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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.

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.

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