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Mechanics Corner: Solving those troublesome electrical issues

Andy Overbay Published on 18 July 2014

As equipment has become more and more sophisticated, greater emphasis has been placed on comfort and convenience – the so-called “bells and whistles.” These bells and whistles can quickly turn into rants and cursing when they fail and take the functionality of your machine with them.

Tackling this topic was a challenge for this aging farmer simply because I recall the days when the tractor not starting was simply a battery or connection issue. While these can still be today’s culprits, increasingly we see the world of computers entering our tractors and implements, just as they have our automobiles.

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So what is a farmer to do with that piece of equipment that suffers from ADR (ain’t doin’ right) syndrome? Troubleshooting possible electronic gremlins is nearly impossible given that many diagnoses require a laptop and the proper program to “ask” the machine what is wrong.

This can be frustrating and probably results in as many equipment trades as any other issue. I personally have two mechanical issues waiting on me at home as I write this. The first is a bad clutch master cylinder on my ’99 Dodge pickup.

The other is an electrical problem on a John Deere 455 lawnmower. I can see the leak on the master cylinder. Unbolt the bad one, replace and reconnect. The lawnmower is another issue altogether. A friend and I have done everything but totally re-wire it, and it still eats fuses after a few minutes of operation.

One thing I have learned over the years is a good mechanic is one who knows what not to mess with. Borrowing a page from the physicians’ handbook, “First – do no harm.” Harm doesn’t always come from a repair gone wrong. Many times with electrical problems the issue began with some neglect or abuse prior to the breakdown, so let’s work there.

The farming environment doesn’t offer the best situation for computer-controlled electronics. Dust, vibration, moisture and extreme temperature ranges just about cover everything a computer technician in your office would tell you to avoid with your new laptop or tablet.

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We also recognize these are sometimes unavoidable in the field, and these conditions steer us toward the conclusion that preventive maintenance and care will help us avoid issues with our electronics.

One of the biggest steps we can take is to make sure that we shed, or cover, the right pieces of equipment. There are certain pieces of equipment that just need to be in a dry environment. I visited a farm the other day where the hammer mill/grain mixer was left outside, and the loading auger had 8 inches of water in it … not good.

While that example is obvious, it may not be as obvious that corrosion and build-up on your electronic connections and controllers may happen in as little as a few hours if left out in that driving rain storm. Dad’s sage advice comes through once again, as he used to say that he would never buy a piece of equipment unless he had a spot in the shed where it could stay.

Also, making sure connections are as sealed and tight as possible may help avoid wear from vibrations and connections working back and forth with the housings. Check routinely for broken, frayed or exposed wires.

Replace these as you find them. Also, avoid putting water directly onto controls and relays. Moisture in these can be fatal to the part and cause cascading damage throughout the machine.

When you do have issues (and if you are like me and still see a tractor as a 20-year to 30-year investment), always check the simplest things first. Improperly grounded power supplies and low voltage still cause many of the issues we have. Blown fuses may seem unrelated, but due to safety fail-safes, may yield a repair as simple as pluck and replace.

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My experience here involved a PTO issue where our tractor would simply shut off the PTO every 20 minutes. This happened in the middle of baling 10,000 bales of straw, so things were hot in more ways than one. It turned out the cause was a blown fuse in the speedometer.

Since the speedometer wasn’t working, the tractor’s computer was being told the tractor wasn’t moving and had been stationary with the PTO running for 20 minutes – mandatory shutdown. The only way we discovered it was via the laptop of the factory service representative who was kind enough to plug into the tractor and ask it what ailed it.

In closing, the best way to solve a problem is to not have one in the first place. Keep your machinery as clean and dry as possible, and when problems do arise that stump you, seek knowledgeable help. PD

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

andrew overbay

Andy Overbay
Extension Agent
Virginia Cooperative Extension

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