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January 2009 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.

Talcum Powder--Your Diagnostic Friend

Jan 25, 2009
 In a recent "In The Shop" column in Farm Journal Magazine I made brief mention of using cooking flour or talcum powder to identify the exact location of small fluid leaks on farm equipment. At first glance, finding a hydraulic leak seems simple, and it is-- if the leak is an oozing, flowing or spurting-type leak. But when a slow, subtle leak is hidden somewhere in the midst of a complicated tangle of hydraulic valves, finding the exact seal or o-ring that's barely seeping can be a challenge. That's when it's time to powder the problem area and identify the exact location of that pesky leak.

First, use a power washer, or degreaser and a garden hose, to clean away all the accumulated glop and debris. Once bare metal is visible, spray the area with contact cleaner or brake cleaner and then use an air nozzle to completely and absolutely dry the area. For talcum-testing to work, the area must be absolutely, completely bone dry.

Once the area is clean and completely dry, dust it with talcum powder or cooking flour. I use the talcum powder used with air planters to lubricate their seed delivery systems. You can literally toss handfuls of talc or flour at the area in question, or use a "poof bottle" to accurately aim it at hard-to-reach locations. I made my "poof bottle" from a plastic one-quart gear lube container with a pointed cap. I emptied, cleaned and thoroughly dried the bottle before filling it half-full of talc. When I squeeze the plastic bottle, a small hole in the pointed tip "poofs" a stream of talc wherever I point it.

When the suspected area has at least a thin coating of white powder, start the machine and run all hydraulic functions through their full range of motion. The goal is to pressurize any hydraulic component that might pass oil through the suspected area. There's no need to run the machine for a long time---the super-dry talc or flour will discolor when exposed to even  miniscule amounts of liquid. In fact, it's often best to run the machine only briefly, so you can pinpoint the first sign of discolored powder, before it expands, migrates and possibly confuses its point of origin.

Powdering a machine is a killer way to pinpoint fluid leaks. I've diagnosed leaks that were little more than wet spots that barely accumulated dust during harvest season. I've determined whether antifreeze was leaking from a radiator core tube or where the core tube attached to a lower radiator tank. I used powder to determine that a persistent leak on a hydraulic pump was actually due to casting flaws that left the housing slightly porous.

So, if you ever notice that your favorite mechanic has a container of talcum powder on his tool chest, don't assume he has a rash or chafing problem. He's probably just prepared to diagnose subtle and persistent fluid leaks on farm equipment.

Insatiable Software

Jan 18, 2009
 We're months away from spraying and planting here in the frozen midwest, but some of you in the Deep South and Southwest are limbering up your equipment for spring spraying and planting. Whether you start fieldwork in January or April, be sure to see if any of your computerized systems need software updates before you head to the field.

You don't have to use sophisticated GPS-based autosteer or row-control systems to benefit from software updates. The latest generation of tractors, combines, sprayers and even field tillage equipment often use computers for yield monitors, spray controllers and precision depth control. Equipment manufacturers are constantly upgrading software that controls those onboard computers to, uh, 'enhance" their performance. (Those "enhancements" might also repair glitches and bugs, overlooked during design and testing, that have popped up in the software. But we could be arguing about semantics...)  Take the serial number of your combine, tractor, sprayer, field cultivator, baler, etc. to your local dealer and they can quickly determine if any of the computers on that machine have software updates available. If so, somebody from the dealership will have to connect a laptop computer to the machine's computer and install the new software.

If you're using GPS-related, prescription-based autosteer or row-shutoff systems you may be able to update some software on your own. Check with the public website for the manufacturer of those systems and see if they offer software downloads. You'll probably have to jump through some hoops with passwords and authorizations, but in some cases you can download new software to your home computer, load it to a flashcard, then dump the card in your onboard system to complete the update.

There is always some discussion about the necessity of updating software. There are customers who are happily running yield monitors and auto-steer systems that have never been updated. In many cases, if the yield monitor, planter controller, autosteer system or spray controller is working fine, it's not absolutely mandatory to update the software. But if something goes wrong with the system, repairs might mandate new software, and sometimes it's challenging to go from old, old software to the latest software without stairstepping through all the software versions that were published between then and now. I've also noticed that GPS-related systems seem to have an appetite for fresh software. Whether it's due to changes in satellite locations, satellite availability, repeater performance or sunspots, many problems common to GPS auto-steer and automated row and spray system shutoffs seem to be miraculously cured by fresh software.

So to minimize problems on those critical first days of spraying, planting or fieldwork, take time now to make certain all the computers on your farm equipment are running the latest and greatest software available.

Another Thing I Never Thought I'd See On Farm Equipment

Jan 15, 2009
 I shook my head when I first heard about farmers mounting video cameras on farm equipment so they could see behind machinery or monitor machine performance. That was several years ago, and I never thought such technology would be functional, let alone become popular.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong. A growing number of farmers around here are bolting video cameras to the rear of equipment and mounting small 3- to 5-inch video screens in the cab of their machines. They--and I--have been very impressed with the increased visibility the nifty little cameras and screens provide. Anybody who has ever crumpled the back of a combine on a cornerpost, or tried to back up one of the new monster-size self-propelled sprayers, quickly falls in love with being able to see behind those machines. Multi-row planters with big central seed boxes are much safer when transporting down the road  when the operator can see on the in-cab video screen if there are any cars hiding in the planter's blind spot. Heck, one of my coworkers who drives a big service truck with an over-sized utility box mounted a camera on the rear of the truck to eliminate a dangerous blind spot that his rearview mirrors couldn't "see."

The cost of one camera and video screen is generally in the range of $150 to $350. Considering the expense of repairing  a crumpled straw chopper on a combine, or a planter-automobile collision on a highway, that's pretty economical. Especially if the same system can be used on the combine in the fall, the planter in the spring, and a sprayer or baler in the summer. Once farmers get used to being able to see where they previously couldn't see, they come up with all sorts of nifty places to use the cameras. Some systems connect more than one camera to a single view-screen. I have one customer who mounts one camera on the back of his combine, and the other on top of his super-tall grain tank extension so he can monitor how full the tank is before the "tank full" warning light comes on.. He flips a switch on the display console to select which camera is "live."

A couple considerations:  Obviously, dust and dirt can be an issue: users have to regularly clean the lenses if the cameras are mounted in high-dust locations. Wireless systems are available, and nice because they eliminate the need to route wires and cables between the camera(s) and the view-screen. However--there have been instances where wireless camera systems interfered with autosteer/GPS and other high-tech in-cab gadgetry. Be cautious when mounting view-screens near GPS-related systems, because the GPS system may confuse the signals flowing between cameras and view-screens with signals from orbiting GPS satellites. 





The Temptations of a Tool Tightwad

Jan 11, 2009
 I am drawn to cheap tools as a moth is drawn to a flame. Sometimes I get bargains, tools that perform well for a low price, and sometimes I waste my money on junk that is essentially chromed scrap metal.

For example, I'm happy and proud of the $15 mega-punches I bought through Northern Tool and Supply. Similar punches and pin drivers from Snap-on and Mac were in the $40 to $50 range. The first few times I used those 20-inch long punches with 3/8-inch and 1/2-inch tips I flinched in fear they'd shatter like glass. But they've proven durable and I now hammer on them with impunity.

I wasn't so lucky with a discount store set of screwdrivers. I hoped I could pick up a set of flat- and Phillips-head screwdrivers for use in the toolbox in my garage at home for $15, compared to, say, a $40 Klein-brand set of pro-quality screwdrivers. It only took a few stubborn Phillips-head screws to chew up the heads of the discount store screwdrivers, and I'm not very confident of the durability of the accompanying flat-blade drivers. I should have opted for the Kleins or an equivalent-quality set of screwdrivers.

A farmer -friend recently asked what sort of torque wrench he should buy for his farm shop. We discussed the various types of clicker torque wrenches and thei advantages/disadvantages of each style. Then it came to prices. I've got a discount tool catalog on my desk that offers a 1/2-inch drive clicker-style torque wrench for $19.99. Sears' online tool catalog lists their Craftsman 1/2-inch drive clicker torque wrench for $79.99, and an SK-brand micro-tooth, pro-quality 1/2-inch drive clicker for $291.00. We agreed that the $19.99 wrench was suspect, but that the $291 wrench was more than he needed for the occasional jobs he'd use it for. On the other hand, for $19.99 it might be worth trying the cheapest wrench--it might work fine for occasional duty in a farm shop, though I'm suspicious of how accurate it might be, let alone how durable.

The same goes for the $9.99 air impact hammer set that's advertised in a mail-order catalog I got last week. $9.99 for an air impact hammer including 5, "heavy duty chrome moly chisels"...?  Folks, I paid more than $200 for the Snap-on air hammer I use at the dealership, and around $3 each for chisel bits. I'm just a little leery of the $9.99 tool--though it would be interesting to buy one and unleash it on some stubborn roll pins, just to see what would happen. I'd want to have on a good pair of safety glasses and thick leather gloves, however...

I'll continue to succumb to the temptation of cheapie tools. Every so often I end up with tools that truly are a bargain, with performance in excess of their cost. I'm also sure that the junk drawer in my tool box will continue to gain examples from the other end of the tool-quality spectrum, the ones that proved to be exactly as cheap as their price.

Tools You Never Heard Of

Jan 01, 2009
 One of my secret pleasures is browsing through tool catalogs. I'm fascinated by obscure specialty tools. Not specialty tools designed for a specific make and model of a car or truck, like a cam seal remover for a '98 through '01 SAAB, or a special socket to remove the oxygen sensor on a '91 Ford F-150 pickup. Those tools annoy me, because they indicate an engineer who was so clever--or so lazy--that he couldn't design the machine so it could be repaired with everyday tools.

No, I'm talking about weird gems like a tap extractor. A tool designed for rare, but generic mechanical situations.

Have you ever used a tap to cut or clean out threads in a bolt hole, and broke off the tap in the hole? That's when a tap extractor can be a life saver. It's tough to describe, but a tap extractor is a gizmo that fits four slender fingers down into the four slots on the sides of the broken tap, allowing the user to twist out the broken tap, even if the tap is broken off down inside the bolt hole. Walton Tools (www.waltontools.com) sells all sorts and sizes of tap extractors. 

Have you ever wished when installing small screws in awkward locations that your screwdriver tip was magnetized so it would hold the screw long enough to get it started in the hole? Have you ever had a screwdriver tip that got accidentally magnetized, and would pick up metal filings, stray screws and stick to metal work when you didn't want it to? Mac Tools offers a little metal block that will magnetize or de-magnetize screwdriver tips.  Catalog number MD5, it's a simple cure for a petty annoyance.

Ever tried to install a hex nut on an upside down bolt in a spot where you can get a wrench, but not your hand? Snap-on offers a cute little gadget that clips onto the handle of a box end wrench so that a thin, magnetic pad lies over one side of the wrench's open or box end. You can put the nut in the open or box end of the wrench and it won't fall out when you press it against the upside-down bolt to start it on the threads. Sure, a piece of duct tape might accomplish the same purpose, but if it doesn't, Snap-on's catalog number is YA207.

A mechanic would have to have pockets much deeper than mine to own all these obscure, rarely used tools. But it's fun to look, and useful to know that no matter what sort of mechanical predicament we get ourselves into, there's probably a tool designed to get us out of that jam.
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