses, playgrounds etc.). But the Celtis has advantages too.

“It can also move faster on the road,” explains Thompson. “Typically at 40Km/hr, thus getting to and from jobs more quickly.” Local authorities which favour the Celtis include: South Lanarkshire, Highland Council (responsible for the largest landbase groundcare contract in Europe - and area the size of Wales, plus islands such as Skye).

A cut above the rest

As a prime unit the Celtis also has another advantage over its smaller self-propelled counterparts - a fully air-conditioned cab. “Health and safety is a major issue,” says Amazone's Weston. This includes vibration, noise and pollution levels. “The level of expectation is rising all the time but LAs are still greatly restricted on budget.”

New scientific studies and medical evidence suggests that the effects of pollen, pollutants, dust and dampness to operatives can lead to harmful and painful symptoms. The John Deere 2653 is a big seller to local authorities because it has three cutting units making it more manoeuvrable. It is also a mid-range machine, which means it can handle most conditions other than heavy duty. A key feature of the 2653 is that it can cope with wet and dry grass.

Alpha Plus's Warrender, says: “As far as value for money goes we may not be the cheapest on the market from day one but the cost of ownership is much cheaper over the long-term because of the issue of quality and reliability.”

Ferris mowers, supplied by West Midlands-based IPU Groundcare, are also popular with local authorities. Surprisingly inspired by the world of motor racing, Ferris has developed a unique suspension unit (IS Independent Suspension), which increases speed and comfort, improves safety and reduces wear and tear. Although not patented, Ferris also heavily promotes the Zero Turn advantage, which enables each machine to turn 360°. This gives the user manoeuvrability and agility in confined areas, around trees and shrubs or playground furniture. Increased performance should also lead to greater productivity.

Equipment for local authorities

From IPU Group the most popular machines are the Ferris IS 5000Z rider and pedestrian Hyrdrowalk. The IS 5000Z is unique in featuring four wheel independent suspension which helps increase the speed of cutting without creating discomfort or operator fatigue. This also reduces the knocks and bumps to the machine reducing the overall wear and tear on the machine.

The IS 5000Z comes with a powerful diesel 31hp CAT engine and is offered with a 61 or 72” rear or side discharge deck.

Kubota UK is also a leading supplier of groundcare equipment to local authorities. In the 1980s it introduced a new range of machines under the G3HST model, allegedly the UK's first water cooled, multi-cylinder diesel engine powered ride on with HST and shaft driven mid-mounted deck.

This range has now evolved: the GZD15 with zero turn and integrated collection provides optimum manoeuvrability. G2160 is described as the workhorse of the mowing range, and operators whose preference is for a cutting deck in front are choosing the F60 series. The AM series offers triple cylinder mowers.

The highest level of productivity is the ultimate goal and so it is essential to evaluate the overall performance based on output, cost and depreciation. Reviewing the options available would be best undertaken through field trials and demonstrations, which would offer an opportunity to try the different machines for real in similar environments to their intended use