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October 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.

Harvest, 2012: Tools I'm Glad I Bought

Oct 28, 2012

 Sometimes, out of desperation, on impluse, or simply because of poor judgement, I buy a tool or tool accessory. Rather than remind myself of the money I've wasted by reciting a litany of poor purchases, I'm going to list a few things I bought during this year's harvest that actually worked like they were supposed to:

-a gun-type dispenser for dispensing silicone, glue or other products that come in "toothpaste" tubes. Every time I try to squeeze a nice, even bead of silicone or other semi-liquid product from a toothpaste tube, I end up making a mess because squeezing evenly and hard at the same time never seems to work. On impulse I bought a little hand-operated gizmo you place over the end of the tube, then you squeeze the handles and the tool evenly applies pressure to the tube. It's like using a mini-caulking gun because it allows you to accurately control the pressure on the tube and simultaneously see the bead of silicone, caulk, or whatever you're applying. I approve.

-Getting an electrical splice or the backside of a repaired electrical connector sealed against moisture is tough. Electrician's tape is okay, but I never fully trust it to be moisture resistant. Duct tape--well, maybe in a pinch. Silicone guarantees the seal, but takes time to cure so it's not handy for field repairs. For all those reasons I'm becoming fond of a special type of tape offered by Loctite that has impressed me with it's versatility, it's moisture resistance and its ability to wrap and seal tightly around irregular surfaces. It's called Loctite Insulating/Sealing Wrap. There may be other brands on the market with similar quality. The tape doesn't have glue so its not sticky, but after you make a complete "wrap" and pull the tape to stretch it, it adheres instantly and magically to itsef.The more you stretch it while wrapping it, the better it seals. Because there's no "glue" there's no oozing stickiness. Be forewarned, it's tough to unwrap if you make a mistake. Like, impossible to unwrap--might as well reach for a pocketknife or some other sharp utensil to cut it. Otherwise it makes a tight, tidy, water-resistant, electrically non-conductive seal. I like it.

-There are other products beside J-B Weld on the market, but J-B Weld's quick curing compound is the one that got me out of a bind, so I'll focus on it. I like the original J-B Weld, but often can't afford to wait 24 hours for it to cure and be ready for use. Their quick-curing formula worked well to repair a damaged fiberglass radiator shroud that couldn't wait 24 hours. The machine was up and running 2 hours after I started mixing the compound. Even though I was supposed to wait 4 hours for full-cure. Oh well.

-And, in the name of full-disclosure and to reassert my knack for being a sucker for shiny objects, I'm still in search of an accurate, reliable, long-lasting digital tire pressure gauge. I paid $85 for a full-featured, fancy-schmancy air pressure gauge that is reliable to eat batteries, give inconsistent readings, and generally be undependable and extremely annoying. Live and learn, I guess..

A Melancholy Mechanical Moment

Oct 24, 2012

 I was on a service call today, working on a combine stored in a shed at an abandoned farmstead.It was a cloudy, damp day with mist swirling on the wind. All the leaves are gone, the tree branches rattled in the overgrown grove, and a loose piece of tin banging on an old corncrib drew my attention.

It was one of those massive, round concrete block corncribs, with a driveway through the middle and a built-in bucket elevator in the center of the driveway. Fifty years ago at this time of year, there would have been well-worn wheel tracks in and out of the driveway as the farmer tediously brought in his crop a couple hundred bushels at a time.  On a good day, the wind blew through the driveway so the farmer could pull through with the wind at his back, so that all the silks and shucks and dust would blow away from him as he crouched behind the wagon and metered the ears of corn into the bucket conveyor. On a bad day, the wind swirled through the alley without consistency, and the farmer spent the ride back to the field spitting dried silks and bees wings from his mouth and blotting his watering eyes with the backs of his cotton chore gloves.

Today the roof on the corn crib sags to the south. Grass grows long on all sides, and there are no traces of wheel tracks or human activity within 100 yards. What was once the pride of the farm, the centerpiece of crop storage technology, is now a nuisance too expensive to tear down and too outdated to update.

On the way back to the dealership I passed a neighboring farm that's on the cutting edge of modern agricultural technology. Massive grain bins crouch beneath a towering grain leg. The 12-row combine, already put away for the year, was visible through the doors of a machine shed that literally covered an acre. Several semis with grain trailers were neatly lined up on an expanse of crushed rock behind a scale house that I knew was equipped with at least two computers that have more RAM and MEGS than the Apollo space capsule did when it went to the moon.

It struck me that in 50 more years, that state-of-the-art grain handling system will probably be as out of date as the tired old corn crib down the road. Maybe someday a mechanic will drive by and recall the "good ol' days" when we thought we were cutting a fat hog because we were hauling 900 bushels of corn per load and harvesting  250 acres a day.

More Ways To Mess Up A GPS Guidance Signal

Oct 19, 2012

 I've mentioned before that FM business band radios under certain circumstances can interfere with the operation of GPS-based guidance systems in farm equipment. I don't understand all the complexities of frequency overlap, electromagnetic interference and other ways that radios, antennas, wiring harnesses and amplifiers can get in each other's way. But they do, and the more electronic gizmos we take to the field, the more opportunities there are for interference.

For example, I've heard of situations where combines lost their GPS guidance signal whenever they passed near a particular semi truck parked on the endrows. Once they were away from the semi, they were able to recalibrate and reaquire the GPS signal. One theory is that the radio signal for the remote controls for the grain trailer's electric tarp and electric hopper open/close doors was overriding the GPS signal to the combine.

In another case I heard about, farmers have installed aftermarket radios in their combines, tractors or other GPS-guided machines and subsequently developed problems with their GPS system, even when the radios were off. The theory about that relationship is that radios maintain a certain level of "on" even though the indicators on the radio show it is off. Apparently, that minimal radio activity was enough to disrupt the machine's GPS signal. Diagnosis came when the aftermarket radio was disconnected from battery power, and the GPS signal returned.

The list of things that have disrupted GPS signals on farm equipment continues to grow: the location of a CB or FM radio antenna in relationship to the GPS receiver on top of the cab; the location of the actual radio inside the cab, in relation to the GPS processor/controller; satellite radio antenna cables that pass too close to GPS components or wiring harnesses; cell phone towers in or near fields; wireless TV cameras mounted on the rear of combines, sprayers or planters; there have even been rumors that the electronic "noise" from the engine circuitry of some late model semi trucks can confuse the GPS system in farm machinery.

The consensus is that if the GPS system on a piece of farm equipment mysteriously loses its signal, one of the first things to consider is whether or not there is a piece of electronic gadgetry in the machine or near the machine that uses or emits radio signals. Since we're using more and more remote control devices to see, control, guide and entertain us while we're in the field, there are more and more opportunities for one or more of those gadgets to electronically get in each other's way.

Another Trip Into The Scrap Iron Pile

Oct 14, 2012

 It's tough for me to consign a piece of metal pipe to the scrap iron pile. I'm always finding new ways to "repurpose" pipe.

I've got a lot of short chunks of pipe in my toolbox. Some are large diameter, some are small diameter. Some are thick wall, some are thin wall. They come in a variety of lengths, and they all make excellent bearing or seal drivers. My goal is to eventually have enough pieces of pipe in different diameters and lengths so that no matter what size bearing or seal I'm installing, I'll have a piece of pipe that's a perfect match.

Sometimes I weld a piece of flat metal over the ends of those pieces of pipe I use as bearing/seal drivers, to give me a surface to hit with a hammer. But I always keep a few long sections of pipe in case I need to slide one of them over a shaft to install a seal buried deep in a machine.

I've even salvaged some pieces of electrical conduit. That stuff is soft and doesn't last for more than one or two encounters with a hammer and hardened bearing race, but the thin walls of electrical conduit are sometimes the hot ticket for installing special seals in tight places.

A lot of my repurposed pipe gets shorter with use. I have to trim off the battered ends, or slice off an inch or two so it's the perfect length for fitting into a particularly tight spot during repairs to a machine. But there's one piece of scrap pipe that is near-sacred. It's about 4 feet long, thick-walled, and around 2 inches in diameter. It's a perfect fit over the handle of my biggest breaker bar. I know that all the tool manufacturers warn against using an "extension" to the handle of breaker bars, but you'll notice that I didn't call that pipe an "extension." 

It's simply my "magic pipe," because when I use it, stubborn bolts and nuts magically come loose.

Confessions of a Tool Abuser

Oct 11, 2012

 I've long advocated proper care and maintenance of tools. I just haven't done it myself. My toolboxes are full of examples of how NOT to use and care for tools.

The toolboxes in my service truck are good examples. I was too cheap to pay the extra price for "road boxes" when I outfitted my truck. I bought normal tool chests designed for use in a shop. "Normal tool chests" aren't designed for the vibration and bumps and jolts common to highway transportation, let alone bouncing across corn rows at 30 mph. That's why I eventually had to drill and rivet gusset plates in the corners of those mis-used tool chests--the corners had begun to buckle and sag because I was using them in ways for which they were not designed.

I've got a couple flat-blade screwdrivers, and one Phillips-head screwdriver, that are my designated "beaters." I religiously try to use my other screwdrivers only for removing or installing screws, but there are occasions when I need to use a screwdriver as a temporary chisel or punch. I console myself that of all my screwdrivers, I only abuse those three.

I'm ashamed of the way I abuse drill bits. I'm always in a hurry, rarely able to use a drill press, and I end up trying to force one of my oft-abused drill bits through a piece of metal using a hand-held drill. It would help if I'd at least squirt some WD-40 or other lubricant while I'm drilling, but I'm usually hanging upside down or dangling off the edge of a machine, so I don't have a free hand to spray while I drill. The result? I've got a drawer full of drill bits with blue, burnt tips. Last time I checked, damaged bits outnumbered "good" drill bits 3 to 1.

The list goes on: my sockets get used as seal drivers, my wrenches get used as pry bars, my steel toed boot gets used as a wheel chock (it's a long story...) and the 9-inch pliers I carry in a pouch on my belt get used as a hammer, pry bar, can opener, and splinter-puller. Now that I think about it, the only tools I own that get used ONLY for their proper purpose are my hammers.

But I use them a lot, and enthusiastically.

 

The Mechanical Future of "Small" Farms?

Oct 06, 2012

I'm talking in extremes here to make my point, but...

Major farm equipment manufacturers are not making "small" combines anymore. Some manufacturers no longer make 4-row combines, others have said they will stop making 6-row or smaller combines in the near future. Where will that leave farmers who farm less than 1,000 acres?

A significant number of part-time farmers and farmers who raise a lot of livestock are in the 1,000- or less acre category. In the past these "small" farmers (it's hard to believe 1,000 acres is small, but in modern agriculture...) could find good, used machines traded in by larger farmers upgrading to larger machines. But now the "big" farmers have "big" machines, too big and too expensive for small farmers, so small farmers are looking at decreasing pool of good, used 4- and 6-row combines.

A generic example: a part-time farmer who farms 400 acres had a 30-year-old combine that was finally beyond repair. He shopped around and eventually bought a 20-year-old, 6-row combine for $15,000. As of last week, he had spent $10,000 on repairs to get the "new" machine over 200 of his acres. His mechanic warned him that it would probably take nearly that much next year to keep the aging machine in the field.

This is an example of the machinery crunch coming for small farmers. Combines are the most obvious focus of the disparity between large farmers and small farmers. Planters will eventually become an issue because the market will be filled with used 16- and 24-row planters and lack smaller, used planters suited to small acreages. 

Will several small farmers have to join together and buy and share a mega-combine in order to harvest their crops? Will a market develop for older, smaller combines that have been completely gutted and rebuilt to near-new specifications? Will smaller farmers have to forgo the satisfactions of harvesting their crops with their own combine, and have their crops custom combined? 

There's a crunch coming in agricultural machinery, starting with combines, and I have no idea how it will play out.

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