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May 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.

In The Shop: Farmer Personalities

May 29, 2011

 Working with the public has dramatically changed the way I behave when I am the consumer dealing with a salesman, tradesman or other business person. I still get outraged at high prices, frustrated by poor service, or annoyed by incompetent staff, but I now temper my behavior due to things I've experienced when I was on the other side of retail negotiations.

For example, I've known customers (now dead, so don't take any of this personally, if you're in my dealership's area) who came unglued every time a machine broke down. It didn't matter if it was a flat tire, a broken drive chain or a blown engine, ANY interruption to field work earned a foot-stomping, arm-waving, profanity-laden temper-tantrum just short of throwing themselves on the ground like a 2-year-old who didn't get the lollypop he wanted. Once they went through the ritual they usually calmed down and I could deal with them, but they apparently had to waste 15 minutes to a half hour being a horse's behind and making me and anybody within earshot feeling like we were thieves and the worst sort of pond-scum.

Another customer, when confronted with mechanical problems, actually used to apologize for adding to my daily workload. He would hover around while I worked, offer soft drinks, call his wife to bring a sandwich if we had to work through suppertime, and was almost difficult to work with when it was time to make decisions about the repairs. "Whatever YOU think it needs," was his constant answer to any question I asked about alternative ways to fix a problem. That put the burden of whether to cobble and fix it cheap, or go the whole nine yards and spend lots of money, on me. The saving grace was that I knew that whatever decision I made on his behalf, he would never later second-guess me and blame me if things didn't work out right.

I got along fine with both guys. I enjoyed working for both of them, because over time I developed relationships with them and we both understood the "dance" we had to go through to get their machines repaired. In a perfect world, I'd prefer to work with customers who are somewhere in the middle on the passive-aggressive scale. Fortunately, the majority of farmers are in that middle ground, pleasant to deal with and easy to work for.

I have to admit, whenever I take the wife's car to a dealership for repairs, or hire a plumber or electrician to fix things in our house, I'm now more aware of how I behave when they give me an outrageously expensive estimate or when things go awry during their work. In the past I tended to be excitable, prone to outbursts, with the philosophy that maybe if I shouted enough, it would change the price or situation. Maybe I've matured as I've grown older. Maybe I've learned from my mistakes. Even though my inner impulse is to be angry at mistakes, be enraged by extra cost, or to second-guess actions that cost me extra money, I'm more calm than I used to be. I remember all the times I've been on the receiving end, and try my best to, " unto others as I'd like others to do unto me."

In The Shop: Old School Radios vs. New School GPS Systems

May 25, 2011

 I'm no expert in all aspects of GPS/autosteer/RTK and other high-tech on-board systems, but I've heard through the grapevine that FM business band radios can sometimes cause strange, hard-to-diagnose problems. Those of you who have, uh, "tweaked" your business band radios to get extra coverage may notice more problems than folks running strictly according to FCC rules, but even legal radios can sometimes interfere with GPS-based systems.

If your GPS systems are doing strange things, take note if the problems occur when you key your radio mike. Maybe try turning off the machine so the GPS system reboots, then turn it back on with the FM radio turned off. If the GPS system works okay with the radio off, you'll need to figure out how to shield your GPS system from the electronic emission the radio emits.

Some folks have found that replacing their FM radio's antenna coaxial cable with high-quality shielded cable cures the problem. Others have used a magnetic antenna mount for the FM radio to position that antenna as far as possible from the GPS receiver---on the back of combine grain tanks, on the back end of spray tanks on self-propelled sprayers, on the rear fenders of 4WD tractors. 

When you have reception or tracking problems with a GPS system, notice if the problem correlates with the use of any electronic equipment in your cab. Be sure to mention that correlation when you talk with your local GPS specialist/technician. It will help him pinpoint the specific cause of interference, and he can help you figure out how to shield or isolate your GPS system from the electronic interference.

In The Shop: The Expense of Critters and Sunshine

May 21, 2011

 Some of the most expensive, unnecessary repairs I've made to farm equipment in recent years have been to wiring harnesses damaged during off-season storage by varmints or exposure to weather.

Planters and combines are the most common victims. Combines by nature attract mice, rats, 'coons, 'possums and other critters during storage because of the leftover grain and crop residue inside or on the machine. Planters often have leftover seed in the boxes, the seed meters, or spilled around the frame, plus they have frame tubing big enough for rodent travel but too small for farm cats due to hydraulic hoses, etc.. 

Whether from hunger or boredom, critters like to gnaw on wiring insulation. I've been told that some insulation used on wiring is/was made using soy oil, which may explain why the little varmints strip insulation from wiring--it may actually taste good. Whatever the reason, no good comes from having the insulation stripped from a 32-wire planter control harness so that all the wires are bare and in contact with each other. I take that back--it can be good for dealerships and equipment manufacturers because a new harness, stretching the width of a big planter, can easily sell for more than $1000, plus the labor it takes to methodically run all those wires to all the individual rows.

Exposure to weather can be just as damaging to wiring harnesses and electrical systems as varmints. Constant exposure to sunshine eventually degrades most wiring harnesses to some degree, making their insulation or protective coverings brittle and prone to cracking as the machine flexes when it's annually put back into service. Add the corrosion caused by moisture that insidiously blows, seeps, leaks or condenses inside control boxes, switches, and sensors, and machines stored out of doors are almost guaranteed electrical problems if they're left parked outside year-round.

I understand that not everybody has access to sheds big enough to store all their machinery indoors. I understand that even with adequate shed space, it's tough to keep varmints under control. But anything that keeps sunlight, moisture and critters away from machinery will eventually save money.


In The Shop: Vinegar Smell Means Caution When Working On Electronics

May 15, 2011

 Ever notice that some RTV silicone sealants sold in auto parts stores are labeled, "Safe For Oxygen Sensors"? That's because some RTV silicones (RTV stands for "Room Temperature Vulcanizing, by the way, which means they cure at normal room temperature without special curing agents or need for baking in an oven) create acetic acid vapors as they cure. Acetic acid vapors can corrode exposed metal on electronic circuitry.

There have, in the past, been problems when RTV silicones were used to seal engine components during repairs, and acetic acid fumes from the curing silicone damaged the oxygen sensor elsewhere on the engine. Hence the development of RTV silicones that don't create acetic acid during the curing process.

FYI, acetic acid smell like vinegar. If you're using silicone sealant during repairs to vehicles or farm equipment and smell vinegar, consider if those fumes could damage nearby electronics. 

In The Shop: Planter School Is Now In Session

May 12, 2011

 I've been "going to class" the past few evenings, driving around after work and (with the permission of various farmers) digging and poking to learn what did and didn't work with planters this spring.

I'm always surprised that fields that look really good from the road often disappoint me once I get out of my truck and onto my hands and knees. "Picket fence" stands start to fall apart when you lay out a tape measure and forbid yourself to ignore skips, doubles and other irregularities. For the most part, considering the wet, cold conditions we endured till last week, things look pretty good. But from what I've seen...

-A lot of corn that looks promising now, just after emergence, is going to stumble and get rough looking in the next few weeks. The earliest fields went into soaked soil, and there's a lot of seed furrow sidewall compaction that hasn't shown up yet. From what I've dug, the seedings are doing okay with their initial roots following the compacted seed furrow, but in a week or so they're going to get puny-looking because they're going to have trouble expanding their roots out of the seed furrow. 

-One of the culprits that causes seed furrow sidewall compaction is row unit down pressure. Most planters now come equipped with heavy-duty coil springs or pneumatic down-pressure systems that can literally lift the planter's toolbar off the ground if set to maximum down-pressure. In our area of Clarion-Nicollet-Webster soils, if the ground was fall-tilled and then field cultivated this spring, anything but minimal down-pressure settings packed the heck out of the ground on either side of the seed furrow.

-Closing wheel down-pressure was the second soil-packing culprit. Again, in our local soils, anything more than the minimum down-pressure setting packed the soil over the seed furrow. I heard guys comment that the corn really "popped" out of the ground after our first soaking rain in more than two weeks. Those fields that "popped" often needed that soil-softening rain to allow the seedlings to break through the compaction layer left by excessive closing wheel pressure.

-A final thing I've noticed is that some farmers need to pay more attention to the condition of the straw chopper knives on their combine's straw chopper, and maybe to the way their chopper is distributing chopped bean straw. For the most part last fall's dry harvest made it easy for combines to shred dry bean straw into confetti, but there are a few fields where either early-harvested, green-stemmed beans defied complete shredding, or the farmer ran dull chopper knives that didn't do a good job slicing and dicing the bean straw. To some degree, you begin prepping your seed bed for the following year with the way you shred and distribute crop residue out the back of your combine.

I'll keep digging in corn fields for the next few weeks to see what else I can learn about how planters performed. And, it's also going to be interesting to do some digging and poking in the soybean fields in the next week or two. Beans around here were planted into dry or barely moist soil, so compaction, etc. shouldn't be a problem. But there's always something to learn when I take time to dig and poke.

In The Shop: Ban Finger Twisting

May 08, 2011

 Okay folks, I apologize if this devolves into a rant, but it's time to put an end to the practice of connecting electrical wires by twisting together the bare ends, then wrapping the splice with electrician's tape. I know, I know, it's quick, it's easy, it doesn't require special tools, connectors or splices, but...finger-twisting has the potential to cause SO many problems, many of them expensive.

Electronic systems on modern farm equipment often operate on as little as 4 volts. Finger-twisted connections are "loose" by nature and often get "looser" due to vibration or tension on wiring harnesses. Finger-twisted connections generally are "protected" by only a couple wraps of electrician's tape, which is prone to allow moisture in but not let it out. I can't count the number of times I've unwrapped electrician's tape to find rotted green wires that were the cause of electrical problems I was diagnosing.

I'm not a great fan of traditional crimp-on butt connectors. They give decent electrical contact, but are open to the weather at the rear of their insulated covers, allowing moisture access to the bared ends of the wires. When I have to splice electrical wires I often use crimp-on butt connectors with heat-shrink insulation. The crimps do a good job of connecting wires, and the heat shrink insulation both seals out moisture AND "glues" the splice together to add strength.

Even better are crimp-on, heat-shrink butt connectors with built-in solder. After crimping the connector, when heat is applied to shrink the insulation, it also melts a drop of solder built into the butt connector. The final splice is crimped, soldered and heat shrunk--a mechanic's dream splice.

Last week I ran across a third option: a screw-together butt connector. Instead of crimping the connector, the wires are held in place by two threaded caps that tighten the wires against a central conducting post. I'm told the threads hold better than a traditional crimp because the wires get caught/compressed in the threads for a super-secure splice.

The down-side of all my preferred methods for splicing wires is that they add cost. Heat-shrink butt connectors range from a 50 cents to a dollar or more each. Those nifty heat shrink/crimp/soldered splices range from $3 to $5 each. That can get expensive if you're repairing a 32-wire harness for a planter seed monitor. 

Having said all that...yes, I confess I have twisted and taped wires together as part of emergency repairs. But I promise that as soon as the machine limped to the end of the row or into the shop, my twisted repairs were replaced by some form of good, solid weather-proof splice. 

In The Shop: The Electronic Grapevine Is Amazing

May 05, 2011

 I'm always amazed at how "in touch" modern farmers have become. I can pull up to a combine, tractor or sprayer 20 miles from the nearest town, and if I make a comment about politics, grain markets or the weather forecast, the farmer is as "current" as the latest news broadcast on the local talk radio or country music station.

If we start to talk about farm equipment, the farmers often know more about what new equipment is soon to be released than those of us who work at dealerships. If you want to know how many horsepower the next generation of farm tractor from your favorite manufacturer will have, don't ask anybody who works at a dealership--we're usually two weeks to six months behind internet chat sites and the local cell phone grapevine when it comes to the "latest and greatest" news on farm equipment.

If you want to know the latest local gossip--forget the local beauty parlor or barber shop. Just go hang out wherever local farmers get their morning cup of coffee. To see the electronic grapevine in action, casually drop a good rumor during a morning coffee session, then step outside and watch how quickly those fellows start poking their cell phones when they leave and get in their pickup trucks. Of course, nowadays they might be forwarding "old news" because some of their cronies were probably texting the news under the table, just to get a jump on spreading the news.

And, y'know, I'm completely comfortable with the speed and depth of the farmer grapevine. It's comforting to me. I know that within minutes of someone in the community having a heart attack or losing a family member, a dusty pickup will turn in their driveway and someone will knock on their door to ask if they need help. I know that if my wife has car trouble on the way home from work in town, there's a good chance I'll know about it before she digs her cell phone out of her purse (no small project) to call and tell me herself. 

Just don't Twit me or text me with the latest news. I'm still figuring out how to answer the voice mail on my cell phone.

In The Shop: Lose That Test Light

May 01, 2011

 Friends, it's time to say goodbye to those faithful ol' testlights you've used for so many years. The ones that look like a clear-handled screwdriver with a long cord running from that handle. You'd clamp the end of the cord to a known ground-point, poke the pointed end of the "screwdriver" into a socket or connector, and a little light in the handle would light up to indicate power was present.

It's time to upgrade to a multi-meter. A test light is good for indicating the presence of voltage, but that's about all it offers. A multi-meter, on the other hand, can indicate how MUCH voltage is present; a multi-meter can test resistance in a wire, circuit or component; a multi-meter can test continuity through a wire, through a switch, or through a connector. A multi-meter beats a test light, hands-down.

Some folks are intimidated by the "complexity" of a multi-meter. Fancy, expensive ones have lots of dials and buttons and settings. Forget about fancy. Get a simple, durable digital multi-meter that will read voltage, resistance and continuity. Take 15 minutes to learn how to use those three capabilities:

To read voltage: Set the multi-meter to read, "DC volts." Go to a tractor, truck or vehicle and press the red lead from the voltmeter to the positive terminal of the battery. Touch the black lead to the negative terminal. The digital display will show between 11.5 and 13.5 volts, depending on how well-charged the battery is. That's the basic idea of testing voltage--put the black lead on a known ground-point, put the red lead against the wire you want to test, and the meter tells you how much voltage is present. Cool!

Reading resistance: Set the multi-meter to read, "resistance" which is measured in ohms. Ohms is the funny symbol that looks like the letter "O" with an opening on the bottom with little flared legs on either side of the opening. To test resistance the meter sends a faint voltage through the test leads and measures how much resistance there is to that flow. So, with the meter set to read resistance and the red and black lead not touching each other, notice the display shows something like "OL," reflecting that there is absolutely no flow of electricity between the two test leads. Now touch the ends of the red and black test lead together. The meter will show 0.01, maybe 0.1, or some other very small number, indicating the minimal resistance of electricity to flow through the wires and circuits of the multi-meter itself. Okay--now find an old light switch and, WITH THE SWITCH DISCONNECTED FROM ANY POWER SOURCE, measure resistance between the poles on the switch, first with the switch off, then with the switch on. The multi-meter will show extremely high resistance when the switch is "off", and extremely low resistance when it is "on." Think about it--you can do the same thing with a 30-foot-long wiring harness--touch the read test lead to one end of a wire, touch the black test lead to the other end of the wire, and as long as there's very little resistance indicated, you know the wire is, "good." If resistance is high, or shows "OL" on the display, there's a break somewhere in the circuit.

Even cooler, there's probably a "continuity" setting on any decent multi-meter. That setting tests resistance, but is wired into a little beeper or horn in the multi-meter so that when there is minimal resistance, you hear a continuous beep from the meter. Bottom line--when testing an unpowered switch, wiring circuit, or other component you just listen for the "beep" to indicate the wire or component has continuity (ie--electricity will flow through it without interruption).

Those are just the basic things you can do with a multi-meter. Figure on $50 to $100 for one that tells you volts, ohms (resistance), and registers continuity. (Mine cost $250 ten years ago but has functions I still haven't figured out how to use.) If the one you select reads milli-amps, that's cool, but you'll have to learn to use that feature with great discretion. Once you've bought a multi-meter, and if you've never used one before, spend 15 minutes playing with it to figure out how to read volts, ohms and continuity. 

Once you build a little confidence and figure out all the different things a multi-meter can measure, you'll wonder why you ever wasted time with that old test light.

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