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August 2008 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.

Unsophisticated and Unashamed

Aug 29, 2008
One of the things I respect in other mechanics is the ability to fix things with class and style. Anybody can take a big hammer and bludgeon machinery into submission; I respect anyone who can use expertise and a few special tools to make repairs with some degree of mechanical elegance. 

But there are times when brutality is beneficial and actually efficient. Removing bearings frozen to shafts is a good example. The elegant way to make the repair is to use a bearing splitter, a gear puller, or to remove the entire shaft then use a hydraulic press to take things apart. But I make my money by doing jobs as quickly and efficiently as possible, so elegance often goes out the window if brutality gets the job done more quickly.

I'll usually make one pass with an air hammer and pry bar at a stubborn bearing just to see if buzzing the end of the shaft while prying against the bearing will slide things apart. Wonderful, if it works, but normally my next step is grab an acetylene torch and start melting metal.

It ain't  pretty, and it's not a valid solution if you're working on transmissions, differentials or other precision components in gearboxes. But if you're dealing with bearings on shafts in combines, augers, or other non-gearbox situations--fire is your friend. With a torch and a pair of tinted goggles/glasses, most bearings are history 10 minutes after the torch pops to life. Veteran bearing-burners can slice lock collars, bearings, sprockets and gears off shafts with little more than discoloration to the shaft.  With practice on some old, used shafts and bearings, it becomes relatively easy to slice through bearing races until you see the darker, cooler metal of the shaft, and thus avoid major damage to the shaft. Even if the torch's flame nicks the shaft, as long as most of the shaft's surface is intact so the new bearing and lock collar have a firm seat, a little work with a file and emery cloth will have things ready for reassembly in minutes.

Now for the disclaimers: Use caution when using a torch to remove bearings. Keep fire extinguishers or garden hoses handy. It's best to wet down adjacent areas in advance to minimize the chance of fire. Be wary of bursts of flame when the torch's flame briefly ignites grease inside the bearing. Be prepared for glowing-hot ball bearings that fall from partially disassembled bearings, roll down your arm and land (briefly, very briefly) in the waistband of your pants or in your lap, if you're sitting. Trust me--it happens.

In other words, use common sense. If you can't use common sense, then at least learn from your mistakes.

In the end, it's not a pretty, elegant or sophisticated way to make repairs. But then I'm not a pretty, elegant or sophisticated guy, so it works well for me. 

First-day-in-the-field follies

Aug 24, 2008
 Without being snide, snotty or arrogant, here's a list of some of the things dealerships across the country will hear during the first week of harvest:

-"How do I calibrate my grain table so the automatic header height control works?"  Let's's in the owner's manual, under or behind the can either read the instructions and do it yourself, or we can have someone come out, you can pay for a service call, and we can do it for you.

-"None or only part of the electrical stuff in my cab works, and I'm getting error codes on the cornerpost." Is there a strong mouse odor in the cab? Did you put the combine away dirty, with a lot of grain and residue still in and on the machine? Mice have probably spent the off season dining on various wires in the cab and around the machine, and you're going to need serious re-wiring before you can go to the field.

-"My grain yield monitor is doing weird things/isn't accurate/isn't working right." Did you check to see if new software is available for your system, either through the dealership or by downloading it from the manufacturer's website? Have you changed any components or transferred components between planter tractor, sprayer and combine....? Settings required to make GPS systems work for planters and sprayers can make yield monitors go whacko.

-"I can't get my new combine to work as well as my old one." Did you read the manual or attend our combine clinic to learn the differences in how to set, adjust or operate the new combine? Even our mechanics are surprised that though the sheet metal looks the same, changes in serial numbers and model numbers can make huge differences in the way the machines are designed and operated. You'd be surprised at the number of mechanics who take home combine owner's manuals during the summer and spend their evenings studying the changes and learning how to make new models work. case these comments seem extreme and unfair to my readers and customers, here are some comments that frustrated farmers will hear from dealerships and mechanics during those first weeks of harvest:

-"Gee, I've never seen that bearing (shaft, belt, sensor, axle, main frame, etc...) break before." Why is it that every time a farmer breaks something,  mechanics have, "never seen that happen before..."?

-"Sorry, that belt (chain, circuit board, etc.) is a non-warranty part." So, is there ANYTHING on this combine that is under warranty...?

-"Sorry, we don't have that part in stock, but we can have it tomorrow (next week, next month, next year...) if you're willing to pay the freight."  Do you stock ANYTHING in your parts inventory for combines, and no, engine oil filters and steering wheel spinners don't count.

-"That's just the way the machine is built." So, this $200,000 engineering marvel has THAT big of an design flaw, and nobody caught it during field testing...?

First-week-in-the-field for harvest can be challenging. Most of the problems can be worked out with patience. A sense of humor helps. I'm sure you've got some favorite quotes, comments or sayings you can expect to hear from your favorite dealership personnel this fall. 

Isn't it nice, in a world that changes minute-by-minute, to know that there are things you can count on, year after year...?

About duct tape, baling wire and zip ties...

Aug 21, 2008
 This isn't bragging, It's more of a confessional, a clearing of my conscience, as I prepare for another harvest season. Forgive me, father, for I have sinned...

I used a hose clamp to hold a bearing inside its housing, after the lock collar came loose and wouldn't "lock" the bearing to the shaft any more.

I used magnum-sized zip-ties to hold a hydraulic hose into the coupler on a tractor, when the tractor's coupling mechanism didn't quite have enough strength to stay coupled.

I put a 5/16-inch nut on an 8 mm bolt..

I duct taped a headlight into a bezel broken by a rogue tree branch.

I used a steel fence post borrowed from a fencerow as reinforcing to welding done to the frame of a field cultivator.

I Vise-Gripped a hydrostatic cable to the control lever on the side of the hydrostatic pump, so the combine would have "forward" and "reverse."

I know I've done things with duct tape, baling wire and zip ties that would make Rube Goldberg envious, but... I can't remember the details. Sometimes the human brain blocks out experiences that are embarrassing, humiliating, or prone to lawsuits.

Of course, all these "repairs" were okayed by customers desperate to finish a field before a storm, etc., with the customer's full and often enthusiastic approval.

Sometime, if we want to get into some REALLY scary territory, I'll discuss the patch jobs and innovative repairs I've foisted on my own vehicles and equipment...

Gotta-have Tool List

Aug 16, 2008
 I grew up on a farm where the tool inventory leaned heavily toward Crescent wrenches and big hammers. I now work with mechanics who have more than $100,000 invested in tools. While I acknowledge that there is no such thing as, "Too many tools," I can verify that having inadequate tools can make repairs slow, difficult and sometimes dangerous. 

So what are the minimal tools necessary for the average farmer to make repairs on his equipment? A lot depends on the mechanical aptitude of the farmer. Some farmers are challenged to change the oil and filter in a tractor, while others calmly overhaul engines. But in general, from what I've seen on hundreds of farms, a farm shop needs to have at least:

-Basic hand tools,  including a full set of metric and standard wrenches from 8 mm to 30 mm, and from 1/4-inch through 1 1/4-inch. Flat and Phillips screwdriver sets. hammers, alignment punches, and a 1/2-inch drive socket set, in sizes that match the metric and standard sizes. 

-a welder. MIG welders are nice because they make pretty welds, but modern stick welders have electronics that allow them to weld thin metal pretty well. Especially if the stick welder is a DC unit that allows the user to reverser polarity.

-a grinder. Years ago I would have said a bench grinder, but lately I find myself using a 4 1/2-inch angle-head grinder more and more. It's more portable and convenient, though a bench grinder is nice for serious work where you need to remove a lot of metal.

-an acetylene torch. A "hot wrench" is the quickest way to remove bearings, shafts and disassemble things. 

-a cut-off saw. Metal band saws are nice, but pricey. A cut-off saw is noisy and not especially precise, but it's way better than a hacksaw.

-Assorted jacks and blocks to support equipment safely and a vise, to hold things while you make repairs.

And that's it. Those of you who take shop work seriously are snorting in derision, but a good mechanic could do a lot of repairs and maintenance with those basic tools. It would be much easier to do the repairs with additional tools, and most farmers have far more than these basic tools stashed in various toolboxes, cabinets and sheds around the farm. But those are the basics, give or take few files, clamps and drills and drill bits.

So if you sometimes look at your tool inventory and feel inadequate, take heart that tools don't make a mechanic. Tools just make a mechanic's job easier.

Cue the song, "Also Spake Zaruthustra"...

Aug 14, 2008
 I just got back from a school for dealership mechanics, teaching us how to operate the latest generation of combines. Note that I said "operate," not "maintain" or "repair." According to the teachers of this two-day class, "We're developing a series of classes for next year to help (mechanics) diagnose and repair the new machines."

So we've reached the point where professional mechanics benefit from special training in order to simply operate the computers and related technology in modern farm equipment? The owner's manual for those machines is about 2 inches thick, and I've read and re-read it, but I was darned glad to attend the classes. The days of jumping in a new machine, turning the key and heading to the field are history. Even if the machines don't have the latest high-end technology (auto-steer, RTK, etc.), it takes at least a half hour of calibrating, setting and adjusting to get headers and various components to communicate enough to go to the field.

Rest assured, the extra time is well worth the effort. The new combines offer performance and capacity impossible only five years ago. I'm all in favor of the technology, and eager to learn how to make it all work. It's kind of fun, actually, and I think most customers get a kick out of learning and operating the new technologies, too. 

But the higher level of operator training required to run new machines raises the question, "Where is all this technology taking us?"  The teachers at the class alluded to all sorts of "hidden" computerized capabilities  already incorporated in new machines that is not now used--they're waiting for the next generation of attachments, or software, or updated machine components that are on the drawing boards or undergoing field tests. When I use my laptop to access the computers on new machines, there are literally hundreds of functions and systems that show up as, "not currently used."

Operating farm equipment has never been more challenging or exciting. On one hand, the new technologies allow the machines to make many of the operational decisions, so all the operator must do is sit in the seat and monitor the machine as it steers and adjusts itself through the field for optimum performance. But all those interacting computer systems also offer operators the opportunity to be more in tune with their machine's operation than ever before. Thirty years ago I ran combines "by ear," listening for the way the engine and separator sounded to know if it was running right. Today I can push a few buttons and check  actual yield, grain moisture, grain loss off the sieves, etc., etc. Because of the technology, I can do a much better job today than I could back then.

But I'm wondering if sometime in the not so distant future, I won't crawl into a combine cab and hear a soft, pleasant voice ask me, "Good morning, Dan. Where would you like to combine today...? 

Hidden Costs of Trading Equipment

Aug 04, 2008
 When Dad got a new planter, he drove the planter tractor to the dealership, dropped the pin in the new planter's hitch, hooked up one or two hydraulic hoses and went to the field. Last spring I helped a customer connect to his new planter, and it took the better part of a day and a lot of time studying tech books, scanning computer screens and installing extra pieces and parts to get his unit  ready to drive home.

That particular planter used 9 hydraulic hoses and four separate electrical connectors to raise, lower, fold, unfold, turn on, shut off and to monitor various functions. Each of the hydraulic hoses had to go to specific hydraulic couplers on the tractor. Two of the hoses required special couplers plumbed into specific ports on the main hydraulic valve block, different from the regular hydraulic couplers. Once all the couplers and connectors were in place, considerable time was spent in the cab calibrating various hydraulic functions with their controllers, and getting various computers and monitors to communicate as required. Then, once all the physical and computerized connections were in place, there was an hour or more spent teaching the customer how to use, understand, adjust and coordinate all the systems and their controls.

At one point, the customer looked at me in frustration and said, "All I want to do is go plant corn. I don't want to fly to the moon!"  

I feel his pain. Many modern planters, sprayers and combines actually have more computing capacity in their computers than did the Apollo space capsule that went to the moon. The machines can do amazing things when everything works, but getting them to work when trading equipment can be a major challenge.

So, when it's time to trade planters, combines and other equipment, be aware that:

-Big planters, drills and large seeding equipment demand huge amounts of hydraulic capacity. Older tractors (pre-2000) may not have the hydraulic pump capacity or enough hydraulic outlets to meet that demand.

-Each hydraulic hose from a planter or multifunction tillage tool has to go into a specific hydraulic coupler on the tractor, and that coupler must have the right flow and pressure capabilities. Plug a hydraulic motor return hose into the wrong coupler and you'll spend your planting season blowing seals out of hydraulic motors. Daisy-chain hydraulic systems rather than run individual systems to individual hydraulic couplers and none of the independent systems will work optimally

-Older combines (pre-2000) use analog electrical systems. Newer combines use digital electrical systems. It's best to use analog headers on analog combines, and digital headers on digital combines. There are adapters to make analog and digital systems compatible, but first-day-in-the-field is not the time to discover that your new combine won't work with your old grain platform's electrical system.

-Any system that includes any type of GPS, whether it is for swath control, yield mapping, or guidance will require at least one hour to program, calibrate and set up--if everything goes well and all systems are compatible. If you swap a GPS system/console/receiver from an old combine, planter or sprayer into a new combine, planter or sprayer, plan on taking a half day to get the right connectors, software downloads and calibrations installed so that things work correctly.

This isn't an indictment of technology that's available with modern equipment. GPS, autosteer, and all the other gee-whiz technology can save tons of money, reduce stress on operators and provide invaluable information. But their benefits come at a cost. Trading equipment is no longer a matter of simply dropping in a drawbar pin and heading to the field. 

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