Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fixing the Mantis Tiller

Leafy cucmbers at the Chicago Botanic Gardens veggie plot, at least ten days ahead of cucumbers here!

Fixing equipment around central Wisconsin generally requires a colorful vocabulary or 4-letter words. My Dad, a dairy farmer, has dozens of pieces of equipment. At any given time one of them is broke; or with over 50 wheels, not including my parents' car, has a flat tire. Unfortunately, my Dad does not have as much as a mechanical aptitude as you would think a farmer would have.

It came as no surprise last week, that my Mother would ask me to take a look at her riding lawnmower.

The spark plug was so caked and gummed up, it looked like it was original equipment on the 15-year old rider. My mother is a quick study. With a couple brief instructions she was able to take the Ziploc-bagged spark plug into town, return with a replacement, install it, and fire up her rider. But she was impressed. She was singing my mechanical aptitude to my Dad all day.

I am NOT "mechanical".

A spark plug's a spark plug. If you have the right tool and can get it out, you can replace it. Replacing it is not like "fixing" a 2-cycle engine. I hate 2-stroke engines.

When I was a kid, my parents wanted everything mowed. There was no riding lawnmower. The rider was a necessity for my mother when all the free kid labor finally left home. Now if she can't cut it with the rider, it does not get mowed. On top of all my other chores, I mowed grass a couple hours EVERY DAY, ALL SUMMER. Sometimes, I got behind! The lawn mower seemed to never quit or be broke down, and it was ancient.

Now it seems the 2-cycle mowers and the change to ethanol-gas fuels, I have nothing but trouble with little engines. Small engine mechanics pop up like dandelions in the small towns of central Wisconsin. I've noticed four-corners that would boast a bar in my young adulthood have small engine repair instead.

I am quite a weeder. I have cultivating with a hoe down to a science. I, along with two of my sisters, weeded 40 acres of cucumbers every early summer of my teenage years- twice! My favorite hoe has a triangular blade and I have it sharpened. It is deadly-- to weeds, little snakes, potato bugs. And I am fast.

But, my hoe is no match for the space between rows or quack grass. For that I need a tiller. The family garden was a field that has laid fallow for a number of years. It seems the weed of choice for this fallow field is quack grass. It has made the family garden a nightmare of weeding. For the most part, I have kept the 6"-8" in the row free of weeds with hand-pulling and hoeing. The space between? It's starting to look like a lawn!

Quack grass will succumb to repeated tilling and cultivating. Now that the tiller is finally running, and I spent four hours cultivating the family garden, instead of working on the tiller, I have hope that I will soon be putting up pretty pictures of the family garden effort.

Here's what I did to get my tiller to run:

This previous fall, I had the carburetor replaced. I add this tidbit, because my tiller is nine years old. I will add that when I got it back it did not have any "power", would not start when it was hot, and was not a quick starter like it had been when it was new. Pretty much the same stuff that was going on when I sent it in. I was not happy, nor was I ready to take it to another small engine mechanic.

I do not have a garage. Another tidbit, but perhaps important. It has always been stored in an open shed, the back of my pick-up, or wrapped in a tarp, but not in humidity-controlled spaces or a heated or attached garage.

Also, as you may have guessed, the spark plug is generally the first thing I try when "fixing" small engines. So, I will tell you the spark plug was new.

I had a mechanic that works for Luftansa Airlines take a look at it. He also does a lot of work for a local farm market on their 2- and 4-cycle engines. He could not fix it, but I worked with him while he attempted to fix it, and it gave me some ideas.

I also talked to some of the garden people over at the Sproutoff Forum. Landscapers and gardeners, who have an assortment of small engines to deal with. They gave me some basic information, too.

And I spoke to Dot at Customer Service at Mantis. She was nice, courteous, and sent parts to me as I requested them. And, since my machine was no longer under warranty, added some "not-company-disseminated information" that confirmed other things I was thinking and had read.

Finally, the guy at the Reilly Auto Parts store in Waupaca confirmed some things I had been intuiting about this whole escapade.

So this is the deal.

I sat down and read the manual, cover to cover. This is important. They write those things for a reason. There were a couple things I had assumed to be right, that weren't quite the way the manual said I should do them. I fixed those things, more or less putting the tiller back to factory specs. Someone had borrowed my tiller and wrapped the throttle and starter switch cords around the handles. Fixed that. I calibrated the high-low carburetor idle screws. I adjusted the throttle cable idle screw.

The starter rope had broke, so when I replaced that, I sprung the recoil spring. Do not try to fix that. Just order a pre-wound one and drop it into the chamber. Saves on those 4-letter words.

The Luftansa mechanic confirmed what I had thought; the air ports, carburetor ports, and fins and such, were clean enough.

Given that ethanol in gas actually starts to dissolve plastics, including the gas can (which are all plastic these days) and mine was nine years old; I got rid of it. Dot from Mantis and a few other people on a repair forum talked about a product called Seafoam. I used a half an ounce in a 32-ounce can of pre-mixed gas product, Tru-Fuel.

This comes in a stainless steel can with a refill line marked at 32 ounces. Dot recommended using premium gas (no ethanol) in the 50:1 ratio. The stainless steel can holds only enough gas for two tank-fulls of gas. I may buy a new one-gallon plastic gas container, but I will replace it with a new one every two years, as I learned, boaters do with their gas tanks. As the Mantis tiller has a plastic gas tank, I will never leave gas in its tank, but either run it dry or pour the gas back into the container. Why not get a metal gas can? I guess they rust and corrode, and that is just as bad for a small engine.

Along with good gas/air ratio I replaced the fuel filter and air filter.

This is probably the biggest thing I realized. It was starting to look like I had either a bad ignition coil or possible a loose wire. The coil is a fairly pricey part, around $100. I took off the starter assembly to check this out and realized there are two metal bars on the flywheel that make contact with the ignition coil as I pull out the starter cord and the rewind spring recoils the starter cable. These two metal bars were all rusty. I took 100-grit sand paper and cleaned these up.

Also, when I start it, I realized, the tiller handles should be tilted just a few degrees downward beause of the way the gas feeds into the carburetor.

Yesterday, I tilled the family garden for nearly four hours. I did not finish. When I went through the first tank of gas and was able to refill it, the tiller started. It did not stall. We haven't had rain for over a week now and it was dusty. I do need to check the air filter and clean the tiller up a bit before I till with it again, but I made a lot of headway.

I even took my brother's self-propelled mower and mowed the grass at the edges of our plot, blowing the grass away from the garden (weed seeds--NO!). I set up the irrigation head and watered. I removed the white fabric covers so the bees can pollinate the giant pumpkins. Blossoms are forming on the zucchini. Heads are forming on the cabbage, raddichio, and lettuce.

I did not use up my vocabulary of 4-letter words.


Pictures soon. Life is good.


  1. You are awesome! Good job on your "fixing"!! We have lots of blossoms on things, but little produce yet. It is hard to be patient!

  2. I am so excited I got it to work, too! But more than anything else, I wanted to share in case some other frustrated Mantis owner is out there! I hadn't seen info on the metal connections on the flywheel getting rusty, nor an emphasis on the whole ethanol issue.