Nothing Runs Like a Deere but the Starter Broke!

I'm not a natural mechanic but I aspire to learn everyday and I find the process of solving problems through consistent effort very rewarding. This busted starter was just another opportunity to learn about the workings of one of my machines and save some money in the process. Always fun to get grease on the hands. Here's the whole story....

The condition of the starter sprocket and clamp when I removed the engine cover.

I'm writing this approximately 3 weeks after the starter first stopped working. The day it happened I was taking 3 of my youngsters on an evening ride around the trees. We were at the bottom of the hill and I had turned the mower off so we could observe a deer just a short distance away. He was sitting in the neighbor's long grass with just his head sticking out, truly a great moment. When I went to fire the mower back up so we could finish the ride I heard the starter spin but it was obvious the gear wasn't engaging the engine's flywheel. The late winter winds were blowing and the sun was dropping quickly so I decided to unhook the trailer, leave the mower behind and walk the kids back up to the house with a heavy but determined heart. After the kids were (mostly) in bed I headed back down and used the last of the daylight to get the engine cover off and diagnose the situation. The picture above is what I found. I now know that the C-clamp on top gave way causing the gear, washer and spring to come apart. After looking up the price of a new starter ($25), I decided to just order a whole new starter.

Another night in the shop.

I covered the old girl with a tarp and left her at the bottom of the hill for almost 2 weeks, waiting for the new starter to arrive and doing some traveling for work. All the while that pasture grass just kept growing and this time of year, in "the grass seed capital of the world," it grows really fast. Big props to my neighbor who let me use his beautiful Husqvarna Zero Turn mower last week to keep the pasture grass manageable until I get my mower going again – wow what a mower that Husqvarna is!

Over the years my wife has learned that very few projects go exactly as planned, this starter replacement is yet another example. Here is how it all went down, as they say on The Bachelor , "this was my journey."

Issue #1: I ordered the starter on ebay from a company called DB electrical, although I hadn't yet removed the old starter (more on that in Issue #2) when the new one arrived it was obvious it wasn't the right one. The attachment points were on the top, not the back where the engine block has 2 bolt holes. To DB electrical's credit, the return went smooth and the new starter arrived a week later. We all make mistakes, they gave me great service. My tractor supply store wanted to charge me $115.00 for a new starter, online it was $25. I'm all about supporting local business but dang, thats too big of a discrepancy!

Issue #2: Getting the old starter off was quite the chore. My research showed other DIY mechanics have used flex sockets to get the 2nd bolt off, that just wasn't working for me, I could not get good access to bolt because, as you can see in the picture below, the old starter rotor/shaft assembly is too wide to get a wrench back there! VERY FRUSTRATING.

(I eventually grinded the whole shaft of the old starter off to get to that bolt. When I put the new starter on I used a flex socket and alot of elbow grease, not a well designed assembly!)

The out of focus bolt in the background was a big challenge.

Issue #3: While working around the starter with wrenches and pliers I busted the plastic oil dip stick assembly. $14.99 at my local John Deere supplier and I was back in business there. Nothing like working to repair one part and breaking another. Classic.

Pushing her up the hill! Channeling Walter Payton training videos.

Issue #4: In order to get the mower to a place where I could comfortably work on it and have access to all of my tools, I knew I needed to push it to the shop, I learned there is a transmission release button on the back that makes it much easier to push. I took all 4 kids with me on a sunny Friday to push it to the top of the hill and into the shop. The kids found it very entertaining that dad was pushing the mower and I enjoyed the exercise and the great weather.

Issue #5: While working around the engine cover I dropped one of the small bolts right down into the dip stick hole, so now there is a bolt in the oil pan. Not ideal but not a problem that will affect the operation of the mower. During next oil change I will try to get it out.

Where the bolt dropped in.

Issue #6: After installing the new starter I didn't have the difficult bolt I referenced above tight enough. This caused too much clearance between the starter gear and the engine flywheel. Soooo, immediately after my first attempt at starting the mower the teeth on the starter gear just touched the flywheel enough to get chewed up but not enough to start the mower. This was demoralizing...starter back off for the 3rd time! To fix this issue I replaced the new starter gear with the old starter gear by removing the c-clamp, cap, washer and spring and then I worked really hard to tighten the starter down aggressively. I also sprayed a bunch of WD-40 on the gear so it would rise when the starter rotated and fall back out of contact with the engine after engaging the flywheel (picture of new chewed up gear below).

What I learned:

-I didn't need to buy a new starter, I really only needed the gear assembly pictured at right.

-I need a set of metric sockets.

-Always cover the oil pan opening when the dip stick assembly is removed.

-The starter gear assembly needs to be well lubricated at all times.

The starter guard bent out of the way, the shaft ground off, the bolt accessible and fly wheel assembly others would probably remove.
New starter and dip stick funnel installed and fully functional.

The day the 2nd starter arrived was a big one around our house, after all I'd been through – getting the mower into the shop, borrowing the neighbor's mower, getting the starter off, breaking the dip stick assembly, dropping the bolt in the oil pan, chewing up the new starter gear – the idea of having our tractor running again had everybody pretty excited. Little did the kids know that it would be another 4 hours of work to get that new starter installed and working correctly.

In the end, the only way you can experience the elation of success is to first wade through the confusion and frustration of learning. As you can see in the video below, I was truly jacked when the mower fired up last night. Take Good Care.