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November 2011 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 Christmas Gifts

Nov 27, 2011

 There's always a temptation to "go big" when buying Christmas gifts for farmers and do-it-yourself guys who already have most of the tools and gadgets they need. Most guys would definitely appreciate a battery-powered impact wrench or other high-ticket tool, but there are small tools that are handy, useful and will be appreciated for years to come. They aren't flashy, they don't have a big "wow!" factor on Christmas morning, but their recipient will appreciate them every time they use them:

-a battery terminal clamp puller. For removing battery clamps from battery posts without profanity or damage to the battery posts and clamps. $15

-a chain breaker. For "breaking" roller chains without muss or fuss. They generally come in two sizes, for roller chains #40 and below, or roller chains #40 and above. Farmers have more use for the larger size chain breaker. $20 to $35.

-a set of motorcycle/ATV tie-down straps. Adjustable nylon straps that have a million uses to hold, support or secure just about anything. $15 to $30

-a 1/4-inch socket and ratchet set. A cheapie set to keep in the house for household repairs. Saves a trip to the shed for the "real" tool set that's probably all greasy and missing the teeny sockets needed for household repairs, anyway. $25 to $40.

-flashlight(s).  Any size, any shape. A man can never have too many flashlights. I like the new pencil-type high-intensity LED lights that are easy to carry in a shirt pocket. I have customers who are fond of little LED lights that clip to the underside of the brim of their farmer's cap, and illuminate wherever the farmer turns his head. No manly man would turn down one of those long, policeman-type aluminum-tube flashlights. They're not especially bright, compact or handy, but they're definitely cool. $10 to $60

-gotta-have tool. Every farmer has a set of pliers, a pocketknife, a pocket tape measure, or some other small tool they can't stand to leave the house without. Maybe it clips to their belt. Maybe it's part of their pocket clutter. But at some point in the last year, they were stomping around the house in a foul mood because they couldn't find that particular tool that they can't farm without. Get them a spare. Be careful to match the exact size, brand and design of their pet tool. Once you find the exact match, get them two of them---one for Christmas and one to hand them later next year when they're in search of the one they lost. Priceless.


In The Shop:Still Learning To Talk

Nov 24, 2011

 Duh. Just this week it struck me that I need to slow down when I talk to customers, and think twice about the words I use. 

I was shopping for a smart phone, talking with a nice young man who obviously knew his stuff. He knew his stuff so well he assumed I knew more than I did. He lost me within 15 seconds. He talked fast about things I didn't understand, using words and abbreviations that meant nothing to me. I left without a smart phone, annoyed at him and angry at myself for being too dumb to keep up with him.

The next day I was working with a customer, talking about repairs to his machine, and realized he had the same look on his face that I probably had when the young guy tried to explain smart phones to me. I had a long list of repairs, bopped through the list as quickly as possible and used terms like "SCVs" and "potentiometers" because that's what us guys in the shop call them. His eyes glazed over and he looked annoyed.

So I mentally took a deep breath, slowed down, and let him catch up. I've known the guy for years, and he's way smarter than me, but I was talking about things I deal with every day. He deals with the terminology and concepts only once or twice a year when he has to talk with me about fixing that particular piece of equipment. I quit using the initials SCV (selective control valve) when I was talking about hydraulic couplers on the back of the tractor. When I referred to potentiometers on the machine, I just called them "sensors." I made a point of not jumping to the next topic/repair until he had time to ask a question, make a comment or at least nod that he understood what I was talking about.

Things went a lot better after that. It took a lot longer, and my boss is going to have a fit when he sees the extra time on my time card, but I think the customer left feeling like he understands what I'm doing to his machine and why I'm doing it.

I'm going to try to be more aware of how I talk when I discuss repairs with customers. I don't want anybody leaving our shop feeling as annoyed as I did when I left that store last weekend, without a smart phone and feeling stupid. 


In The Shop: Machinery That's Worth The Price?

Nov 20, 2011

 I'm as shocked as everyone else at the price of new tractors, combines and farm equipment. $500,000 for a new combine? $100,000 for a corn head or small grain platform? Sheesh. 

BUT. Before I start sounding like an old farmer at the local coffee shop, decrying anything new or different, let's look at what that extra money provides, compared to "the good ol' days."

In my youth, it was common practice to overhaul tractor engines ever couple of years if you used them hard. Valve jobs were part of winter maintenance. "How long since the last transmission rebuild?" was part of any negotiation when trading tractors. 

Today, a lot of tractors go for decades without having a cylinder head or transmission bolt loosened. (Some have to have those bolts loosened multiple times, but that's a different blog...) Yes, some combine components seem to need to be replaced more frequently than they did 20 or 30 years ago, but...those were 4- and 6-row combines harvesting 120-bushel corn planted at 24,000 plants per acre. When you consider how many bushels get crammed through modern combines in six short weeks each year, it's no wonder there's some wear on many of the components.

There's also the fact that modern equipment provides far more "stuff" than the old equipment did. An old 806 International or 4020 John Deere was basically a seat and steering wheel to control an engine, transmission, differential and hydraulic system. A new tractor has those basic components PLUS an air conditioned/heated cab with am/fm/stereo/CD player, air-ride seat, auto-steer/GPS system, and don't forget the heated mirrors and windshield washer. The tractor itself has electric-over-hydraulics, front-wheel-assist if not four-wheel-drive, automatic transmission, EPA-approved electronic fuel injection, and enough sensors and controls to monitor the Space Shuttle.

Yes, prices for new machinery and replacement parts are high. But I'd like to think we're getting more for that money because (a) the parts and pieces are more durable due to improved technology, and (b) we're demanding a lot more high-tech parts and features that by nature are just plain expensive.

I'm as guilty as anybody else, complaining about high prices and the escalation of material possessions. My first car had 43,000 miles on it when I bought it, cost me $1200, and was worn out at 120,000 miles. (Being owned by a teenager was probably a contributing factor to its early demise.) Today, I cringe at what it will cost to replace my wife's car. We bought it used, and I was embarrassed by all the fancy bells and whistles it had, stuff that I thought was borderline ridiculous to have on a car. Why would anyone pay to have remote-control mirrors? Are we now too lazy to roll down a window and adjust a mirror? Sheesh.

But,even though I think they're one of many expensive, unnecessary and borderline ludicrous luxuries on that car, my fanny enjoys having heated seats when we go to town on a cold winter night. That's part of the problem---what once were options or luxuries become "necessities," whether you're talking about farm equipment or the family car.

In The Shop: Machismo Or Lack Of Patience?

Nov 17, 2011

 Why do we do it? Why do we grind steel without safety glasses or a face shield? Why do we crawl under equipment without blocking it up? Why do we mess with anhydrous ammonia or pesticides without proper safety equipment?

Machismo and ego might be part of it---we think only girly-men worry about getting hurt. But we take the risks even when nobody is watching, so who are we trying to impress?

For me, the biggest reason for skirting safety is lack of patience. I'm in a hurry to grind a burr off a piece of steel; I'm only going to be under the machine long enough to grab the wrench I dropped; I'm just going to knock frozen mud off a knife on the anhydrous applicator. It would take longer to find a face shield, jackstand or goggles and gloves than it will to accomplish my mission. I always seem to be in a hurry.

But I'm learning to be more patient, to take time to grab and put on proper safety gear. I've been to an optometrist three times in the past 35 years to have steel filings taken from my eyes, even though I wear prescription glasses with safety lenses. After the last trip I vowed to force myself to take the extra 30 seconds to put on a face shield or goggles before turning on a grinder, cut-off saw or die grinder. You'd think I would have got the hint after the first trip to an eye doctor, but I guess I'm a slow learner.

However, I learned fast about anhydrous ammonia. I was always "cautious" around anhydrous, but one day another guy and I were working on a leaky quick-coupler on an anhydrous applicator. He started fiddling with it, said it had already "bled off", but for once I took time to put on gloves and goggles. Long story short, the coupler wasn't bled off, it "popped" and blew a couple ounces of anhydrous onto the guy's arms, face and upper chest. He hit the ground screaming. I managed to drag him to the water jug on the nurse tank, got him dowsed with water, then hauled him to the emergency room. He was wearing sunglasses that deflected the liquid from his eyes. I got enough water on his face and hands so he ended up only with blisters like a bad sunburn on his exposed skin, but the cuffs of his longsleeve shirt absorbed more anhydrous than I could neutralize, and froze to the skin of his wrists. He still has scars on his wrists. 

That's why I wear goggles and gloves whenever I'm even CLOSE to anhydrous application equipment. I'm getting better about wearing goggles or face shields when cutting or grinding metal. I'm already pretty religious about never crawling under equipment without first blocking it up. And I ALWAYS put the toilet seat down before I leave the bathroom. I may do some dangerous things, but I'm not stupid.

In The Shop: Finicky Fuel Filters

Nov 13, 2011

 Modern diesel engines, newer than model year 2005, often have hi-fi fuel filtering systems to ensure nearly pure fuel to electronic fuel injection systems. Those systems work great, provide extra power with less exhaust contamination, but can be a pain in the patoot when it comes time to change fuel filters.

Here's why: Diesel fuel delivered to the farm is filtered to 10 microns. Electronic diesel fuel injectors require fuel filtered to 2 microns. In many cases, diesel engines now have two or more fuel filters between the machine's fuel tank and the injection pump. The filters start "coarse" and get "finer" as they progress, and the final filter ahead of the pump filters to 2 or 3 microns.

The challenge when changing fuel filters is to get the correct fuel filters for your specific engine AND to get them mounted in the right place in the system. Dumb as it may sound, some manufacturers have made all their fuel filters with the same mounting base, so you can accidentally put a coarse filter where the fine filter should go, and vice versa. It sounds like a no brainer, to install filters on the system so that coarse filters are closer to the fuel tank and finer filters are close to the injection pump, but modern fuel systems are like an explosion at a spaghetti factory---fuel lines twisting and twining everywhere. It's easy to get the wrong filters in the wrong places. 

The only way to know exactly what filters--and where they go--on an engine is to provide your local dealership parts person ALL the serial numbers and i.d. numbers from the engine's serial number plate. The model number of the tractor or combine is not enough--there are lots of annoying and confusing serial number breaks within model number lines. And it's not enough to provide the parts numbers off the filters being removed--the mechanic, hired man or machine owner before you may have got the wrong filters and installed them in the wrong places.

Good luck. I've come to dread ordering fuel filters on late-model diesel engines. It's almost a crap shoot, trying to get the right filters. Thank you, engineers.

In The Shop: More Welding Stuff

Nov 09, 2011

 I've been writing about welding tricks and techniques in the past few blogs, and want to clarify something: I'm not a great welder. I'm adequate, I'm good at times, but nobody will ever mistake me for a professional welder. I was reminded of that when talking with my friend Ed the other day, when he lamented that he can never get his welds to turn out as good as he would like them. 

I'm sometimes as frustrated as Ed, but have learned several strategies that help me create adequate and occasionally nice welds. I've learned to be patient, take my time to grind away paint and rust, and to make certain I have the best ground connection possible to the pieces I'm welding. But sometimes, before I get to those critical steps, if I have time I'll spent a few minutes practicing. I'll dig through the scrap iron pile and find pieces of steel the same thickness as what I'm going to weld, and I'll experiment with various amperage settings and other variables. That way I've already burned through or "chicken-crapped" all over the practice pieces and have a good idea how to set the welder for the "real thing."

Sometimes I'll use my lunch hour to play with either my stick welder or the shop's MIG welder. I'll pillage the scrap iron pile for an assortment of metal, then spend time welding chunks of thin metal to pieces of thick metal, doing vertical welds, and playing with various amperage settings. Just to see what does and doesn't work. Too often, the only time we weld is when we "have to," and for many of us, we don't weld often enough to get truly good at it. The only way to get good is to spend time doing it, without the pressure of "gotta get it done right away" hanging over our shoulder.

Having said all that, there are some people who have a knack for working/welding metal. They can tell by listening if an arc is "right," or if it's too hot or too cold or the ground connection isn't right. Just like some people have a way with working with wood. Heck, even if I used the same fancy woodworking tools that Norm on "This Old House" television show uses, I could never get the cuts and joints he does when he builds furniture. He just has a "feel" for wood, just like some guys have a "feel" for working with metal.

But I can bang 2x4s together good enough to make shelves in my garage, and I can melt metal good enough to repair farm equipment. Thank goodness for thick enamel paint.


in The Shop: The Way We Talk

Nov 04, 2011

 I borrowed this topic and information from an intranet website our mainline equipment manufacturer maintains to allow parts people, mechanics, and other dealership personnel to share information between dealerships all across North American. In this case, the topic was about some of the odd words and phrases customers use to describe the parts they want to buy at a parts counter.

Sometimes the unique words are regional. Sometimes they're mispronounced. Sometimes it's anybody's guess what the customer is talking about.

For example, one customer needed parts because the spleens were worn off inside his transmission. The parts person got him new parts with fresh splines, and the customer left happy. Another customer needed some canister wheels, which baffled the guy at the parts counter. Until the customer explained he needed the canister wheels for his zero-turn lawn mower. A set of caster wheels was the solution.

"Low Viscosity Oil" is a special hydraulic oil designed not to thicken when air temperatures get cold. One dealership had customers who routinely asked for "low velocity oil." The term has become so common in that region that some customers have extended the misunderstanding and now ask for "slow oil."

Lubricants are a common source of misunderstanding and mispronunciation. Lithium grease is a special formulation of grease. Some customers must want European grease, because they ask for, "...some of that Lithuanian grease." Maybe they want to use it on their lawn mower, which according to them has a, "...Kamasaki engine."

Sometimes you can figure out what customers mean by how they use their mystery words. When they ask for brake pads and ribbets, there's a good chance they'll be happy if you hand them a box of rivets. If you're down south and somebody asks for flying jets to go with the bearing they just purchased, you're probably safe to hand them flangettes to mount that bearing. And if they just had a gearbox rebuilt, they probably would appreciate synthetic gear lube when they ask for "sympathetic oil" to put in that gearbox.

I really don't have room to talk about the way other people talk. I've spent years weaning myself from calling hex nuts "burr nuts," still occasionally call the conveyor chain in a combine feederhouse a "rattle chain, and make no apologies for my use of "fountain auger", "headlands", and "wobblebox." But then, I AM from Iowa... 



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