Keep Your Eyes Open

There are many kinds of dangers that can befall your grounds equipment. Hoses can leak, belts can wear thin or bearings can corrode. In the course of performing preventive maintenance on equipment, there are several steps to follow. These include changing fluids and servicing the engine on a regular schedule, keeping the chassis of the machinery greased and giving your machine the once over every day.

The key here is to understand how to read your equipment and how to read visual clues that lead to problems. This can often prevent problems from escalating to downtime.

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One common problem is fluid leaks and locating them on your equipment, but stopping them is usually straightforward. Let's say you have a mower that is equipped with a liquid-cooled engine, hydraulic deck lift and hydrostatic drive, and is powered by a diesel engine. This piece of equipment is used heavily, and when you see a puddle of fluid on the floor, you might begin to worry about possible downtime and what that could cost your business. Upon raising the hood, you discover there are no low fluid levels, and yet fluid is coming from somewhere. How do you find out which fluid is leaking? There are a couple of different methods that work quite well. First, clean the machine thoroughly, remembering to exercise care when using pressurized water around bearings, transmissions and other components that can be damaged. Using a hot water washer is usually the best strategy for clean-up, since the hot water cleans better and there's less need to rely on pressure alone.

Once the machine is clean, place a drip pan underneath the machine to check for leaks. Drip pans are found at auto parts stores and are simply oversized, shallow drain pans. You can also use a large sheet of white paper — large enough to reach all the way from the front to the rear of the machine. Next, turn on the engine, let the machine warm up and operate the hydraulic deck lift. Look for any immediate leaks on the paper or in the pan and trace them visually from there. In the event that it's not that simple, let the machine sit overnight and check for fluids on the paper in the morning.

Another method is to put a special dye in the various fluids in your engine and use a special light to look over the machine in the dark. The dyes glow under the light, each type of dye glowing a different color. (You can use a different dye in the coolant than in the hydraulics and so on.) This method was once quite expensive and was limited to use in car dealerships, but like many other diagnostic tools, the price has come down considerably.

When checking for hydraulic leaks, be sure there is no chance of an attachment or implement falling in the event of a sudden line failure. Always use caution when searching for hydraulic leaks. If you must check for leaks while the machine is running, wear eye protection and use a piece of cardboard held near the suspect area to find the leak. If you accidentally inject hydraulic fluid into your bloodstream, it can be a real danger. Take every precaution to ensure this doesn't happen to you or one of your crew members.

Of course, if machinery is kept clean, leaks are easier to find, so adding routine cleaning of the undercarriage of your equipment to the scheduled maintenance routine is a good idea.

SOMETIMES, TROUBLE DOES RUN IN THREES

Record keeping is probably one of the most underutilized maintenance tools at your disposal. Each piece of machinery needs its own “permanent record” — a book with every problem and repair written down along with the date the problem was repaired and what caused the problem in the first place. With such a record of each piece of equipment, spotting and preventing recurring problems will be much simpler.

When a spindle on a mower decides to lock up, quit or begins getting noisy, it is time to do more than just replace the offending part.

In the example of a noisy spindle bearing, the first step is to look at the maintenance history of the machine and see if this part has been replaced before. If it is a new part, perhaps it has a warranty. It also might be a recurring problem that needs to be looked into.

Let's assume the records show this spindle was replaced 100 hours ago and the parts warranty has expired. Still, 100 hours is a very short life for a spindle on a piece of commercial equipment, so before unbolting the old one and replacing it with a new one, look for the reason it failed. Spin the shaft — is it bent? Is the shaft straight, but the blade bent? No matter how good the bearings are, none of them will stand the extra side load a bent blade or shaft places on them for long. This will cause the balls to flatten, resulting in excessive noise and heat.

If no evidence of bending is noted, look to see if the machine has been greased on a regular basis, and also look for excessive grass or debris buildup around the spindle on both the top and bottom. A lot of debris buildup causes heat buildup, which is death to bearings.

DON'T DISCOUNT MOISTURE AS A MAINTENANCE PROBLEM

When using water to clean equipment, it is imperative that all traces of it be removed from the area of bearings either by blowing the unit off when done, or at least running the mowing deck to dry it out after cleaning.

Failure to do this results in moisture making its way inside the bearings, and this eventually causes corrosion on the bearing surfaces, resulting in noisy or failed spindle assemblies.

Moisture may also find its way into the fuel, or into electrical connectors, where corrosion can set in and cause all sorts of intermittent electrical problems. In fact, when diagnosing an electrical problem, it's not a bad idea to check all connectors for corrosion and tightness. Many machines have been repaired because of this solution.

BELTS FAIL, BUT THEY ALWAYS FAIL FOR A REASON

It is a fact that belts are a wear item, especially on a mowing deck, where they are subjected to side loads that make being a fan belt on a family car look easy by comparison. When looking at a failed belt, take the time to look at more than just how to replace it. Try to determine the cause of the failure.

Is the belt broken cleanly? If so, chances are it was a sudden stop that broke the belt, perhaps caused by hitting a surveyor's peg at 10 mph. Is the belt oil-soaked? Multiple failures occur, and if the engine is leaking oil onto the belt, replacing it won't do a lot of good until you find and stop the leak.

Is the belt torn, or grooved oddly? These are signs that the belt was running out of line. Perhaps a bent idler or misaligned tensioner is to blame, or a piece of foreign material, like a stick, got caught in the belt. Always remove all covers and clean the entire belt path when replacing a belt.

A belt that is slick on the sides has been under-tensioned, a mistake that leads to squealing and premature failure. Over-tensioning a belt can result in serious damage to shafts, pulleys and the like, which can be bent by the excessive added stress.

One other area of concern when evaluating belt failure is idlers. Many machines now use non-metallic idler pulleys, and these pulleys sometimes develop a groove or indentation that can cause a replacement belt to fail quickly. Likewise, the bearing the idler pulley rotates on is subject to wear as well, so any time a belt is replaced, it pays to check all pulleys for wear and damage.

These are some of the most common problems you may run into in the maintenance of grounds equipment. Problems and solutions may vary with the type of equipment in question, but failures always occur for a reason. By keeping complete records on each piece of machinery, keeping the machinery clean and servicing it on a regular basis, you can minimize downtime. Just remember, your most valuable maintenance tools aren't in your toolbox — they are in your head.

P.D. Peterson is a freelance writer who resides in Bristol, Va.

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