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December 2012 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 Anticipation of Planter Maintenance...

Dec 30, 2012

 Whenever it's time to start doing maintenance on your planter, here's a tip related to lubricating trash whippers, row cleaners, or whatever you call those tined wheels that clear last year's crop debris from in front of the planter's disk openers.

Most of those tined wheels have grease zerks on their hubs, which implies they need some sort of regular lubrication. Maybe, maybe not. I can't speak for all manufacturers, but in many brands of tined row cleaners, the factory-installed bearings are sealed bearings. If you check printed instructions that come with the row cleaners for assembly and installation, or go online and find those instructions, there is a paragraph that says if the user wants to grease those bearings, the seal must be removed from one side of each tined wheel's hub bearing. 

Greasing a tined wheel hub bearing that hasn't had the seal removed is at a minimum a waste of grease and time. At worst, grease is packed so tightly into the hub that it presses the seal INTO the bearing where it rubs against the bearing's balls and potentially reduces their longevity.

The only way to tell if the bearings in the hubs of your tined row cleaner wheels are "greaseable" is to disassemble one, clean out all the old grease, and study the situation. If the bearing has seals on both sides, greasing has no benefit. If the seal is gone from one side of the bearing and you can see the little balls on that side, it would be good to grease all those tined wheel hubs regularly. 

If the bearing's seals are intact and you prefer to have greaseable bearings, you can use a small screwdriver to remove the seal on the side of the bearing toward the grease channel/void. That allows grease pumped into the hub's zerk to get into the bearing. Just be sure to add "greasing row cleaner hubs" to your regular maintenance schedule.

I've seen no difference in the lifespan of greaseable bearings versus sealed bearings on planter row cleaner wheels. As long as the seals are intact, sealed bearings last as long as bearings that have had the seals removed--as long as those "unsealed" bearings are regularly greased. 

And, in answer to the question that's always asked when I point out the sealed/unsealed option to customers---I don't know why manufacturers put grease zerks on wheel hubs then install sealed bearings.

Three Tools You Should Consider Carrying

Dec 25, 2012

 Even on days when I'm not at the dealership there are three tools that are always in my pockets when I leave the house to work in the yard or garage. 

Like many farmers, I feel lost without a pair of simple pliers in a leather pouch hanging from my belt. A good pair of pliers is a mini-hammer, wire-cutter, zip tie-puller, speed wrench and a dozen other tools all-in-one. I've found myself slapping my right hip, wishing I had my trusty pliers, while at a grocery store, a shopping mall and even in church.

The second tool I won't leave home without is a mini-screwdriver. The next time you're at an equipment dealership, notice that almost every mechanic has a mini-screwdriver tucked in his shirt pocket. I'll bet I pull out my little screwdriver 30 times a day to open a plastic parts bag, dig crud out of a hydraulic fitting, align a teeny hole in a circuit board, pry loose a roller chain master link's clip...sometimes I even use it to actually remove a small screw. Many farmers carry folding pocketknives that perform many of the duties for which I use my pocket screwdriver. I think my wife would prefer that I carry a pocketknife when we go out for dinner---she says pocket screwdrivers don't look "right" when worn with dress shirts.

The third small tool I won't leave home without is my mini-flashlight. Flashlight technology has improved in the past 5 years so that the 4-inch long pocket LED flashlight I carry clipped in a shirt pocket or front pants pocket is as bright as the 3-cell Mag Light I used to keep in my tool box, and much handier than dragging a trouble light and extension cord along every time I have to peer into a dark niche or cranny. Even if I'm not working on equipment at the dealership, that little light is my best friend after-hours when it comes to peering under the lawnmower (or more recently, the snowblower), digging through my fishing tackle box, or working on my wife's car. Inside the house I find myself grabbing that mini-light to illuminate the back corners of closets when searching for lost socks, rooting around under my computer desk for a disconnected cord, or when finally re-wiring the light fixture my wife asked me to fix three years ago. 

If I was a bit younger, I'd probably add a cell phone, especially a smart phone, to my list of "don't leave home without it" tools. But I'm of an age where a cell phone is a necessary evil rather than a necessity of life. 

The Mysteries of Chain-Link Connectors

Dec 16, 2012

Today's blog is about one of the  small, insignificant, trivial things I fret about when assembling machinery.

When connecting master links in roller chains, there are ways that are logically correct and ways that are logically incorrect. It makes sense to install the retaining clip on a master link so the "open" end is away from the direction of the chain's travel. Motion of the chain and any contact with idler blocks or other components will then force the clip tighter, rather than knock it loose. Logical.

I've yet to find or figure out such a logical explanation for how to install the cotter key in a half-link. If the cotter key is installed with its head in the direction of chain travel, motion tends to force the cotter key tighter into the hole in the half-link's pin (which is good), but contact with idler blocks, etc. threatens to uncrimp the tails of that cotter key (which could be bad). However, if the key is installed with the head AWAY from the direction of travel, momentum and casual contact tends to keep the cotter key's tails crimped, but...if the crimps fail that same movement easily forces the cotter key out of the half-link's pin, allowing the half-link to come apart.

Things get even more hazy when installing connector links that use cotter keys rather than a one-piece clip to hold the connector in place. At least once chain manufacturer says the proper method when assembling a master link that uses two cotter keys is to point one cotter key with its head in the direction of chain travel, and the other cotter key with its head AWAY from the direction of travel. Their logic is that no matter what happens, ONE of the cotter keys will be installed correctly and keep the master link together.

Personally, when installing a cotter key in any chain link, I put the head of the cotter key toward the direction of chain travel, then bend the tails of the cotter key tightly around the link's pin. My theory is that tightly bending the cotter keys' tails reduces the chance they will catch on something and break or straighten out. And if they DO break or straighten out, momentum of the traveling chain will tend to keep the damaged cotter key in place. That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it until somebody convinces me otherwise.

Isn't it odd, you can do $10,000 worth of repairs to a machine, tear it down to its base components and then rebuild it...and when you lay in bed at night you ponder if you put the cotter keys in the chain links correctly?


Computers Can Be Such a Drag--on Farm Equipment

Dec 12, 2012

 Many of the computers and electronic gadgets in modern farm equipment draw a little power even when the key switch is off. As long as they're connected to a battery they draw a few milli-amps of current to power built-in memories, clocks and other functions. A few milli-amps for one computer, a few milli-amps for a GPS system, a few milli-amps to feed a memory in a monitor display, and before long you've got enough of a "draw" to drain a machine's battery if it's stored for more than a few weeks.

The owner's manual for a brand new combine recommends that owners switch off the machine's built in battery disconnect switch if the combine will be left idle for more than two weeks. Interestingly enough, the manual recommends completely disconnecting the negative leads on battery if the machine will be stored for more than 90 days.

(If I get a chance to talk to an engineer, I'm going to ask what difference it makes if the battery disconnect switch is turned off, compared to disconnecting the ground cable.)

Check your owner's manual(s) before disconnecting all electrical power. On cars and pickup trucks, disconnecting batteries can wipe the memories of radio station presets and other convenience functions. Farm equipment may have similar losses of reprogrammable information, but totally removing battery power shouldn't harm any electrical components and will improve battery longevity. 

Be sure to fully charge batteries before disconnecting them, and occasionally trickle charge them if storage lasts longer than 3 months.

Resist Hoarding/Hoard Everything

Dec 09, 2012

 As I've grown older I've become more selective about what "treasures" I keep around the shop. In general, I don't throw away:

-the threaded plastic caps and plugs that come with new hydraulic cylinders, valves and other hydraulic components. I've got a coffee can half-full of those caps and plugs, and they're like gold when I'm working on hydraulic components and need to keep oil from leaking out or dirt from getting in. Metal, flat-face o-ring caps are even more precious, and should NEVER be thrown away. I once had to buy a specific set of those caps for a special repair job, and 6 of those caps cost me more than $70. 

-hydraulic fittings. I never keep a fitting that leaked (duh!), but any time I replace a valve block or other component, I strip off and save all the 45-degree, 90-degree and other adapter fittings that I can salvage. Flared fittings, o-ring fittings, pipe thread fittings in every size imaginable get tossed in a 5-gallon bucket under my work bench. Someday I'm going to sort them by size and design and put them in a nice set of plastic drawers. Someday.

-wood blocks. I can't count the times I've been working in a farmer's shop and needed a 4x4, 4x6 or 6x6 wooden block, and couldn't find one. Back at the shop I've got a stack of wooden blocks that I guard from other mechanics like a dog guards a bone. A wooden block of the right size, especially an OAK wooden block, is a wonderful thing when you're trying to jack or pry heavy equipment.

-five-gallon buckets. We use a lot of oil in 5-gallon buckets at the dealership, and it breaks my heart when the boss tells me it's time to let go of my stash of empty buckets. A sturdy, empty 5-gallon bucket is hard for me to let go. That's why there's a bunch of 5-gallon buckets stacked inside each other in my garage here at home. Once I figure out a way to get them unstuck from each other, I'll be glad I saved them. If I ever find the prankster co-worker who stomped them into each other while they were loosely stacked in my truck before I brought them home... 

Conversely, I have a list of things I never save:

-electrical circuit boards, relays, and wiring harnesses. When I was younger and my mind was like a steel trap, I could remember which electrical components were "good" and which ones were good only for parts. Now my memory has a hard time holding onto where I laid the hammer I was using 10 minutes ago, so it's best if I just assume I removed them from a machine for a good reason, and throw them away.

-spray paint cans that quit spraying. For some reason I keep hoping they will magically start working again. They never do.

-rusty nuts and bolts. I grew up under strict orders to never, under any circumstance, throw away a nut or bolt removed during repairs or scrapping. All nuts were to be screwed onto their respective bolt and then tossed into a 5-gallon bucket under Dad's workbench. The plan was that some winter day we'd sit down and sort them by size and condition. When Dad finally had his farm sale at the end of his career, they sold six or seven 5-gallon buckets of rusty, unsorted bolts to farmers who said they planned someday to, "sit down and sort them out."

They say, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." I try to hang on only to treasures, but...every week I fear I'm going to see myself on an episode of that TV show about hoarders.

Dancing At Dealerships

Dec 06, 2012

 Let me preface the following "observations" by noting that I raised livestock for many years, hope to live long enough to enjoy a slower pace during retirement, and find dealing with salesmen both entertaining and exasperating (depending on whether I'm buying or selling):

Farm equipment dealerships are great places to study body language. Walk into any dealership on a winter day and you can follow a dozen different story lines without eavesdropping on a single conversation.

Start with the guy in the multi-stained coveralls and dripping chore boots, sitting on a stool at the parts counter. He’s leaning across the counter, straining to see the computer screen, while the parts man takes shallow breaths and works the keyboard with extended arms. That guy is a livestock farmer who needs parts fast so he can finish his chores.

At the next parts counter computer terminal sits a customer wearing a new seed corn coat over bib overalls. He has his back and elbows propped against the counter, and is happily talking to another customer waiting in line behind him. He’s wearing cream-colored, soft-leather walking shoes. His seed corn cap is at a jaunty angle. He’s a retired farmer picking up parts for the lawn mower he’s been repairing for three weeks. He’s been at the dealership for two hours, drank three cups of coffee and ate five donuts, and still hasn’t told the parts man what he parts he needs.

Over in the sales area, a customer leans against the doorframe of a salesman’s office. He stays in the doorway because he knows once he sits in "the chair," he’s committed to intense negotiations on the tractor he "might" be interested in buying, even though he’s already lined up financing at the local bank.

His salesman sits behind his desk, leaned as far back as his chair will allow, one foot propped on an open desk drawer, idly poking with one finger at keys on his computer keyboard. He’s smiling and nodding and waiting for the perfect, precise moment to toss out a number that will suck the customer into the chair.

Another salesman is slowly sidestepping toward the dealership’s front door, talking animatedly with an equally slow moving customer. An hour ago they were in the salesman’s office trying to find common ground on a machinery trade, but never quite came to terms. If the weather is warm enough and the potential sale is big enough, the salesman will sidestep the customer all the way to his pickup. If necessary, he’ll position his body to keep the customer from closing the truck’s door. Defeat is not an option.

It’s an unending series of dances without music, choreographed each day, all day, at your local farm equipment dealership.


Rebuilding Bridges

Dec 01, 2012

 Last fall's accelerated harvest was hard on machines, hard on people and hard on relationships. I've never in my career as a mechanic been so tired, grumpy, burned-out, worn-out and aggravated. I've spent the past few weeks getting caught up on sleep and regaining my sanity. Last week I started rebuilding a couple bridges that got burned along the way.

One customer in particular deserves apologies. He was having a bad day with multiple things going wrong with his combine. He called me about once an hour all day, trying to (a) get his combine fixed, and, (b) fix it himself so he wouldn't have to pay to have me come fix it. I was already elbow-deep in other people's broken machines and couldn't ethically take time to talk to him while I was getting paid to work on their machine. So he slowly worked himself into a tizzy because I was "ignoring" most of his calls. By late afternoon he was fully annoyed because I hadn't been able to fix things over the phone when I returned his calls while I was driving to my next assignment. 

Finally, around 8 o'clock that evening, he called again while I was in the truck. I mistakenly thought his call was my boss calling me for the 10th time that day, and I flipped open my phone and barked, "WHAT NOW?" rather than my usual greeting of, "This is Dan..."  But it was the beleaguered customer, who immediately started in with a complete review of everything that was wrong with his combine. There was nothing further I could do to help him over the phone; he needed a service call; I wasn't available till sometime the next day. As I pulled alongside the next combine  to fix on my list, I apologized to him; "I'm sorry, but I've done all I can over the phone. Somebody is going to have to come check things out. If you call the dealership they might have a mechanic who can get there yet tonight, otherwise it's going to be midmorning tomorrow before I can get to you."

Well, he didn't appreciate my inability to get him fixed as quickly as he wanted. Since that day, he hasn't had much to say to me if we cross paths at the dealership. I feel bad, and have apologized to him for not being immediately available to work on his combine. It's going to take time to rebuild that bridge. With luck, by next spring when planting season starts I'll be back on the speed dial list on his phone. 

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