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March 2009 Archive for In the Shop

RSS By: Dan Anderson, Farm Journal

As a farm machinery mechanic and writer, Dan brings a hands-on approach that only a pro can muster. Along with his In the Shop blog, Dan writes a column by the same name as well as the Shop Series for Farm Journal magazine. Always providing practical information, he is a master at tackling technical topics and making them easy for all of our readers to understand. He and his wife, Becky, live near Bouton, Iowa.

In Search of the Elusive Battery "Draw"

Mar 29, 2009

 Got a battery in a piece of equipment that drains down overnight? If you're certain the battery is okay--proper levels of electrolyte, with all cells functional--then here's how to pinpoint the "draw."

Tests for draws--or whatever you call undesirable drains on the battery--are conducted on the negative (ground) cable of the battery. If the machine has two or more batteries, find the main battery cable that grounds all the batteries to the machine's frame. Find that battery cable, then make certain the key switch is off and all monitors and peripheral electrical systems, etc. are off.

If the battery(s) drain down in a matter of hours, it means there are a lot of amps disappearing, so any test equipment must be capable of dealing with at least 10 or more amps. There are induction testers capable of handling hundreds of amps. These testers have jaws that open so you can clamp them around the negative battery lead. Once clamped around the negative lead, they magically read the amperage passing through that cable. With the key switch off, an induction-type amp meter should read "zero." Readings of more than one amp confirm an electrical problem.

If the battery(s) go dead over several days, then the drain is probably less than 5 amps and a standard voltmeter with amp-testing capabilities can be used to diagnose the problem. Use the voltmeter's owner's manual to configure the test leads into the HIGHEST amp-load test ports--usually a 10-amp port. With the voltmeter configured to read amps/milli-amps, disconnect the negative ground cable from the vehicle's ground point. Touch the positive lead of the voltmeter to the disconnected ground cable. Touch the negative lead from the meter to the grounding point where the cable was previously attached. With the voltmeter completing the circuit between the vehicle and the battery, if there is a drain/draw on the system it will show up as an amp reading on the meter.

If the drain/draw is in the milli-volt range, it may be necessary to reconfigure the voltmeter to read milli-amps. It's best to always test for amps before testing for milliamps. Using a voltmeter configured for milli-amps to test a circuit with a multi-amp drain will destroy cheap voltmeters and at a minimum burn out internal, replaceable fuses in higher-quality voltmeters.

If placing a voltmeter/ammeter "in series" with the ground circuit of the battery reveals a load of more than 5 or 10 milli-amps when the keyswitch is off, there is a drain in one of the vehicle's electrical systems. Three to five milli-amps of load is generally acceptable.

Modern tractors

, combines and trucks have computer systems that must be constantly energized, so there will always be a slight load on the system, even with the keyswitch off. Don't be concerned if the voltmeter/ammeter briefly shows more than 5 milliamps when first connected to the ground cable---computers that are dormant in the absence of battery power briefly use a few extra milliamps to reboot when power is reintroduced. Their power use should decrease to minimal levels within 10 or 15 seconds of power-up.

Once a drain on the batteries has been proven, with the volt/ammeter connected between the ground cable and ground point, locate the machine's fuse block and methodically pull every fuse while watching the amp reading on the meter. When you pull a fuse and the meter reading drops to near-zero, you've identified the circuit with the problem. Once you know which circuit is the villain, methodically disconnect connectors or components of that circuit while watching the ammeter to narrow down and identify the exact location or cause of the drain on the batteries.

Things Your Daddy Taught You

Mar 24, 2009

Growing up around farm equipment has made many of us blind to the free education we received. It's only when we spend time around folks who didn't grow up working around and on machinery that we appreciate the basic mechanical knowledge we take for granted. Here are a few true stories about non-farm folks who came to farm equipment dealerships trying to get parts for lawn mowers and other mechanical gadgets:

-A well-dressed man wanted a new battery for his riding lawn mower. When the parts person placed the correct battery on the counter, the man firmly stated that it was the wrong battery because, "on my battery, the terminals were on the back side." The parts man thought for a moment, then took the battery to the back room, waited a few minutes, then carried the same battery back up front and placed it on the counter with the terminals facing away from the customer. The customer left, satisfied.


A parts person sold an air filter for a small tractor to a city dweller

who had purchased an acreage and wanted to be a "farmer." The wanna-be farmer soon returned and complained loudly that the parts man had given him the wrong filter, because the tractor wouldn’t run after the filter was installed. When the parts person removed the plastic bag that the filter came in to see what could be wrong, the customer got a funny look on his face, grabbed the unbagged filter and disappeared out the door.

-Riding lawn mowers are nightmares for parts people. There are hundreds of models that each require unique belts, sizes and lengths. Mechanically-challenged customers routinely don't know the model or serial number of their mower, and frequently insist that the parts person simply give them a belt because, "all the belts are basically the same." One savvy parts man keeps the separator drive belt from his manufacturer's largest combine underneath the parts counter, and when he gets the familiar statement, "All belts are basically the same.." he hoists that monster belt onto the counter and says, "That'll be $180. Cash or charge?"

-An urban customer sent his wife to a dealership to get a major drive belt for the belly mower on his utility tractor. The parts man gave the wife the correct belt, but within an hour the man himself came storming through the door. "You gave my wife three short belts, and I needed one big, long belt," he complained. The frustrated parts man checked the part number printed on the belt to confirm that the belt was correct, then uncoiled the looped belt and began to measure it. The customer stared at the uncoiled belt, grabbed the belt and headed out the door without another word.

Never underestimate the wealth of mechanical knowledge that you have acquired simply by being a farmer. Things that you do without a second thought, repairs that you make routinely, even the simple knowledge that, "right is tight, left is loose" are mysteries to many folks who didn't have the blessing of growing up on a farm. 

Six Ways To Increase Yields

Mar 23, 2009

We're venturing out of the shop this time and following our handiwork to the field. All the careful maintenance and adjusting we do to planters in the shop is wasted if the operator doesn't take time to match planter settings to soil conditions. Here are six critical adjustments. Do them right and they optimize yields. Do them wrong and you're looking at up to 10 bu/ac yield reduction:
  1. Level the planter. The planter frame tube between the tractor and the planting units should be parallel to the ground and the two parallel linkages that connect each seed box/row unit to the planter main frame should be roughly parallel to the ground, when the planter is in planting position. If the planter isn't level, the disk openers, gauge wheels and closing wheels won't work together as they need to for optimum seed placement.

  3. Set row cleaners/residue managers to skim the soil and move only residue. Set those devices too deep and they move soil, which creates trenches that degrade accurate seed depth, and encourage erosion. Going through the field, one-third of the row cleaners on a planter should NOT be turning. In other words, an individual row cleaner should NOT be turning one-third of time.

  5. Avoid using too much down pressure on row units. Excessive down pressure forces the gauge wheels against the soil beside the disk openers, packing the sides of the seed furrow. I've got photos of corn that's knee high where the roots are intertwined and running parallel to the row, with little root development between the rows. The cause? Excessive down-pressure on the gauge wheels that packed the seed furrow walls. Quick test for down pressure: with the planter lowered in the field, try turning individual gauge wheels by hand. You should be able, with effort and two hands, to turn a gauge wheel 1/4 turn when it's pressing against the soil.

  7. If you use seed firmer wands: If you see mud clinging to the plastic wands, either stop planting or remove the wands. If mud is sticking to that super-slick plastic, it's probably too wet to be in the field. But if circumstances require that you plant into less than optimum soil conditions, remove the wands until conditions dry. The bits of mud sticking to the wands will drag seeds in the furrow and disturb accurate seed spacing.

  9. Use only enough down-pressure on closing wheels to close the seed furrow. It's tempting to pack the seeds into the furrow with extra closing wheel pressure, but compacted soil is the enemy of seedling roots. Dig behind the planter. If the screwdriver or digging tool requires effort to dig down to seeds, or if the soil moves in chunks, reduce closing wheel down-pressure.

  11. Dig in every field. Dig several times in every field. Modern tractor cabs full of sophisticated seed monitors, autosteer, and planter perfomance monitors make it easy to do everything from the cab.  Every field has different soil, and many fields have soils that vary from one side to the other. The ONLY way to know if seeds are being accurately placed into the soil is to dig, dig, dig.

I've noticed that retired farmers--fathers, uncles, neighbors--who want to be part of spring planting but no longer operate equipment make EXCELLENT planter monitors. Give them a digging tool and a chart of how deep, and the correct seed spacing for each field, and tell them they're in charge of planter accuracy. They LOVE getting on the cell phone or CB radio and telling the planter operator that they're doing something wrong. It may be hard to stop planting long enough to make adjustments and satisfy those old gentlemen, but next fall you'll be glad you did.

Everybody Talks About "Picket Fence"...

Mar 14, 2009
March is the month when every farmer makes plans to plant his corn so he has a "picket fence" final stand--every stalk perfectly spaced from its neighbor. And every April I witness two shifts in that attitude.

The first comes when farmers discover the cost of prepping a planter to provide maximum accuracy. It's one thing to pay the price for keeping a 6-row planter in tip-top mechanical condition, but when modern farmers start pricing the cost of doing optimum maintenance on a 24- or 36-row planter, checkbooks get a real workout. Disk openers, gauge wheel tires, scrapers and other components need to be replaced LONG before they're actually "worn out", IF you want to optimize planter performance. Worn, maladjusted parts work just fine if you want to simply "plant corn." Picket fence stands require parts with no play, no slop, no wobble, and that means worn parts accurately adjusted and in many cases, new parts.

The second shift in attitude comes when planting season actually arrives. It looks like it's going to be another cool, wet spring in the midwest this year. Guys are going to be pushing to get the crop in, and it's going to be difficult to hold planter speeds to 5.5 mph. That's the magic speed for optimum speed spacing no matter what brand of planter you use. Guaranteed. By the 15th of May I see tractors cruising at 6, maybe 7 mph. It's always interesting to go back and check the stands in those fields, once the crops emerge. 

So between the cost of making a planter mechanically perfect, and the urge to get planting done as quickly as possible, picket fence final populations quickly fall prey to simply, "get it in the ground." With that in mind, here are the things that I as a farm dealership mechanic consider the absolute minimums to getting the best stand possible, once "picket fence" has been thrown out the window:

-Vacuum meters/finger pickup-up meters: Run the units on a test stand. Test stands identify minor mechanical problems with finger units, and pinpoint proper vacuum settings for specific sizes and shapes of seeds for vacuum meters. For vacuum meters, it's critical to match each size/shape of seed you're going to plant to an optimum seed plate and vacuum setting, even if you're using those special aftermarket or OEM seed plates, knockout wheels, etc. 

-Make sure residue cleaners, disk openers and row unit gauge wheels are mechanically sound. Residue cleaners should spin freely, with no bent times. Gauge wheel tires should lightly squeegee mud and debris from the sides of disk openers to create a crisp seed furrow wall--gaps between the tire and disk opener allow dirt and debris to fall into the seed furrow and compromise uniform seed depth.

-Drive chains should turn freely without jerks and kinks that jar seed units. Many "skips" in the first fields planted each year can be traced to minor kinks that developed in chains during off-season storage. Each time the kink goes around a sprocket it jars the seed unit a bit, and that impact can dislodge seeds held against seed plates on vacuum units. Eventually the chains loosen up after a couple hundred acres, and the farmer blames cold ground, wire worms or cutworms for the uneven stand in the first fields he planted.

-Finally---if at all possible, become religious about holding planter speed to 5.5 mph. That curve in the seed tube, the plastic tube that delivers seed between the metering unit and the seed furrow? It was designed for 5.5 mph. Going faster encourages seeds to tumble when they hit the seed furrow, which messes up seed spacing. Faster ground speeds also increase overall bounce and movement of the planter and its individual row units. As the row units jerk up and down, the movement can cause seeds to ricochet off the walls of the seed tubes, and every ricochet slows the seed's fall and disrupts accurate seed spacing.

In my next post I'll look at some common in-the-field planter maladies that not only destroy picket fence seed spacing, but just plain reduce final yields even before the crop has emerged from the ground.

Selective Tool Shopping

Mar 08, 2009
 I admire and envy mechanics who have toolboxes filled with complete sets of every imaginable socket and wrench. I confess I have full racks of metric wrenches and sockets from 8 through 32 mm, and standard wrenches and sockets from 3/8 through 1 1/4 inches. But after that things get sketchy. 

For example, I have only 5 impact wobble sockets: 10, 13, 15, 18 and 24 mm. Those are the sizes most often used on the equipment I work on, and I couldn't justify paying to have 9, 11, and other odd-sized metric wobble sockets that I'd rarely use.

I've done the same thing with 3/4 and 1-inch drive impact sockets. The price of a full set of those sockets, from 1 1/14 through 2 1/2 inches, or their metric equivalents, will just about stop your heart. So I went cheap again and purchased only the sizes that I use frequently. My rule is that if I need a socket or wrench more than three times in a year, then I need to buy one. The result is that my toolbox is a ugly hodge-podge of wrenches and sockets from dozens of manufacturers. But they seem to get the job(s) done.

I confess to buying complete sets of angle-head wrenches and crowfoot wrenches. Angle-head wrenches are wrenches with a conventional 15-degree open-end wrench at one end, and the same size open end wrench at the other end of the handle, but at a 90-degree angle. Crowfoot wrenches look like the cut-off ends of conventional open-end wrenches, with square holes at the base of the wrench head. By putting a 3/8- or 1/2-inch drive extension in that square hole, you can reach way back into odd cavities and awkward spots to deal with nuts and fittings impossible to access with conventional flat wrenches or sockets. Engineers seem to enjoy using odd-sized fittings and nuts in the most remote or awkward places. I compromised and bought economy-grade, off-brand sets of angle-head and crowfoot wrenches, so I'd have tools to fit all those odd-sized engineering surprises.

I'd really enjoy having matched sets of every possible socket and wrench. It would be cool to have neat rows of sockets and wrenches in graduated sizes, all of the same brands. But I've managed to save money by buying only the sizes of specialty tools I use most often, and learned to accept the junky, uneven appearance of my toolbox. Some of my co-workers call me "cheapskate" or "tightwad." I consider those terms compliments. 

I'm Wearing Your Shoes This Week

Mar 02, 2009
 As the old saying goes, "The shoe is on the other foot." I had to take to a local dealership for repairs the old Ford F150 that's my personal daily driver.

(Someday I'll write a blog about why I pay to have other people fix my personal vehicles. For now, let it suffice to say I'm intimidated by the complexity of my wife's late model SUV, and too lazy in my spare time to fix the rusty, battered pickup that I drive to work every day.)

Anyway. The truck needed multiple repairs for multiple leaks. Knowing what I know about mechanics' commissions, flat rates, dealership policies and other factors, I didn't explode when they handed me a 4-figure repair bill. I asked a few pointed questions, pointed out some small inconsistencies they assumed I would passively accept, but ultimately paid the bill. I was therefore not happy the next morning when there was a bigger pool of oil beneath the truck than before repairs were made. 

My first impulse was to get nasty. After considering how I as a mechanic react to nastiness, and how my service manager reacts when customers get nasty, I calmed down and did some homework. I grabbed wrenches, got under the vehicle and determined where the leak was originating, what was causing it, and what it would take to fix it. When I contacted the dealership's service writer and told him there was a problem, I listened patiently while he gave me his well-practiced list of exemptions, excuses and explanations. Then I told him exactly and specifically what wasn't right, what it would take to fix it, and what I expected him to do about it. 

Presented with a calm recitation of facts and expectations, he paused, thought about it, and said they would pay for all the re-work and give me a loaner vehicle to drive while my truck was in the shop. The truck still isn't repaired, and there's a chance they may muck up their re-work, but at least I'm comfortable with the efforts they're making to satisfy this customer.

Being methodical, patient and calm about botched repairs wasn't fun. It would have been much more fun to go in there and rant and rave and vent the frustration I was feeling. But I've been on the receiving end of that sort of display, and know that it generally doesn't gain anything, and often causes more problems than it solves. I've learned to take the less-fun but more productive approach of calm, logical and friendly when I'm the one paying for repairs. 

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