The last of autumn’s leaves have been bagged, the flower beds put down for winter, and bulbs planted for spring. Before parking the lawn mower, trimmer, and edger in the garage, however, there’s one last lawn chore: winterize your outdoor lawn and power equipment.
According to Nick Mortellaro, owner and manager of Sterling Mower Repair, taking time now to properly prepare lawn equipment for idle storage will prevent costly problems and greatly extend the life of the machine.
“Most mowers should last more than 20 years, but without proper maintenance they often last only a few years before needing major repairs or even replacement,” says Mortellaro.
What’s considered routine maintenance? The most important step is to deal with the unused fuel, Mortellaro explains. Ethanol fuel that is allowed to sit is very damaging, particularly to carburetors, because it quickly corrodes rubber and plastic. Draining and burning off all unused ethanol fuel is critical, followed by filling the tank with ethanol-free gasoline that has added stabilizers and lubricant oils to protect rubber and plastic components. This is better than leaving the tank empty and dry. Once the tank is full, run the machine for five minutes before parking it for winter, to burn the last traces of ethanol out of the carburetor.
Non-ethanol gasoline is available for purchase by the can at auto and lawn stores, as well as at big box hardware retailers and auto shops, ranging from $7 to $9 a can. It is possible and cheaper to buy non-ethanol gasoline at the pump (currently about $2.60+ per gallon), but finding gas stations that offer it is a bit tricky. One way to search state-by-state for a station that sells ethanol-free gasoline is to visit the website http://www.buyrealgas.com, which also provides useful information on how to protect your gas-powered tools.
Sterling Mower Repair sells ethanol-free gasoline, with the bonus of being able to explain and talk customers through the process of protecting their valuable equipment. That personal touch of sharing years of experience on how to reach the right mix of fuel, stabilizers, and lubricant oils is why many local customers have never gone anywhere else for their mower maintenance needs.
Depending on the type of equipment, it’s also important to check/replace spark plugs, torque head bolts, clean cooling fins, replace air filters, lube cables and wheel adjusters, tighten loose bolts, change oil, check exhaust ports, adjust the carburetor, sharpen and balance blades, and clean the fuel tank.
Some owners are comfortable handling such tasks themselves, but for those who are not, Sterling Mower Repair has long stood ready to help.
A Sterling Landmark
Old-fashioned fix-it shops are a rare find these days, which makes businesses like Sterling Mower Repair so beloved. Established in 1972, Sterling Mower Repair is considered one of the last vestiges of what locals call “Old Sterling,” which is quickly disappearing. Originally owned by Roland Blue, the shop was bought in 1987 by employee Jeff Mortellaro (Nick’s father).
Nick Mortellaro grew up in Sterling and began working for his father at the shop when he was just nine years old, sweeping, taking out the trash, and other small chores. By age 13 he was learning how to fix motors.
The shop almost did not survive a major change in traffic in 2005 during a highway project termed the “Church Road Improvement.” Sterling Mower, along with other well-established merchants, suddenly became annexed by the new Route 28 overpass. Customers could no longer access the shops via Church Road, the new traffic routes were confusing, and business immediately dropped by as much as 60 percent.
“That was a hard time, and it’s how I came to own this place,” says Nick Mortellaro, who bought the shop from his father later that year. Discouraged by the decrease in sales, Jeff Mortellaro decided to retire, passing the reins of the struggling business on to his son.
Not only was Sterling Mower reeling from a substantial loss of walk-in business, it found itself suddenly competing with a growing base of internet suppliers for the sale of parts. Fortunately for Loudoun residents, Sterling Mower persevered by concentrating on what it does best: service.
A Focus on Service
“We finally recouped what we lost, and our numbers are good – the best they’ve ever been,” Mortellaro beams. “It’s because we’ve seen a steady and huge increase in service. We’ve developed a great returning customer service base.”
The Sterling Mower service department typically employs 8 to 9 full-time, certified, master factory-trained technicians who handle everything from minor tune-ups and maintenance to major overhauls and repairs of most lawn and outdoor power equipment. Last year they serviced more than 6,000 mowers and 1,500 snow blowers, in addition to a significant volume of maintenance and blade sharpening for the full spectrum of outdoor equipment, including generators and compressors.
Business comes not only from local homeowners, but from commercial lawn care services as well, which has the staff repairing and maintaining equipment of every imaginable brand and size. During winter storms, they aid the community by standing on call to provide emergency service for snow plows and salt spreaders. Although most customers drop off their equipment for service, Sterling Mower can pick up and deliver equipment for a fee.
Success has allowed Mortellaro to extend part ownership to Chris Dudley, who has worked at Sterling Mower since 1996. The simple, efficient, no-nonsense shop is looking forward to the introduction of a new showroom later this month, which is being funded entirely out of brand appreciation by Stihl Products.
Mortellaro is proud of the reputation Sterling Mower has gained through its “hometown” one-on-one relationship with its customers. Online reviews consistently praise the shop for its honest, fair, and high-quality service. A peek behind the doors of the massive warehouse reveals a breathtaking view of hundreds of mowers stacked in long rows from one end of the building to the other – evidence of how many customers rely on the skill and knowledge of Mortellaro’s team.
Do they ever have to turn a mower, snow blower, or other machine away? “Maybe one in ten,” says Mortellaro. There’s a $40 minimum diagnostic fee, but if the technicians decide it would cost more to fix the machine than it’s worth, they will let the customer know. Although appointments are not necessary, repairs can take between one to two weeks.
New Machine Sales
Besides repairs, maintenance and service, Sterling Mower Repair sells new equipment, too. The showroom has a wide array of new lawn mowers, snow blowers, chainsaws, edgers, trimmers, leaf blowers, and arborists supplies, as well as oversized rakes and traditional snow shovels. Mortellaro admits they sell better brands of lawn mowers, but if cared for properly they should last between 20 to 25 years.
He recently put in a large order for new snow blowers, which typically sell out during the season’s first storms. Although they service all brands of snow blowers, they sell only Toro brand. Before purchasing a snow blower, customers should consider their needs and storage space.
The internet has abundant information about what to look for when shopping for snow blowers, but the typical decision is whether to go with a single-stage or two-stage gas blower. Single-stage works well enough for level paved driveways and sidewalks, as long as the snow is no deeper than eight inches. Clearing deep, heavy snowfalls, or long, wide surfaces, or gravel driveways, will require a two-stage blower propelled by engine-driven wheels.
Mortellaro says his knowledgeable staff can walk customers not only through purchase decisions, but can teach them how to care for their equipment so it will work for years to come. “That’s why we’re here – we like interacting with our customers, getting to know them,” says Mortellaro, as he cheerfully hoists this writer’s Sears Craftsman mower into the back of her van, cleaned and ready for Spring 2018.
Sterling Mower Repair, 22005 Shaw Road Sterling, VA 20164 http://www.sterlingmower.com 703-430-3989
Store Hours: Tuesday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.