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March 2011 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 The Shop: Battery Testers That Test You

Mar 30, 2011

 For the March issue of Farm Journal Magazine I wrote a story about the new generation of economical, lightweight and very versatile digital battery testers. I covered digital battery testers and mini-load digital battery testers and compared them to conventional carbon pile battery testers. 

One thing I forgot to mention in the story is that digital battery testers are somewhat more complicated to use than old-school battery testers. To use old-style testers, you attached the leads to the battery and either read the result directly off a dial on the tester, or maybe twisted a dial on the tester before reading those results. 

On the new digital testers, once you attach the tester's clamps to the battery's terminal, a digital display screen lights up and the user has to push a sequence of buttons to tell the tester if it's a 6- or 12-volt battery; if it's a flooded cell, AGM or other style of battery; what the battery's cold cranking amp (CCA) capactiy is, and possibly a few more factoids--before the final push of a button tells the user whether battery is "good" or "bad."

The first, second, and third time I used a digital battery tester I had to read, then re-read the instructions. By the fourth time, I had the routine figured out, had some of the inputs pre-programmed, and testing batteries became a 15-seconds-and-done deal. But I admit that if I didn't use my tester regularly, I'd have a hard time memorizing the button-pushing routine, and would have to keep the owner's manual handy.

If you're computer/technology savvy enough to use a computer and read this blog, it will be no big deal to figure out a digital battery tester. But if you're like me and have to work at figuring out high-tech gadgets--sometimes have to read the owner's manual several times to figure out how to even turn them on--then digital battery testers are one more gizmo that you'll cuss the first time you use it, but love once you figure it out.

 

In The Shop: So THAT's What's Clogging The Drains...

Mar 27, 2011

 I study the ads in tool magazines and tool catalogs, both for what the ads say and for what they imply. 

For example, I ran across an ad for mechanic's hand soap that bragged their product, "won't clog drains." I did some checking, and sunuvagun, some shop soaps contain pumice and other scrubbing products that tend to settle in the goosenecks below shop sinks or low spots in drain pipes and cause stoppages.

Which explains why about once a month I have to use a plumber's snake on the drain in our shop to keep it flowing. As I think about it, it shouldn't be any surprise our drains run slow---all the grease and stuff off our hands, combined with the occasional slag and metal debris from "cooling" metal fresh from the grinding wheel, torch or welder. 

So now I'm in the market for hand soap that not only cleans greasy hands, but helps keep drains open, too. Either that or we're going to have to rig our shop sink up to a toilet tank so we can get some serious flushing action to help keep the pipes clear.

In The Shop: Absolutely No Breakdowns

Mar 23, 2011

 A previous blog mentioned a former air force pilot who rehabilitated a combine to minimize breakdowns. I probably should have explained his efforts were based on his experience in the Air Force, where all the parts on airplanes have designated lifespans. They keep close track of how many hours are on each component, and when that component's lifespan is reached, the component is replaced, whether it is worn out or not.

I was reminded of that policy while reading a magazine for spray plane applicators. One of the stories casually mentioned that, "the life of a typical starter generator is 1,000 hours..."  Meaning that every 1,000 hours the starter/generator on that particular spray plane gets replaced whether it needs it or not. Other airframe and engine/drive components have their own designated lifespans, some longer, many shorter. 

Imagine what it would cost if you had to replace the starter on your tractor--whether it needed it or not--every time the hourmeter turned over another 1,000 hours. On the other hand, that policy would nearly eliminate breakdowns...

Not to say airplanes don't have mechanical problems. The first time I flew on a commercial jet, my wife thought she was doing a good thing by booking us seats just behind the wing. I spent the entire flight watching the wing flex, watching the flappy gizmos move up and down, allowing me to see the intricate network of hydraulic lines and wiring that kept us 30,000 feet higher than I wanted to be. The longer I sat and looked at all those mechanical gizmos, the more nervous I got. My thinking was that, as a mechanic I spend my days trying my best to keep farm equipment operational. Despite my best efforts, machinery still breaks down. It's a fact of life. That's not a comforting thought, when you're 30,000 feet in the air.

In The Shop: GPS: The Cure For Spring Fever

Mar 20, 2011

 Some of you are already in the field. A friend in northern South Dakota reported he still had 3-foot snowdrifts in his yard as of last week. A lot of us are starting to see enough dry dirt on the hilltops to make us start thinking about spring tillage.

If you're desperate for some time in a tractor seat and use GPS-guidance systems to auto-steer or do prescription fertilization or seeding, now is prime time to check and prepare those systems for spring fieldwork. It may be as simple as turning on a display, programming an A-B line while driving down the gravel road in front of your farmstead, and confirming that everything works as good as it did last fall.

Or it may require transferring consoles, satellite receivers, wiring harnesses and control units between combines and tractor, or sprayers and tractors, then reprogramming those units for different widths, different receiver mounting heights, and different types of drawbar configurations. With luck you wrote all that information down last year. If not, plan on spending some time with the owner's manual.

Check with the dealer who sold you your GPS-based systems to see if there are software updates that can make your system more accurate and/or reliable. There are arguments--pro and con--about whether or not it is good to do incremental software updates. Some of you are running the original software that came with your system and get along fine with the, "if it ain't broke, don't mess with it" strategy. I'm a fan of updating software frequently to take advantage of improvements and refinements. If you're like me and prefer to update regularly, be sure to do it well ahead of fieldwork to give you time to become familiar with changes incorporated in new software.

Bottom line: check, test and update high-tech systems NOW, and not when you're sitting on the endrow with a dry, mellow field in front of you and a planter/seeder full of seed behind you. I know I'm sort of a nag about that sort of thing, but you'd be surprised how often I get called to help frustrated, impatient customers figure out their guidance systems in a tractor sitting on the endrows of a dry, mellow field with a planter/seeder full of seed behind it.

Machines That Never Break Down

Mar 16, 2011

 There is a legend in my county of an Air Force colonel who retired from flying B-52s and took over the family farm. According to the legend, he spent one winter rebuilding the family combine to military specfications, replacing all the bearings with the highest quality bearings he could find, balancing the augers, balancing all the powershafts and pulleys, and synching all the sieves and oscillating components. Neighbors reported that the rebuilt combine didn't even sound like a normal combine when it ran, more of a "hum" than the normal whirring, banging, clanging, roaring we expect from combines.It ran flawlessly for hour after hour, day after day, year after year, but nobody could get the retired pilot to confess what the rehabilitation actually cost.

Which parallels a conversation I overhead 15 years ago between a farmer and an engineer during a factory tour. The farmer was harassing the engineer about combine breakdowns, and challenged the engineer to build a combine that wouldn't break down. The engineer didn't blink--he just told the farmer to write him a check for a $1 million and he'd deliver the combine in 2 or 3 years.

I often complain about the outrageous cost of new farm equipment, but when I step back and look at what the buyer gets for his money, it's not a bad deal. Compare a modern 200-hp tractor with the 806 International that was the apple of my father's eye in the early '70s. That tractor was 2WD, less than 100 hp, drank fuel, had pathetic brakes and power steering, and was guaranteed to leave your ears ringing for two days after you shut it off. (Never mind that Dad liked to run a straight stack...) The modern tractor is tens--maybe hundreds--of thousands of dollars more expensive, but has a seat more comfortable than my La-Z-Boy, has a better stereo than what I have in my house, pulls like a Percheron on amphetamines, and has autosteer/GPS/automatic gizmos that reduce fuel usage to a miser's dream. And while the 806 spent every winter in the shop getting a new TA (torque amplifier) installed or the transmission rebuilt, a lot of the modern tractors will run tens of thousands of hours without need to be "split."

Yes, engineers could build farm equipment even more reliable than current units, but...would farmers be willing to pay the price? And how would I make a living if they did...?

In The Shop: Lock It Down

Mar 13, 2011

I've done a number of stories in Farm Journal Magazine over the years about various types of nuts and bolts, torquing nuts and bolts, and products that help keep nuts and bolts from coming loose. In no particular order, here are some things I learned in talking to engineers who specialize in the nuts and bolts of nuts and bolts:

-A flanged, serrated nut (a nut that has a flared lower edge with serrations that "bite" into the surface the nut is tightened against) locks and holds better than a regular nut and lock washer.

-Loctite or similar products works best on clean metal. Such products "lock" because of a chemical reaction between raw, bare metal and the product, in the absence of oxygen (ie--when a nut or bolt has been tightened and the oxygen has been driven from between the threads). Oil, dirt or contamination decreases the locking ability of thread-locking products.

-Flat washers often have a top and a bottom. Examine a large flat washer carefully and you'll note one side the center hole has a sharp, crisp edge, while the edge on the other side of the washer is slightly rounded. The bottom sides of the heads of bolts, where the head meets the shank of the bolt, is also slightly rounded. The rounded edge of a washer should go toward the rounded edge of the bottom of the bolt head. Theoretically, if the crisp, sharp edge of the washer is forced against the rounded bottom edge of the bolt head, it could produce a stress point that could cause the bolt head to fail.

-Theoretically, no nut or bolt should be re-used after it has been torqued to full value. Torquing to full value microscopically stretches a bolt or nut's threads, and once metal has been deformed, it never again has full strength. Engine builders are religious about never re-using cylinder head bolts, connecting rod cap bolts or any other fastener when re-building engines. Most of us tend to be more agnostic about re-using nuts and bolts on farm equipment...

-There is no truth to the rumor that engineers designed nuts and bolts with hexagonal heads so that no matter how they hit the concrete floor when you drop one, they will always bounce, roll, hop or skitter out of reach. There is evidence, however, that nuts and bolts are proof of the existence of the mysterious "dark matter" that physicists are only now beginning to understand. Nuts and bolts are attracted to "dark matter." The proof is in the near-guarantee that any nut or bolt dropped in a shop with bounce, hop or roll into the nearest dark area under a bench, tire or nearby piece of equipment.

In The Shop: Shyster Sauce

Mar 09, 2011

 Sometimes the fine print in ads found in tool magazines or mechanic's magazines are as interesting as the headlines. For example, one advertisement touts a product that can be added to engines that is guaranteed to seal leaky cylinder head gaskets, "for 3000 miles or 30 days." 

That sort of product raises the hair on the back of my neck. Sure, there might be occasions when it would be useful to seal a leaky head gasket for a couple weeks, until a customer gets enough money or time to get the head gasket properly repaired. But...it sounds more like a deal where somebody wants to seal the leak just long enough to sell the car, truck or tractor. 

I know that used vehicles and equipment is generally sold, "as is, where is" and that "buyer beware" is the byword for sales between private individuals. But I'm fond of doing unto others as I want to be done unto myself. It offends me that people would use stop-gap products purely to take advantage of an unwitting buyer.

I don't mean to come off "high and mighty". I can cobble, patch and improvise with the best of 'em. My personal vehicles and equipment are testament to my skills at "creative engineering." But even at my most creative, I try to improvise repairs that will last longer than, "3000 miles or 30 days."

in The Shop: The Fear Factor

Mar 06, 2011

 Here's the problem, whether you're a professional mechanic or a weekend tinkerer: When you're young and just starting out, you don't know what you can't do, and you don't know how wrong things can go. 

My attitude when I was in my 20s was that I had just as many college degrees as the engineers who design farm equipment, so if they could design it, I could take it apart and put it back together. There wasn't much I was afraid to tackle, which more than a few times got me into situations where I probably shouldn't have been. But I figured things out and felt like Tarzan because of it. (You know, stand on top of the successfully repaired piece of equipment while yelling and pounding your fists on our chest...)

But...age and experience have taught me that I can definitely get into repairs that are over my head. The problem with that realization is that I've lost my "courage." I look at a prospective repair, and instead of seeing a challenge, I see all the potential things that could go wrong. Sure, there are jobs I can do in my sleep, repairs about which I have absolute confidence. But there are days when I wonder if I'll be able to do an engine oil change without cross-threading the drain plug when I reinstall it.

That "fear factor" extends into my personal life. I no longer ride or race dirt bikes because I finally figured out that all the fun on Sunday wasn't worth the pain on Monday. I'm sitting on a meager savings account earning 0.5 percent interest because I got burned in the recession, and am now 'scared" to risk my savings in the vagaries of the stock market. All the things I've experienced in life have made me wiser, but they've also made me overly cautious, timid and borderline paranoid.

I need to take on a major repair I've never done before, and succeed. I need to borrow a race car and make a few laps sideways and WFO. I need to jump off a high-diving board and see if I can still swim far enough to get to the side of the pool.

Yup, that's what I need to do. That's what I'm GOING to do. Right after I check my life insurance policies and ask my wife for permission...

In The Shop: Is TMI A Bad Thing?

Mar 01, 2011

 Another business ethics discussion during coffee break today, this time about whether or not it benefits customers to be given absolute knowledge about every aspect of a potential repair.

The issue was an older planter, with a badly weather-checked and corroded seed monitor wiring harness. My policy has been to give customers in that situation as much information as possible, provide them as many options as possible, then allow them to choose the course of action. In this case, I would tell the customer the harness needs replaced and offer them all the options possible, including a completely new harness (possibly up to $1000 or more in parts and labor), anaftermarket harness, or, the low-cost option--cut out the damaged portion of wire along the planter's tongue and splice in a new section for a total cost of less than $300.

A co-worker who I highly respect disagrees with offering the customer so many options. His attitude is, "We're being paid to offer him top-quality repairs, so the only thing we should mention are the best ways to fix it. To suggest simply patching and splicing is stop-gap. It might work, or it might just stress weak parts in the rest of the harness and we'll end up replacing the whole thing in the middle of planting season." His contention is that it is a disservice to the customer to offer to patch and splice because, "You're just tempting him to do the wrong thing by offering a cheap fix that you can't promise will permanently fix his problem."

So. Is it ethical to ignore cheap alternatives, if those alternatives are not in the customer's best, long-term interest? If we fix it cheap, and then have to fix it again (and again) later this spring, wlll the customer remember that it was he who initially chose the cheapest option? Or is it better to man-up, tell the customer he needs to spend at least $1000 to plant his 300 acres of crops this year, and trust that he will respect us for acting in his best, long-term interest?

Is it possible for a mechanic to offer a customer TMI (Too Much Information)? 

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