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April 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: Heat Defeats Thread-Locking Compound

Apr 27, 2011

 Everybody calls it "Loctite," but that's technically a specific brand of thread-locking compound. Whatever you call it, it can be tricky removing bolts cemented in place with those products. The first trick is knowing they're cemented before you try to remove them. The second trick is to remove them.

There's really no way to know in advance if a bolt is cemented in place with thread-lock. I've learned to pay attention to a couple things that hint thread-lock has been used. If I start to remove a bolt or nut and notice a dry white powder coming out of the threads, there's a good chance thread-lock has been used. And if I get a whiff of a sweetish odor from that powder, that's a dead give-away that the nut or bolt was thread-locked. From then on I can use discretion in removing other bolts that might also be thread-locked.

Once I determine a nut or bolt has been cemented in place, it gives me the options of (a) strong-arming the fastener to see who is stronger--me or the thread-locking compound, or (b) applying a little heat to liquify the cement to ease removal. A little heat applied to the bolt and surrounding area can make cemented nuts and bolts come out as is they'd been lubricated. 

Heat works great for fasteners cemented with medium-strength (blue-colored) thread-locking compound. High-strength locking compound--clear or red-colored--will usually liquify, but it may take more heat. There ARE thread-locking compounds on the market that are labeled as "permanent." While I'd certainly try heating them, good luck with removing any fastener cemented with those.

Which reminds me of when we were hauling my son's toolbox to the tech school for mechanics he attended. The instructor met us at the door, inspected every drawer before we could lug the toolbox into their classroom, and confiscated a couple tubes of thread-locking compound. When I asked why the inspection was necessary, he explained that a couple years earlier a smart-aleck graduating student had used "permanent" locking compound on every bolt and nut when he reassembled one of the school's motors as part of his final project before graduation. From that point on, thread-locking compounds had been banned from their classrooms.


In The Shop: Seed Tube Sensor Sensitivity

Apr 24, 2011

 I've learned there is a significant difference in sensitivity about seed monitors. I'm not talking about how well seed sensors monitor seeding rate and accuracy--I'm talking about the attitudes farmers have toward what their seed monitors tell them.

Some farmers state, "All I want to know is that seeds are falling through the tubes." They're indifferent about seed spacing, seed population or other variables. As long as the little lights or digitized numbers tell them seeds are going in the ground, they're happy.

Other farmers literally stop planting if the seeding rate or total population varies by more than 500 seeds per acre. They frantically dig and measure and re-calibrate, and often spend the first day of planting within 100 yards of their first pass through the field.

I can work with either type of customer. I may wince when working with the minimalists because I know they're reducing yield potential by not optimizing seed spacing, seed depth, and other critical elements. And I'll definitely cringe when a perfectionist hyperventilates because one row of his 24-row planter shows 200 seeds/acre lower than the rest on a windy, dusty day because I know the inconsistency is due to the strong tailwind blowing dust up seed tubes or messing with the way seeds fall through the tube. (Yes, strong tail winds CAN cause erratic readings on seed monitors.)

The perfectionist is more challenging to work with but I get satisfaction from tweaking his seed monitor system and planter to work to his high standards. The key is to understand the source of any inaccuracies. The aforementioned tail winds can cause the monitor to show erratic under-population even though the planter is dropping seeds accurately. Dirty seed tube sensors also can contribute to apparent under-population. Mis-calibrated radar guns can feed inaccurate mph readings to seed monitors, which cause seed population-per-acre to read high or low even though the planter is planting accurately.

Other under- or over-population readings on seed monitors are accurate reports of planter malfunctions. Failed bearings on driveshafts or in seed transmissions cause under-seeding. Damaged finger units thwart accurate seed delivery. Vacuum delivery systems set too high or too low cause under- or over-seeding.

All of those inaccuracies can be dealt with, as long as the operator knows what rate the planter is actually planting. The only way to know that is to get out of the tractor cab and dig. Dig, dig, and dig some more. Dig behind the planter, count the actual seeds per foot, measure the distance between seeds, and do it in multiple places on multiple rows. Once the operator knows whether or not the planter is planting accurately he can diagnose and fix the problem, whether it is in the planter or in the seed monitoring system. No use blaming the planter if the monitor is inaccurate. No use blaming the monitor if the planter is the problem.

Or, you can take the attitude that as long as seeds are going in the ground, you're "planting." Whatever makes the customer happy makes me happy.

In The Shop: Sensor-tivity Training

Apr 21, 2011

 I got "burned" twice this week by sensors and switches on planters. Both times I over-reacted and spent too much time analyzing and testing circuits and systems when I should have checked the easy, simple stuff first. For the rest of this spring I vow to always:

-check that any switch or sensor associated with the problem I'm trying to diagnose has free travel, isn't plugged by a corn stalk or mouse nest, and that the wiring harness running to it is in good shape. Then I'll check it again.

-check seed tube sensors first by running a long zip-tie up and down the seed tube to see if it will trigger the seed monitor in the tractor cab. If I have doubts about the sensor I'll take the time to plug my hand-held seed sensor tester into the individual seed tube to test it. If I don't have my tester with me, I can do the farmer-trick of switching the questionable sensor and its seed tube with another seed tube on another row, to see if the problem follows the questionable sensor when I move it.

-check the planter wiring harness connectors at the back of the tractor. Those connectors need to be firmly pushed into place, and if they have a ring that locks them into place, I'll make sure that locking ring is twisted clockwise until I feel it "click" into place.

-double-check all wiring harnesses inside frame tubes for gnawed wires if I even get a whiff of "mouse" odor.  Even if the farmer swears he has no mice in his machine shed.

I tell customers the best way to start diagnosing a problem is to think, K.I.S.S.--Keep It Simple, Stupid. For the rest of this spring I need to take my own advice.

In The Shop: Hi-Tech Rock Locator

Apr 17, 2011

 I rode in a self-propelled sprayer with a customer this week. Every so often he'd grab a little yellow gadget from the armrest console and punch a button on it twice. I finally had to ask what the heck he was doing.

He was marking the location of rocks, broken tile intakes, and other things he wanted to be able to easily find at a later date. Every time he punched the yellow gadget, it locked into its electronic memory the exact latitude and longitude, give or take a few feet. When he wants to return to pick up the rock or fix the broken tile intake, the gadget will display directional arrows to guide him back to the exact spot.

He's an old-school farmer who anticipated what I was thinking: "Why do I need a gizmo to help return to a rock sitting on top of the ground in one of my fields?" His answer was that he can give the gizmo to his brother, his son or a hired man and they can quickly and accurately locate all the rocks and broken tiles he has marked. No more drawing maps. No more radio or cell phone calls, "Hey, I'm in Smith's 80--where did you say that broken tile is...?" 

Some of you are thinking, "But I've got a GPS autosteer unit in the tractor that can designate "flags" to mark rocks and stuff in the field." But that GPS unit is bolted in your tractor, and you'd have to take it out to hand it to the hired man to pick up rocks. Plus, that GPS unit cost you how many thousands of dollars...?

The Garmin eTrex unit he uses costs around $100. There are other brands on the market for a similar price. The more I think about it, the better I like the idea of being able to use a shirt-pocket-size hand-held unit to re-locate things. Like rocks, broken tile inlets, and weed patches. If a person wrote down the latitude and longitude of a few locations, he could map the location of septic systems, electrical lines and other buried utilities around the farmstead. Heck, I could even use it in the rowboat I use on a certain 5-acre farm pond to re-locate a couple hard-to-pinpoint hotspots I found for catfish and crappies... 

In The Shop: Making The (Electrical) Connection

Apr 13, 2011

 Modern planters and pulled implements often have one or more electrical systems that connect to the tractor via plugs on the back of the tractor. Since some computerized electronic systems on planters and implements operate on as little as 4 volts, those plugs or connectors can often be the source of problems. If you're having trouble with electronic systems on planters or implements...

-turn on the warning flashers on the tractor and see if the warning flashers on the planter/implement work. If warning flashers don't work, check both sides of the 7-pin connector at the back of the tractor. That's the round push-in connector with 6 smaller pins encircling a larger center pin. The top pin is ground. The center pin is 12-volt power. If no power is present, check under the rubber boot on the back of the tractor's 7-pin socket--it's notorious for drawing moisture that corrodes the connections.

-disconnect other electrical connectors between the tractor and the planter/implement and inspect each of the pins or sockets to make certain they're all seated to the same depth in their respective plugs. If one pin or socket is deeper than the rest, re-seat it to ensure optimum electrical contact.

-if your planter's seed monitor uses rectangular connectors with flat silver blades, those blades must be silver. If they're showing copper or dull metal, it's time to replace them. Sanding or scraping those blades to improve contact actually degrades conductivity and speeds the need for total replacement of the connector.

-don't wrap connectors in tape to keep out moisture. Moisture will always somehow get in, and if you've taped the connector that moisture can't get out. It sits there and corrodes the connector's insides. Most connectors are designed to connect "dry" and without any moisture-excluding measures. If you feel the need to keep out dust and moisture, dielectric compound, available at most auto parts stores, is a petroleum jelly-like ointment that you smear in female sockets that can both lubricate the pins and help exclude water and dust.

-if disconnecting, checking and re-seating electrical connectors doesn't fix the problem, carefully trace the wiring harnesses and check for pinches or cuts near the 3-point hitch or any folding hinges on the planter or implement's hitch. If the problem isn't in the harness connectors or at harness pinch's time to open a large can of patience and start checking voltages to find the problem. 

In The Shop: When Colors Don't Match

Apr 10, 2011

 It's safe to say most equipment dealership mechanics cringe at least a little when they have to hook a Brand X tractor to a piece of Brand Y equipment. Doesn't matter if it's tractor/planter, sprayer/spray controller, or combine/yield monitor. "Colors" will blend, but sometimes it takes considerable tweaking to get the color combination as you want it.

Tillage equipment is the easiest, especially if it's straightforward tillage without any automatic height/depth control systems on the tillage tool that have to be integrated with the tractor's hydraulic system. With sprayers and spray rate controllers, it's a matter of getting sensors, flowmeters and other gadgets plumbed into the correct places in the sprayer's "wet" system. Installing yield monitors and yield mapping systems in combines is complicated only by the time and effort it takes due to the number of components required (mass flow sensor, moisture meter, GPS receiver, display console, etc.) and the challenge of routing wiring harnesses correctly between all those components. (Props to the manufacturers of the major aftermarket yield monitor systems--they do a spectacular job of supplying easy-to-follow instructions and components that generally bolt easily into place on combines.)

Planters and tractors are probably the biggest challenges. It's already complicated connecting together a planter and tractor of the same color because of the complexities of modern electrical and hydraulic systems. A 24-row planter with vacuum seed delivery and a single big seed hopper has all sorts of hydraulic motor-return and motor case drain hydraulic hoses that have to be plugged into specific hydraulic ports that may require special couplers, separate lines to oil coolers and all sorts of complications. Add the complexities of matching up to four electrical harnesses between the cab and planter that may or may not need special adapter harnesses, and simply connecting the same brand of tractor to the same brand of planter can turn into a full-day's job the first time a planter is connected to a tractor. Subsequent connections each spring are straight-forward, because all the hoses and electrical connections are in-place and matched--it's just a matter of remembering which ones go where.

Which brings us back to the challenge of connecting for the first time a tractor of one color to a planter of another color. It can be done. It WILL be done. It just takes extra time, extra patience, a lot of time studying owner's manuals, at least several phone calls to the disparate equipment dealers, and a minimum of one trip to get special adapters to make Tractor X's electrics and hydraulics connect to Planter Y's electrics and hydraulics. In a way, it's a fun challenge and an opportunity to see how the "Other Guy" wires, plumbs and designs their equipment.

As long as the tractor/planter's owner isn't pacing in the background asking if he'll be able to plant after lunch.

In The Shop: Misc. Planter Tips

Apr 06, 2011

 In no particular order, here are some random tips, ideas and suggestions related to prepping planters.

-if your planter has rotary scrapers for the double-disk openers, the wear point to watch is the tip of the mounting arm, in the neighborhood of the hairpin/cotter key that holds the rotary scraper disk to that arm. As the rotary scraper wears, the tip of the mounting arm rubs against the disk opener and often wears through to the hairpin/cotter key.

-if your planter uses two short roll pins to hold the cast iron "divider" (lots of people call it a "frog") that mounts between the double-disk opener, you can pound all day with a hammer and punch trying to remove those darned roll pins. An air hammer with a pin-punch knocks them out in sub-seconds.

-if your planter has closing wheels with axles that are held to the closing wheel frame assembly by roll pins, you know how hard it can be to get that axle out of it's mount. Shoup Mfg. makes a nifty tool that you hammer between the closing wheel and closing wheel frame to drive them apart. It works about 50 percent of the time, which is much better than the 100 percent of the time when I was using a torch to heat the mounting bracket and STILL breaking the closing wheel when I, uh, used a large hammer to remove it.

-if a drive- or drillshaft bearing has frozen and spun on its hexagonal shaft so the shaft is rounded-off, you can normally pull the shaft out of all its carrier bearings, reverse it, and end up with all the bearings riding on fresh portions of the hexagonal shaft. You might have to drill new holes for cotter keys and drive pins, but it's cheaper than replacing the entire shaft.

-a lot of seed monitors and planters come with "bottle brushes" to clean seed tube sensors. Those are okay, but if you really want to clean seed tube sensors, remove the seed boxes, blow out the seed tubes with compressed air, then use a long screwdriver to swab a wet rag up and down the seed tube. Then swab it with a dry rag to clean out the "mud" residue the wet rag creates. It may be overkill, but you'll be surprised how much more accurate your seed monitor is after a swab job.


in The Shop: Planter Emergency Kits

Apr 03, 2011

 Remember last year, when you had to drive all the way to town to get a special cotter key for the planter, that cotter key that couples the planter's transmission to the drill shaft that drives the seed units?

(Okay, you didn't drive to town. You used an 8-penny nail you found in the bottom of the tractor's toolbox, but you get my drift.)

Different planters have different "wear items," but there are few universal parts and tools that are useful to take to the field when planting. For example:

-A cotter key assortment. If you plan in advance, add to that assortment multiples of the most common cotter keys used to connect assorted driveshafts and transmission shafts on the planter.

-An assortment of hardened roll pins. Same strategy.

-A roll of mechanic's wire (aka, baling wire). To run through/around roll pins or cotter keys when they don't fit tight in their egged-out holes and keep falling out.

-A hammer and a couple punches. Long, thin punches are nice to drive out the remnants of the aforementioned pins/cotter keys when they shear off inside driveshafts.

-A couple Crescent-style adjustable wrenches, to turn hex driveshafts for alignment or other reasons.

-A seed tube brush or some device to clean seed tubes and seed tube sensors.

-Contact cleaner or other spray cleaner to flush dirt, grease, dirt and grease, or generic gunk from electrical connectors to improve electrical flow.

-WD-40, JB-80 or other spray lubricant to aid repairs requiring sliding a driveshaft in or out of a bearing, seed drive transmission or coupler.

-A small tube or tub of waterless hand cleaner, preferably without pumice or grit. If you have an air planter and have to replace/install a new hose over a barbed fitting, waterless soap is a great lubricant. WD-80, JB-80 and other petroleum-based lubricants may attack the plastic or rubber of hoses, so avoid them when lubing hoses and hose barbs. And the hand soap is always nice to have handy after changing a wheel bearing.

-the planter's owner's manual. If nothing else, have the local office supply store copy the pages pertinent to transmission gear settings, speeds, and air pressure/vacuum settings. Then have th office supply store laminate those pages so they're water and greasy-finger resistant.

Think back to last spring and recall the pieces and parts you either had to run back to the shop to get, or send the wife, kid or hired man to town for. Those are the pieces and parts to have in your toolbox when it's time to start planting.

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