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August 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.

The Next Time I Buy That Tool...

Aug 29, 2012

 Some of my best education has come from my mistakes. This especially applies to tools. I've bought a number of tools that worked "okay," but now that I've got them, used them and understand more about them, I'll do things differently if I ever replace them.

For example, I can't imagine working on equipment without a set of pry bars, the kind that are like mega-screwdrivers. They are incredibly useful, but my next set will be even better because I'll make certain their shanks extend all the way through their handles, ending in a metal cap on the end of the handle. That way when I have to pound on the end of the handle with a hammer--and I do--it won't destroy the handle.

I'm always glad I paid the price to buy a 1-inch drive air impact wrench. There are times when that's the only way to loosen mega-bolts frozen in place by corrosion. But I'll be even happier to reach for that time- and back-saving tool when I upgrade to a composite-bodied, light-weight 1-inch air impact wrench. It was cheaper to buy the heavy, metal-bodied 1-inch air wrench, but now I wish I had paid the extra money for the lighter unit.

I wrote in a recent blog about how satisfying it is to hear the "click" of my torque wrench when it reaches designated torque value. It will be even more satisfying when I someday upgrade from my "twist-the-handle-to-set-it" torque wrench for a "dial-type" torque wrench. It's annoying to have to twist and twist and twist the handle to load in a large torque setting, compared to simply turning a small thumbscrew on the dial-type wrench. Plus, twist-type torque wrenches can become inaccurate if you leave them "loaded" for long periods of time. I was trying to save money by buying the cheaper torque wrench, but now I know a few extra dollars for a dial-type torque wrench would be worth the convenience.

Over the past two decades I've slowly acquired battery-powered drills, impact wrenches and other tools. I thought I was saving money, buying them one at a time, from assorted retailers. Someday I'm going to save up my pop cans and trade all of them for a complete set of battery-powered tools that all use the same batteries and battery chargers. I'm tired of having a dozen different tools that each require its own unique battery. It's my own fault for trying to save pennies.

Is anybody else seeing a pattern here, that by saving a few dollars I didn't get the best tool for my money? Duh, Dan.

More Fetish Tools

Aug 26, 2012

 First--if any of you were directed by a Google search to this blog in hope of finding some weird sexual fetish--sorry, but this is about, " odd or unusual preoccupation with an object; a fixation..." and is about how I'm irrationally fond of some of the tools in my mechanic's toolbox.

Anyway. I'm the first to admit that I'm unexplainably fond of some of my tools. Some tools are just "cool." Some earn my affection by being incredibly useful and versatile. Some I can't explain, but I'm glad I have them every time I use them.

My ice pick is a good example. Tool catalogs call them scratch awls, or metal awls, but they're nothing more than a screwdriver with a pointed end. Aside from chipping block ice back in the day, I'm not sure what metal awls were actually designed for, but I find dozens of uses for mine. I poke holes in the plastic lids of oil buckets so they won't "glug" when I pour. I clean out grease zerks, I scrape gunk from bolt holes, I use my ice pick to align small holes when assembling sheet metal.  I've had to resharpen the tip a few times, pound the shank straight on an anvil a few times, but it continues to be a useful tool with no specific use, that gets a lot of use.

I always get odd satisfaction from using my click-type torque wrenches. I like the precision associated with torquing a bolt to an exact specification. Click-type torque wrenches give a satisfying audible click and tangible snap through the handle to confirm the fastener has reached a specific torque. When I'm using a small torque wrench I'm always surprised how little effort inch-pounds take to achieve, and when I'm grappling with a 3/4-inch or 1-inch torque wrench to tighten frame bolts to 750 foot-pounds of torque, I'm always relieved when I finally hear and feel that satisfying click/snap. 

My left-handed drill bits, part of a kit to remove broken bolts, often make me happy. Removing broken bolts can almost be fun with left-handed drill bits. The heat and vibration of drilling into the center of the broken bolt, combined with the reverse torque of the left-handed drill bit, often spin out the offending bolt without having to resort to an E-Z-out type bolt remover. What's not to like about that?

I've got a battered set of seal drivers that I always enjoy using. Maybe I spent too many years using wooden blocks and odd chunks of metal to install bearings and seals. It's nice to have a tool actually designed for the job. I get a small burst of satisfaction every time I use a seal driver that exactly fits a bearing or seal, and installs it precisely with a few blows from a hammer. I like precision, I like fast, and I like hitting things with a hammer. Some things more than others, but that's a topic for a future blog.




Matchbook Covers Don't Work On Modern Machinery

Aug 23, 2012

 Back in the day, some mechanics had a rule of thumb to set ignition point gaps to, "the thickness of a matchbook cover." For the most part, that sort of generic, seat-of-the-pants mechanical expertise worked well. If you're working on older equipment, it still works well. But if you're working on modern equipment it's better to know exactly what you're doing before you do it.

We had a grain drill in the shop last winter that was a good example. I mean, what can you do wrong, adjusting a grain drill? Apparently a lot. The person who last worked on it didn't understand that the gauge wheels should have been indexed on their shafts, so he had the individual rows planting anywhere from 1/2 inch to 2 inches deep, even though all the gauge wheel indicators were set the same. Numerous other adjustments were wrong to the point where components were bent or irreversibly damaged by their mis-installation.

I'm all for farmers who want to work on their own equipment. There is definitely a place in the rural community for independent mechanics, the guys who work in competition with those of us at franchised dealerships. I'll be the last guy to say dealerships are the only place to take machinery for maintenance and repairs, or that we don't make mistakes. 

But as machinery gets more and more complex, anybody who works on equipment has to accept responsibility to know what they're doing. Most of the adjustments and maintenance issues on the aforementioned grain drill are easily found in the owner's manual. If repair procedures aren't detailed in the owner's manual, it's possible to buy official tech manuals for just about any piece of farm equipment, right up to the latest tractors and combines. They cost a lot, but they give exact details and specifications to fix and maintain things correctly. 

The days of "throwing things together" when working on farm equipment are fading. One of our mechanics commented the other day that he counted 30 controllers on our newest tractor. That's 30 separate computers on one tractor, controlling everything from individual hydraulic valves to the heating/air conditioning unit in the cab--not to mention all the EPA-mandated exhaust emissions gadgetry. I spent a long morning this week with my laptop plugged into the communications port on a brand new combine, updating the software in 16 separate controllers. I would be lost without tech manuals that take my hand and lead me through repairs on new equipment.

So don't be shy to ask questions and buy or borrow tech manuals. Never overlook what owner's manuals offer. There are still a million things the average farmer can fix and maintain on modern farm equipment. But the day of guessing at how things should fit together, and using matchbook covers to gauge critical adjustments, are waning. Good thing, because it's getting harder and harder to find matchbooks.

Header Height Sensor Diagnostics -- Enter at Your Own Risk

Aug 18, 2012

 Problems with the sensors that control automatic header height control systems on soybean platforms and corn heads can be a challenge to diagnose. If you are mechanically competent, relatively fearless, and willing to accept responsibility if you make things worse instead of better, here are some things you can do to diagnose problems with that system.


-First, determine which sensor is causing the problem. It can be tricky, because there are two or three sensors, maybe four sensors, on a large header. Raise and lower the header, tilt the header if it has that capability, and decide which sensors are working, and which aren't.

-If you don't have a voltmeter, switch one of the "good" sensors with the questionable sensor. See if the header behaves differently. If the problem follows the sensor, replace that sensor.

-If the problem doesn't follow the sensor, be suspicious there is damage to the wiring harness leading to that sensor mount. Manually trace each wire from the sensor all the way back to the combine's main connector. 

-Make sure the sensor mounting bracket and linkages aren't bent or damaged. Sensor brackets on some soybean platforms extend outside the side frame and are susceptible to getting bent. 

-If you're comfortable using a voltmeter, it's possible to backprobe wiring connectors where they attach to sensors. If you don't know what wires are supposed to have what voltage, probe "good" sensors and figure out which wire is ground (usually black), which wire is power (sometimes red, but not necessarily) and which wire is signal. Then check to see if similar voltages are present at the sensor in question. If proper voltages are present in the correct wires, replace the sensor. If voltages are absent, check the wiring to the sensor. Be aware that some sensors can have "dead" spots as their sensing mechanism rotates or swings through its range of travel. Voltage (in a powered-up) sensor, or ohms of resistance (in an un-powered sensor) should increase or decrease steadily, with no skips or blank spots. Replace sensors with skips or blank spots.

Beyond simple problems with sensors, there is a world of complicated, potentially expensive, problems related to automatic header height control systems. But your problem could be something simple, something relatively easy to diagnose, so don't panic until it's absolutely necessary. Stay calm and check the simple stuff first. If the entire system quit working, check for a blown fuse or a main wiring connector that isn't completely connected.

There will be plenty of time for complicated, expensive diagnostics and repairs--and panic--after you've checked the simple stuff.


In Praise Of Minimalist Shops

Aug 13, 2012

 There are farm shops that are nicer and better equipped than our dealership shop. Many of the farmers who work from those shops are ace mechanics--they could easily step into our shop and do the work of a dealership mechanic. But there are farmers with equal mechanical skills who work from cramped, dimly lit, low-ceilinged old farm sheds. Or they work outside the open door of an old tool shed, because none of their modern equipment will fit inside their aged shop. THOSE are the mechanics that get extra respect from me because they do so much with so little.

I was at a customer's place this week, working on his combine. His shop is a dirt floored wooden shed that he might be able to get his pickup into if he moved enough tools and debris to get it through the narrow sliding wooden door. I feel right at home in that shop. The walls are lined with an assortment of storage cabinets, bolt bins, old refrigerators, and oil-soaked work benches. Myriad parts from his farm equipment, his dad's farm equipment, maybe his grandfather's farm equipment, hang from the walls and overhead joists. There's a couple castaway chairs positioned in a spot that catches the sun shining through a window on a winter day, and 12-drawer tool chest with 15 drawers worth of tools in it. It's downright homey. 

The cool thing is that if I needed to borrow a tool, a special welding rod, or something I forgot to throw in my service truck, he not only had it, he knew exactly where it was. "Hey, do you have some 1/8 inch 6011 welding rods I can borrow?" Two long steps, a hop over a pile of rusty parts, and a tug on a drawer, and he's offering me exactly what I needed. If I needed an odd-length carriage bolt, or a funky roll pin, it only took a little scrabbling under one of the benches, and he had the parts in hand. No matter what I needed, it seemed he had one, maybe two, of the tools or items stashed somewhere in his shop. 

I was there to help with repairs on his combine. He'd already disassembled most of it, and I had to admire his creativity in getting things apart. In the shop I'd have used a forklift, maybe borrowed another mechanic's arms and back for a few minutes, but the customer had figured out ways to get things apart all by himself. All the parts were laid neatly on the floor inside his shop, in the exact order they'd been removed. The new parts were laid alongside the old parts, ready to be assembled and installed in the proper sequence. I made a note to myself to try and be that organized the next time I did that particular repair, back at the dealership.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, if your shop has polished concrete floors, daylight-quality lighting and is on the local Snap-on tool salesman's weekly route---I'm truly happy for you. I wish everybody could have their dream shop. But...if your shop is a cluttered wooden building with three generations of tools and farm equipment parts layered on the floors and walls...that's cool too. As long as you can find what you need when you need it, and are able to fix what you want to fix, that's all that matters.

(Disclaimer: I withhold the right to rescind this blog any time the temperature falls below 25 degrees and the wind is blowing at more than 20 miles an hour. Those are the conditions when polished floors and a good heating system earn my sincere appreciation.)



What's That Smell...?

Aug 08, 2012

 It used to be that any combine cab more than a couple years old was guaranteed to smell at least a little "mousey." There were just too many holes and cracks that allowed the little varmints to get into cabs. Modern cabs are better designed, and as long as somebody hasn't drilled a hole to route a CB radio wire or grain monitor wiring harness--or left an access panel loose--it's rare to find evidence of mice inside cabs.

But if the little critters HAVE managed to get into a combine cab while it was in storage, they can cause all sorts of problems. Aside from cosmetic damage to upholstery, they can wreak havoc on wiring harnesses. Maybe it's hunger, maybe it's boredom, but mice enjoy gnawing the insulation on wires. Locating and repairing mouse-gnawed wiring can lead to pricey repair bills.

It's expensive to repair the damage from mouse-gnawed wires and upholstery, but perhaps the most annoying consequence from mice getting into combine and machinery cabs is the odor. It permeates the upholstery and is extremely difficult to eliminate. Removing all damaged (as in "stained") upholstery helps. Cleaning with fabric or upholstery cleaner will diminish the stench. Hanging a traditional air freshener like you use in your pickup truck will mask the odor, but not remove it. Products like "Febreze" or "Malodor" actually neutralize foul flavors in the air. My wife lights scented candles when there are stale smells (usually associated with me) in our house, and says the flame helps clean the air, but I've never tried that trick in a machine's cab. 

Sunlight has been my best weapon to remove mouse odors from farm equipment cabs. Pick a hot summer day, park the machine outside and open every door and window. It takes a long time, but sunlight and fresh air seem to eventually minimize the clinging, pervasive, unpleasant odor left behind by mice. Of course, leaving the door open may allow more mice to get into the cab, but...if there are so many mice scurrying around your farm that they're getting into cabs in broad daylight, your barn cats need to be fired.

Gonna Be A Tough Harvest For Combines

Aug 05, 2012

Drought corn is miserable to harvest. Here are suggestions to prepare your combine and yourself for the coming challenges:

-Adjust corn head deck plates for thin stalks and small ears. If you have adjustable deck plates, be sure to occasionally fully open and close deck plates to keep them from wearing, corroding and freezing in place.

-If you have automatic corn head height control--be prepared to turn it off under certain conditions. Stalk quality of drought corn is miserable; lodging will be a plague. If stalks are flat on the ground and you try to run your snouts against the ground to lift every stalk, eventually ONE stalk will run underneath a height sensor wand. That will lift the header an inch or two, which allows more stalks to pass under the wand, and suddenly the header is running 2 feet off the ground. In badly lodged corn, it may be best to turn off the header height control and run it manually. Not fun, but necessary, if you want to run the snouts tight against the ground and salvage every ear.

-If you're running the snouts tight against the ground, make sure the snout tips are several inches, maybe a foot, lower than the front ends of the gathering chains. If the snouts run "level" with the front ends of the gathering chains, it's easier to pick up rocks.

-Be certain all threshing components-rasp bars, concaves, threshing lobes, etc.--are in good shape and spaced/proportioned to specs. Drought corn can be bone dry, or it can be rubbery due to premature stalk failure. Either way, the combine's threshing components need to be able to either barely tickle the kernels off the ears, or grind them off, as conditions warrant.

-Stalk quality, grain yield, ear size and ear height are going to be incredibly variable within the same field, heck, within the same pass through that field. It won't be practical to change concave setting, rotor/cylinder speed and other combine adjustments to match every change in crop condition within a single pass of a half mile long row. At best, combines will have to be pre-set for the "average" stalk size, ear size and other characteristics, then the operator will have to use ground speed to compensate for crop variability.  

It's not going to be fun to run a combine this harvest. This year will separate combine "drivers" from combine "operators."

See Dan's tips in AgDay's "Machinery Minute":

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