Modern-day lubricants exist that can save farmers significant amounts of money by prolonging lubrication intervals, doing a better job of repelling water and dirt, and greatly reducing the amount of time and money spent dealing with breakdowns. This technology is relatively new in North America, but it’s been used in Europe since the early 1980s with great success. When accompanied by sound predictive maintenance (PdM) practices, equipment owners can realize serious savings, ranging from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars per year.
Even though the harvest season is well underway, it might still be worth your while to assess what lubrication needs your equipment has.
Farming equipment is subjected to conditions that are notoriously hard on lubricants, more so than in most industries. Dust and sand stick to wet oils and greases, forming an abrasive paste. This abrasive paste worsens wear on chains, bearings, gears, hydraulic cylinders, and anything else it touches. Fertilizers act as corrosive agents. Heavy loads cause pressure that may not have been anticipated when the farmer made his lubricant choice, resulting in runout of lubricant where it’s needed most. Heat also causes runout when lubricants aren’t viscous enough, resulting in metal-on-metal contact. Water destroys everything it touches over time, even as it nourishes the crops we need to survive. Even more destructive than water are the plant juices that end up on moving parts as equipment passes over crops—nothing will contaminate lubricants faster.
Just about every component that slides, hinges, or rotates is going to need lubrication. Of all the areas where lubricant specialists see the most breakdowns, the following six are the most common:
● Drive shafts: The typical PTO drive shaft, sometimes called a Cardan shaft, has at least eight lubrication points that require re-lubing anywhere from every 8 to 40 hours of operation. The same is true of the main drive shaft, which can have even more lube points.
● Axles: Since they are located on the bottom and close to the ground, pivot joints and turning points must be lubricated with a product that can handle anything that gets thrown at it--literally.
● Bearings: Axles also have bearings that can be exposed to water even if they are sealed, causing lubricant contamination, rust, and eventual failure. Anything else that rotates is likely to have bearings as well.
● Chains: Chain stretch is a common problem. It’s a bit of a misnomer, as the chain is not actually stretching. What’s happening is that the aforementioned abrasive paste, or other contaminants, are working their way into the tiny spaces between pins and bushings, causing material to wear away due to friction. The amount lost from each link is negligible, but when multiplied by the total number of links, it results in apparent elongation of the chain, or chain “stretch”--and its evil twin, chain failure.
● Three-point hitches: High friction on the attachment points causes rapid degradation of metal parts, with predictable results. Rust causes faulty movement of arms, anchor, and hoist. Breakage can also occur, and--as anyone knows who’s ever tried to get the hay in before that looming thunderstorm hits, or to harvest before a predicted freeze--there’s never a convenient time for that to happen.
● Telescopic booms: Jerky or erratic boom movement is a common problem when regular lubrication is neglected. The uneven motion can be dangerous, especially when a large or heavy object is being hoisted.
In addition, it’s frequently the case that agricultural equipment is used intensively for a short period, and then sits unused for many weeks or months. During this idle time, things tend to corrode, which makes equipment further susceptible to wear. For instance, a gear box in a combine that stands still for six months will see corrosion form above the oil. When it’s started up again, the oil will become contaminated by particles from the corrosion.
Equipment manufacturers are well-aware of these challenges. In their manuals, they will often recommend specific lubrication products, as well as the proper intervals to apply them. These are based on experience and testing, but there’s no way for them to predict just what is going to happen in individual cases. Unfortunately for the farmer, this can mean lubrication schedules that are either unrealistic or easy to forget. And their product recommendations aren’t always updated to reflect the latest developments, either.
The great majority of lubricants on the market today are based on 19th-century technology. That is, they still rely on petroleum byproducts to provide the bulk of lubrication, even though they may be greatly refined or fortified.
The most advanced lubricant technology available today contains solid particles made from materials that provide coefficients of friction far lower than previously attainable. They rely on electrostatic charges for adhesion, which gives them staying power up to 10 times longer than that of traditional lubricants. These solid particles, which can be suspended in oils or greases of all viscosities, are also milled down to microscopic dimensions. This allows them excellent creeping and penetrating ability. Micronization also allows coating of hidden areas, such as that tiny space between the pins and bushings of a roller chain, which most lubricants cannot get into. Oil additives containing these particles are also available, so equipment that sits unused for long periods of time will not experience corrosion in the gearbox, as mentioned in the examples above.
This latest generation of lubricants are already known in Europe and are now slowly gaining a foothold in the United States—not just in farming, but in other industries such as food production, packaging, and manufacturing as well. It’s even possible to find such lubricants in food-safe formulations of varying grades, including kosher- and halal-certified versions.
Further tips for equipment owners
● Keep a maintenance log: Keeping track of how often you have to lubricate equipment will help you understand how much it’s costing you in time, money, and lubricant. Repairs and replacements should also be logged, so that at the end of a fiscal year or harvest season, you can calculate how much that combine is really costing you to operate. If the cost of switching lubricants is lower than the cost of keeping the status quo, then making the change is a no-brainer.
● Practice PdM: The most common types of maintenance are reactive, which simply means fixing something when it breaks, or preventive, which means performing maintenance at pre-scheduled intervals regardless of whether or not it’s necessary. The problem with reactive maintenance is that it always results in lost time and money. Preventive maintenance will often result in unnecessary delays or expenses. Predictive maintenance, the latest buzzword in management, involves monitoring and measuring equipment performance and making maintenance decisions based on quantifiable data. For industrial equipment, this can involve measuring application and lubricant performance via sound or vibration. For farming, it can simply mean eyeballing performance levels to see whether there is room for improvement, or if a breakdown is likely in the near future. Farmers generally have an intuitive understanding of PdM practices, so all that remains to be done is to put it into effect in a more regimented fashion.
William Kowalski is the Director of Online Operations at Interflon USA. You can visit Interflon USA online at https://interflonusa.com, or contact William directly at [email protected]