You’ve been living that life out where the pavement ends now for a couple of years, and your machine shed is no longer empty. Daily life is a joy and, for the most part, pretty smooth, but now your tractor has sufficient hours to require service, the mower’s cut is really ragged, and the tires on the utility vehicle go flat overnight. In some ways, it feels like the party’s over – what can you do?
If you’re used to taking your car to town for service every time it makes a new noise or the “oil change” light comes on, you might be tempted to drag the machines off to the local dealership for service. But when you pull the trailer out of the shed, you notice that two of the four tires are flat. You can’t call AAA to bail you out, and hiring a hauler to come and get the equipment, or a mobile repair service to come and fix things at your place isn’t in the budget.
If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to take a good look at the service section of the machinery owner’s manuals you have stashed away in your home office, grab some tools and face down those routine maintenance monsters that serve to add anxiety with every tick of the tractor’s hour meter. Engage your machines more intimately, and you’ll save yourself a ton of money, feel proud and enjoy knowing your equipment will go the distance.
Manuals make the magic
The first and arguably most important step to maintaining any piece of machinery is to obtain an owner’s manual and read it cover to cover. If that manual lacks sufficient information for determining service intervals and specifications, spend a little money on a separate service manual. If you find yourself confused when reading the manual, you might also read a book or two covering the fundamentals of mechanics and general repair. Armed with printed materials and a sufficient tool kit, you can easily perform all the routine checks and adjustments required to keep your machines running safely and smoothly.
Most machines with internal combustion engines will use fluid fuel – either gasoline or diesel fuel. Since you need to fill your fuel tank sufficient times to get to the point where other fluids might need your attention, we’ll just ignore fuel for now – other than to say: Be careful handling it, and change and/or drain water from the fuel filter(s) as specified in the manual.
Other important fluids are required for keeping machine components cool, especially engines and transmissions. Lubricating oils sometimes serve double duty by carrying heat from moving parts to
radiator-like heat exchangers, while water-based solutions, generally known as coolant or antifreeze, carry engine heat to an air-cooled radiator.
Lubricating oil is one general category of fluid you’ll encounter with most machines – it’s available in many formulations specific to transmissions, engines, gearboxes, drive axles and the like. Many machines found around the farm also require hydraulic fluid, which is designed to transfer mechanical energy efficiently using a moving column of liquid. Your tractor’s loader uses hydraulic oil for power transmission. Your car’s brake system also uses a special hydraulic fluid to connect your foot with the brake pads or shoes. In many cases, hydraulic fluid is used for power transmission, lubrication and even cooling.
When your rear-mounted shredder mower’s manual indicates it’s time to change the gearbox oil, you’ll need to drain the old oil and fill with new. Draining can be as simple as removing the drain and fill plugs, letting the old oil flow out, replacing the drain plug, and pouring the specified oil through the fill port, until the oil just begins to drip out of the port. Replace the fill plug, and you’re set. Changing virtually any machine’s oil pretty much follows the same routine.
When approaching your compact tractor’s transmission/hydraulic oil change (on most new machines, the transmission and hydraulic system share the same fluid), you will want to purchase the necessary filters ahead of time and read the manual carefully. In some cases, three of four different drain plugs need to be removed to drain all the oil, and refilling can require the use of more than one fill port. The manual will show you where and how to accomplish this. In many cases,
reinstalled drain plugs need to be tightened with a specific rotational force or torque. You will need a torque wrench to measure torque – no toolbox should be without at least one. Be sure you have a used oil disposal plan – you can take it to a recycling center, offer it to someone who has a used-oil furnace, or burn it in your own.
The typical transmission/hydraulic system fluid service goes like this: run the tractor to warm the fluids so they will flow, shut the tractor down, clean around the drain plugs and filters, drain the fluid, remove the old filter(s) (purchase an oil filter wrench if you have trouble getting the old filters off), install the new filter(s) (many are designed for hand tightening), clean any crud that’s stuck to magnetic drain plugs, reinstall the plugs, add new oil, and bleed air out of the hydraulic system, if required (your manual will let you know and show you how). Finally, you should run the tractor for a few minutes, then recheck the oil level – this is usually as simple as pulling a dipstick, wiping it, reinstalling and removing it again to read the oil level.
Engine oil is changed more often than transmission/hydraulic system fluid, but the drill is essentially the same whether you are working on the lawn mower or the tractor. Warm up the engine, shut it down, drain the oil, remove the old filter and install the new (when equipped), along with the recommended amount and type of oil.
Some tractor engines have more than one drain plug – remove them all. In some cases, the new engine oil filter needs to be filled with clean oil before installation. After adding the recommended volume of engine oil, check the level with the dipstick (or other measure – see manual), run the engine for a minute to check for leaks, then recheck the level. Too much oil can be almost as disastrous to an engine as too little.
If your tractor has front-wheel assist, or true four-wheel drive, you will need to change the oil in the front live axle. This exercise often requires pulling three drain plugs and refilling. Front axle fluid is usually heavy-weight gear oil, not transmission/hydraulic fluid, so don’t be tempted to use the latter unless it is specified in your manual.
Engine coolant (antifreeze) checks are pretty easy to make by looking at the fluid level in the radiator’s expansion (overflow) bottle. Add coolant as needed while keeping track of whether the engine is hot or cold.
If you need to replace a cracked radiator hose, or even replace the radiator (an easy task on most tractors), you will likely need to drain the cooling system. Most of the time that’s as easy as opening one or two plugs – be sure you catch and dispose of the old coolant properly. When you go to refill the system, add the right mixture of antifreeze and water to ensure that it cannot freeze during the coldest nights of winter – if water-based fluids freeze inside your engine, the engine will become a very expensive boat anchor overnight.
Grease the skids
Call them alemites, zerks or grease fittings, but pay attention to their locations and spend some time pumping grease into them as recommended in the manual. Grease fittings are located anywhere from PTO-shaft universal joints and slip joints to loader pivot points, to steering knuckles, to baler knotters, to you name it. Sometimes it’s difficult to find all the grease fittings on a piece of equipment. The manual will give you a map, and your machinery will last much longer if you follow it.
Don’t have a grease gun in your toolbox yet? Head down to your local farm store and pick one up with both rigid and flexible hoses. And while you’re at it, buy a case of good all-purpose grease. The whole works might set you back $35 depending on how fancy a grease gun and how fancy the grease. But the cost and headache of replacing a blown universal joint just once will make that $35 seem like pennies.
A close shave
In these throwaway and product-liability times, mower makers would rather you replace your deck’s blades than resharpen them, and some manufacturers even suggest that you haul the mower to the dealership to have the new blades installed. However, mower-blade replacement is pretty straightforward and is still outlined in most owner’s manuals – new blades are available at your dealership and most decent farm stores. The process goes something like this: remove and flip the mowing deck, or otherwise tip and safely support (blocks of wood, jack stands, etc.) the mower so you can get at the nut (or bolt) that keeps the blade attached to the deck’s spindle, loosen and remove the nut, and remove the blade.
On some mowers, the blade-retaining nuts are reverse threaded – you turn clockwise to loosen as opposed to the other way around, which is normal for most threaded fasteners. The manual will explain how to turn the nut while keeping the blades from spinning. Reinstalling new blades is the reverse of the process – you will need access to a torque wrench to be sure that the blade-retaining fasteners are sufficiently snug.
Tires have a tendency to go flat, come off the rim, and generally inconvenience or even endanger you on a whim. Small, tubeless, low-pressure, low speed-rated machine tires, such as those found on utility vehicles, lawn tractors and many implements, seem to need constant attention, while large rear tractor tires are often less demanding. In any case, you need to own a good tire pressure gauge and a decent air compressor (not the little 12-volt, cigarette-lighter-powered model) with hose and tire chucks if you want to avoid a mess of labor and a trip to town whenever a tire needs attention. The easiest way to keep tires from going flat is to routinely check their pressure and add air as required.
When you pulled the trailer out of the shed earlier and noticed two flats, you might have visually checked to see that the tires were still sealed to the rims, then aired them up with the compressor. When once-flat tires are pumped back up, it’s a good idea to figure out why they “suddenly” went flat while sitting over the winter.
First, check to be sure that the valve stem is sound (press it sideways and listen for a telltale hiss) and the valve core is tightly seated (insert a valve core tool into the valve stem and turn clockwise until it’s tight). If the stem is leaking and the valve core appears to be tight, or the tires have pulled away from the rim, it’s likely time to take the tires to a shop and have a pro take a look (critical for high-speed tires to which you entrust lives on the highway). If you suspect that the valve core is leaking, remove it with the valve core tool (turn counterclockwise), take the core to a tire shop or parts store and purchase a replacement (less than $1 in many cases).
When low-speed and low-pressure tubeless tires go flat and come loose from the rim, you can often reseat them by wrapping a ratchet strap around the tire’s circumference (centered on the tread) and tightening until the tire’s beads make decent contact with the rim flanges. Now use your compressor to get as much air flowing into the tire as possible and, with any luck, you will manage to remount the tire.
A chronic leaky low-pressure and low-speed tire can be rendered less likely to lose air by removing the valve core, pumping sufficient tire sealant, such as Slime, into the tire, reinstalling the valve core, airing up the tire, and running the machine for several minutes to sufficiently distribute the sealant.
Once you tackle a few fluid fills, filter changes, blade installations and tire repairs, you can move on to replacing spark plugs on small lawn mower engines or older tractor engines. Next thing you know, you’ll be confident enough to replace your lawn tractor’s drive belts or garden tractor’s drive clutch. In no time, you’ll be ready to take on even more involved maintenance and repair tasks, such as greasing and adjusting wheel bearings or replacing an engine’s water pump. One thing is for sure, no matter how much machinery maintenance you choose to do yourself, your efforts will pay.
Grit Editor Hank Will enjoys saving money by serving as his own farm’s warranty repair station, which is a good thing since much of its equipment is decades old.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.