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February 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.

In The Shop: Another "Duh!" Moment

Feb 27, 2011

 It's always been a rule in our family that every vehicle always has a set of battery cables onboard. That rule has served us well over the years, but this week it struck me (in one of those "Duh!" moments) that there's now a better, possibly cheaper way to deal with the risk of a dead battery.

Special jumper batteries have flooded the automotive market in recent years. They are nothing more than compact, sealed batteries specially designed to (1) hold a charge for extended periods of time, and (2) release that charge in large, quick bursts. I've had for three years a JNC 300XL jumper battery manufactured by Clore Automotive. It's smaller than a loaf for bread and weighs less than 10 pounds. It has hard-wired cables with nice big alligator clamps on the ends, as well as a built-in charge indicator and a nice carrying handle. I charge it once a year and it's always ready to jump-start a faulty lawn mower or personal vehicle.

My "Duh!" moment came when I realized that it's cheaper and more efficient to put a JNC 300XL in each of our vehicles than it is to keep the battery cables. With battery cables my wife or I end up standing in a parking lot looking for a generous soul to provide a "jump". With a battery pack, we just pop the hood, clamp the cables to appropriate battery terminals, and hit the key switch. A good set of 15-foot long battery cables with 12 guage wire and good alligator clamps costs from $60 to $100. You can buy a JNC 300XL online for $58. 

I could say I'm noble, and doing this so my wife won't have to stand in the school parking lot holding her battery cables, hoping someone will share their battery with her. In truth, if she's got a jumper battery she's self-sufficient, a modern woman in control of her life, in need of no man.

Though there's still a good chance I'll get a phone call and end up driving to town to hook up the battery pack's cables so she won't get her good clothes dirty... 


In The Shop: I Don't "Get" NASCAR

Feb 20, 2011

 Like most farmers and virtually all mechanics, I enjoy racing. I used to race motorcycles, would enjoy drag racing if there was a track within reasonable driving distance, and am fascinated by just about anything that involves open headers and excessive horsepower.

Today I will follow my annual tradition and watch the Daytona 500. I will watch the pre-race show and first 50 laps, then fall asleep until the last 50 laps and the finish. For the rest of the NASCAR schedule I'll pay scant attention. I might catch a race on a rainy Sunday afternoon when it's too wet to fish, bicycle or work outside. But for the rest of the year I'll get my weekly racing fix at local dirt tracks, watching friends and heroes battle it out.

I truly enjoy local-style dirt track racing. I like being able to buy a pit pass and watch close-up as drivers and mechanics wrestle to make their cars into winners. I like standing so close the methanol racing fuel fumes make my eyes water. I'm addicted to the sound of open headers. My dream vacation would be to take off across the midwest and south and attend as many IMCA, UMP, WISSOTA, and USMTS races as I could in a month's time.

For as much as I enjoy oval track racing, I have minimal interest in attending a NASCAR Cup race. The races are too long. I can't get into the pits. And the driver's don't live in my world. I have contacts and friends deeply involved in NASCAR Cup racing, and the days of Dale Earnhardt and common men rising through the ranks to dominate the sport through sheer skill and determination are gone. The current crop of NASCAR drivers are excellent drivers, the best in the world, but there are hundreds of other drivers with equal skills who aren't driving a Cup car because they don't have the millions---and I mean millions--of dollars it now takes to literally buy a ride in a Cup car. 

I've been told by more than one NASCAR insider that for a young driver to earn a "development" ride with a NASCAR Cup team, somebody has to be able to write a check for at least $1.5 million. There are still old dogs in NASCAR, guys like Kenny Schrader, who fought their way to the top from hard-scrabble beginnings. Clint Bowyer was working in a Kansas scrap yard and racing dirt tracks in Missouri and Kansas only 10 years ago. But that type of climb to fame is a thing of the past.

So this afternoon I'll watch the race, catch a nap, cheer for the victor, and bide my time till the first "Frostbuster" races in early April at my local dirt track. I'll put on my coveralls to ward off the chill of an early spring night and wander through the pits sucking up methanol fumes and risking tinnitis from open headers. I'll gorge on cheap hot dogs flavored by dust and chunks of mud that blow off the tracks as the cars roar past. I'll be grinning from ear to ear.

This blog doesn't have much to do with farming, turning wrenches or fixing farm equipment, but, hey...everybody occasionally needs a break from their job!

In The Shop: 7-Pin Problems

Feb 17, 2011

 A warm spell this week prompted a few farmers to start tinkering with planters and other spring equipment, and we got our first calls related to no electrical power to the planter or whatever piece of towed equipment the farmer was working on.

Planters, seeders and most other towed implements get their primary electrical power from the 7-pin connector on the back of the tractor. Sometimes called a "trailer outlet," 7-pin connectors are those round electrical sockets under a hinged cover that have 6 round pins encircling a central pin. 

If you're having trouble getting power to a towed implement, before you start tearing apart wiring harnesses on the implement, take a moment to probe the pins on the tractor's 7-pin socket. The top pin--also the longest pin--is the ground. The center pin is usually power, and should carry 12 or more volts. The pins at 1 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 7 o'clock and 10 o'clock in the socket carry turn signal/warning light power, or power to other peripheral systems.

If you don't have a multimeter or test light to check for power, carefully pry back the rubber boot on the backside of the 7-pin power socket and check for corrosion or broken wires. That rubber boot seems to hold water INSIDE the socket better than it keeps water OUTSIDE the socket, so it's very common to find the terminals rotten with corrosion and often completely broken away from their respective wires.

If all the wires and connections are bright and shiny, and the pins show proper voltage, THEN it's time to start probing and checking wiring harnesses on the implement. But I'd guess that 30 percent of the time, the cause of no or low power to implements can be traced to problems with the 7-pin electrical socket on the back of the tractor. 

In The Shop

Feb 12, 2011

 You may already know these tidbits about repairing or maintaining driveshafts and u-joints, but I ran into folks with questions this week, so maybe a refresher would be useful.

-When reassembling a two-piece driveshaft, the u-joints on the ends must be "timed." The yoke arms on one end must be in alignment with the yoke arms on the opposite end. If a splined driveshaft is slid together with the yoke arms out of alignment, the driveshaft will have significant vibration. This isn't a problem with a one-piece driveshaft, like the driveshaft on a rear-wheel-drive car, because the yoke arms can't get out of alignment.

-Don't overtighten the small bolts that hold in place the end caps on u-joints. If those bolts are overtightened it puts stress on the needle bearings inside the caps, creates heat, and shortens the life of the u-joint. Proper torque for most vehicle and farm-related u-joint bolts is 30 foot-pounds or less. Pat Fagen, the owner of FastShafts in Des Moines, jokes that he tells customers who don't have a torque wrench to, "put grease on their hand, hold the driveshaft with that greased hand, then torque the bolts till the driveshaft starts to slip."

-Greasable u-joints are one place where it's okay to pump the heck out of the handle on a grease gun. U-joint manufacturers recommend greasing u-joints until fresh grease purges from the rubber seal on each arm of the u-joints "cross" assembly. That way old, contaminated grease is replaced with fresh grease, extending u-joint life.

-And this one is a pet peeve, not necessarily good mechanical advice: Driveshaft/u-joint couplers don't need to have their splines greased. A dry pto shaft is not a bad thing. A dry-lubed pto shaft--with graphite or silicone spray--is a good thing. A pto shaft smeared with axle grease is...a messy nuisance, an example of lubrication overkill guaranteed to make a mess of your hands, your pants, and the inside of your tractor cab. But that's just my opinion. 

In The Shop: The Skinny On Installing Bearings

Feb 08, 2011

 Kudos to Timken Bearings! I installed a Timken pillow block bearing today, and included in the box was a nice little set of instructions with useful tips on installation that answered many questions customers have asked me over the years. Here's a quick rundown of the pertinent points:

First: the brochure states on its cover that, "...this product is manufactured by American craftsmen in Pulaski, Tennessee, U.S.A."  Hoo-rah, Timken!

Second: Here are snippets from the brochure that speak to questions I've been asked:

-"The bearing should not be mounted on a worn section of the shaft." Yes, you can "peen" the shaft or use Liquid Metal to fill the gap between a worn shaft and a new bearing, but it's a stopgap, emergency measure that will not last long.

-"Rotate lock tapping lightly with a drift punch in the direction of shaft rotation." There's no need to smack the lock collar super-tight. In fact, over-tightening often cracks the cammed face of the bearing race where the lock collar attaches, requiring replacement of the "new" bearing.

-"General Relubrication Recommendations: Indoor service--not required. Outdoor service--2 - 3 times per year. Severe outdoor exposure--once a month. High contamination/washdown--once a week. Relubricate until a thin bead of fresh grease is visible at the seal lip."  My rule of thumb: follow the machine's owner's manual recommended lubrication interval, but UNLESS SPECIFICALLY DIRECTED BY A MECHANIC YOU TRUST, do not grease more often than recommended. As it says in the brochure: "Excessive relubrication may cause high operating temperatures due to grease churning."

Isn't it cool what a guy can learn if he takes time to read the instructions...?

In The Shop: The Best Welder For You

Feb 06, 2011

 Pam Smith's story, "Make His Heart Smolder" in the February issue of Farm Journal Magazine is a Valentine story with a practical message. Her entertaining tale of buying a MIG welder for her husband raises valid questions about how to select the best welder for a particular situation.

I've used a lot of different welders, bought welders, consulted with farmers preparing to buy welders, and here's my bottom line: the welder you want may not be the best welder for your situation.

I--and most guys who have valid reason to own a welder--want a Metal Inert Gas (MIG) welder. They make beautiful welds with no slag and minimal splatter. They allow the user to weld thin metal. (Perhaps more important, they easily FILL HOLES created by amateur welders attempting to weld thin metal.) Smith's choice of buying her husband a MIG welder was wise because he does a lot of fabrication and repair inside his shop using new, unpainted metal. 

But after a lot of research and a fair amount of practical experience, I've decided a MIG welder isn't the best welder for the way I use a welder. MIG welders are designed to weld "new", un-painted metal. You have to scrape or grind away rust or paint down to bare metal to get good welds with a MIG. MIG welders are also fussy when used outdoors. A cross-breeze disrupts the shielding effect of the inert gas and produces scraggy, splattery welds. Heck, I've even had problems with poor welds caused by welding downstream from a shop fan inside a shop on a hot summer day. Plus, with a MIG welder you have to switch wire spools and sometimes the type of shielding gas if you want to weld really thick metal or exotic metals. 

With a good ol' stick welder, you can weld through rust or paint (within reason), you can weld outdoors in the middle of a windstorm if necessary, and changing metal thickness or metal composition is as easy as putting a different stick in the handle. As much as I'd love to have a MIG in my home shop---my personal welder is a MODERN stick welder.

And that's a key issue. If your current stick welder is a 30-year-old hand-me-down from dad, or even worse, a 50-year-old antique purchased by grandpa, it's time to upgrade. You will be amazed at how much better the latest generation of computer-assisted welders weld. They strike and hold arcs more easily, don't "stick" nearly as much, and are capable of welding thinner metals (with the proper diameter stick and a little practice.)

In my dream shop I'll have both a MIG and a stick welder. But in my reality of often working outdoors with painted, rusty scrap iron, stick welders work best.

In The Shop: Toasty Tools and Warm Toes

Feb 02, 2011

 There are some farm shops with sophisticated heating systems, but it's safe to say the average farm shop is more of a wind break than a heated work area. Here are options to consider, if you're tired of handling frosty tools.

Kerosine "blast" heaters, the long, low heaters that look like a torpedo mounted over a flattened fuel tank, can raise a building's temperature above freezing and keep it tolerable. They're portable, so you can temporarily heat a feed room or pump house while making repairs on equipment in those buildings. In desperate times, I've even been known to use tarps and sheets of plywood to build an enclosure around a tractor's engine so I could use a blast heater to warm the diesel fuel above gel-point.

Propane-powered infra-red heaters come in various designs. Some are small heating-grids-with-reflectors that sit atop a propane bottle and direct infrared heat at a work bench or other small area. Others have built in-fans that help move warmed air. If you've got a small shop or garage, propane heaters can allow you to work without gloves. The trick is to fire up infra-red propane heaters long before you want to use the building--infra-red heaters warm SURFACES, so you have to let them run for awhile with their glow directed toward a bench top, tool box or other surface, and eventually the warmed surface will transfer heat to the surrounding air.

Waste oil heaters/furnaces are attractive because they run off "free" oil drained from crankcases, gearcases, and hydraulic systems. They come in a variety of configurations, and can put out a lot of heat. But their pumps and filtering systems require consistent maintenance to keep them running well. Another consideration is whether or not the building will be heated 24/7. Some waste oil furnaces have difficulty pumping and metering oil if the furnace is turned off at night, allowing the oil in the storage tank to cool and thicken.

Wood stoves, corn stoves and other stoves utilize wood or grain that farmers may have on-hand. High grain prices may make corn stoves a little pricey to operate. Wood looks cheap, but the cost of chain saws, log splitters and labor are hidden costs. But the heat from those sort of stoves is oddly attractive. I've noticed that shops with wood or corn stoves always seem to have a couple old chairs grouped around the stove, a comfortable distance from the glowing heat. 

In general, I've noticed that kerosine, propane and waste oil heaters raise the temperature and make a shop "comfortable," but wood and corn stoves make shops "homey" and attract neighbors and friends.

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