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April 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.

The Civil Rights Act And The Service Sector

Apr 30, 2010
 The Federal Civil Rights Act ensures citizens they cannot be refused service in a public place or by a business because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. However, court cases support the idea that businesses (therefore mechanics, salesmen and parts people) have the right to refuse service, as long as it's not because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

So at what point is an employee of a business justified in looking a patron in the eye and saying, "I'm not going to work for you," or "Please leave, I will not serve or wait on you"? How much rudeness, profanity or verbal abuse is justification for denying a patron service? 

Years ago a farmer friend made repeated trips to a farm supply company to get parts for a sprayer. This friend is admittedly profane, excitable, extremely vocal and easily frustrated. After the third or fourth trip my friend lost his cool, cussing, swearing and raising a ruckus at the business's service counter. The business owner told my excitable friend, "I've tried to help you, but this isn't working out. Please leave. We will no longer do business with you."

My friend was outraged.The local coffee shops percolated for weeks whether the business or my friend was "in the right." At the time I thought it was wrong for the businessman to turn down potential income simply because he didn't want to deal with an excitable, irascible customer.

Now that I've spent nearly two decades working in the service sector, there are times when I'm sympathetic to that businessman's decision. 

The "Goat or Hero" Gamble

Apr 23, 2010
 It was one of those deals where I was going to be either the goat or the hero: a customer's 30-year-old planter was mechanically sound, but its wiring harnesses were in sad shape due to too many winters spent under a snow drift. Right or wrong, the guy never got around to putting the machine in a shed, and all the wires and connectors were badly corroded and/or weather-checked.  I told him it needed all new wiring. He only had six or seven hundred acres to plant, and politely asked me to, "fix it as cheap as you can." I started testing circuits, found bad connectors and wires, and methodically began splicing and repairing.

And I kept splicing and repairing, off and on, for three days. I'd get everything working, and he'd call in a couple hours and sadly report some other electrical component was acting up. Finally, my boss stepped in, went to the planter, took a quick look and declared, "we're done patching." He ordered three new wiring harnesses and associated connectors, I installed them, and the planter works like a charm.

Now the customer has a labor bill for the more than 12 hours I spent futilely patching wires and electrical connectors, PLUS nearly $1200 in parts for the new wiring harnesses and the time to install those new harnesses. 

If I had told him on my first visit that the only fix was $1200 worth of new wiring harnesses, he would have tossed a fit, called my boss and complained that I was, "selling parts." I tried to be a nice guy and do what the customer asked, and it ended up costing him twice as much

I hope he parks that planter in a shed next winter. 

Meanwhile, Back at the Parts Counter...

Apr 19, 2010
 Last week I was on a service call and needed a simple little spring that tensions a chain idler on a 24-row planter. I fired up my laptop and started looking for that spring and its part number so I could call the dealership to see if it was on hand. I'm usually pretty good at finding parts in parts catalogs--it really helps to have taken the machines apart to see how they all fit together. 

Long story short, I couldn't find the part. Even when I was standing right beside the planter, holding the laptop in my hands, trying to match "stub shaft B" with "frame tube D" where they met "main frame A."  I narrowed it down to one of three possible springs, and sent the customer to the dealership with the broken spring and instructions to bring back the spring that best matched the broken one.

Later that night at home, I brought in the laptop from my service truck and painstakingly went through the ENTIRE parts manual for that planter, page by page, screen by screen. I still couldn't find that specific spring, the chain idler it tensions, or the frame component they both mount to.

Imagine being the parts person at a dealership if a farmer had sent his wife, hired man or father to find that part. I couldn't identify it when I was standing right by the machine with a factory-authorized parts breakdown in my hands---what hope would the parts person have finding, "the spring that tensions the short chain that runs on the left side of the seed transmission drive wheel frame?" The parts person would be embarrassed and frustrated, the wife/hired man/father  would be stuck the middle knowing they'd be in trouble if they don't bring back the correct part, and the farmer would be out in the field thinking, "How hard can it be to get a simple little spring...?"

So, here's  a tip of the hat and renewed respect for those folks who sit on the stools behind the parts counter at local dealerships and politely respond to customers who say, "I don't know what model it is, just give me a drive belt," or, "I bought it here, can't you look it up?" and "No, I don't know the serial number, what difference does it make?" 

At least when I get frustrated with a piece of machinery I can take a big hammer and beat on it until I feel better. That's not  an option for parts people.

You're Over-Tightening Hydraulic Fittings

Apr 11, 2010
 I've seen a steady parade of broken or leaky hydraulic hoses through the parts department in the past weeks. Spring must finally have arrived. Here are a few tips on correctly reconnecting those hoses once you get them repaired:

-Use the correct fittings. Plain ol' National Pipe Tapered (NPT) pipe fittings are designed for low-pressure fluids of 300 psi or less. They are NOT designed for, nor safe, when installed in high-pressure hydraulic situations. National Pipe Tapered Fuel (NPTF) hydraulic connectors are physically similar to NPT fittings, but are plated with zinc dichromate, which gives them a silver or gold tint. NPTF fittings ARE safe for use in high-pressure applications. If you don't know for certain if a fitting is NPT or NPTF, DON'T USE IT IN A HIGH-PRESSURE HYDRAULIC APPLICATION.

-When installing an NPTF fitting in a high-pressure situation, don't tighten the fitting then back it off to align it with a hose, line or other fitting. Because of the unique design of NPTF threads, those fittings should be tightened into alignment, and never loosened.

-Straight-Thread O-Ring Fittings are the ones you thread into place, then tighten a nut on the fitting against an 0-ring built into the fitting. FYI, to 'test' an old, used straight-thread o-ring fitting, shake the fitting. If the washer slides back and forth on the fitting and clicks, it's worn out. To correctly install a straight-thread o-ring fitting, twist the retaining nut away from the washer and o-ring then install the threaded portion of the fitting until it is hand-tight. You can can "back-off" this sort of fitting from hand-tight up to one revolution to align it with other plumbing. Once aligned, tighten the nut until it is "firm" against the washer and o-ring, with the nut becoming snug with a feel of metal-on-metal in less than one revolution.  Over-tightening causes as many leaks as under-tightening.

-Flared hydraulic fittings come in 37- and 45-degree designs and may share similar thread pitches. This means a 45-degree male fitting may thread into a 37-degree female, but they won't seal correctly. Beyond making certain the cone-angles of fittings match, don't over-tighten flared fittings. Over-tightened flared fittings leak as badly as under-tightened fittings because the immense torque of over-tightened threads cracks or distorts the precision-machined flared portions of the fittings.

I can always tell when I take apart a machine whether the hydraulic fittings are "factory" of if they're "farmer." "Factory fittings" break loose with a good smack of my hand to the end of a wrench. "Farmer Fittings" usually require a cheater pipe and possibly profanity to break them loose. I'm not sayin' that's good or bad, I'm just sayin'...

Trick For Allen Head Bolts

Apr 07, 2010
Allen head bolts and plugs are common on the hydraulic systems of sprayers and planters, so here's a tip to avoid stripping out the heads of those aggravating fasteners this spring.

Use an allen head socket rather than a L-shaped allen wrench. Put that allen head socket on a breaker bar. Insert the hex end of the allen socket into the allen bolt to be removed. Apply steady counter-clockwise pressure to the breaker bar handle, as you repeatedly smack with a hammer the end of the breaker bar holding the socket. Imagine you're driving the allen socket into the allen head bolt. (You can use a regular 3/8- or 1/2-inch ratchet wrench, but beating on the back of the head of a ratchet wrench tends to be hard on the ratcheting mechanism. I've found breaker bars are much more forgiving about this sort of abuse.)

The downward impact not only forces the allen socket deeper into the bolt and reduces the chance of it twisting out, but also magically loosen rusty, over-tightened threads. I'd say that 9 out of 10 allen bolts that were too tight to loosen normally without  fear of stripping out the allen head release after the third or fourth blow with a hammer. 

Are Perfect Planters Profitable?

Apr 04, 2010
Do you achieve enough yield gain to justify making a corn planter mechanically "perfect" each spring? Farm Journal Magazine's Ken Ferrie has proven that emergence timing, minimal seed furrow compaction, minimal closing wheel compaction and consistent seed spacing within the row maximize final yields. But what if...

-You have 2000 acres to plant and your disk openers measure 14 5/8 inches. The planter's manufacturer calls for replacing disk openers at 14 1/2 inches. Will it decrease yields if you save $50 to $75 per row and run the openers one more year and wear them beyond manufacturer's specifications?

-You had your finger units checked last year by the dealer. If you turn them by hand, they all "feel" the same. Is it worth the price to have all the units rechecked again this year?

-You're a part-time farmer with a full-time job in town. You farm the 'Home 80,' or some odd-patches that the "big guys" don't want to rent. Your planter is a 30-year old 6-row. Clutches are worn, chains are worn--everything is worn. The cost of new disk openers, new clutches, and all new chains is more than the planter is worth at the local equipment auction. How much can you afford to spend on a planter that only plants 100 acres of corn a year?

-You've run the numbers in your head dozens of times: Looking strictly at time-in-the-seat, without regard for weather, if you run your old 12-row planter at 6 1/2  to 7 mph you can get everything planted in 10 days, but if you trade for a 16-row or 24-row you can slow down to 5 or 5 1/2 mph and get it all done 10 days or less. Is it worth the price of trading planters to drive slower?

Spending money on a planter is no guarantee a farmer will make money. The profit from a winter's worth of machinery preparation and expense often hinges on a good rain in August and a lucky phone call to sell crop just before some fluke in politics or world trade takes the bottom out of the market.

BUT---I have opinions about planter maintenance and preparation. For what it's worth...

Disk openers don't become worthless when they reach their magical "replacement diameter," they are just more prone to damage from rocks, don't cut residue as well, and suffer more bearing failures simply because the bearings have more acres on them. Finger units need checked every year because they're complex. Not complex like a computer, but complex in that they have springs and clips and bumps and wear areas that must work precisely for maximum performance. Part-time farmers with 50-to 100-acres need to realize they've got an expensive hobby that's an excuse to drive tractors on weekends. (Did I really just write that...?)  And finally--it's my opinion that if there's any piece of equipment that needs to be "over-sized" on a farm, it's the planter. The weather-window for planting crops when soil conditions are optimal is very, very small. I know from digging behind hundreds of planters over the years that anything more than 5 1/2- to 6 mph reduces metering accuracy and messes up seed spacing within the row, and it's been well-documented that seed spacing directly impacts final yield.

A mechanically perfect planter gives a farmer the option of perfectly placing seeds for maximum yield. With a worn or mis-adjusted planter, a farmer is merely putting seeds in the ground and crossing his fingers. Depending on weather and other variables, the final yield from a perfect planter may be no better than the yield from a worn planter. But Ken Ferrie's research shows overwhelming evidence that over the long-haul, well-placed seeds dramatically out-yield seeds planted by worn or mis-adjusted planters. Considering the cost of modern hybrids, growers miss significant yield potential and profit if they don't give those seeds the best possible start.
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