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June 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.

When Too Much Lubrication Is Not Good

Jun 23, 2012

 I've mentioned in the past that grease and lubrication experts say that too much grease or gear lube can be nearly as harmful as not enough. Here's an example:

A major manufacturer of self-propelled sprayers notified its dealerships of the "fix" for a problem with the final drive hubs on their sprayers overheating. The solution? It was recommended that if a customer complained of overheating hubs, that the dealer should simply drain the gear cases and refill them to a lower level with synthetic gear lube. 

Lubricant in gear cases is cooled by being slung onto the gear case walls by the spinning of the gears. As the lube drains down the wall, it exchanges heat with the metal. The larger the air space above the gears, the more opportunity for lubricant to exchange heat and cool the lubricant. It's always a calculated balance to provide enough lube so the gears are well lubricated, but with enough air space to provide adequate cooling.

Synthetic gear lube tends to build less heat, and degrades less if the lubricant runs warmer than expected. Synthetic lube generally isn't "factory fill" because gears "break in" better with conventional lubricants. But once the gearcase has been run, synthetic oils run cooler, with less friction.

It's always best to fill gearcases to recommended levels with recommended lubricants. But this situation proves that when it comes to lubrication, more is not necessarily better.

Why I Rarely Rebuild

Jun 20, 2012

 I've touched on this topic before, but now want to address it head-on. 

Times have changed in the machinery repair business. In the old days, it was common to rebuild alternators, starters, hydraulic motors and other bolt-on components. Today, I can't remember the last time I rebuilt a starter or alternator. I rebuilt a hydraulic motor last year, but it took a lot of talking from the customer to get me to do it.

That's because when I compare the total cost of my labor, plus the repair parts needed to rebuild things, it's often as expensive as a factory rebuilt, or brand new starter, alternator, hydraulic motor, etc. It's tough to do a good rebuild in less than a couple hours. With shop rates pushing $100/hour in many areas, that makes it tough for a mechanic to rebuild things cheaper than simply installing a new unit.

Even if the new unit is several hundred dollars more expensive than rebuilding the failed unit, I consider it a distinct advantage that the new unit has all new parts, and was rebuilt and reassembled to factory specs. If I rebuild it, some of the housings, shafts and other components will be re-used, so there's risk that microscopic wear to those parts will cause the rebuild to have a shorter life than desired.

I'm not against rebuilding. Rebuilding is always an option. A good mechanic should know the pros and cons, the risks and expenses, and be able to give the customer a fair appraisal of whether or not it's better to rebuild or replace. That hydraulic motor I rebuilt last year? It's still running, and the customer saved money by rebuilding instead of replacing. It was his money, his decision, and I'm glad it worked out for him. 

So, if your mechanic suggests replacing rather than repairing some component on your farm equipment, don't assume he's trying to gouge you. Talk it over with him. In the long run, spending more money to replace a component might be cheaper than saving a few dollars by having it rebuilt.

Like I said, it's your money, so it's your decision. 

One-Of-A-Kind Tool

Jun 14, 2012

 Every mechanic and a lot of farmers have a special drawer in their toolbox where they stash their homemade tools. Some of them are carefully machined and painted; some of them are rough-welded and look like an escapee from the scrap iron pile. But they all served a specific purpose and worked well enough for the "inventor" to save them for future use.

Whenever I'm around another mechanic's tool box I keep my eyes open for homemade tools. I've seen old bearing races that had a handle welded to them so they served as drivers for new bearings of that specific size. I've seen wrenches heated with torches and bent at odd angles to reach "inaccessible" nuts and bolts buried inside machines. Back in the era when "clamp-on" dual wheels were common, a lot of 15/16-inch and 1 1/16-inch sockets got cut in half and then had a piece of 1-inch pipe welded between the socket halves, to make super-deep well sockets.

I've cut, welded and bent my share of tools. Some of them worked like a dream. A super-long punch for knocking bearings out of wheel hubs is on my "success" list. It used to be a crowbar. A small 3/8-inch cold chisel reshaped so one side of the chisel head is concave is my precision tool for teasing seals from castings. 

Some of my improvised tools were miserable failures. I've got a pair of shiny halves to a 1 1/8-inch chrome socket that now serve as paperweights on my toolbox, expensive reminders to, "measure twice, cut once." Most of the other improvised tools that didn't work as I planned ended up in the scrap iron dumpster. 

Though, there are a few failures stashed under my work bench. I'm pretty sure they just need a little more welding, a little more grinding, maybe one more bend in juuussst the right place, and then they'll work as perfectly as I envisioned. The major bending and shaping has been done; all it will take will be some fine-tuning and tweaking, and I'll have them exactly as I want them.

Now that I think about it, that seems to be the same strategy my wife has toward me. 

Trophy Tools

Jun 10, 2012

 When I finish my "dream shop" at home, there will be a special shelf over the main workbench dedicated to my trophy tools. Those are tools that earned the right, for a variety of reasons, to be retired from service and admired for what they symbolize.

A 4-foot long pry bar that's twisted and bent into a half-circle is a good example. It's a reminder to never assume that anyone who is helping with repairs understands EXACTLY what you want them to do. I was under a combine, using that pry bar to try and pry open a frozen concave. I asked the farmer to get in the cab and activate the electric motor to open the concave. There was a brief moment of clarity when I realized (1) the combine's engine was running, and (2) the farmer was going to ENGAGE the SEPARATOR rather than flip the concave control switch. I had a split second to let go of the pry bar and dive out of the way, before the twisted bar came flying out from between the rasp bars and the concave. I keep that mangled bar as reminder to never assume that a "helper" understands what you want them to do. And to never work on a machine with the engine running. Duh.

I have a few sentimental trophy tools waiting to go on display. For many years my primary ball peen hammer was a wood-handled 32-ounce Christmas gift from my father. Dad's now gone, and that hammer, with it's taped handle and battered head, has been retired from regular service. I occasionally get it out to beat on something that deserves a few educational whacks, in memory of Dad. I've also got a set of long-reach Allen wrenches my wife bought me for our first Christmas, and a battery terminal clamp puller my son bought me when he was a teenager. Only a husband or father would understand why they deserve trophy status.

I've also got a pair of broken safety glasses, a bent cold chisel and a pair of Vise-Grips with the jaws welded together that will go on my trophy tool shelf. I don't have room here to explain how they earned trophy-status, but... they will sit on the "stupid mechanic" section of the shelf. That section will be dedicated to tools damaged by operator error.

Now that I think about it, I might need TWO shelves.


The Name Game

Jun 07, 2012

Relationships between farm equipment mechanics and their customers are different from those between urban auto mechanics and their customers. I'm pretty sure auto mechanics working in big cities don't greet customers by saying, " 'Morning, Grubbie!" or "How ya doin' Big Al? or "How's your day going, Mouse?" Sometimes I know the origin of customers' nicknames; sometimes I frankly don't know them by any other name. 

Grubbie is easy---his last name is Grubbs. Big Al's personality and physique matches his name. I knew Mouse for 20 years before I cranked up nerve to ask how he got the nickname, and he explained that as a baby and child he was so small and scrawny that somebody started calling him "Mouse," and it stuck.

My cousin Dave, a farmer and livestock trucker, and I were talking about rural nicknames, and he quickly tossed out a long list he's run across in his travels. "Dote" is a local personality and nobody, including Dote, knows why we call him Dote. The same goes for Buck. The Sparky I know has the last name Sparks, but the Sparky that Dave knows is an electrician. We grew up with a neighbor named Spitz, and didn't know until he died--via his obituary--that his given name was Earnest. Dave says he knows a guy whose real name is Gary, but he's listed in the local phone book by what everybody calls him: Rooster.

Personally, the other mechanics at our dealership call me by several nicknames, including Dan-o, Danimal, or Dan'l. Customers generally call me Dan, though I've heard through the grapevine that a few don't actually know my first name, and generically refer to me as, "that #^%! Anderson."

In The Shop: Super-Special Tools

Jun 02, 2012

 Ever run across a bolt that was impossible to reach with a wrench? A weird nut that defied every wrench or socket you own? Sadistic engineers sometimes incorporate odd fasteners and fittings that seem to make disassembly or repairs impossible.

That's when it pays to be friends with a mechanic at the local dealership. It's sometimes a touchy subject, asking for free advice or to borrow special tools, but as long as you show some class and respect, most mechanics are willing to help. Sometimes the help is in the form of simply looking in a tech book for the secret steps to take apart a component. Sometimes the help is a loaned wrench or specialty tool. Sometimes the proper thing to do is to rent or buy the specific wrench. And sometimes the only course is to pay the mechanic to use his acquired skills and special tools to do the job.

A simple job like replacing a starter on a tractor is a good example. Removing the bolt or nut on the backside of a starter can sometimes be a major challenge. A socket wrench with a long extension and a swivel socket may do the trick. A half-moon wrench is an option. But most mechanics have special wrenches with a half-dozen bends and twists designed specifically to remove back-side starter bolts.

If you're good friends with a mechanic, you can ask to borrow his starter wrench. If you're casual acquaintances with that mechanic, you might ask to rent it. If you do much work on your own equipment, you could ask for the part number of the starter wrench and have the guy at the dealership's parts counter order that wrench from the special tools catalog he has under the counter. Or you can simply pay the dealership to do the work.

My rule of thumb at the dealership when it comes to owning or buying tools is, after the third time I have to borrow, I buy. Sure, it might be expensive for a farmer to purchase a specialty wrench or tool that will only get used once every decade. But when you balance the price of that wrench against the shop rate for that repair at a local dealership, the wrench may be pretty economical.

Of course, when you pay the shop rate for a dealership mechanic to do the repairs, you're also getting the mechanic's expertise and experience, and some sort of shop warranty against faulty parts or repairs. It's one thing to borrow, buy or rent a special tool so you can replace a faulty starter and install a new one. It's a different story when it comes to rebuilding a starter and knowing how to get all those little pieces back into their proper places.

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