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January 2010 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.

When The Spark Is Gone

Jan 31, 2010
 Cold weather brings to dealerships and auto parts stores a parade of customers bearing batteries. Customers assume a quick test will determine whether their batteries are "good" or "bad." 

The truth is that there is no simple, quick test for batteries. Tests conducted by a major farm equipment manufacturer showed half of batteries warrantied as "bad" were actually "good, " but merely undercharged, low on fluid or had been tested incorrectly.

I'm not a battery expert but have learned a few facts that help me do a better job when testing batteries.

-Batteries should be fully charged before testing. Make sure all cells are filled to the proper level. (Never add acid to a battery. Add only water, and distilled water if possible.) Use a "smart charger" that slow-charges batteries, monitors their condition and automatically ends charging when the battery is at capacity.

-Use a quality battery tester. The shiny chromed battery chargers with slots on the sides that look like cheese graters are "okay" for testing small car batteries but inadequate for testing tractor and farm machinery batteries. The best way to test high-capacity batteries is with a carbon pile load tester. Such testers can be adjusted to put a simulated load on batteries, and do an excellent job of identifying batteries that test "good" but fall on their face when an actual load is applied. FYI, carbon pile battery testers capable of testing farm batteries range from $500 to $700. 

(There is a new breed of digital battery testers on the market priced from $50 to $200 that claim to be able to load-test large batteries. I'm uncertain if these lightweight and convenient testers can compare to good ol' carbon pile testers. I've got a mid-range digital battery tester, but haven't yet passed judgement on how trustworthy it is. When in doubt, I still drag out a carbon pile tester.)

-Even if a battery tests "good", check it with a hydrometer. Battery hydrometers check the specific gravity of battery fluid. A certain percentage of batteries test good, but fail under load because the battery fluid is off-kilter. 

Like I said, I'm not a battery expert. But I've learned that REALLY testing a battery takes time. Time to allow it to fully charge, time to use a quality tester to load-test it, and time to double-check the battery's condition with a hydrometer. If you haul a "dead" battery to your local battery retailer, slam it on the counter and ask for a "quick test," there's a 50-50 chance you'll walk out with a brand new battery, whether you need it or not.

Not because they're trying to shaft you, but because you asked for a quick test, and the quick test said your battery needed replacement. Sometimes you get what you ask for.


Ridding Shops Of Mushrooms

Jan 24, 2010
 We've all got a few mushrooms in our toolboxes. Best examples are old, abused cold chisels with their heads "mushroomed" after thousands of hammer blows. The heads of punches, crowbars and cheap sledge hammers often "bloom" in the same manner. Some winter day when you're less than busy and messing around in the workshop, take time to put on a pair of goggles or a face shield, a pair of thick leather gloves, and carefully grind away those mushrooms.

It's a petty thing, and I have to force myself to do that chore about once a year on my own tools. But a couple scars--one on the back of my left hand and one on my right cheek-- help remind me. On two occasions I was pounding on a chisel or punch and a piece of the mushroomed head broke off and embedded itself in my flesh. Both chunks of metal were ragged, sharp-edged and about 3/16-inch in diameter. Both drew blood and both produced unmanly whimpers when I used a pair of tweezers to dig them out of my hide. The one in my cheek drew special attention because it glanced off the edge of my safety glasses. It would have been much more difficult to have plucked it out of my eye.

So now I make a point of grinding away the mushroomed edges of chisels and punches on a regular basis. A smarter man would have learned after the first time he lost blood to a mushroomed tool.

Midwinter Annoyances

Jan 17, 2010
Everyone has personal pet peeves about working on machinery. One fellow mechanic (oddly, for a professional mechanic) detests having grease on his hands. Another mechanic works on hay balers and manure spreaders without complaint, but avoids working on combines at every opportunity. 

My mechanical pet peeves are small, but odd. For example:

-Battery clamp bolts make me throw wrenches. No matter how much grease or protective gunk I put on battery bolts, they always end up corroded and needing replacement. They're always rotted,corroded, frozen into place. In my mind and according to our flat rate book, it should take 10 minutes to replace battery bolts. It annoys the heck out of me that my average time to replace a couple lousy battery bolts is 45 minutes.

-I have never used a "trouble light" without wanting to cuss. I've frequently mentioned in past blogs battery-powered trouble lights, corded trouble lights, LED trouble lights and other shop lights. Probably because of my quest to find a portable, powerful, durable shop light that shines where I want it. No matter what I try, it seems every portable shop light ends up shining IN my face rather than on the area where I'm working. And if I get it rigged to shine where I want, it inevitably falls or gets knocked loose and breaks when it hits the floor. 

-Phillips-head screws are an evil invention. If there are 6 Phillips head screws holding an instrument panel in place, it's a sure bet that one of the last two screws I remove will strip out the head. I know that Phillips head screws are supposed to be an improvement over regular slotted screw heads. All they really do is get my hopes up that I might actually remove screws without problems. 

-I dislike buying the same tool over and over.  Modern electrical connectors--those big 32-pin connectors so common on tractors, sprayers, combines and modern planters--require a special tool to remove damaged pins. The special tool in many cases is a small, thin-walled plastic "pin pusher". It's unusual to remove more than three or four pins before the plastic pin pusher self-destructs and I have to practice my vocabulary of Sunday School-acceptable exclamations at the prospect of buying another set of those wonderful, self-destructing plastic pin pushers.

-Engineered inconvenience annoys me. The kind of situation where you have to lay underneath a machine then reach arm's length up inside to unscrew the drain plug. There's no way you can unscrew the plug the last turn and get your arm out of the way before oil gushes all over you. Some Kenworth trucks with Cummins engines have engine crankcase drain plugs guaranteed to give you a bath of crankcase oil. The hydraulic oil reservoirs on John Deere self-propelled sprayers were designed by sadists who enjoyed knowing mechanics would drown in in hot oil every time they tried to drain that reservoir. They even routed hoses and other plumbing beneath the drain plug so experienced mechanics can't install an extension pipe to put the actual drain plug in a sane location. 

I guess all these annoyances are just opportunities to practice using those Sunday School-approved euphemisms. And I've been getting a lot of practice, lately...


MIG Welding On Big Equipment

Jan 13, 2010
 MIG welders are great for farm repairs, but have one downfall: their ground cable and welding hose/cable are often less than 10 feet long. That makes welding inside combines or on the inner frames of big tillage equipment difficult.

The problem is that it's difficult to "push" wire from the spool in the welder through more than 10 or 15 feet of wire guiding-hose. An alternative is to use a spool gun attachment to extend the reach of the MIG unit.

Spool guns have 20 or 30 feet of cable/hose to feed power and inert shielding gas to a gun-like assembly. A small 5-pound roll of welding wire is spooled on the rear of the gun, and the gun's trigger activates that spool to feed wire during welding. 

Spool guns are commonly used for aluminum welding, since it's difficult to push soft aluminum wire very far. The spool gun I've been using is a Miller Spoolmatic 15A hooked to a Miller 212 Autoset MIG welder, spooled with .025 steel wire rather than aluminum wire. We rigged our regulator with a T-valve so we can supply gas to either the 212's regular .035 wire gun, or send gas to the spool gun's nozzle. That lets us use the "big MIG" for most of our welding, and the spool gun for long distance welding.

One concern with using a spool gun to weld on big equipment is that the welder's ground cable is still only 10 feet long. So the potential for shorting or "spiking" power through any computers or circuit boards on combines, sprayers or tractors is increased. Disconnecting the ground cable from the battery is one solution, but annoying and time consuming. I'm experimenting with a little gizmo called a "Zap-It" that's supposed to prevent surges and spikes to computerized components. The theory is that if I hook the Zap-It to the battery terminals I can have the ground connection 50 feet from where I'm welding on a piece of machinery without worry that I might surge or spike an on-board computer. I'll let you know how it works.

Otherwise, I'm very impressed with the potential of adding a spool gun to a traditional MIG unit. It's not cheap, but convenience often comes at a price. 

With Age Comes...Something

Jan 10, 2010
 Nearly two decades ago I penned a short "filler" for Farm Journal Magazine titled, "The Ages of a Farmer." Based on personal experience and observation of farmers in my area, it went something like this:

A lightbulb burns out in the barn. 

-A 20-year-old farmer gets and installs a bigger lightbulb.

-A 30-year-old farmer re-wires the barn and installs more and bigger lights.

-A 40-year-old farmer hires an electrician to re-wire the barn and install bigger lights.

-A 50-year-old farmer simply replaces the bulb.

-A 60-year-old farmer uses a flashlight when he has to go to the barn.

--A 70-year-old farmer figures darkness is God's way of telling people it's time to quit for the day. 

Since I wrote that piece I've discovered similar age-related behaviors and attitudes toward working on, repairing and maintaining farm equipment.  In general:

-20-year-farmers and mechanics love to read owner's manuals and study tech books. They may not be fastidious about greasing every zerk and oiling every chain, but they know where everything is on a machine and what it does. They borrow lots of tools.

-30-year-old farmers and mechanics aren't afraid to tear anything apart. They may be less adept at putting things back together. When in doubt, they buy tools.

-40-year-old farmers and mechanics understand that hoists, winches, jacks and other mechanical devices that help lift, carry, and pry are not only for the weak but for the wise. When in doubt, they price tools, then figure out how to do the repair some other way.

-50-year-old farmers and mechanics understand that machinery occasionally makes odd, unusual and unexplained noises that sometimes mean nothing, and sometimes indicate a need for major repairs. They've learned this from listening to their own bodies for the first half hour after they get out of bed in the morning. When in doubt, they borrow tools.

-60-year-old farmers and mechanics focus on repairs that can be done comfortably. They favor repairs that are above knee-high and lower than shoulder-high. They loan out lots of tools.

-70-year-old farmers and mechanics like to lean against tractor tires and talk about repairing farm equipment. They take the same approach toward exercise, politics and sex.




Confessions Of A Tool Tightwad

Jan 07, 2010
 Hello, I'm Dan. I'm a tool tightwad. I'm addicted to keeping broken tools.

It's not my fault. I was raised by a tool tightwad. My dad never owned an actual punch---all we ever used to knock bolts and pins out of holes was old bolts with the ends ground to a taper. Our nut and bolt inventory consisted of an assortment of coffee cans full of rusty nuts and bolts he salvaged from broken equipment. I didn't know nuts and bolts were supposed to be silver until I was a teenager.

I've tried to break free of my heritage, but it must be genetic. I'm so ashamed. Sometimes at work I use disposable latex gloves when I'm dealing with rotten grain, sour grease or other disgusting substances. The "disposable" part doesn't work for me, even though they get pulled inside out when I take them off. When nobody is looking I use compressed air from a blower nozzle to inflate them and blow them right-side out. Then I put them back in the box to use again.

It's impossible for me to throw away a drill bit. Even if it's broken off half-length. Someday after I retire and I have more time, I'm going to spend a week with a Drill Doctor and the drawer full of mangled drill bits I've collected. You'll know when that happens--keep an eye on Ebay for somebody selling 7,000 drill bits of assorted sizes and lengths.

I can't throw away a screwdriver, either. I've got a secret drawer full of screwdrivers with the tips re-ground until they're like chisels, or with the metal shank driven completely through the handle. I've got one big screwdriver that has the shank twisted in a half circle. Don't ask how that happened.

I've got wrenches with welded handles, hammers with their 8th wooden handle, and chisels that are half as long as they were when I bought them. Some of my electrical extension cords would make an OSHA inspector faint.

I'm ashamed. I'm supposedly a professional mechanic with pride and high standards. Maybe if I admit my problem and confess in public  I'll be able to break free of my addiction for salvaging battered and abused tools. Maybe I'll be able to allow another mechanic to look in my toolbox without worry he'll fall on the floor with hysterical laughter. Maybe I can end this tortured life of guilt and shame.

Maybe the sun will rise in the west tomorrow. 

You Don't Own Everything In Your Combine

Jan 04, 2010
 You may own your combine, cotton picker, tractor or self-propelled sprayer, but you don't own everything in it. Manufacturers maintain ownership of diagnostic software and many other programs in any on-board computers. If you or a local non-dealership mechanic wants to access on-board diagnostics or replace system software, you'll have pay a licensed dealership to do the work.

It's a situation similar to what shadetree mechanics have wrestled with for the past decade in cars and trucks. Auto manufacturers have linked most systems in cars and trucks to on-board computers. Everything from low-tire-pressure sensors to fuel injection controllers now require expensive, often dealership-exclusive diagnostic equipment to diagnose, re-set or repair problems.

Some view this as an effort by automotive and farm equipment manufacturers to force consumers to deal only with licensed dealerships. They fear this is a concerted effort to drive non-licensed, independent mechanics out of business and make it impossible for do-it-yourselfers to do it themselves.

U.S. Representative Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y. introduced last year the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act (HR 2057) to require vehicle manufacturers to offer neighborhood repair shops and do-it-yourselfers equal access to repair and diagnostic information. The focus of the bill--now stalled in committee--was on consumer vehicles. Its potential effects on farm equipment is unknown.

Is it right or wrong for vehicle and equipment manufacturers to keep diagnostic and other technologies to themselves? Should anybody be able to access on-board information on modern farm machinery? Does it annoy you that you can't turn off the "Check Engine" light on your pickup truck's dashboard without a trip to the dealership?  Is it right that while you own the hardware, pieces and parts in your farm machinery, the equipment manufacturer still owns the actual computer programs that make it run?

I feel your pain. Until I traded pickups last summer, I drove my old Ford for six years with the "Check Engine" light glowing on the dashboard because I had done the diagnostics and knew there was nothing mechanically wrong. I simply refused to spend the money to pay a dealership--or buy an aftermarket "code reader"-- to turn the darned light off.
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