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June 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.

Good Excuse To Buy An Air Hammer

Jun 30, 2010
 We're starting to see a few soybean platforms in the shop for annual service. Soybean platforms, specifically the poly skid shoes that mount on their lower surfaces, justify owning an air hammer.

If you've ever laid, kneeled or crouched beneath one of those platforms and smashed your fingertips while using a hammer to install a new set of hammer-rivets---you'll appreciate what an air hammer equipped with a rivet-setting bit can do. Rivet-setting bits have concave tips so all you do is place the hammer rivet in the hole where you want it installed, press the concave tip against the rivet's head, firmly press it into place, and hit the trigger, "Braapppt!" and the rivet is firmly installed. An air hammer with a rivet-setting bit makes installation of poly skid plates on big bean platforms almost fun. 

Top-of-the-line air hammers sell for a couple hundred bucks. Economy-grade air hammers retail for less than $100 and are probably sufficient if you'll only use them a couple times of year.. Even if you only use that air hammer once a year to install hammer rivets on soybean platforms, an air hammer is worth the money. And if you have other equipment or applications that use hammer-rivets to hold low-friction poly in place, then owning an air hammer and a rivet-setting bit is a no-brainer.

Is "Neighboring" A Lost Art?

Jun 27, 2010
 One of the pleasures I get from going on service calls to repair equipment in the field is the opportunity to ride a few rounds with the customer after the repairs are finished to ensure everything is running right. If all is well, it's a great time to relax and enjoy conversation while monitoring the machine's behavior.

Over the past few years I've noticed in those in-cab, post-repair conversations an increased amount of un-neighborly-ness, bordering on outright hostility. I grew up in an era where "neighboring" was an art form. If cattle got out, everybody for miles around showed up to help round up the strays. When it was time to shell corn or bale hay, there was a full crew of neighbors in bibbed overalls ready and waiting when the sheller arrived or the dew went off. No pay was offered--everybody knew the favor would be returned when it was time to bale hay or shell corn on their own farm.

I'm not sure why neighboring is less common today. Economic factors, the competition for rental ground, the escalating cost of cash rent--they all probably contribute to farmers viewing neighbors as competitors rather than friends. From my vantage point as a  farm equipment mechanic I can only guess at the pressures you guys are dealing with. I got a hint last spring when riding with a customer, and he mentioned that planting was one of his favorite times of year because of all the "hope" that a new season brings. I commented that I would have thought it would be stressful to get the crop in the ground, and he snorted, "Stressful? Planting and combining season are nothing compared to August. August is the worst month of the year for stress." That's because September 1st is when renter/landlord contracts are due. That's when that cash rent-dependent farmer finds out how much land he'll have to farm in the approaching crop year. 

Maybe it was the competitive nature of modern agriculture that fueled another farmer's profanity-laced rant against certain neighbors and their surface water drainage practices. Or the near-hatred another farmer expressed toward his own brother in a dispute over a land sale. Maybe I just hear the bad side of modern farm sociology. I know there are still farmers who cheerfully share labor or machinery, who get their families together for home-made ice cream on hot summer nights, and who view neighbors as friends rather than competition.

But there just doesn't seem to be as many of those neighborly neighbors as there used to be.

In Recognition of Missing Fingers

Jun 20, 2010
 The next time you're at a seed corn meeting, do a silent, unobtrusive inventory of missing fingers. It always takes me aback when I notice the number of missing fingers and fingertips in a group of farmers. I start with myself and my "frozen" right thumb joint that took three hours of microsurgery to re-assemble after a customer-assisted mishap with a hydraulic press. 

Considering the risk of farming, it's a miracle every farmer at one of those meetings isn't missing a finger, hand, arm or other extremity. The majority of people in the United States make their living at jobs where the greatest risk they face each day is a paper cut. Farmers spend every day in what is literally an OSHA nightmare.

The list of ways to get hurt or killed in agriculture is endless. Just off the top of my head I can think of a livestock trucker trampled to death while loading cattle, a neighbor crushed by a corn head, a co-worker who lost three fingertips to a chain and sprocket, an uncle who spent time in intensive care after accidentally inhaling fumes from a trash fire that included empty insecticide bags, and a half-dozen other fatal or potentially crippling injuries. How many times have you gone to bed and in reviewing your day's activities suddenly had a shudder run down your spine when you replayed a, "Boy, that was a close one..." incident? 

They say familiarity breeds contempt, and that's very true when it comes to machinery and livestock. We tell ourselves we can safely grease that machine without putting a safety stand under it, or, "That ol' cow hasn't got a mean bone in her body..."  Nine times out of ten nobody gets hurt when we take chances in farming. But judging from my random surveys among groups of farmers, each of us experiences one of those "tenth" times at least once in our life. Maybe more than once.

This isn't one of those perennial pleas and warnings to "Farm Safe." We all know we ignore those warnings because, "It won't happen to me." We couldn't do our jobs if we thought it would happen to us. But according to statistics and informal surveys at farm meetings, each of us during our career in agriculture will spend a certain amount of time in an emergency room. All we can do is try to be safe and minimize the amount of time we spend laying on an examining table, staring at surgical lights and waiting for the x-rays to come back.

Good AND Cheap

Jun 17, 2010
I'm very fond of some very cheap tools. They aren't great tools but they are good enough for the ways I use them.

For example, I've got an off-breed set of "angle head" open-end wrenches that cost me 1/3 of what a similar set of Snap-On or Mac wrenches would have cost. The wrenches have conventional 15-degree open ends on one end of the handle, and 60-degree open ends on the other end. They are my secret weapon for loosening or tightening clusters of hydraulic hoses or hydraulic fittings in tight places. I only use the angle head wrenches maybe three or four times a year so it wouldn't be cost effective to pay full Snap-On or Mac prices. If my job duties entailed using them more often I'd need to pay the price for a more durable set of wrenches, but for the way I use them, the discount store wrenches work just great.

Same for the Craftsman crowsfoot wrench sets I use maybe once a month. Crowsfoot wrenches are like the sawed-off ends of conventional open-end wrenches, but with square holes in them so you can operate them with 3/8- or 1/2-inch socket wrenches. Put them on an extension and you can reach deep into machinery and access nuts and bolts that are otherwise inaccessible. Craftsman crowsfoot wrenches come with the usual Craftsman lifetime guarantee and cost half of what their "professional" counterparts cost.

Don't misunderstand--I'm not against Snap-On, Mac, Cornwell, and other professional-grade tools. I own a lot of tools with those names stamped on them. Those brands are THE standard of quality and durability against which tools are measured. When it comes to air-powered impact wrenches, die grinders, electrical testing equipment, or other tools that I use frequently and without mercy, I am willing to pay for the quality and durability those names provide. 

But there's a balance between having the best tool possible and having a tool that will merely get the job done. If it's not a repair that I do frequently, or a procedure that demands "unbreakable," I'm completely happy to have a GOOD, cheap tool.

Eventually, I'll Disappoint You.

Jun 11, 2010

 Being a mechanic has changed the way I relate to plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen. I've learned there are three distinct phases of any customer's relationship with a tradesman like myself:

Phase One: The first time a tradesman works for a customer, both individuals have to feel things out. The customer is cautious, polite, skeptical and hesitant to challenge the worker with tough jobs. The tradesman works extra hard to make a good first impression, often excels at the basic repairs and wastes no time chatting because he doesn't really know the customer. The job is finished in good time, the customer is satisfied and tells neighbors and friends that, "That new (mechanic, electrician, plumber...) is alright."

Phase Two: Over time the customer and tradesman get to know each other. The customer feels comfortable hanging around and "helping" the tradesman, or, conversely, trusts him to work without constant supervision. The tradesman feels comfortable joking with the customer and isn't adverse to doing extra tasks or offering free advice on other repairs or questions. The customer sometimes presents the worker with nearly impossible challenges, or asks him to take money-saving short-cuts. The worker may or may not succeed at the challenging repairs, or resist taking the short-cuts. The customer's response: "Oh, that's okay--it never hurts to ask! You're my guy, and I trust what you say."

Phase Three: Sooner or later, every worker is going to botch a repair. Maybe the tradesman is having a bad day. Maybe he installs faulty parts. Maybe the customer asked him to do an "impossible" repair. Whatever the cause of the problem with the repair, the worker is embarrassed and frustrated. The customer is naturally frustrated and takes one of two approaches. He either says,"Stuff happens--see what you can do to make it right," or says nothing to the worker but tells neighbors and anybody who will listen, "Boy, he really messed THAT job up!", with no mention of the dozens of previous perfectly performed repairs.

When I hire a plumber or electrician I expect quality work with no problems. Ninety-nine percent of the time that's what I get. The other one percent, when things don't go "right"--I remember all the times I've disappointed my own customers, and trust that the plumber or electrician feels as bad about his errors as I did about mine.

Sprayers Are Simply Complex

Jun 05, 2010

 Back in the day, farmers filled a sprayer with 200 gallons of spray mix, used a simple chart that told them what speed to drive and what spray pressure to maintain when using a specific spray nozzle, and they sprayed their crops. For all the computerized complexity of modern self-propelled or pull-type sprayers, that's the same principle used today. Diagnosing problems with sprayers is theoretically simple even though modern sprayers can be mechanically complex.

Everything is related to how fast the sprayer is going, pressure or flow rate through the pump and nozzles, and the width of the spray boom. Any time something malfunctions, think of those three basic inputs and back-track the symptoms to diagnose the guilty component.

-If gallons per acre (rate) are inaccurate: what could be impeding or reducing flow? Low rate could be due to plugged strainers or filters restricting flow to the pump, or flow between the pump and nozzles. High flow rate hints of worn spray tips or inaccurate inputs from the pressure sensor or flowmeter. If you can switch the system from automatic rate control to manual rate control (where you designate a specific pressure or rate) and the rate is steady and accurate on manual control, that implies the pump, strainers, filters, etc. are okay, and that the problem is in a component in the automatic rate control system. That means either the ground speed sensor, the pressure/flowmeter sensor, or the actual computerized controller is the source of the problem.

-If spray pressure or spray rate fluctuates erratically: first step--switch the system to "manual" control and see if the problem goes away. If the sprayer operates correctly in "manual", the pump and basic system is okay. Look for problems in the flowmeter or pressure sensor or speed sensor to see if they are sending inaccurate signals that's causing the automated control system to perform erratically. Make sure you're showing ground speed--erratic ground speed, or no ground speed, indicates problems with the radar or GPS or mechanical wheel speed sensor or those sensor's wiring harnesses. Intermittent signals from flow meters or pressure sensors hint of problems with those components.

-If problems persist when the system is switched to "manual": keep diagnostics simple and easy at first. Check for closed or partially closed valves, from the main valve at the tank all the way to the last control valve on the boom. Check and clean ALL strainers and filters. If your owner's manual explains how to do a "deadhead" test of the spray pump, perform that check to see if the pump is up to specs. Spray pumps leaking water from any part of their housing hints it's time to rebuild or replace the pump.

-If boom sections refuse to turn "on" or "off", be suspicious of control valves. The old push-pull plunger control valves are notorious for sticking after exposure to chemicals. Newer "ball" valves rarely stick, but are mechanical and therefore not immune to damage from time, caustic chemicals and other villains. Use a small screwdriver or feeler guage to see if the valve's electric magnet is magnetized when its switch is activated in the cab. If magnetism is absent, be suspicious of problems with the wiring harness between the valve and the cab. If the valve's solenoid magnetizes when the switch in the cab is activated, then disassemble the valve and see if there's an internal mechanical problem.

Modern sprayers have fancy stuff like hydraulic proportional valves, compensators, swath control, automatic boom shutoffs, GPS mapping and dozens of other complicated systems that all play off each other. There are times when diagnosing problems with modern sprayers is a mechanic's nightmare.

But...85 percent of the time problems with sprayers are related to the basic concepts and components that Grandpa used on his sprayer. Don't let all the fancy bells and whistles mislead you when diagnosing sprayer problems. Keep it simple, think things through logically, and most of the time the problem is simpler than it first appears.

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