Earthquake MC43 Mini Cultivator

PROS

  • Lightweight Tiller weighs about 30-35 pounds, so it's easy to store, move and maneuver. It's front-heavy with the engine situated the way it is, but light enough to carry into raised garden beds. One thing I noticed about this tiller versus other lightweight compact tillers is that this one doesn't seem to "jump" as much as other ones did when you hit hard soil, rocks or other obstructions. One of the manufacturer's YouTube videos attributes this to the design of the handlebars making a line from the user to the front of the tiller, rather than a straight bar from the user to the back of the tines. Not a physics major or anything, but in practical use, it did seem more stable and less bouncy. It may also have to do with the extra weight of the motor. Regardless, it did seem to spend more of its time in the dirt digging than jumping in and out.
  • Affordable Amazon lists it (as of this writing) at $229, though it can be found at many local retailers for less. I picked up one locally for $144 (not on sale). Electric tillers can often be same or more, and this one is far more convenient to use.
  • Easy to assemble There are absolutely no tools required to assemble this unit. None. You pull it out of the box and screw on the handlebar assembly with supplied screws that are easily hand turned. It really comes "ready to go."
  • Comes with its own 2-cycle oil No running to the store to buy oil to mix with the gas. It comes with its own 2.6 oz bottle of 2-cycle oil, so you're ready to go. (I'd recommend getting fresh gas to mix with this. It's pretty important to use fresh vs. gas you've had sitting around. The oil that comes with it has fuel stabilizer in it, which is nice. Manufacturer (Ardisam) recommends buying their brand of oil for this unit. Don't know if that's as vital, but it's like $3.99 at their website at [...]. Shipping from them tends to be pricey.)
  • Powerful No matter how much they stress that this is a cultivator and mainly for turning loose soil, this scrappy little beast has the power and will to get down and dig. They do, in their own YouTube video, recommend that if you're turning hard soil, you can turn the tines around so it digs better. You might not be able to chew up hard soil as quickly as a larger tiller, but if you're patient and take a few passes, you can really dig with this puppy. Our yard is compacted, clay-rich and teaming with roots. We have many mature maple and fruit trees in our yard, and there's lots of stringy roots in our soil. This tiller seems quite adept at slicing through those without hesitation so far. Have not had to clean out any tangled roots just yet, but I imagine it wouldn't be too difficult. May just take removing the tines. I would recommend doing one good pass, then a perpendicular pass to really get a good cultivation, since there's a little bit of space in between left and right sides of the tines (for the crankshaft). The tiller is also light enough that you can sway it side to side to get a full sweep of the area you're working.
  • Easily adjustable The tines come off with a simple cotterpin. The wheels slide up and down in three positions very easily too. The left side of the wheels' axle is spring-loaded, so you pull out to release it, move the wheels at will, then release to lock it. I like having the wheels, whereas other tillers like the Mantis don't. Makes it easy to move even when the tiller is turned off. You can pull them up out of the way if you really want to dig into the dirt. The throttle is variable speed too, so you can go slower to maneuver around delicate plants, or ramp it up when you need full power.
  • Has optional attachments Was using an Earthwise electric tiller before and it didn't offer attachments. Good thing that died on me and got me looking at this tiller. You can get optional dethatcher and edger attachments. Haven't tried them, but may in future.

CONS

  • Runs dirty That's just the nature of 2-cycle engines. Compared to an electric tiller, or even a 4-cycle engine, it burns off the oil and gas at the same time, so there was some noticeable exhaust when I first ran it. It subsides a little once it's running, but it is noticeable by smell even if not visually. I believe Ardisam is making a version of this tiller now that is 4-cycle, but it's more expensive. $144 for this unit was the right price point, and a damn good value. I'm willing to put up with some fumes now and again.
  • Runs loud Obviously, it's a 2-cycle gas engine. It's loud. I believe it's in the 90 dB range. Not a dealbreaker, but definitely wear your hearing protection. Maybe I was a little spoiled on the last electric tiller I tried, where I could use it near the house and you couldn't hear it inside. This one you can definitely hear it indoors even from the back of my yard.
  • Pull start is a little tight While I have no difficulty pulling the starter on this tiller, my wife, who is much smaller than me, could not pull it. For her it was tight and awkward to do while holding the throttle. If you doubt your ability to do the pull start, explore the electric start version of this tiller. It's a little more, but it may be worthwhile.
  • Manual Though the manual is well written and understandable compared to others I've seen, sometimes it can be of little help. I followed the starting instructions to a tee, down to the last detail, and I couldn't get this tiller started. Tried many times over a couple days, and nothing would get this tiller started. Was convinced it was defective, so I took it back and exchanged it for a new one. Again, did everything by the book, and couldn't get it started. Called the customer service number, and they offered a few "manual adjustments" to try to get it going. One was modifying the gas cap. Unlike the picture and description in the manual, both tillers I tried didn't feature the screw-vent gas cap, but rather a solid, standard gas cap. I'm not sure if this one is supposed to be self venting, but they wanted me to check for notches in the underside. I ended up just unscrewing my gas cap (which did relieve some pressure) then screwing it back in. They also wanted me to check the throttle cable adjustment and one or two other things. But the thing that seemed to make the difference was two-fold -- 1) priming the heck out of the thing, instead of the 5-6 pumps the manual recommends, and 2) pulling the starting rope in the "run" position rather than "choke" as the manual recommends. After doing those to things specifically, it started on the first pull. Not sure if I'll have to do that every time, but it worked on the first run. I then backed it off to "half choke" (in between choke and run) until it ran smooth, then back to "run" to get the full throttle power. (Note, you do have to hold the throttle down while pull-starting. I would recommend starting on a driveway or in the area you're tilling rather than on a lawn. Since you hold the throttle while starting, the tines will turn a little when it kicks over. Not a lot, but enough that it might ding your lawn.
  • Customer service The 800 number is only open Monday through Friday 8-5. Those are terrible, terrible hours for a power equipment company to have their help line available. A little bit later in the day, or maybe a few hours on the weekend, would be more helpful for people who work normal jobs to reach them. The person I spoke with was borderline rude, and got annoyed that I was calling from work and couldn't be home with the tiller to troubleshoot over the phone. I'm not 100% certain, but it seems more like you're calling their engineers directly than reaching a help desk. Whomever I spoke with certainly didn't seem trained in customer service etiquette. This was the biggest disappointment to me. Ardisam, the manufacturer, is a Wisconsin-based company and I live in Wisconsin. (Though I'm sure the tiller is still made overseas) I was hoping for a little more friendly experience.

Overall, now that I have this started, I'm very impressed by this tiller. I've used tillers of all kinds, from the large ones to the little electric ones and the Mantis. This one seems more "solid" than the electric ones I've tried, and I expect it to be more reliable than the Mantis. Had nothing but problems keeping that one going.

It's not the smallest compact tiller out there, but it looks like it has a ton of power in a still easily transported and stored chassis. This is a perfect size for us. We can easily toss it into the back of our minivan without disassembly, though we can easily unscrew the handlebars and tuck it away for the winter too.

With the extra starting information we've learned as a small caveat, I would certainly recommend this tiller to anyone. We have a 9x14" raised garden bed, and planting beds around our house. We also had a corner of our yard that was compacted and full of stones. This is the perfect size tiller for our needs.

ONE NOTE: I don't know if it would make a difference in price when you're considering buying this tiller, but this tiller seems to be available in various re-branded versions sold by other retailers. Northern Tool and Equipment offers this under the "Powerhorse" brand name (item #191170) and a blue color. DR also sells a slightly modified version of the electric start version of this tiller under the name "Mini-Rotohog," but their version is $80 more expensive than the Earthquake electric start (and they even claim that if you order now, they'll throw the wheels in for free -- a $60 value! What a deal!) Don't think Northern Tool carries the optional attachments, but DR sells the edger kit, which I imagine works on the Earthquake.

UPDATED 7/22/13: Well, this weekend was my first real prolonged use of the Earthquake MC43 since purchasing it, and it works just as good as I'd hoped and better! We did some substantial preparation for landscaping around our home, and this tiller has worked like a champ all weekend.

It has taken up a good amount of sod and pummeled our years-old compacted clay soil with gusto. It's obviously not going to dig as quickly and deeply as a rear-tine tiller, but if you're determined and patient, the MC43 will deliver. Take the wheels up and keep it moving and it will do an amazing job in even the most adverse conditions.

We tilled up a large landscape bed with some leftover bark mulch and PLENTY of overgrown weeds and other vegetation, and in the end, we have a nicely cultivated, ready to replant bed. It is truly amazing. At full throttle, this beast does do some hefty work. I did have to clear weeds and roots from the tines a few times considering I had such a gnarly bed to go through, but it was as simple as taking the tines off and pulling the tangled vegetation off the axle. No problem at all. Turning the tines "point forward" did definitely make a difference when you're doing harder work like taking up sod or digging up hard clay pack like mine. I have not yet tried it, but the axle does have two cotterpin holes on each side of the drive shaft, so you can have just two of the tines on at a time if you wanted a narrower tilling path.

One addendum to my notes about starting this model. For my MC43, this seems to be the magic starting sequence: 1) Set the choke lever to "run" and hit the primer bulb repeatedly - like 10-15 times. 2) Set the choke lever to choke. 3) Pull the starter once or twice until it sounds like it's engaging or almost starting. 4) Set the choke to "run" and pull til started (3-4 times does it). 5) Hold the throttle so it's revving but not turning the tines for about 30 seconds to a minute (to warm up). Then it seems to be ready to go. The manufacturer indicated that I should set it at half choke when it's started to warm it up, but it seems like it needs to be at "run" or it won't stay running. Sometimes I need to hold the throttle like #5 above to keep it running, sometimes not. I also find that, for me with the gas cap with no screw vent, I need to open it up first then re-close it to let it breathe. When I open it, I definitely sense a pressure release, so I'm sure this is important. 

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