Maintaining Equipment

July 9, 2002 - 11:09

Waiting for equipment to be fixed, equipment that operates poorly or equipment that is unsafe adds up to significant losses. John Bartok lets you know how to avoid this problem.

Equipment maintenance is an important part of operating a
greenhouse or nursery business. The development of new machines and the
difficulty in obtaining good labor has led to the use of more equipment in
greenhouse operations.

The following episode I observed while on a greenhouse tour
illustrates the cost of poor maintenance and the need for a preventive
maintenance program. This type of occurrence is common in the horticulture
industry, as maintenance is generally not given high priority.

It was 12:45 p.m., and the 7-person crew was just falling
into a pace transplanting bedding plant plugs into flats on a belt conveyor. At
the rate of 250 flats per hour, this crew would finish filling the 26- x 96-foot
greenhouse by the 4:30 quitting time.

Suddenly, the flat filler stopped dead without warning, but
the motor was still running. The crew chief started looking for the trouble
while everyone else took a break. After retrieving the frayed 36-inch V-belt
from under the machine, he headed for the storage room hoping to find a
replacement. After a 15-minute search without any success, he decided to send
someone to the hardware store. The 30-mile trip and the time to install the new
belt would probably take most of the afternoon so he decided to send the crew
home. A 1,000-flat production loss such as this can have a significant effect
on meeting production schedules.

Assign equipment maintenance to a responsible person

Someone that is mechanically inclined should be given the
responsibility for maintenance. In small operations, it may be the grower along
with his many other responsibilities. In larger operations, freeing up one
person for part of each day or week may be enough. When your business grows to
more than 10 or 15 employees and your equipment list gets longer, it is time to
hire a full-time person. Vo-ag or Vo-tech graduates who have majored in
mechanics have performed well for some growers.

Provide a place to work and a good set of tools

For small operations where vehicles and equipment are
serviced on the premises, a work area in the headhouse or in a garage may be
sufficient. For larger operations, a separate building is desirable. The area
should be near the growing area, have good access for vehicles and contain both
electricity and water. Provisions should be made to heat the work area during
cold weather. It is convenient to store tractors, electric carts and other
mobile equipment in an adjacent, unheated, machinery storage area.

Shop size. The size
of the shop should be large enough to accommodate the equipment that will be
serviced. If trucks and tractors will be maintained, an open floor area and
door large enough for access is necessary.

Space for floor-mounted equipment, such as a drill press,
table saw and welder, is also needed. A good arrangement is to locate a shop
facility in one end of a storage building.

Shop layout. The
layout of your shop should be flexible to accommodate the equipment that will
be serviced. An area should be provided for the day-to-day jobs. Oil, grease,
air and water should be convenient to this area for servicing vehicles. A
repair bay is convenient if equipment is to be disassembled and overhauled. It
should be well-lighted and have space for storing the parts that are removed.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of most maintenance shops is
the lack of an organized arrangement for the hand and power tools. Specific
areas should be designated for welding, woodworking, plumbing and electrical
work, with equipment associated with these jobs located nearby.

Shop equipment.
Portable tools that have the greatest use in a maintenance shop include a 3/8-
and 1/2-inch electric drill; a sander; 3/8-inch, battery-powered drill/driver;
a saber saw; 7 1/2-inch circular saw; and a compressor. The compressor can be
used to power a wide selection of air tools and spray equipment.

Stationary tools that are worth owning include a 6-inch
bench grinder, drill press, 10-inch radial arm or table saw and a metal band

Where repairs include metal work such as fabrication or the
cutting of steel, both an alternating current welder and an oxyacetylene welder
are needed. Courses on proper welding techniques are available through a
vocational agriculture or industrial arts program at local high schools.

Consider safety when planning and using the shop. Place a
multi-purpose, dry chemical (A:B:C) fire extinguisher near entrance doors and
the welding area. Protective clothing, including safety goggles and steel-toe
shoes should be worn when working on equipment.

Keep a good supply of spare parts on hand

To keep equipment down time to a minimum, keep on hand a
supply of hardware, short-life replacement parts and specialized parts that may
not be readily available. Assortments of small hardware items, such as pins,
stove bolts, cap screws, washers, etc. are packaged in convenient 20- to
30-drawer cabinets that sell for $15-25. Larger bolts, pipe fittings, etc., are
available individually or in box lots at most hardware stores and equipment suppliers.

Most of the equipment used in the horticulture industry is
well-built, requiring only routine maintenance. When purchasing a new piece of
machinery, it is best to review the owner’s manual and inspect the
machine to identify parts that are likely to fail first. Items such as V-belts,
drive chains, sprockets and oil and air filters can be purchased locally if
available or ordered from the manufacturer.

Small items are best stored in labeled bins on racks.
Plastic bins are available in several sizes to hold loose materials. Larger
parts are normally stored on shelves. Good lighting in the storage area will
speed identification of the parts.

Maintenance records prevent failures

Keeping good records aids in scheduling maintenance. Many
manufacturers supply a form to check off the date and service performed. A
better method is to use a computer. You can set up your own program or purchase
commercial software. Each week a printout is made of the machines needing

In setting up the schedule, follow the recommendations in
each operator’s manual. Enter the various jobs to be performed under the
“hours of operation” headings. Then check off the intervals of
service after they are performed.

Watch and listen

Employees should be encouraged to watch and listen for
possible problems as they operate the equipment. Worn belts, loose chains, low
tire pressure, frayed hoses and electrical cords, etc. are signs of
pending  trouble and should receive
immediate attention. Indicator lights and dials are placed on machines to make
the inspection easier.

Keep all service manuals together

A considerable amount of time can be saved if all
operator’s manuals are kept in one location. A file cabinet in the workshop
area gives convenient access. Organize them by type of machine and keep them in
individually labeled files.

Service Tips and Guidelines

The following apply to most gasoline- and diesel-powered
vehicles and are general in nature. Individual recommendations on a particular
vehicle can be found in the manufacturer’s service manual or in one of
the general service manuals.

Frequent air cleaner servicing is important to avoid wear of
the cylinder and valves. Servicing should be more frequent if the engine is
operated in dusty conditions such as field work.

Change oil regularly.
Oil loses its lubricating and cleaning qualities as it gets dirty, and its
additives wear out. Select oil to meet weather and operating conditions.

Several different oil/gasoline mixes are used for 2-cycle
engines. Keep a gas can for each engine, and identify the mix ratio and number
of ounces of oil/gallon of gas needed. 

Check coolant levels daily. Replace coolant every two years, as it may become acid and full of
contaminants. Before winter, measure freeze protection level.

Check fan belts for tightness and wear. style='font-weight:normal'>A belt that’s too tight puts an extra load on
bearings. A loose belt allows slippage and may not operate the machine at the
correct speed.

Keep battery terminals clean and free of corrosion.
Neutralize acid deposits with a baking soda and water solution. After cleaning,
coat terminals with grease or silicone spray. Check cables for cracks or wear.

Follow manufacturer’s recommendation for servicing
ignition systems.
Condenser, points, plugs
and ignition wires may need to be cleaned or replaced.

Most manufacturers recommend a daily check on oil levels,
including engine, transmission, power steering and differential.

To increase tire life, inflation level should be checked frequently.
Under-inflation reduces tire life. Over-inflation causes excessive wear in the
center of the tire.

Use the operator’s manual as a guide for lubricating
the vehicle. Most manufacturers provide a lubrication chart that indicates the
frequency of lubrication. Typical intervals are 5, 10, 25 and 50 hours.

Materials Handling and Processing Equipment

Storage. Most of the
vehicles and equipment used in the production of plants are not in use
year-round. Some of it only sees use for a few days a year and is then put into
storage to make room for other equipment.

Clean the exterior and component parts of soil. These can
collect moisture and cause rust to form. A shop vacuum works well for this
operation. If the machine is outside, air from a compressor can be used but be
sure to wear a dust mask and safety glasses.

Service engines as noted above, and drain the fuel tank or
add fuel stabilizer.

Electric Motors.
Although electric motors require less maintenance than other types of
equipment, some periodic servicing is required. Unless the motor is operated
under severe conditions such as dust or outdoors, a once-a-year servicing is
adequate. Caution — shut off power to the motor before working on it.

Typical servicing includes: 1) Cleaning dust and dirt from
air passages and cooling surfaces. A heavy dust build-up will result in
overheating and break-down of the wire insulation; 2) checking bearings for
wear, excessive endplay or drag. Misalignment of pulleys or over-tightness of
V-belts can cause the bearings to wear or the motor to overheat. Alignment can
be done with a straight edge placed against the face of the pulleys. To get the
proper belt deflection at mid-span, multiply the distance between shafts by
one-sixty-fourth of an inch; 3) Checking wiring for worn or frayed spots and
replacing if necessary. Clean switch contacts with a contact cleaner or very
fine sandpaper. Replace worn brushes and springs in wound-rotor motors.

Hydraulic Equipment.
Regular maintenance keeps hydraulic systems operating without breakdowns. It
includes keeping the equipment clean, checking for leaks, proper fluid level
and proper operation.

Always remove the pressure from the hydraulic system before
doing any servicing.

Change the fluid and service filters at the interval recommended
by the manufacturer. Clean dirt away from fill pipe before adding oil.

High-pressure fluid leaks are very dangerous. Fluid that
gets under the skin must be surgically removed to avoid gangrene.

External leaks from pipes and pumps should be fixed to avoid
low fluid level and to prevent pollution of the ground water. They can also let
air into the system resulting in spongy action of the cylinders.

Inspect operation of the valves frequently for leaks and
poor operation. Springs or seat may have to be replaced.

About The Author

John Bartok is an agricultural engineer and extension frofessor-emeritus in the Natural Resource Management and Engineering department at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn. He may be reached by phone at (860) 486-2840 or E-mail at

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