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December 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.

To Be Warm, or Not to Be Warm

Dec 21, 2011

 I recently had reason to list the different forms of shop heaters I've "experienced" over the years. I've worked in unheated, dirt-floored sheds that were little more than windbreaks. I've worked in shops heated with overhead, forced air LP heaters. I've worked with kerosene-fueled "blast" heaters, I've worked in shops heated by a wood stove, and I've worked in shops with furnaces fueled by with waste oil. I've worked under CoRayVac-type heaters hung from the ceiling, and I've worked over concrete floors laced with hot water heating tubes. Here are my conclusions:

Any heat is better than no heat. Kerosene heaters stink and tend to roast one side of you while the other side freezes, until the whole shop finally gets warm. LP heaters are nice, and you can't beat the toasty heat from a wood stove if the shop is well insulated. Waste oil furnaces are okay as long as the waste oil is kept clean and filtered---the actual heat is equal to a good LP furnace. I'm not a fan of the CoRayVac-style infrared heaters because I work on top of combines a lot, and they tend to overheat objects close to the ceilings. The absolute best form of heat--in my opinion---is in-floor hot water heat. Shops with floor heat are uniformly warm from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, and they warm up fast even after a big overhead door has been opened to move equipment in and out. 

The downside of floor heat in a shop, especially after lunch, is that it's very easy to get drowsy, laying on that nice, warm floor when you're working under a piece of equipment. I guess that COULD be considered an advantage.

The bottom line when considering how to heat a shop is to be realistic about how much time you'll spend in shop during winter months. If there will be someone in there 4 to 6 hours a day, five days a week, then a premium heating system will be worth the cost. If you're a fair-weather mechanic, and can do all your necessary repairs and maintenance during summer or on warm winter days, then kerosene or LP heaters are cost efficient for the times you have to brave the cold. "Dream" shops are nice to fantasize about, but "real" shops are easier to pay for.

In The Shop: Forbidden Topics For Mechanics

Dec 18, 2011

 In general, it is recommended that service people keep conversations with customers bland. It's an unspoken rule that we avoid "sensitive" topics such as religion and politics as part of any idle chatter while we make repairs. That's too bad, because customers have great opinions on those topics. So do I.

For example, I'm fascinated by all the different approaches people take to get right with God or whoever they worship. My personal views are strong, but I'm willing to listen to anybody else's views. I've listened to church deacons turn the air blue with profanity and make unseemly comments about their neighbor's wife. I've also got customers who belong to a very conservative religious group, sometimes ridiculed by their conventional neighbors, who are the most caring, patient, cheerful folks I've ever met. The funny thing is, some of my best, most meaningful conversations about God have been with some of the most profane, seemingly obnoxious people. Maybe there's something about wallowing in grease and mud while wrestling together to fix broken equipment that brings out the truly spiritual side of people. The Lord's name certainly gets invoked a lot...

Then there's politics. The coming election certainly has spiced up conversations during repairs. For the most part, my customers seem to be on the same side of the political fence as me, though some of us are farther from the fence than others. A few renegades from the opposite side of the fence enjoy pulling my chain, and things can get pretty animated as we trade insults about our respective political philosophies. My friend Sam and I have called each other "socialist" or "libertarian" a few times during our debates while working on his equipment. I'm pretty sure I was kidding.

Experts in customer relations recommend that mechanics and service people avoid such extreme conversations with customers. I admit there are a few times when I've apologized to customers for stating my opinions a little too emphatically. I can't really say I've ever experienced a situation where I felt I was owed an apology from a customer for something they said. After all, the customer is always right.

Hand Winch to the Rescue

Dec 11, 2011

 In the shop we call them a "come-along," but in tool catalogs they're listed as "cable winches." They're a tool that may not get used often, but when you need one, they're worth their weight in gold.

I was tickled yesterday when a cable winch was the fast and easy way to pull the belly tank into place on a high-clearance sprayer. It was too heavy to push by hand, and the booms on the sprayer kept me from using a forklift's forks to nudge it into place. I pondered the situation for a bit, then rigged some light chains to the sprayer's motor mounts and used my cable winch to ease the tank into place.

I've used my come-along to lift heavy, awkward sheave assemblies or gearboxes so I could bolt them into place on combines. I've used a come-along to hold the wing of a field cultivator in "folded" position to limp the machine out of the field. I've seen planters roll into the dealership with a cable winch stretched from marker arm to marker arm to hold them in transport. They give one man the strength of three men, and make jobs requiring lots of lifting and tugging much safer.

A cable winch stashed behind the seat of a farmer's pickup truck, or in the toolbox, isn't something that will be used every day. But just like the winch(es) I keep in my service truck, they're a miracle tool when you need them.

Ambushed by the Shop Radio...Again

Dec 07, 2011

 We listen to the "all-Christmas music" channel on the shop's radio during December. It's a nice change from the "classic rock" or "classic country" stations that normally play in the background. The downside is that every year, at some point, I get ambushed by that darned song about, "the Christmas shoes." That's the one where the little boy waits in line to buy his mother a pair of shoes for when "she meets Jesus, tonight..."

Every time that song comes on, I make sure I find something to do inside a combine or back in a corner where nobody is around. I can never predict when my normally hairy-chested, manly nature will crumble just a little bit and it becomes necessary to blow my nose and take a couple deep breaths. 

The same thing happens around Mother's Day every year, when the classic country station starts playing Jimmy Dean's "I.O.U.", or C.W. McCall's "Roses For Mama." Dang. They need to give a guy a couple minutes of advance warning before they play those songs.

For the most part, I get through the rest of the year pretty well. Until some deejay on the country station slips in Red Sovine's "Teddy Bear," and I'm fumbling for my handkerchief again. 

Maybe I should keep the radio tuned to classic rock. I've never had trouble tearing-up when I listen to Ozzie Osbourne.

The Challenge of Hydraulic Cylinders

Dec 05, 2011

 There are multiple challenges when it comes to repairing leaky hydraulic cylinders. The first challenge is figuring out what size, model and design of cylinder you're looking at. Without that info, you can't order the correct seal kit or repair parts. In many cases part numbers or some sort of identification code is stamped on the side of the barrel or end cap. Whenever possible, write down every number and code you can find on a cylinder--or drag along the cylinder--when you head to town to get repair parts.

The second challenge is figuring out how to get the *$^#%! cylinder apart. If it's a simple cylinder where four long "tie" bolt's hold the end caps on either end of the barrel, it's easy enough to remove the nuts or bolts and use a hammer to tap one end cap loose. But if some engineer got cute and it's a tie-wire or internal snap ring-type or some other exotic cylinder that has no obvious way to get it apart--about all you can do is consult an expert. And if I'm the expert you consult, I'll probably have to look in a tech book, because I have trouble remembering all the tricks necessary to disassemble a lot of those funky cylinders.

Once the cylinder is apart, it's a matter of patience and time to remove all the seals and o-rings. The key is to move slow, pay detailed attention to EXACTLY how EVERY seal and 0-ring is oriented before removal. Sometimes it's really hard to tell the difference between the front and the back of some o-rings and seals, but trust me--high pressure oil will find the flaw if a single component is installed incorrectly.

Another challenge is deciding if the cylinder is worth rebuilding. There is usually a reason a seal or o-ring started to leak---maybe the piston or the inside of the barrel has a scratch or has worn thin. Maybe the rod is pitted, which eats away at seals every time the rod moves in and out. My attitude is that there's no gain in putting new seals in a cylinder that will just eat the new seals, but...the decision is not always left up to me.

Reassembly is sometimes a challenge, trying to get stiff new seals and o-rings squeezed into tight fits. Patience and lots of hydraulic oil or grease help. The hard thing to accept is that if you see even a sliver of rubber peel off as you assemble a cylinder, it's time to start over with a new seal or o-ring. As noted earlier, high-pressure hydraulic oil is really good at finding EVERY little flaw in a hydraulic cylinder. 

Fixes for Frigid Fuel

Dec 01, 2011

 It doesn't matter where you live in the North America, there is a risk of diesel fuel in farm equipment and trucks gelling during cold spells. Yes, refineries switch to "winter grade" diesel fuel starting in October, and yes, winter grade fuel helps reduce problems with gelling when temps drop below 30 degrees. But if you want to make absotively, posilutely certain that your diesel engines keep running no matter how cold it gets in your neighborhood, here are some tips:

-if you're using bio-diesel, whether soy oil-based or vegetable oil-based, the general recommendation is to NOT store vehicles more than a month with bio-diesel in the tank. Most manufacturers recommend flushing at least one tank of petroleum diesel through the system, and storing machinery with petroleum diesel in the tank. I'm not bad-mouthing bio-diesel--I'm just saying that even proponents of bio-diesel recommend that bio-diesel be kept "fresh."

-winter-grade #2 diesel is usually okay down to 30-degrees. Yes, it is rated for colder than that, but why risk problems?

-If temperatures are going to drop below 30-degrees F, start adding some type of anti-gel additive. Read labels carefully and add at recommended rates. If fuel has already started to gel, it's too late to add anti-gel. It has to be added and mixed while diesel fuel is completely liquid.

-there are products that are labeled to un-gel diesel fuel that has already gelled. I've never used those products--you're on your own.

-I've heard of people adding small amounts of gasoline or kerosine to their diesel fuel to "thin" it. Don't do that. That "old farmer's trick" could severely damage your engine. Just because Joe Blow got away with it doesn't mean you will.

-if the weather is going to be -10 and colder, it's best to start blending #1 diesel fuel with your winter-grade #2 fuel. If the weather is going to be consistently below zero, it's not a bad idea to run pure #1 diesel fuel.

-if a engine has gelled and you need to limp it into a shed, our trick at the dealership is to fill a five-gallon fuel can with room-temperature, winter-grade #2 diesel treated with anti-gel. Rig a suction hose and run it from the fuel can to the intake side of the fuel filter. Change the fuel filter (it will be full of waxy, gelled fuel). Fill the new fuel filter with room-temperature diesel fuel, hand-prime the fuel pump, then see if the engine will start. If it does, head for a heated shed, and get there before you run out of warmed fuel, or that warmed fuel gets chilled.

-there are many ingenious tricks to get gelled engines started, but it's best to plan ahead and avoid the problem in the first place. Been there, done that, didn't enjoy myself.

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