July 15, 2014

Forget cubic anything for the mower; go for torque

We used to buy lawn mowers based on horsepower. Now they are rated by cubic centimeters -- 140 cc, 190 cc, etc. I think manufacturers use this to confuse us, and, believe me, I am confused enough without any help.

-- T.N., of Collinsville

As that colorful St. Louis salesman Steve Mizerany used to say, "Don't be confused." So let me give you some simple advice from John Weissenborn, owner of Weissenborn Lawn Equipment, which has been in business for 65 years in Belleville: Forget the cubic centimeters. Instead, look for the "gross torque rating."

Oops, sounds like I've muddied the waters even more, haven't I? Well, let me try to explain it as clearly as John did:

I also remember the days when my dad would bring home his new Sears mower with the Briggs and Stratton engine that proudly championed its high-octane horsepower number. But those ratings fell off the tracks a few years ago when consumers claimed manufacturers were fudging the numbers.

In a lawsuit, lawyers claimed makers were giving one number to the public and another to the Environmental Protection Agency. For example, it said, B&S advertised one engine as having 6.75 horsepower while telling the EPA it had just 3.6. Since at least 1997, Briggs, Tecumseh, Kohler, Toro and Kawasaki all reported substantially lower numbers to the EPA, the suit alleged.

In their defense, the manufacturers said they had a solid explanation. They were giving consumers a number based on full-power capabilities while the EPA was given a composite number based on results at several different engine loads. Nevertheless, the class action lawsuit resulted in awards of $35 to $75 for hordes of people who had purchased a mower between 1994 and April 12, 2010. Horsepower numbers began to disappear.

They often were replaced by "cubic centimeters" -- the displacement volume of an engine's cylinders. But John says this number can be even more misleading. You see, there are two types of lawn-mower engines -- what John calls a "flathead" engine versus an overhead-valve engine.

"Flathead engines have many more cc's because they're not as efficient," he said. "They don't have the compression, they don't have the cooling and they have to detune them so they don't burn up.

"The overhead-valve motors are usually the ones with the smaller cc number. They're a higher compression motor and much more efficient on their flow of intake and exhaust. So even though they have fewer cc's, they're still putting out the same gross torque as a much larger cc flathead."

Ah, there's that word again -- torque. Unless you've taken physics, you may not be familiar with it, but basically it's the measure of force used to turn something like a wrench -- or a lawn-mower blade. Hopefully you can see where this is going: The more torque an engine produces, the more powerfully it's going to turn that blade. John says it's a more accurately measured rating of the engine than horsepower.

So, what you want to do is look for "gross torque rating," which you'll likely find on the sticker with the cc number and other specifications. And, it should look quite familiar, he says: It usually is within 10 percent of the old horsepower number.

Another tip from John: If you have a small yard with just violets, clover or other thin cover, you probably can get by with a gross torque in the range of 4 to 5.5. But if you're talking about lots of thick bluegrass, fescue and zoysia, you'll want at least a 6, 6.5 or higher.

My wife and I are going to a high tea Saturday afternoon at a friend's home. Could you give us tips for proper dress?

-- G.A., of Swansea

If it were me, I'd go formal: a clean Hawaiian shirt, new Bermudas and definitely my best Nikes, not flip-flops. But fortunately for your friends, it's not me, so I turned to our etiquette expert, Dianne Isbell, who graciously offered these tips:

You could probably get by with a sport coat and an open-collar white shirt, although Dianne knows her own husband probably would don a tie.

"If he feels more comfortable, wear a tie. It's always better to be a little bit overdressed than underdressed."

If your wife feels most comfortable in black, fine, but black is typically reserved for formal evening soirees, so a more summery look might be more fitting. A lighter-color floral dress -- not too casual and certainly no strapless sun dress -- might be better along with hose, mid-size heels and perhaps a fascinator or other small hat if you feel comfortable.

Most important: Enjoy yourselves.

"Good for them," she said. "I'm glad people are doing high teas again in their home."

Today's trivia

How long is the Grand Canyon?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: "Hair of the dog" now generally refers to having a drink in the morning to ease a hangover. But the term may have originated two millennia ago when Pliny the Elder recommended placing hair (or ashes) from a biting dog's tail on a dog-bite wound to prevent rabies.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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