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March 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.

Speaking of Farm Fashions...

Mar 28, 2010
 In my last post I vented (tongue-in-cheek) about how some farmers don't dress like farmers. After reading that post, my cousin Dave reminded me that there are still a few folks in agriculture who uphold traditional farm fashions.

Cousin Dave has driven a bull rack professionally for more than 35 years. He said one of the things he enjoys most when he pulls into a ranch in Kansas or Nebraska is seeing, " a boy maybe 7, 8 or 9 years-old, wearing a cowboy hat bigger than he is. They're always dragging around a rope, trying to lasso their dog or every fence post they see. Those kids are attached to their dads like shadows. You just know that you can come back in 20 years and they'll still be there, farming or ranching just like their dad and grandpa."

I'm fond of the other end of agriculture's fashion lineage, those farmers who wear bibbed overalls as their uniform. Some wear them for their multitude of pockets; many wear them to avoid wearing a belt; more than a few savor the flow-thru ventilation provided when they leave the side buttons unfastened on hot summer days. If my annual visits to the State Fair are any indication, more than a few of our older rural folks still consider a freshly laundered pair of of bibbed overalls as a fashion statement.

As a mechanic, I'm somewhat of a fashion rebel because I wear a pliers pouch on my belt. Other mechanics, the ones who have come out of tech schools, abhor wearing pliers on their belt. "Good mechanics have proper tools," they like to tease me. "Only farmers wear pliers on their belt."

I'm sort of proud to wear those pliers... 

Stop The Madness

Mar 24, 2010
When it comes to farm fashions, I'm pretty much a traditionalist. It was difficult, but I eventually got used to farmers coming to the dealership dressed in shorts. I understand their desire for comfort on a hot summer day, and even got used to the unique individuals who wore cowboy boots with their cargo shorts.

I also eventually accepted farmers wearing pricey athletic shoes as their work shoes. I grew up in a culture where it was a status symbol for elementary school boys to wear lace-up work boots to school because they wanted to be like their farmer fathers. I'm not sure how practical it is to shovel out a grain bin or hog pen wearing low-top sneakers that cost $100 per pair, but... if it works for them, who am I to criticize?

I even got used to all the weird hats that farmers wear nowadays. I used to be pretty religious about the type, style and proper brim profile of the seed corn or machinery dealer hat that I wore. But I've adapted, and even have a floppy-brimmed "boonie" hat I wear when fishing (thanks to a run-in with skin cancer).

But, folks, today I encountered something that I just can't deal with. A customer arrived at the dealership in a requisite mud-covered 4-wheel-drive pickup with the bed full of used baler twine and empty feed sacks. The dashboard was layered with scale tickets from the Co-op and empty Slim Jim wrappers. It was a very respectable example of a farm truck. Then the farmer got out -- wearing BLUE POLYESTER SWEAT PANTS WITH WHITE STRIPES DOWN THE LEGS.

I confess to wearing gray cotton sweat pants in the privacy of my own home, but what self-respecting farmer would be seen at a farm equipment dealership wearing DESIGNER sweat pants...? I was appalled. This sort of insult to farm fashion must stop. Where is our pride, where is our respect for the long-standing tradition of being totally and blissfully ignorant of fashion trends? 

I'm not sure how much more disrespect for farm culture and tradition I can tolerate. I'm warning you, if a customer comes into the shop wearing bibbed overalls with a Lands End sweater draped over his shoulders and the sleeves loosely knotted in front of his neck...well, it won't be pretty, especially if I'm holding an air-powered grease gun.

How To Use A Voltmeter

Mar 20, 2010
 If you've never used a voltmeter to test electrical circuits on 12-volt farm equipment, cars or trucks, but wanted to learn, here's how:

Voltmeters cost from $15 to $300. $50 will buy an economy-grade unit adequate to test for 12 volts on farm equipment. If you eventually graduate to testing sophisticated electronic circuits related to computerized systems, you'll need to upgrade to a more expensive voltmeter with at least 10 million ohms of internal resistance to protect those sensitive circuits.

Connect the two test leads that come with the voltmeter to appropriate sockets in the voltmeter. The red (positive) lead goes to the socket marked "+". The black (ground/common) lead goes in the socket marked "-", "ground", or with a little icon that looks like an inverted pyramid made of horizontal lines.

To build confidence and learn the basics of testing voltage, go to a 12-volt battery in a tractor, car or pickup truck. Hold the red test lead against the positive battery terminal. Hold the black test lead against the negative terminal. The digital display will show 11.5 to 12.5 volts on a fully charged battery. 

Now find a light bulb on the machine. Lights require a power circuit and a ground circuit. Older tractors have a single power wire going to lights, and use the metal frame of the light as the ground circuit. Newer lights will have a red or colored power wire and a black, ground wire. With the lights turned on, hold the red test lead against the light's positive terminal and the black test lead against the ground terminal. The digital voltmeter's display should read the same or slightly fewer volts than the battery.

And that's the basic concept of testing with a digital voltmeter. Start at the battery and test between power wires and ground wires/circuits. When in doubt, go back to the battery and prove the voltmeter is working correctly, then trace wires and work from the battery toward the component or circuit in question. When voltage disappears, you've found the short or faulty component that's causing the problem.

Yes, electrical diagnostics can be much more complicated than that, but a lot of electrical problems can be diagnosed using this basic understanding and strategy of voltmeter usage. 

My friend and co-worker Wade uses a less technical explanation when customers come in and ask for help diagnosing electrical problems. Wade leans against a tractor tire then asks, "Did you notice a puff of smoke come out of the wiring or any part of the electrical system?" If the customer says, "Yes," then Wade nods solemnly and says, "Well, there's your problem. You let the smoke out of the wiring. Them electrical systems won't work once you let the smoke out of the wires."

Then he smiles, winks and helps them figure out what's wrong with their "smoked" electrical system.

Dream Shop Opinions

Mar 14, 2010
 Farm shops are like wives--what works well for one man would be a disaster for another farmer. So it with some hesitation that I offer the following opinions on the design and technical details of a "great" farm shop:

-Big. Way bigger than you want to pay for. Forty by sixty feet is probably a minimum.  At least one door should have a minimum height of 20 feet, maybe higher. (There are strong rumors that the next generation of combines will be even taller than the current door-scrapers. Tall grain tank extensions will be made even higher by mega-height tires.)

-Six inches of concrete floor, if only in areas where equipment will move or be parked. Save money on areas near work benches and storage areas by reducing floor thickness to 4 inches. If you're going to use floor heating, plan, plan and plan some more before calling the concrete truck. Floor heating demands professional help to ensure correct layout and plumbing of heating coils buried in the concrete.

-Budget for a big slab of sloped concrete outside the main equipment access door. You'll use that slab for washing equipment and quick repairs nearly as much as you use the area inside the building.

-Decide the type of overhead door before you finalize the building design. Some types of bifold doors require end-wall reinforcement of the structural framing. Traditional "folding" overhead doors on tracks benefit from advance planning for ceiling reinforcement if mega-wide doors require additional tracks or drive motors. 

-Budget extra money for the electrician. Specify 4-plex electrical outlets every 10 feet along at least one wall. Both walls, if the shop is very wide. Consider paying a lighting consultant to design a lighting system---simply hanging a bunch of Walmart 8-foot florescent light fixtures is a good way to make your dream shop as dark and gloomy as a dungeon.

-Think twice, think three times about anything that interrupts a wide-open floor plan. An oil change "pit" is nice so you can stand up while changing oil in vehicles; a crane is handy to unload or move heavy objects; but I can't count the number of shops I've been in where oil change pits were cobwebbed and had scrap iron stacked atop them, or where the shop owners cursed their crane's location because it obstructed traffic flow or parking inside the shop. You'll never regret having wide open space.

There's no end to opinions on what constitutes a "dream shop". Darrel Smith has done a great job profiling in Farm Journal Magazine a variety of farm shops from around the country. His detailed interviews with shop owners provides a shopping list of ideas that work--and didn't work. 


Minimize Brake Bleeding

Mar 07, 2010
 For many years I thought I was the only mechanic who took a deep breath  whenever he had to approach brake work. I've discovered that I'm not alone. For as simple as brake work appears, it's not. And because you're often working with various springs and components in relatively small areas, it's often a knuckle-busting process that gives "bleeding" multiple meanings.  Here are a few tools and tips that can minimize both kinds of bleeding problems:

-I've spent a lot of time stretching, pulling and compressing springs during repairs to drum brakes. For years I did it with pllers, Vise-Grips, pry bars, screw drivers and even bare fingers. I finally spent $25 to $50 and bought an assortment of brake spring pliers and compressors. They come in various sizes, work great, and I was stupid to waste so much time and knuckle-skin trying to mess with springs without the proper tools. Visit your local NAPA or auto parts store, buy brake spring pliers and compressors, and you'll never regret the purchase.

-I confess to doing all sorts of ugly things to push disk brake pads back into their holders so they could be removed. Pry bars, big screwdrivers, wedges of wood---I'm not proud of the things I've done. There are special tools that easily and quickly press disk brake pads into their holders. They're worth having and they aren't especially expensive. Just be careful, no matter how you push those pads back, that you do it steadily and slowly. Brake manufacturers have warned me that if you force those pads too hard and fast, it's possible to turn inside-out seals inside the master cylinder. I've never seen it happen, but...they tell me it's possible.

-Speaking of disk brakes and other modern braking systems: BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN WORKING ON ABS (anti-lock braking systems). Some of those systems operate at extremely high internal pressures. It's fine to do "external" work like replacing pads or rotors, but if work is needed to the master cylinder, slave cylinders or the actual ABS components---be sure you know what you're doing, or don't do it at all.

-If you're working alone on old-school drum brakes and need to bleed the system or individual wheel cylinders, consider a brake bleeder tool. There are various kinds at various prices, but they allow a lone mechanic to bleed brakes without the constant battle to keep air out of the system.

-Final tool, and an essential one: dust mask. Or at least your handkerchief tied over your nose and mouth. Some brake shoes/pads contain asbestos, and even the ones that are asbestos-free produce dust that's not healthy to breath. Even if you only do brakes once or twice a year, take time to be safe when you first remove the brakes and especially if you use compressed air to blow brake dust out of the drum and shoes.

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