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Springtime refresher on lawn-mower safety and maintenance

With homeowners in even the colder climes convinced of summer's approach, the gravelly whine of the power mower echoes through the land. As the race between mower blades and blades of grass begins, a springtime refresher on the basics of safety and maintenance may be in order.

First, the obvious. Never leave a running mower unattended. And always disconnect the spark plug when you finish the job or when checking for any operating trouble with the mower. It's a good idea to remove the spark plug when doing any repairs, because some mowers may start when you're turning the blades.

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If you have an electric mower, check the line cord for any fraying. Always check to see if the mower is unplugged before doing any repairs. Also, avoid wearing loose clothing that can be tangled in moving parts. Use extreme caution so that you do not run over the cord as you cut the grass.

If the engine won't start, it may be because the spark plug is worn or dirty. It's better to replace the plug at the end of the season or the beginning of spring. If you do not replace the plug, at least clean and regap the old one.

Clean the electrodes with a sharp knife and a piece of fine emery paper. Use a gapping tool to measure the opening (usually 0.03 inch) between the electrodes , as recommended in the owner's manual.

If servicing or changing the spark plug won't get the mower started, you'll need to check the fuel system. Leaving fuel in the tank during the winter storage period can encourage gum and varnish deposits to form and thus clog the fuel lines and carburetor. Even stale gas is a common cause of no-starts and stalling. One solution is to clean the lines, tank, and carburetor of the old gas.

If your tank has no drain valve, you may have to take the carburetor off and dump out the old gas or use a hand pump that's sold at many hardware and auto-supply stores. Next, get a can of power-mower Gumout and mix the proper amount with fresh gas. If you have a two-cycle engine, use a gas-and-oil mixture. Refuel with the mixture, choke the engine a couple of times, and wait about 10 minutes before trying to start it.

If you flood the engine (a strong odor of gasoline will be evident), wait another 10 minutes or so before cranking the starter again. Visually check the cooling fins on the outside of the engine to make sure the breathers are not clogged with dust, grass clippings, or other debris.

When fresh fuel doesn't start the engine, inspect the air cleaner for dirt. Removing the cleaner allows you to check the operation of the choke. On a cold engine, the small butterfly plate in the throat of the carburetor should be almost closed. Use your finger to see if the plate opens freely, then return it to the closed position.

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The owner's manual outlines the choke and carburetor adjustments. Follow the directions on how to tighten, adjust, or unjam the carburetor's linkage to the choke or throttle lever, or both, on or near the handle of most mowers. The manual will give details on how to clean or replace the air filter.

If you still can't start the engine, you'll probably have to take it to the shop.

General care of a mower is important, too. Thoroughly clean the outside of the machine. Scrape off any accumulations of dirt, dried grass clippings, and debris with a wooden or plastic stick. Use a one-quarter-inch dowel to reach any narrow places on the mower.

Use a stiff-bristle brush (not wire), rag, and a solution of soap and water to get rid of more stubborn dirt. A degreaser or denatured alcohol dissolves heavier grease and oil that may be coated to the engine housing and blade platform. Do not use gasoline, turpentine, lacquer thinner, paint thinner, or a dry-cleaning fluid on plastic. Rust or corrosion comes off quickly with sanding. Repaint these areas right away.

Oil the wheel bushings, except any plastic bearings, drive chains, drive gears, linkage rods, straps, or other pivot points. Check the drive-chain oil level.

Finally, apply auto wax to all painted parts so as to protect them and help them resist the accumulation of dirt.

Of course, the best way to make sure the mower will start in the spring is this: Do not neglect it in the fall.

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