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MONDAY 15th May
Most people with grass to cut will at least have heard of Flymo - I'm not entirely sure they INVENTED the hover mower, but their name always springs to mind, for fairly obvious reasons.
I've got quite a long thin garden, largely given over to grass, or 'nature' as it's sometimes known.
For various reasons, I'd left the first cut of the year too late this time (away all weekend, still raining etc - you name it, I had an excuse for it). In fact up to one week ago, I was considering buying a scythe.
Then three things happened.
a) My next door neighbour lent me his wheeled rotary mower with 4 hp petrol engine, which I then used at maximum cutting height to give at least a perfunctory haircut to my grass.
b) I then used my own trusty Flymo petrol hover mower to get it back to the more normal length - i.e. one where I could cut it again soon with said mower.
c) Part way through this second process, my 'trusty' Flymo let out an awful clanking noise and ground to a halt, refusing point-blank to be restarted.
From the noises it was making, it sounded terminal; maybe it'd hit one stone too many in its life and bent the connecting rod or crankshaft. All I knew was that it was vibrating like mad just before it died, and it had NOT run out of fuel. Early diagnosis could spot nothing obvious wrong - no blades worked loose etc
Therefore, since it was pretty old now, being some eight seasons of neglect away from being new, I set about buying another.
Well, what a surprise, Flymo don't make the same model anymore, and finding anywhere in an urban environment to fix a motor mower was problematical.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH WHEELS AND WIRES?
You may well ask why I want a petrol mower that's a hover mower specifically. Well firstly, I've found working a long garden with an electric mower just plain dangerous, constantly having to rearrange the extension lead lying on the ground, and secondly, my garden is so lumpy that a wheeled machine like my neighbours is most unsatisfactory to push as the fixed handle magnifies the bumps, making the whole process like keeping hold of a bucking bronco. The hinged handle of a hover mower allows the mower to float over bumps, leaving you holding the controls at a constant level. A petrol engine allows me the independence to mow where I like without constantly worrying about cutting a cable.
So another Flymo it had to be (just try finding any other petrol hover mower), and urgently, since I never did finish that second cut.
Using various search engines, I stumbled upon the Flymo XL500, a somewhat bigger machine than my previous version, with a 50 cm cutting blade (the previous effort had been 33cm I recall). It had a 5.5 hp Honda engine and was 4-stroke, so goodbye to mixing special oil in a bottle of petrol for its 2-stroke predecessor, and goodbye to blue smoke too!
I finally settled on www.gonegardening.com to buy from - the mower cost £329 from them, which was even lower than some Ebay 'nearly new' bids going on at the time.
FLYMO XL-500 FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Well my VERY first impression was along the lines of 'b****r me, isn't the box big?' as the DHL man struggled down my path with it - this didn't bode well for its weight either. Fortunately, the cardboard box itself was a heavy affair, and some of the extra payload was tools and engine oil. On its own, the mower weighs 15 kg, which is neither feather-light nor impossible to carry - don't forget that once turned off, any hover mower is dead weight, but then I knew that.
Having first ascertained that it hadn't been pre-loaded with engine oil by checking the dip-stick, and in view of the fact it was raining (again!), I opted to build what there was of it in the dining room, since it could always go out through the french windows later.
Fitting the handle in accordance with the pictorial instructions was fun (not) - you had to go through some indecipherable contortion to fit the foot pedal for raising and lowering the handle first, followed by inserting two nylon pins to secure the handle to its fulcrums on the orange dome that it the 'hovercraft' part. In retrospect, it was definitely a case of 'easy when you know how' but the diagram was of zero use.
Then you have to fit the upper half of the handle to bring it to operating length - I assume this process is reversible since they give you huge orange plastic wing nuts to fix this, and I can see that maybe you'd need to fold the handle in two, if putting the mower into the back of an estate car or van. They also give you some wire ties to secure the throttle and 'emergency power off' cables to the left hand side. If you are going to hinge the handle at any stage, make sure you secure the cables where they can't get pinched in the process.
Once you've ascertained that 'there are no bits left over', you really only need to sift through the paperwork to decide in which languages you need to retain the instructions. These are all in separate booklets, which makes it easy to 'recycle' the ones you don't want. At the end of this frenzy of polyglottal destruction, you should be left with a fold-out sheet from Flymo and a separate manual from Honda for the generic engine.
The only difficulty this presents is identifying who it should be sent to in the event of a fault. Since there's only a 1-year warranty, your first port of call will always be with the retailer, but should they have gone bust (no, surely not an internet company, Chris?), then your next port of call would have to be any Flymo agent waving your receipt as you go, I should imagine. Resist all attempts to get you to send it to Honda, even with a clearly identifiable engine fault - they want you to send them the engine alone! Shades of Haynes Manuals come to mind here - 'remove engine....'
The one remaining tangible 'bit' is a spanner for undoing the blade. There are two reasons why you need to do this on a hover mower. One is to renew or sharpen the blade and the other is to alter the cutting height. You cannot alter the height of the mower, unlike wheeled mowers, so you alter the distance between the blade and the ground using spacers, which you insert between the drive shaft and the blade. Flymo give you two more to augment the one that's in place by default.
There's no need to do anything to the petrol, unlike my old two-stroke mower - you just take off the fuel cap and pour the cheapest unleaded in until you reach the level marker - you must at least give it 0.6 litres I'm told, but don't ask me why.
Like a car, this engine needs the oil level checked. Neither the Flymo nor the Honda instructions mention sump capacity, but after pouring what seemed like a cupful of the supplied SAE 30 oil, the dipstick was starting to show reassuring signs of being wet with fossil resources. Unlike most cars, the dipstick screws back into place to seal the oil compartment - do not believe the first oil level you see on removing the dipstick. Wipe it clean and merely push it back to the edge of the screw thread without turning it, otherwise you'll get an overly optimistic view of the oil level and risk damaging the engine by running short of oil possibly.
There's nothing too difficult here.
Move the throttle control to the 'choke' position if starting from cold.
Turn on the fuel - it sounds obvious, but this was new one on me, as my previous machine just needed 10 squeezes of a 'teat' to prime the engine.
Return the main handle to its near-vertical position.
Put one foot on the lower bodywork of the mower on the marked spot. This is to stop the machine lifting when you pull on the starter. They also recommend that you lean the machine very slightly towards you to prevent a nasty swirl mark being left by the machine as it runs slowly. I avoid this by starting it on my patio and sliding it to the grass.
Hold the orange safety-stop bar against the main handle grip (letting go of this in action stops the engine PDQ).
Yank on the starter cable - my first try took three 'swings' but one of those was to find out what it felt like without months of physiotherapy afterwards.
It splutters into life, but after a few seconds, you can ease back the choke to the normal running position.
Restarting a warm engine seems even easier, as choke is not required.
Compared to switching on an electric mower, it might sound a right old performance, but remeber that I'm already coming from using a petrol mower.
MOWING WITH IT
Ah yes - the big question. Well, it's a hover rotary mower, with all that that implies.
Those wanting a bowling-green-stripe cut look elsewhere; this is strictly a 'stop nature taking control' machine. There's not even any kind of grass collection system which is now present on many hover mowers. However, with 140' of grass to scalp, and no use for mulched grass clippings, what care I?
The extra power is immediately noticeable - my little Flymo could get itself slowed down by long grass, and although it would cut, it hadn't got the heart to hover at the same time, which led to its being dragged a lot. This version definitely has 'wind' coming out from under it in all conditions, witness the green stains on my (now) gardening shoes when I cut wet grass.
The mobility is much improved, and you can even swing it in circles around you without pulling muscles in your waist you'd forgotten were there. It floats over undulations just the right amount, leaving the user detached from the bumps.
Despite the conventional wisdom that you should only push a mower, the fact that it floats on an air cushion with a hinged handle means that towing it seems to be a viable option too, which is useful, if at the end of a pass, you have little room to swing it round before returning. If anything, it hovers better like this, since there's always a tendency when pushing to force it into the ground, especially if you are tall and/or hold the handle high.
I've stuck with the default cutting height as this seems OK to me.
Initially, the mower left large unsightly clumps of cuttings all along the length of the garden, but this is partly down the magnitude of the job in hand, and partly because the grass has been wet to one extent or another for about two weeks now.
This is typical of the first forays into a garden with any rotary mower early in the season. When (or even if) the weather dries out, the best method of getting a better cosmetic effect is to cut little and often. Those clumps, which by then are dried out, get flayed into what is practically 'dust' and distributed more evenly over the grass as a whole. I can't bring myself to call it a 'lawn', meadow more like.
As with any mower, there's always a bit at the edges you can't reach. Since the cutting blade is circular but the body of the hover section is a 'TV screen' shaped oblong, there's about three inches at the edge and about six inches back and front that it can't touch. If the edge is a raised border, say a retaining wall or some of that 'log-roll' stuff, then recourse to a 'strimmer' is about your only course of action.
Flymo say that the machine can be used for prolonged periods on steep slopes, which would be good news for my uncle who has a steep bank downwards at the end of his garden.
Ironically, they also say that you should store it flat, which is a pain, as I've had to totally revamp the contents of my sheds (Just call me "Two Sheds Green") to accommodate it - I've a feeling that hanging it flat against a wall by its handle, as with my old machine, would lead to petrol seepage as the filler cap would be lowermost. If this is the only reason, then it's a poor piece of design, since turning the tank around would have no knock-on effect that I can see. Maybe having all the oil drain to one end could lead to seized engines on re-starting, who knows?
You can pay a bit more for the more luxurious XL550 machine. Technically, it's identical, but it has the extra advantage of a rear framework holding two wheels above the ground. This allows the mower to be handled like a porter's trolley back to its storage point.
Anyone not wishing to lug 15 admittedly well-balanced kilos back to the shed might like to note this.
A hovering mower creates draught, so it therefore follows that there's more to clean after use, especially with a petrol-engine, since there are several orifices that must not get blocked; the air intake to both the engine and the hover chamber being two. However, a perfunctory brush-up with an old brush as in 'dust pan and' keeps it in check.
The undersides of hover mowers do get a bit 'crusty', especially in the 'wet grass' season, so you need to clear this out. Sometimes, it's better to wait till just before next use, as it's easier to scrape it all out when it's dry, rather than find out the hard way that the wet mulch also contains next-door's cat's poo, which you so thoughtfully vapourised without knowing it. Once you've smelled it, it's too late!
THE GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS
Surgeon to Patient: I've got good news and bad news. The bad news is that we've removed the wrong leg.
Patient to Surgeon: What's the good news then?
Surgeon to Patient: The other one's getting better.
I know how he feels. Two days after I'd spent £329 on a new mower, I found out what was wrong with the old one and mended it - yes, it was a very obscure fault but no it wasn't the engine! The engine was trying to work itself loose from the plastic bits, hence the vibration. No need for a Haynes Manual here then - it removes itself!
Enter "Two Mowers Green"
Oh well, I could always tart the old one up a bit and put it on Ebay!
Having a bumpy lawn and a standard petrol mower, I'm quite familiar with feeling seasick while mowing the lawn as the machine bucks up and down over every little hole. That also removes the likelihood of achieving bowling green stripes, so a hover mower quite appeals. Mine would definitely need a grass box though, partly to prevent my children importing most of the mulch into the house on their feet but mainly because my cats currently seem to be engaged in a major poo war with other local felines. I normally spot the enemys' offerings in advance, but occasionally I miss them until I mow them up. Not so bad with a grassbox, but I really don't fancy exploded cat poo flying in all directions. Good, entertaining review as ever.
Bigbaz 16.06.2006 22:17
Lots of people convert redundant mowers and actually race them. You could join, that is assuming your competative or daft enough to have a go..Baz
Sweary 16.06.2006 10:08
Very amusing, still chuckling and also actually, rather helpful. Sounds good but I wouldn't buy one because I like to sit on my lawn... I therefore need something to collect the mowings that is not me with a rake (ie something that does it as I mow). Lugging them to the compost heap is a pain but not half as much of a pain as all that bloody raking! Great stuff. Cheers Sweary.