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February 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.

My Compressed Air and Air Tool Goofs

Feb 22, 2009
In the mid-February issue of Farm Journal there's a multi-page story, "Adequate Air," about designing compressed air systems for farm shops. I've set up, remodeled and repaired several compressed air systems, and gone through a variety of air-powered tools. And boy, I've made a lot of mistakes. Here's what I've learned:

-Always spend the extra money and use air tool oil designed to clean and lubricate air tools. For some reason, I thought lubricant was lubricant. I cheaped-out and tried using WD-40, JB-80 and whatever other lubricants were sitting on my workbench to lubricate my air tools. Bad decision. Those products are penetrating oils with low viscosity and additives to bust rust. Air tools need a more viscous oil with additives designed to cling to metal components. Once I got done paying for repairs or buying new air tools to replace the ones damaged by my use of penetrating oils, I invested in a big bottle of air tool lubricating oil.

-Whether you add a few drops of air tool oil to the air inlets of air-powered tools before or after you actually use those tools, be sure to do it. Mechanics who use their air tools daily tend to add a few drops of oil before they couple their air tool to the air hose prior to each use. It's a habit that ensures the tool is always oiled. Farmers who use air tools infrequently might reverse the process and drip oil into the inlet after they get done using the tool. This ensures the tool's innards are coated with oil to resist moisture corrosion in the days or weeks when the tool is idle. The only problem with that strategy is that after adding the oil, the tool should be recoupled to the air hose and triggered a few times so air pressure distributes the oil throughout the tool's moving parts.

-When designing and constructing a "header" pipe to run along the side of a shop and distribute air from the compressor, be wary of 90-degree bends and reducer fittings. Every 90-degree fitting reduces air flow a measurable amount. So do reducer fittings. Street (or straight, depending on how you pronounce it) "L" fittings that have the same interior diameter (I.D.) at inlet and outlet are more efficient than 90-degree fittings constructed from an elbow and a couple reducing nipples.

-If you're replacing or sharpening blades on a disk, or the disk openers on a corn planter, be very careful where your rubber air lines are located if you set the disk or planter down onto the ground. Unless you have need for a lot of 3/8" x 11" segments of rubber hose. (If you set the planter down on the hose, the segments will be 3/8" x 30".)

Double Check Fuel Filters

Feb 15, 2009
 Long story short: It is very easy to get the wrong diesel fuel filters installed in the wrong places on late-model farm equipment. At a minimum, using the wrong filter in the wrong place will shorten the time before the filter begins to clog, you notice a decrease in power, and have to replace the filter. Worst case scenario, the wrong filter in the wrong place can allow dirt or water to damage the engine's computerized unit fuel injectors, which can cost more than $1000 each to replace.

Some new combines, tractors, cotton pickers and other large self-propelled machines have up to three separate diesel fuel filters. Each has a different job and must be installed in the correct location. In a perfect world, each would have a unique filter base to ensure that only the correct filter would fit. That is not the case--water separator filters sometimes happily screw into the base designed for 2-micron final filters. In a perfect world, every engine would have just one set of fuel filters. In the real world, each model of engine can have a half-dozen serial number breaks, and each serial number break can call for a different set of filters.

So when it comes time to change diesel fuel filters on engines newer than 2003 or 2004, be very, very conscientious about getting the right filters and installing them in the correct locations. Many filters come marked with their filtering capacity, measured in microns. Make sure that filtering media gets "tighter" from fuel tank to engine, and from engine to injection pump. A 10-micron filter should always be upstream (ahead) of a 2-micron filter because the 10-micron filter is more coarse than the 2-micron filter. Many 2-micron filters carry the label, "final filter," meaning the filter is designed to be the final filter before fuel enters the injection pump.

It sounds like a simple thing, to get the correct filters installed in the right places. But in the past month we've dealt with three or four combines in our shop that had 10 micron filters installed where there should have been 2 micron filters, and water separator filters installed in place of 10 micron filters. So far, nobody has had to replace damaged injectors or injection pumps, but at the rate and frequency we're seeing misplaced filters, it's only a matter of time.

What's A Mechanic Worth?

Feb 08, 2009
President Obama has proposed a cap on salaries to executives at companies that accept bail-out money. Many folks are arguing whether or not top-level executives are worth the millions of dollars per year they are sometimes paid. Which raises a question more relevant to my and your world: What is a good farm machinery mechanic worth?

A recent discussion on a farm equipment manufacturer's website noted that dealership shop rates vary across North America, from $60 to nearly $100 per hour. A quick survey shows that non-agricultural car, truck and heavy equipment shop rates range from $70 to more than $100 per hour. Considering that individual mechanics receive only 10 to 20 percent of the gross shop rate, they're looking at $8 to $20 per hour before taxes and withholding gnaw away 30 percent of their paycheck. Along with taxes, medical insurance, uniforms and other deductions, mechanics also are responsible for purchasing, maintaining and replacing their own tools. That's generally in the $1000 to $5000 per year range, depending on situations and circumstances.

Most mechanics would welcome a raise, but acknowledge their incomes are appropriate (middle income) for the economic climate of their immediate area. Beginning mechanics or low-skilled individuals are at the low end of the spectrum, less than $20,000 per year. Most mechanics make $25,000 to $45,000 per year. Skilled mechanics can use commissions and bonuses to bump their annual incomes to the $50,000 range, but they bust their butts to do it. A few legendary wildmen who sacrifice their health and family time to work ungodly hours are rumored to make $80,000 or $90,000 per year, especially in areas of the country where fruits, vegetables and perishable crops make 24/7 machinery repairs critical.

Some of you are already reaching for your keyboards to complain about high shop rates and overpaid mechanics. Be careful to check what your accountant listed as your personal income for the past two or three years, before you step on your own foot. Personally, I'm tickled pink that ag prices in the past few years have enabled farmers to finally enjoy the prosperity the rest of our country enjoyed--at least until the economy went into the dumpster. I hope that agriculture will continue to be a bright spot in an otherwise dismal economic picture.

But as the economy tightens up, it will be interesting to watch as all sectors of the economy analyze and try to determine exactly how much a person is worth, considering the job they perform.

K.I.S.S. small engine diagnostics

Feb 01, 2009
"If you use a little common sense, it shouldn't take more than half an hour to figure out the general cause of why a small engine won't run, or why it won't run right."

That's according to Josh Potter, the corporate service manager for our dealership. To prove his point, he recently spent a day working his way through a pile of non-running lawn mowers, ATVs and snowblowers that had baffled other mechanics at one of our stores. By the end of the day, all the machines were running, or torn down and their ailments precisely diagnosed, ready for repairs.

His diagnostic procedure starts with the simple stuff: First check for fuel, then check fuel quality. Modern gasoline degrades rapidly if not used within 4 to 6 weeks. Many poor running small engines are magically repaired simply by refilling their tanks with fresh fuel.

Second step: check for spark at the spark plug. Avoid the old farmer's trick of removing the spark plug, grounding it against the cylinder head and turning over the engine to watch for a spark at the electrode. Aside from a potential explosion risk if gas fumes are leaking from the spark plug hole, the computerized circuitry of modern small engine ignitions can be damaged by that sort of crude grounding. A simple spark plug tester is the best way to test for spark at the plug. If there's no spark, work backward from the spark plug through the electrical system till the fault is identified. Also--while the spark plug is out, sniff its tip, or turn over the engine and sniff the air near the spark plug hole for gasoline fumes that indicate fuel is getting to the engine.

Third step: If lack of gas fumes from the spark plug hole hints that fuel isn't reaching the engine, remove the air cleaner and spray carb cleaner into the throat of the carburetor while cranking the motor.  Forcing a flammable into the combustion cycle should make the engine at least fire, and possibly run for a moment. If it will at least fire on the flammable spray it's time to explore the carburetor and fuel system for problems. Gummed or plugged jets, stuck floats and other problems caused by poor quality or degraded fuel are prime suspects.

Fourth step: If tests have proven that fuel is getting to the engine, and that adequate spark is present, check compression with a compression tester. If compression is low, it's time to pull the cylinder head and check for damaged rings, stuck/damaged valves, or other maladies related to poor compression.

If the small engine starts but runs poorly, Potter's two rules of thumb are: "Backfiring through the intake/carb means an ignition problem--bad plug, timing problems, something out of adjustment with the ignition. Backfiring out the exhaust indicates a fuel problem--too rich, too lean, poor quality fuel."

if you've got the correct tools, all those diagnostic steps should take less than half an hour. Potter's K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) diagnostic strategy works on any small gasoline engine, motorcycle, ATV, and on a lot of older, carbureted gasoline engines in tractors and vehicles on farms. 
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