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Get Tuned Up | Summer 2006 Out Here Magazine

Maintenance is key to a small engine's long life

By Noble Sprayberry

No one wants to hear, particularly when chores pile up, the fitful chugging of a ragged engine on a mower, chain saw, or any other tool with a small engine.

Too often people spend time and money repairing engines rather than working, because they don't do basic maintenance, says small engine expert Marty Andrew, of Roswell, NM.

Andrew, who has worked as a mechanic most of his life, teaches small engine classes for 4-H members through New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.

"It's always been a love of mine," he says. "If something doesn't work, I want to see why and then fix it. And, to me, knowledge is not good unless it's passed on."

And when it comes to keeping small engines running, identifying the most important factors isn't difficult, Andrew says.

"The biggest thing is maintenance," he says. "Doing the scheduled, preventative maintenance is the key to the longevity of an engine, whether it's a big engine or a small engine."

And there's more to a good maintenance schedule for changing oil and air filters than simply following guidelines from owners' manuals. Manufacturers' recommendations consider optimum conditions — circumstances few engines enjoy in day-to-day chores, Andrew says.

"Most people don't operate under ideal conditions," he says. "There's heat, humidity, and dust, and all are adverse or abnormal for an engine."

Depending on the tool and the engine, maintenance schedules are gauged in days, weeks, or hours of use. Andrew suggests cutting the recommended schedule in half. If the manufacturer calls for maintenance every 10 hours of use, change the filters and oil after five hours of work, he recommends.

Without good fuel, though, engines can still disappoint. Gasoline older than about a month or six weeks can clog narrow carburetor jets and foul engines, Andrew says. When using a lawnmower, for example, don't buy more gas than can be used in two cuttings, Andrew says. "The fuel can start to go bad in the can," he says.

When keeping an engine in peak condition, don't forget the spark plug. Buy a gap gauge used to measure the space between the plug's electrodes. Check the manufacturer's recommendation for the gap range and set a plug's gap at high end of the range, Andrew says. This allows a hotter spark that results in a cleaner-burning, more efficient engine, he says.

These tasks don't mean spending countless hours. Basic maintenance on a lawnmower should require about 30 minutes, Andrew says. Two-stroke engines, such as chain saws and string trimmers, that use oil in the fuel mix rather than in a separate lubrication system may require only 15 minutes, he says.

Keeping necessary supplies on hand can fend off procrastination, particularly with a shopping trip just before the season in which an engine-powered tool will receive the most use.

"Make a special trip down to wherever you buy your supplies and stock up," he says. "Buy an extra plug or two and keep oil handy."

Noble Sprayberry is a freelance writer in Dallas.