Heavy equipment of any kind, new or used, is a major investment. Taking care of equipment results in fewer breakdowns during essential work, longer useful life and contributes to worker safety.

Whether the equipment is a farm tractor, skid steer or more specialized equipment such as a wood chipper, routine maintenance and preventive maintenance ultimately save time and money. Such proactive maintenance programs potentially cut costs by preventing costly breakdown when the equipment is needed to complete a task.

Many farmers spend the months prior to winter taking care of tasks that were put off in favor of more important seasonal operations. Harvest, field preparation for cover crops, land clearing and fence building all require equipment that provide service without breakdowns. Using equipment that isn’t well-maintained may compromise both the job and worker safety. Equipment that’s properly maintained will be ready for use at any time, have a longer functional life and have a higher resale value. Repairs cost less when problems are discovered and resolved before they become worse.

All working parts in regularly used equipment have the potential for deterioration. The goal is to discover minor problems before they result in a breakdown or costly repairs. Equipment with leaky hydraulics, clogged filters or dull blades may still be operational, but failure often occurs at inconvenient times. These issues can be prevented with a good maintenance program.

Routine maintenance is performed on a fixed schedule. It should include tire and brake inspection, light checks, cleaning battery terminals, oil and/or filter changes, replacing worn parts, inspecting chains and belts, inspecting for rust/corrosion or worn areas and checking fluid levels (coolant, transmission, hydraulic). Windows should be clean so they don’t interfere with vision, and all lights and required signage (such as SMV emblems) should be clean, visible from a distance and properly mounted.

Moving parts should be well-lubricated to ensure minimal friction and efficient operation. The owner’s manual for the equipment provides details on frequency of change and the specifics on which fluids to use. Essential moving parts such as chains and belts should be inspected for wear and properly adjusted. Controls should all respond appropriately without slippage, and lights should be functional with no missing bulbs. It’s easy to become complacent and ignore safety warning stickers, but all stickers should be intact and legible.

Preventive maintenance, while more costly and time-consuming, is an in-depth process that examines equipment for potential problems and solves issues before they occur. The time spent on such work will pay back quickly. Consistent, regular preventive maintenance of equipment lowers overall operating costs, extends equipment life, reduces breakdown incidents and protects the investment.

While nothing can guarantee a day without breakdowns, even with new equipment, scheduled preventive maintenance helps to ensure more efficient operation and reduces down time. New equipment warranties often require certain services be performed regularly. In many cases, preventive maintenance can prevent failure of one or more parts, or an entire system, that results in more serious (and more costly) problems.

Preventive maintenance is usually done based on hours of usage and involves looking for potential problems as well as performing additional maintenance that will keep the equipment functional without breakdowns. According to a University of Nebraska study, improved preventive maintenance can reduce the cost of heavy machinery repair by up to 25%. With just average maintenance, an $80,000 dump truck can ring up $24,000 in repairs within 5,000 hours of operation. With preventive maintenance, those repair costs can potentially be reduced to $18,000.

An important aspect of preventive maintenance is using the correct equipment for the job. Undersized equipment may save money in the short term but may cost more over time. Equipment manuals include specifics about appropriate use. Workers should be trained to use leased or rented equipment the same as owned equipment.

In addition to saving money through equipment maintenance, safety is a significant bonus that comes with properly maintained equipment. Worker safety should be paramount and is achievable with equipment that is in good working order and doesn’t require the operator to figure out a potentially unsafe work-around while waiting for a repair.

Safety should be a consideration when performing routine and preventive maintenance on any equipment. Workers performing any service on equipment should be properly trained or supervised by someone with more experience. A good lockout/tagout system provides a measure of assurance that work can safely be performed on equipment.

Lockout/tagout involves managing hazardous energy, which can be electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, pneumatic, chemical, thermal or from other sources in machines or equipment that can be hazardous to workers, according to OSHA. Any unexpected startup or release of stored energy can result in serious worker injury or death. For example, a jam in a conveyer system may give the impression that the equipment is turned off, but if a worker is clearing the jam, the sudden release of it can result in a serious crush injury or death. In many cases, the system may as simple as locking the main electrical switch, but the lockout/tagout process can be more complex.

Employee training is an essential aspect of maintenance. Assigning an employee to operate a piece of equipment that’s similar to equipment they’re familiar with is not sufficient training. All employees using equipment should be fully trained to operate each piece of equipment safely and know how to recognize signs that indicate service should be performed. “Something doesn’t sound right” can quickly turn into mechanical failure with the potential for serious harm.

All employees should be able to recognize hazards and risks that can occur while operating heavy equipment. Operating equipment in less than ideal conditions, such as on hillsides or in poor weather, increases the chance of accidents. Be sure each employee has access to and uses personal safety equipment such as hearing protection, hard hats, reflective clothing, gloves and appropriate footwear. Employees should know how to recognize signs of stress and fatigue that can come with operating heavy equipment.

Prior to storing equipment for winter, take time to remove any dirt and other accumulated debris. It’s worth performing a thorough inspection of the equipment to check for damaged, worn or broken parts and fluid leaks. Because replacement parts are often back-ordered, now is the time to determine what’s needed. Order parts as soon as possible to allow time for potential delays in delivery to ensure the equipment is ready for use.

by Sally Colby