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May 2012 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: Cutting Edge Tactics

May 28, 2012

 In a perfect world, every shop would have a plasma cutter, a chop saw, a power hack saw and a metal cutting band saw. No matter what type of metal cutting was needed, there would b a power tool perfect for the job.

But most shops are lucky to have an acetylene torch and a hacksaw, so cutting metal precisely and accurately is a challenge. Fortunately, those two tools can cut a lot of metal, limited in their cutting abilities only by the ingenuity and creativity of their user. Add an air-powered die-grinder and, with a little effort, most metal cuts required on an average farm can be accomplished.

The key to accurate cuts with a torch is patience. It takes patience to take time to clamp a piece of angle iron alongside the desired cutline to create a "guide" when making straight cuts. It takes time to devise a compass-like pivot when making curved cuts. But it takes a lot less grinding to remove slag and straighten or smooth the finished edge if that time is invested before making the cut. A pair of tinted goggles, glasses or a tinted face shield immensely improves accuracy when making cuts. I'm amazed at the number of farmers who still use a torch without eye protection--then apologize for ragged, imprecise cuts.

A plain ol' hacksaw is still the primary metal cutting tool on many farms. Just be sure to match the type of blade, and number of teeth per inch, to the job. In general, a hacksaw blade should have three teeth in contact with the thickness of metal being cut. Otherwise the metal snags between the teeth, especially when cutting thin sheet metal. When cutting very thin metal, it may be necessary to slant the saw blade when cutting to maintain that minimum of three teeth in contact with the metal at all times.

An air-powered die grinder outfitted with an abrasive cut-off disk is a labor-saving alternative to a hacksaw. If all that's needed is to cut off a bolt, slice a pin, or cut an edge off a small piece of tin, an air-powered die grinder will do that job quickly, if somewhat noisily and with a lot of sparks. Safety glasses are a necessity. Ear protection is wise. You can even make long cuts in large pieces of sheet metal by scoring along the marked line, then patiently making repeat passes with the cut-off wheel to make long, straight cuts that require minimal dressing.

And if you're cutting a lot of sheet steel, there are several metal-cutting circular saws on the market that work really well. They look like a conventional wood-cutting electrically powered circular saw, but have high-torque motors built to work well with their special metal cutting blades. They're incredibly noisy and spark-producing monsters, but make cutting sheet metal easy and borderline fun. Don't cheap-out and add a metal-cutting blade to your conventional wood-cutting circular saw--most metal-blades have different size arbors, and if you DO adapt a metal-cutting blade to a wood-cutting saw, you'll soon be replacing that burned out saw because it's not designed for the rigors of cutting metal.


In The Shop: Best Quotes From Spring Planting

May 23, 2012

 Talking with customers is the best part of my job. Talking with customers is the worst part of my job. A few quotes from actual conversations with customers during this spring's planting season might explain why I make those statements:

-Customer: "I think my planter needs a new seed transmission drive clutch." Me: "Uh, not only does it need a new clutch, but it messed up the driveshaft, so you'll need the shaft, too." Customer: "And you're just the guy to give it to me."

-Customer: " Yeah, I figured it was time to get the old girl out and start planting. Don't worry about the corn (from last year) growing in the finger units---I'll clean that out before I fill the seed boxes. Mostly I want you to repair that wiring harness where the mice gnawed through all the seed tube sensor wires."

-Customer: "I've got three seed tube sensors that aren't working. I just filled the (3 bushel) seed boxes. Is that going to be a problem, getting to the seed tube sensors?"

-Customer: "My seed monitor says I'm planting 5000 seeds per acre over my target population." Me: "Is the problem in the monitor or in the planter?" Customer: "How do I figure that out?" Me: "You'll have to dig behind the planter to see how many seeds per foot it's actually planting." Customer: "Isn't there any way to check the planter without stopping and digging?"

-Customer: "Remember how mad I was last week with this new planter?" Me: (Cautiously) "Yeahhhhh?" "Customer: "Well, I did what you said, read the manual, played around with all the buttons to see what they did, and I've got to tell you, now that I've got it figured out, this is the most fun I've ever had planting corn."

One good conversation is all it takes to help me forget all the less-than-good conversations. 

Simple Solutions to Sprayer Problems

May 20, 2012

 It's spraying season, time for panicked phone calls about sprayers that won't spray. One of the best diagnostic tools in my toolbox to figure out malfunctions in sprayers is a question: "What changed?"

If you just got done filling the sprayer's tank with chemicals, and it now has difficulty to get the machine to spray the right "gallons per acre," ask yourself, "What changed?" The machine was working fine before you added product to the tank, so my first guess is that whatever is causing the problem was accidentally added to the tank when it was filled. I'd check for filters/strainers plugged by a stray label off a herbicide jug, a notepad that fell out of your shirt pocket, or a clot of unmixed dry flowable herbicide. I've pulled all of those from the main strainers of sprayers that suddenly malfunctioned after filling.

If the sprayer is working fine and suddenly develops problems, I ask myself, "What changed?" If you just crossed a rough waterway and the automatic boom height control abruptly quits working, maybe you smacked the outer boom sensor into the ground and it's now not working, or out of alignment. Maybe the sprayer was working great last week, but when you return to the field after a rainy spell, it won't spray a consistent rate, or the boom height control does funny things. It could be that the crop has grown enough in the week's time so that the radar is getting inconsistent signals off the crop canopy rather than firm ground; or that the increased crop canopy is now preventing the automatic boom height sensors from "seeing" the ground and therefore giving the boom control system inconsistent height readings.

"What changed?" is a great diagnostic tool for sprayers and other pieces of farm equipment. It allows you to quickly narrow possible causes and pinpoint specific areas or components on the machine related to recent changes relevant to the problem.


Prepping Planters for Storage

May 14, 2012

Many of you are done or close to done with planting. Even though you're racing around trying to get spraying and other spring chores done, a couple hours spent prepping your planter for storage will save you time and money next spring.

First, if at all possible, don't leave your planter sitting outside while you wait to see if you'll need to replant. If it has to sit outside until you have time to clear room in the machine shed, be sure to coat every inch of every roller chain on the planter heavily with foaming chain lube. Use a wrench to turn the drill shafts and coat the top, bottom and sides of all those chains. That will help prevent corrosion from dew and spring rains until you can get it into the shed.

Next, clean out all the seed boxes, seed hoppers and anyplace seed spilled, lodged or is hiding. If you don't find it and clean it out, mice or rats will find it this winter, and when they get done munching on all the seeds you provided them, they'll gnaw on wiring harnesses for dessert. If there is no grain or crop residue on or inside the planter, they'll go someplace else to do their winter dining.

Write down now, while it's fresh in your mind, all the small things you told yourself you'd fix "after planting is finished." Even if you don't actually fix them before storage, the list will help you remember what needs to be fixed next winter, or spring, or whenever you finally get around to working on the planter.

The final thing to do before unhooking from the planter, even if only temporarily, is to make a chart, take a picture, or somehow mark every hydraulic hose and electrical connector, so you can hook them into the right connections sometime down the road. Make two diagrams. Take two pictures. Mark the hoses in two places, 'cause if you're anything like me, you'll lose the single copy and be left to poke and guess at which connectors go into which holes on the tractor.

The Most Important Tool for Field Repairs

May 06, 2012

 I'd rather spend 10 minutes talking with the operator of a broken machine than have a toolbox full of fancy wrenches. Because a few minutes of intelligent conversation with the guy who runs a machine dramatically reduces diagnostic time and saves the machine's owner a lot of money.

I say "intelligent conversation" because I want useful information from the operator. I don't want sarcastic or belligerant accusations that it's my fault or my dealership's fault the machine broke. We can determine fault after we get it fixed. I want a calm explanation of how the machine was being operated when it developed problems. I want detailed information of any warning lights, warning codes or unusual mechanical behaviors that preceded the problem. My normal two opening questions when diagnosing a breakdown are, "What were you doing when it broke?" and/or, "What changed?"

Warning lights and buzzers or warning codes give me a specific place to start looking. Sure, a belt may have broke, or a bearing may have failed, but there may be another problem on the machine that caused the belt or bearing to fail. Warning lights and codes are a machine's way to, "tell me where it hurts." For that reason, I'm fond of customers who keep a notepad in their machine and write down any warning or fault codes as soon as they appear.

After that, I appreciate if customers have calmed down, collected their thoughts, and can give me a detailed, chronological explanation of what led to the breakdown. If they just changed fields after transporting down a road, that can influence where and how I look for causes. If they just crossed a waterway and were raising or lowering the machine, that can be important. If the malfunction only occurs when going up a hill, or turning a corner, or when the operator is on his cell phone...all those little clues can lead to a quicker diagnosis and eventual repair.

Operators can use the same technique when diagnosing and making their own repairs. Mentally step away from the machine and systematically identify the events that led to the breakdown. Sometimes machines just break and there's no explanation. But sometimes remembering things like that the operator left the planter's vacuum fans running while it was folded during transport can help identify a pinched return-side hose that caused the vacuum drive motor to mysteriously blow its seals while, "just running down the road."

You're Never Done Paying for Technology

May 01, 2012

Technology such as auto-steering systems is seductive. Beyond nice, straight rows, auto-steer reduces stress and makes farming fun. But fun is never free, and many farmers have discovered that purchases like auto-steer, row shut-offs on planters, boom section shutoffs on sprayers and other electronic wizardry are not one-time-and-done purchases.

GPS technology is not only expensive to buy, but it's expensive to maintain and REALLY expensive to repair. Many farmers assumed that once they purchased auto-steer and other electronic gadgetry, it would be like when their dad or grandfather bought their first fender-mounted AM/FM radio--bolt it on and it worked peachy every time the switch was clicked "on," with no upkeep aside from replacing the coil spring on the base of the antenna every year or two.

Modern technology is "high-maintenance." GPS-based systems often require annual contracts to access orbiting satellites and/or land-based sources of positioning signals. Aside from satellite "feeds," high-tech systems often benefit from annual software upgrades, which may or may not be available for free. Sometimes those software upgrades must be downloaded into processors by dealership techs, and there's usually a fee associated with dealership personnel setting foot on a farm.

Speaking of the cost of having a tech merely touch a machine brings up the price of having high-tech systems diagnosed and repaired. Sometimes it's scary-simple to diagnose those computerized systems---the system does self-diagnosis, pinpoints what's ailing itself, and the tech merely has to plug in a new component and all is well. Other times...well, sometimes it takes hours, even days, to chase down the gremlins within those mysterious boxes and endless wiring harnesses.

And that doesn't cover the cost of the parts necessary to make repairs once they're diagnosed. A simple computer "board" can cost hundreds of dollars. A self-contained processor (computer) is rarely less than $1000. Anybody who ever smacked a satellite receiver globe on a low machine shed door, or cleaned it off the tractor cab against a tree branch, knows those things easily chew multi-thousand dollar holes in checking accounts.

There's no way to say this without sounding borderline snotty, but the truth is this: if you want to have auto-steer and all those other high-tech systems, and enjoy their benefits, it's going to be expensive. Expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, expensive to repair. Wonderful to own, fun to operate, but...expensive. If you choose to dance to the siren song of high-technology, be sure you're mentally prepared to pay the piper.

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