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July 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.

You Talk Funny

Jul 27, 2008
One of the challenges of being a mechanic is communicating with the engineers who build farm machinery and customers who use that equipment.

For example, the engineers call the auger that transfers corn into the grain tank on combines a "loading auger" in all our tech and parts books. Some of our customers call it a "bubble-up auger." Most of us mechanics call it a "fountain auger." That's three terms to describe the same element on a piece of equipment. Just like some customers call the slatted conveyor chain in their combine's feederhouse a "rattle chain." Which is different from the "bicycle chains" (which mechanics and engineers call "roller chains") that power various drives on the combines.

Add the varying terminologies of different generations, and agricultural communication becomes even more challenging. My Uncle Francis often sent me in search of "burr nuts" when we were repairing equipment. I eventually figured out that those were different from "acorn nuts" used by engineers in specific situations, and learned to ask the parts man at the hardware store for a plain ol' "hex nut" in order to deliver Uncle Francis the parts he needed.

Regional variations in terminology have complicated composition of stories I write for Farm Journal. I grew up turning equipment on "headlands," while guys I met in college reversed direction on "turn rows"  or "end rows." The same multiple nomenclature extends to "point rows" and "guess rows." Some farmers contend that point rows and guess rows describe different aspects of field layout. Kind of like the way that "back furrow" and "dead furrow"  meant different things to those who were experts with moldboard plows. I never grasped the difference but still managed to get the plowing done.


Terminology confusion extends into my marriage. My wife is a city girl, and no amount of teasing, harassing or explaining can convince her that we live on a gravel "road" four miles from the nearest town. She insists we live on a "street," and that it doesn't matter whether north is "up", south is "down" and east/west is "over" when giving verbal directions. If you want to see a farmer go cross-eyed, give him directions to go north, then east, by saying, "Go down that road, then up the first road you come to..."

Between the different terms we use to describe machinery, field layouts and rural life in general, it's surprising we get our messages across. If you don't believe that, spend time near a parts counter at a farm equipment dealership during busy season and listen to the counterman and customers try to communicate. It helps to have a sense of humor. We've got a parts person who, when a farmer gruffly says, "I need a belt for my combine," our parts person cheerfully asks, "North or south side...?"

How Much Is Advice Worth?

Jul 18, 2008
At the dealership where I work I have to account for every minute of my day. On a perfect day, every minute is billable to repairs on a specific machine for a specific customer.

But on most days, I get phone calls from customers asking my advice or opinion about repairs or problems with their equipment. Sometimes customers stop by the shop to ask questions. The questions usually take 5 or 10 minutes to answer, but sometimes stretch to 20 or 30 minutes. The customer hangs up the phone or leaves the shop satisfied with the answers he sought, but I turn around and ask myself, "How do I account for that time?"

I was probably "punched in" on another customer's repair job when I took time to help the phone caller or walk-in. If I don't clock in and out to answer the questions, then the original customer ends up paying for me to help the guy who calls or walks in. If I open a ticket and actually bill the phone caller or walk-in for the time I spent answering questions, there is invariably an angry phone call when that bill arrives in the mail.

Cell phones have exacerbated the problem. I've actually had guys call with questions that were plainly answered in the owner's manual. When I politely pointed out to the customer that the answer, along with illustrations and photos, was in the machine's owner's manual, the customers laughed and said, "It was faster to call and ask you than to find the manual and look it up."

I don't mind giving advice. I like helping my customers. But by the end of most workdays I've often spent a total of an hour, maybe more, answering questions and giving advice. If it was YOUR machine that I was working on when I was interrupted, would you mind paying me to give advice to your neighbors? If you were the one asking the questions, would it bother you to get billed for a half hour of my time? (Dealership policy is to bill for no less than 1/2 hour, so even a 5 minute chat would generate a bill for a half hour.) Or should the dealership "eat" the time I spend helping customers with questions and advice? There are more than a dozen mechanics in our shop--if they all spend an hour a day helping customers, that's a lot of money for the dealership to absorb on a daily basis. 

I never imagined when I started working as a mechanic that business ethics would be one of the challenges I face on a daily basis.




"Red Flag" Tools

Jul 12, 2008
 I get lots of tool catalogs and have learned to read between the lines to identify emerging mechanical problems. If I notice a glut of a certain type of tool, it hints to me that there is a mechanical malady commonly occurring that the tool is designed to combat.

For example, in recent years "spark plug thread chasers" have bloomed in all the tool catalogs. A little research reveals that it is not uncommon for mechanics to strip or damage the threads in spark plug holes of modern cars and trucks. The cause? Modern engines often have aluminum cylinder heads. Spark plugs have steel bodies. Aluminum and steel, if left in tight contact for a long period of time, develop a chemical reaction that can virtually weld the spark plug into the cylinder head. The potential problem has been compounded by vehicle manufacturers extending the spark plug change interval up to 100,000 miles in some situations. The problem is so common that some car dealerships, as part of their regular service, "exercise" spark plugs--they take out the plugs, then reinstall them, simply to make sure the plugs don't freeze in the head before it's actually time to replace them.

Lately, I've also  noticed in tool catalogs a flood of tools related to Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS). The federal government has mandated that all new lightweight vehicles--cars, SUVs and light trucks--must have some sort of system that warns the driver if a tire has low air pressure. Car dealerships, tire shops and anybody who works on tires is scrambling to get the tools necessary to test, replace and calibrate TPMS. It's quite a hairball, because there is no standardized type of sensor or system, so each manufacturer has developed its own unique TPMS that requires tools specific to that system. We're going to cover the details of TPMS in an upcoming story in Farm Journal. For now, it's enough to read between the lines in tool catalogs, note the flush of pricey tools dedicated to TPMS, and be aware that you're probably not going to be able to fix  flat tires yourself on your wife's van or your pickup anymore.

So reading between the lines of tool catalogs has taught me to use extra caution when removing spark plugs, and to think twice before I rotate the tires on my wife's SUV (rotating the tires confuses the computer that monitors tire pressures, and sets off the warning light that there's a low tire, even thought they're all inflated to precisely 32 psi). 

My wife thinks that I'm daydreaming of new tools to buy when she sees me sitting in my recliner, thumbing through tool catalogs. While that's a fun daydream, I'm actually reading between the lines to figure out the next generation of repairs that require care, some training and...special tools.


More Giggle Tools

Jul 05, 2008
 Continuing from a blog entry I wrote a couple weeks ago, here are some more "giggle tools" I've acquired over the years. (FYI--giggle tools are tools that work so well and are so handy that you giggle when you use them.)

Ratcheting combination wrenches--open end/closed end wrenches where the closed end has a ratcheting mechanism--are worth every penny they cost. It's hard to describe how handy they are and how often you grab them when they're in your toolbox, until you have a set and find them being the wrenches you grab 90 percent of the time. They come in two designs. In one design the wrench is flat, with no offset head, and the ratcheting mechanism is reversed by flipping over the wrench. The second design, which I prefer, has the ratcheting head at a 15 degree angle to the plain of the handle, and you have to flip a small lever or push a button to reverse the ratching action (like on a socket wrench). The 15-degree angle gives clearance so you don't drag your knuckles when you're ratcheting the wrench, but the "flat" version is handy for situations where there isn't clearance for the angled wrench head. Either version of a durable set of ratcheting combination wrenches will burn a $100 or larger hole in your wallet, and it will take two sets to handle the standard and metric bolts now common on farms. But at some point, you'll giggle or at least grin because of how handy they are to have in your toolbox.

I shouldn't advocate tools that are no longer available, but if you ever see one of Snap-on's 3/4-inch-drive breaker bars with a 4-foot-long handle at a used-tool auction, snap it up. None of the main line tool manufacturers now offer a 3/4-inch-drive with a one-piece handle longer than 2 feet, which is a shame. I bought the 4-footer about 10 years ago, and have never regretted it. There aren't many nuts or bolts that can resist that breaker bar--depending on how much weight you can put on the end, it calculates to offer more than 800 lb.-ft. of torque. The power is so potent that it's best to use common sense when really laying into it--when nuts and bolts finally crack loose it's easy to find yourself sprawled across the shop floor, seeing stars. But when dealing with stubborn hardware, there's no substitute for the biggest tools you can find.

A new high-tech pencil-type flashlight that fits in my shirt pocket is one of the handiest tools I've bought in the past year. I've always carried a down-sized flashlight in a pouch on my belt, but was disappointed with the dim beam, battery consumption and the way the pouch was always catching on things when I crawled around equipment. Sunlite-brand flashlights came out last winter with a pocket penlight that is 6 inches long, 1/2-inch in diameter, and provides 100 bright, clear, long-lasting lumens of light. That rascal is bright, light, and a mechanic's dream. The 3 AAA batteries last a long time, the LED bulb is durable enough to withstand repeated accidental drops onto concrete floors, and being able to tuck it into my shirt pocket keeps it simultaneously handy but out of the way. The $45 price tag made me swallow hard, but I'm so fond of that bright little pocket light that I bought another one to have as a spare in case I lose or figure out how to completely destroy the sturdy little light---I don't want to be without one.

Stay tuned--there are more giggle tools in my toolbox that I plan to tell you about in future blogs, and several promising looking tools that I've been eyeing in tool catalogs. So many tools, so little time... 
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