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November 2013 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.

Cold Weather Machinery Tips

Nov 24, 2013

 From the Deep South to the Canadian prairies, it takes preparation and a different mindset  to get machinery to start and run in cold weather. A few reminders, tips and suggestions:

-If the fuel tanks on diesel engines haven't already been switched to a "lighter" grade of fuel appropriate to the ambient temperatures in your area, do it. South of Missouri, "winter-grade" #2 diesel fuels is usually adequate. From Missouri north, winter-grade #2 diesel fuel is okay down to 20-degrees F., but should be supplemented with #1 diesel or "anti-gel" fuel additive. Personally, I put anti-gel in any diesel I want to run in temperatures below 32 degrees F. 

-Ethanol-enhanced gasoline is controversial in urban areas, but well accepted in rural areas. I won't get into the discussion whether E-10 is "hard" on engines and fuel systems, accept to say I've run E-10 for 35 years in all my car, truck, motorcycle and lawn mower engines with absolutely no problems. More important, this time of year--I don't have to add fuel de-icer to their fuel systems. The ethanol in E-10 absorbs moisture and prevents fuel line icing.

-Bio-diesel is another fuel that can generate controversy. I've been scolded in the past for noting there are "challenges" associated with bio-diesel in cold weather. I'll therefore simply recommend that bio-diesel users check with their local fuel supplier to discuss any unique concerns related to the fluidity of bio-diesel in cold weather.

-Batteries that easily started engines in warm weather often struggle to crank those same engines when their oil is thick and sluggish on cold mornings. Plug-in heaters that warm engine coolant ease starting. Heaters that warm crankcase oil not only ease starting but reduce wear on engine components during the critical first minute of operation when cold, thick oil doesn't flow easily. Engine builders tell me that over the lifespan of a engine, 90 percent of the wear accumulates in the first minute after every start-up, during the period when engine components are "dry" due to oil drain-down. 

-One of the best investments for farmers who have engines in remote locations that may need started on cold days is a battery jumper pack. Jumper packs come in many sizes, but are basically a deep-cycle battery in a carrying case. Special integrated circuitry allows the battery to discharge at a very high rate, then be recharged via a charger that plugs into a 115-volt wall outlet. Some come with cigarette lighter-adapters for re-charging. Battery jumper packs are essentially portable, cordless battery boosters. Perfect to keep behind the pickup seat, ready to boost a chilled engine to life on a cold winter morning.

Benchtop Advice

Nov 18, 2013

 There is something old-school and familiar about a workbench with a top made of 2" x 8" planks. The planks are nearly black, soaked with oil, and every scar, cut and hole, is a memory of a successful (or unsuccessful) repair. 

But some farm shops take workbenches to a higher plain. Some have industrial-style benches with metal legs and metal tops with rolled front edges and a "back splash" along the rear edge. A recent trend I've seen is for farmers to build traditional work benches out of wood, then have a local metal shop form a sheet metal top for the working surface. If you give the metal shop the dimensions of the workbench's top, it's easy to bend the front edge and back so the result is a smooth, durable, flame and spark-proof place to fix things.

Thickness of the tops I've seen vary from 1/8" to 3/16". I've seen a few 1/4"-thick bench tops, and one welding bench that had a top that was 3/8" thick. The 1/8" tops work pretty good for generic shop work, but the 3/16" tops don't dent as easily and "bounce" less when you're hammering on things.

The only potential downside to a metal benchtop is rust. I've seen farm shops that sat idle with the doors open during a humid spring planting season that had benchtops coated with a powdery layer of rust. A quick cure for that is to spray the metal bench top with WD-40, JB-80, FluidFilm or any other rust-cutter and preventative, then wipe it down with a shop towel. The surface will gleam and the oily film will prevent future corrosion. I oil my benchtop at work about once a month, or whenever I take time to actually clear away all the tools, broken parts and other debris, and actually tidy up my work area.

Uh--now that I think about it, let's just say I oil my benchtop semi-annually.

In Defense Of My Friends Behind The Parts Counter

Nov 15, 2013

 Today while getting parts for a job I was working on, I had reason to listen as a parts man got royally chewed out before the customer hung up on him. I wasn't eavesdropping--I could hear the guy yelling over the phone from 6 feet away.

The parts guy had asked the customer for the exact model number and if possible, the serial number, of the machine in question. The customer began his rant with the traditional, "It don't matter, they're all the same (bearings, gears, belt--you name the part)." When the parts man explained that they AREN'T all the same, and that it was necessary to have at least the model number to get the correct part, the customer then switched to, "Well, don't you have all my equipment listed in your computer? You can look it up faster than I can walk out there and write it down."

In some cases, the dealership DOES have the model and serial numbers for customers' machines, but that list is often out-of-date and therefore inaccurate. Farmers have traded a lot of machinery in the past five years, and updating customer equipment inventories isn't a high-priority job at dealerships.

Eventually the customer grew tired of the parts man's basic questions necessary to gve the customer the parts he needed. He called the parts man several colorful names, and said he was going to call our competitor 30 miles away to get his parts. The parts man apologized for not being able to help, but I don't think the customer heard it because I heard a loud "CLICK" from the phone before the parts man could complete his apology.

The parts man hung his head for a minute, took a deep breath, then turned to me and asked, "So, what can I do for you today?"

I said I needed a fan belt. When he asked, "For what machine?" I said, "It don't matter, they're all the same. Just gimme a doggone belt."

He paused, then grinned as he stood up and reached for my neck with both hands. "The guy on the phone? I can't do anything about him," he said.  "But you, I can offer hands-on assistance for your problem..." 

A Brilliant Idea I'm Going To Steal

Nov 10, 2013

 I was working in a farmer's shop yesterday and saw a simple shop "improvement" that is simple, useful and cheap.

He had a collection of wood blocks stacked neatly under his work bench, ranging from ubiquitous 2" x 4" blocks up to a respectable stash of 6" x 6" and 8" x 8" blocks. They were all around 1 to 2 feet in length--the perfect size to be handy-as-heck around the shop. 

What I thought was clever was that he had used lag screws to attach a metal barn door handle to the end of each of the larger blocks. What a brilliant idea. A simple barn door handle on the end of each block makes them easy to carry, and provides an easy way to grab, pull, shove or turn the block--or a stack of blocks--to position them under a machine.

What more can I say? A cheap way to make an elemental shop "tool" easier to use. 

The Best Accessories For Battery-Powered Impact Wrenches?

Nov 06, 2013

 If you're one of the believers who find battery-powered impact wrenches nearly indispensible for working on farm equipment, here are a couple suggestions to make those tools even better:

-If you don't have and use impact sockets on your battery-powered impact wrench, invest in a set. Chrome sockets are designed for use with hand tools, and have a more brittle metallurgy than black metal sockets designed for use with impact tools. Chrome sockets will not only wear out more quickly when used on an impact tool, but can crack or shatter. If you're guiding a chrome socket on the nut or bolt and letting it spin in your hand, it can have bloody results. A set of 1/2-inch drive deep-well impact sockets from Gray Pneumatic, 3/8-inch through 1 1/2-inch, is around $129. (If you have to choose between deep-well and standard length, get the deep-wells--they're most versatile than standard length sockets.)

-Consider getting a set of flex, impact sockets. Flex sockets, aka "wobble sockets," reduce the need to align the battery-powered impact wrench with the nut or bolt. I was slow to accept the value of wobble sockets, but now that I've got them, they are the sockets I reach for 95 percent of the time. However---they take a little getting used to because they want to fly off nuts and bolts if you're not ready for the directional torque they create. A set of 1/2-inch drive wobble impact sockets from Gray Pneumatic, from 7/16-inch through 1 1/4-inch, costs around $159. (If I had to choose between buying a set of deep-well impact sockets and buying a set of wobble, impact sockets---I'd get the wobble sockets first. They are THAT handy to have.)

And...don't even think about using a conventional chrome flex/wobble socket on an impact wrench. Their pivot isn't designed for use with an impact wrench, and they can fly apart in dangerous ways.

The Irony of Automated Machinery

Nov 02, 2013

 Farm machinery has never been more durable.  A century of intense design escalation, enhanced in recent decades by improved metallurgy and sophisticated manufacturing processes, has led to tractors, combines, sprayers and other farm machines that are stronger and more durable than any in history.

Yes, they still break down. But if you installed engines with comparable horsepower, or pulled equal loads, or hauled similar quantities of grain, hay or commodities in machines designed in the 1950s, there would be nothing left after a day's work but a pile of crumpled, crushed, smoking metal. We sometimes forget, when harvesting 12 rows of 200-bushel corn at 5 miles an hour, what incredible demands we're putting on these modern machines--and they're handling it.

But--while we've escalated the quaility and durability of the machinery, we've also escalated the complexity of the systems on those machines, and simultaneously increased but decreased the operator's role in the scheme of things. There are too many things for one person to keep track of, so we've added automatic header height control, GPS-guided auto-steer, and all sorts of machine monitoring systems. We're to the point where, once a machine is calibrated and "all systems are go," the operator has nothing to do but sit there and try to stay awake.

Which leads to problems in two directions:

-first, all that automation has immensely increased the amount of switches, sensors, potentiometers, wiring harnesses and computers on farm equipment. Many of those gadgets must be located in high risk locations--under corn snouts, on the ends of grain platforms, and always close to moving belts, pulleys and other mechanical components that love to eat, snarl, snag and destroy high-tech components. So, we've made farm equipment structurally stronger, but added miles of wiring and dozens of high-tech components prone to failure in locations on the machine that beg for damage. Lately, I've spent as much time fixing torn up wiring harnesses and repairing sensing and control systems as I have welding or bolting and unbolting broken parts.

-second, the inevitable war between man and machine. Even when all the automated systems are functioning properly, there is a tendency for man to want to dominate machine. Maybe the automatic header control system is a little too "slow," and needs to be forced up or down to get across a waterway. Maybe the auto steering system isn't cutting close enough to the fence. Perhaps the speed control isn't "pushing the machine enough", and the operator feels a need to step in and "keep the old girl full."  When man consistently forces machine to do things the machine doesn't want to do, or isn't built to do, the machine has no choice but to break or fail. The converse problem is where the machine is so automated that the human becomes disengaged from its operation, and either dozes off, spaces out, or is distracted by a cell phone conversation or playing Angry Birds.

The bottom line is that we've made farm equipment more durable than it's ever been, but added lots of systems that are by nature failure-sensitive. We've also increased the opportunity for operator-induced breakdowns due to ignoring or over-riding automated systems. It's kind of "two steps forward and three steps back," as we make machinery more durable, but add systems and technology that by nature increase the potential for problems.


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