Aug 20, 2014
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July 2014 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.

Concerns About Combines

Jul 26, 2014

 We've still got to get through August, but things are looking good across the Corn Belt for a mega-corn crop this fall. There are pockets of hail damage and flooding, and we sympathize with those folks, but many of us are looking at the potential for a huge corn crop.

That means combines are going to handle a LOT of bushels. High yields magnify weak and worn points in combines. To minimize breakdowns, here's a quick list of wear points common to all combines, that should be checked before harvest:

-Feederhouse floors and conveyor chains. Tap the sheet metal of the floors from the bottom with a hammer and replace/repair if the metal dimples. Replace conveyor chains if there's more than 1/16-inch of "slack" between links when they're squeezed together with slip-joint pliers.

-Check feed flights on threshing rotors, rasp bars/threshing elements, and concave thickness. Even though those components aren't worn beyond replacement recommendations, consider replacing them if they're "close" to replacement, to maintain good feeding and threshing all the way through the end of this mega-harvest.

-High yields put extreme stress on clean grain loading systems. Make sure the lower clean grain auger is at full diameter, that the clean grain elevator chain paddles are full size, and that the grain tank loading auger is in good condition. If each of those clean grain handling components is slightly worn they allow grain to back-feed to some degree, and that back-feeding multiplies drag on the system and increases wear which increases back-feeding...and things go downhill rapidly after that.

-Straw chopper knives need to be sharp. Many people have a, "who cares as long as it spits stuff out the back" attitude toward choppers. Two things to consider: dull knives are a huge drag on horsepower, and dull knives don't chop and spread residue well. One engineer told me dull knives can steal 25 to 50 extra horsepower. And an agronomist told me that uneven residue distribution in the fall is a major factor behind uneven emergence of next year's crop.

Random Thoughts On Battery-Powered Tools

Jul 24, 2014

 Things I've learned abouit battery-powered tools and shop accessories:

-The hot ticket is to have both a 3/8-inch drive and a 1/2-inch drive battery-powered impact wrench. You'll always grab the smaller, lighter 3/8-inch tool first, simply because it's smaller and lighter. Unless you know you're going to be working with 3/8-inch (10 mm) or larger nuts and bolts. Then you might as well grab the larger unit because you'll probably need the extra torque.

-The key is to have battery-powered tools that all use the same type and size of battery. At one time I had four different tools that used four different kinds of batteries, requiring four different chargers. It's taken me several years and too much money to get things so all my tools share batteries. I wish I had done a better job of planning ahead.

-With commonality in mind, I now have my sights aimed for a battery-powered angle-head grinder and a battery-powered 3/8-inch ratchet wrench. I won't use the grinder for hard-core machine work---just for when I need to grind off a bolt head or touch-up a weld. The latest breed of battery-powered angle-head grinders work well as long as you don't need to grind non-stop for 15 minutes. The same applies to the battery-powered ratchet wrenches.

-Battery-powered lights are great but have a major downside, at least for me. The new generation of LED lights provide bright, white light akin to a 60-watt incandescent trouble light. They're great for working inside a machine or in awkward places because you don't have to route a power cord to them. Which highlights the problem I have with battery-powered lights: IF you happen to leave the light on so long that it's battery goes dead (generally 2- to 4-hours), there is no power cord to remind you that the darkened light is inside or under the machine. I've lost two battery-powered lights that way. Which may simply be MY problem because I'm forgetful, but...I had a tool salesman say that he's selling a lot of "second generation" battery-powered lights because his customers do the same thing I do, and lose the first lights they buy.

I may be forgetful, but I'm apparently not alone.

Frustrated By High Cost of Repairs

Jul 20, 2014

 Customers sometimes cringe when they hear the cost of repairs to farm equipment. Heck, I cringe when I hear the cost of repairs to farm equipment. One of my biggest frustrations when I'm on a service call is the knowledge of how much every minute of my time on their farm costs my customers. 

A few customers joke that they'd make more money if they quit farming and became mechanics, considering that they get billed more than $100 per hour for service calls. My response is that they'd have to take a pay cut, because I'm taking home much less than 1/4 of that hourly rate. Which then devolves into a good-natured argument about how profitable farming IS or ISN'T. But, getting back to my original topic, why are dealership shop rates and service calls so expensive?

I don't know the exact breakdown, but I can point to some of the costs of service calls. In our dealership's case, many of the guys who do service calls work out of 1-ton trucks equipped with welders, air compressors, generators and other high-ticket tools. Many of the trucks have cranes, which are extremely useful during repairs that require lifting transmissions, planter frames, wheels and other components that have grown increasingly heavy on modern farm equipment.

The majority of our technicians are provided laptop computers programmed with our manufacturer's tech books and parts manuals, allowing them to access information on everything from 1930s tractors to the latest combines and sprayers. The dealership pays a pretty stout fee to our equipment manufacturer for access to all that brand-specific information. The laptops also provide the capability to work directly with troubleshooters at our manufacturer's headquarters for problems and solutions that haven't yet made it into the tech and parts books.

It's also great for mechanics to carry all their tools in built-in toolboxes on their trucks. Many of us started out decades ago tossing a 5-gallon bucket full of the tools we might need to make field repairs into the back of a 1/2-ton pickup truck. All the mechanics at the dealership shared pickup trucks, transferring tools between trucks as needed. We are without a doubt more efficient and faster when each of us has our own truck loaded with ALL our tools.

So, yes, it's expensive to have a dealership mechanic make on-farm repairs. And, yes, you pay for the expensive truck and accessories even if the the mechanic walks up and only turns a nut or flips a lever to fix the problem, and never uses the welder, air compressor, crane or laptop computer. But some dark night when it requires the welder, the air compressor, the crane and all the mechanic's years of experience to repair your machine in the field, we hope you'll feel like you got your money's worth out of the service call.

In my experience, the guys in white trucks with a dealership name on the side are painfully aware of what it costs to have them on your farm, and do their darndest to give you your money's worth. 

There's No Such Thing As Too Many Pliers

Jul 17, 2014

 Pliers are wondrous tools because they are simultaneously generic and specific. A pair of 9-inch slip-joint pocket pliers like many farmers carry in a pouch on their belt is the original Wonder-Tool: they can turn out bolts, pull nails, hammer nails, dig up corn seedlings, turn petcocks, tighten wingnuts, pull splinters out of fingers--the list is endless. You can always tell the farmers helping out at church socials or at public meetings--when it's time to set up or tear down equipment, the farmers are the ones who futilely paw at their hip, where they usually carry pliers in a pouch, when they need to take something apart.

Other pliers are wonderfully specific in their application. Take wire-cutting pliers for example, They come in many designs. Some have jaws that have their cutting edge in the center of the jaws, others have the cutting edge along the edge of the jaws so it's easier to cut flush with a surface. I prefer wire cutters with the cutting edge on the edge of the jaws, and with the handles at a slight angle to the jaws. That allows me to keep my knuckles unscarred when cutting close to a surface..

Most toolboxes have one or more needle nose pliers. The odd thing about needle nose pliers is that, if there are several needle nose pliers in a tool box, nine times out of ten a person will grab the longest pair available. There are times in close quarters where a user might specifically select  a short pair of needle nose pliers, but otherwise, it's human nature to grab the longest pair available. At last count I had seven needle nose pliers of various lengths and tip configurations in my tool box, but I invariablly grab the 15-inchers, the longest ones in the drawer.

Speaking of big pliers, I heartily recommend Knipex-brand slip-joint pliers. Knipex slip-joint pliers come in a range of sizes, with a variety of jaw designs, and are sometimes branded with the logos of tool retailers. I've go everything from a cute little  6-incher to a hefty 24-incher, and both have performed miracles for me. All I can say is that the Knipex design doesn't slip, their jaws don't round off, and they grip as well as any plier I've used. Even though I've got a number of traditional slip-jaw type pliers in my tool box, I always paw around to find the appropriate-size Knipex pliers when I'm in need of slip-jaw pliers. 

Yes, I have a "thing" for pliers. Maybe I have too many. But I'm not sure you can have too much of a good thing, and pliers are a good thing.

Happiness Is A Fine-Toothed Ratchet Wrench

Jul 01, 2014

 Even though they're expensive, high-quality fine-toothed ratchet wrenches make me happy. I like their precision, and I enjoy their ability to ratchet in tight quarters where a coarse-toothed ratchet wrench doesn't have room to "click" and get a fresh bite.

Other mechanics are perfectly content with a more economical coarse-toothed ratchet wrench. It seems that for every tool I like, there's someone who likes a different version of that tool.

The reason for my ponderings on tool preferences is based on a conversation I had to day with a customer. We were talking about his line of equipment, which is well-cared for, but "mature." He made the comment that he had no use for autosteer and was totally content to steer his equipment himself. He said the happiest place on the planet for him was to be in his fields driving his "mature" equipment, and that it would make him unhappy to farm with a huge equipment loan hanging over his head.

I've got other customers for whom their happiest days are when they drive new equipment  home. They've arranged their finances and farming so that they get something new every year. They truly enjoy studying owner's manuals and learning all the nuances of each piece of new equipment. One of them once told me that it gives him peace of mind to trade combines every year so that every breakdown is covered by a full parts and labor warranty. He said he'd spent too many years fixing combines himself, and it made him happy to call the dealership for warrantied repairs on his combine.

There's a moral somewhere to these stories, but I'm not sure what it is. I like fine-toothed ratchet wrenches; other people don't. I'm not right and they're not wrong. I guess as long as we're both happy, then life is good.

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