DEAR MIKE: I pulled my lawn mower out of the garage for the first time this season and tried to start it up. The mower coughed and coughed. It wouldn't start but I sure did get a lot of exercise pulling the cord. What can I do to get the mower to run better? -- Steve S.
DEAR STEVE: Getting your mower started for the first time of the season can earn you a trip to the physical therapist. After 20 pulls, you want to roll the thing back into your garage and just call a landscaper.
Your mower can use a tune-up. This tune-up is easy and inexpensive, but it may not fix every woe.
The first thing to do is to get rid of the old gas from last season using a turkey baster. Properly dispose of the gas and turkey baster.
Before you refill the tank, get ready to change the oil.
Just as your car needs its oil changed, so does your mower. Your mower may have a drain plug underneath the motor (where the blade is), but most new mowers have only a filler neck for both adding new oil and draining the old.
If your mower has a drain plug, you will have to unscrew the plug and drain the oil into a pan.
If your mower has a neck, use a small bucket to catch the oil as you turn the mower on its side. Make sure you line up the bucket with the neck before the oil starts to flow. By the way, if your mower has a fuel valve, turn it off before you do this.
Once the oil has drained, turn the mower back on all fours and pour new oil into the neck.
Check with your owner's manual to see what type of oil to use. Most engines will take just over a half-quart of oil. The oil cap will usually have an indicator on it showing how much oil to add. The cap will have a small dipstick attached to it or it will have markings on the threads.
Don't overfill the oil. If you do, you will have to dump a little out. Add a little and check the level. It is a good idea to check this level throughout the mowing season.
One of the best things you can do to help your mower start with the least amount of pulls, and to get it to run better, is to replace the spark plug. Pull and slightly twist the spark plug wire to remove it. You may need a deep socket wrench to remove the plug.
After you have removed the plug, take it with you to the store to buy a replacement. Check with the owner's manual for the correct spark plug gap (the distance between the electrode and the tip of the plug). New plugs have a gap of .030 inches, but if your manufacturer suggests differently you will have to bend the tip closer or farther away.
Screw the new plug into the engine by hand until snug and then use a wrench to tighten it. Push the spark plug wire onto the end of the new plug.
The last step is to replace the mower's air filter. This is really easy. Newer engines have a pleated paper filter (like your car's, but much smaller) or a foam filter.
The paper filter will unscrew and then snap off. It is a matter of throwing out the old one, setting the new one in the cover and screwing the cover back on. Before you screw the cover back on though, clean it out -- you will find all kinds of debris in the end and around the sides.
For a foam filter, you can either buy a replacement or wash out the old one in some water and detergent. Regardless of which way you go, you will have to pour a little clean motor oil into the foam filter and squeeze it around. The foam filter will sit in a small metal cup and be held in place with a cap and screw.
Finally, put one foot onto the deck of the mower and grab the cord. Pray to the lawn mower gods that your mower will start on the first pull.