A Shop Of Your Own

| May 30, 2004

With the right tools and know-how, you can do repairs and maintenance from simple to complex.

When you’ve had to pay someone to repair and maintain your tractor, have you also thought “I could do that myself if I just had the right tools and a little shop”? With some forethought and planning, you could.

Tools have a special attraction for any trucker who has fallen in love with the idea of doing his own repairs. A tremendous feeling of pride can come with doing the job yourself – and doing it well. But there are so many directions you can proceed in, so many dollars you could spend and so few dollars available that careful planning and making the right choices are critical.

Let’s look at some starter basics.

The starting point
The starting point for every home repair shop is hand tools. You’ll need a good set of both metric and English open-end wrenches and sockets, the latter with 5/16-inch, 3/8-inch and 1/2-inch drives.

Tommy Vajdic, maintenance supervisor and shop foreman for Bethel, Pa.-based K.L. Harring Transportation , says heavier chassis work needs tools with 7/8-inch drives. Pairs of pliers, including needlenose, vise grips and filter band wrenches small enough for fuel and coolant filters and large enough for oil filters, belong near the top of your list, too. Add torque wrenches if you contemplate anything like cylinder head gasket replacement. Harring’s

Open-end, box and ratcheting box wrenches will all get you into tight spots with turning ability. The latter will speed the work.

people use 75 pounds-feet and 250 pounds-feet versions. They are even helpful when installing a water pump, another place where correct torquing will help the gasket to seal. Keith Harring, who started his career as a two-truck owner-operator and now runs 33 trucks as owner of K.L. Harring Transportation, says you also need a variety of screwdrivers to replace both LED and incandescent lights.

Earl Evans, a one-truck owner-operator driving out of Canfield, Ohio, has organized much of his shop with the simple tackle boxes normally used by fishermen. You can store little parts like nuts, screws and bolts in some boxes and tool accessories like ratchet handles in the larger sections. You can also modify what’s in the box and carry just what you need over to the tractor or trailer for a small repair job.

Compressed air powers so much on your truck that you already know how potent a way it is to get work done. Cranking wheel nuts (after breaking them loose) and almost any group of nuts or bolts on a truck often involves more repetition than torque. This is an ideal situation for air tools, which take most of the physical work out of many operations, leaving you ready and raring to continue. Evans suggests an air compressor with a five-horsepower motor, a 16 CFM (cubic feet per minute) rating, and a 60-80 gallon storage tank, the same size Harring used in his owner-operator days. Both Evans and Vajdic immediately mentioned both 1/2-inch and 3/8-inch air drives, and Evans sees uses for 1-inch versions (you might want to graduate to that size later). You’ll need air hoses of appropriate length, too, of course.

If you think you will want to work on your mufflers and other exhaust parts, Evans says you will want to add air-powered impact tools. These come in sizes of 3/8 inch, 1/2 inch and even 3/4 inch.

Planning by the job
Now that you’ve got the tools to take things off and replace them, the next step is to decide on specific areas of work. Harring says doing your own fluid changes should be your first goal. Fuel and coolant filter, engine oil and filter changes, and greasing make up the most basic maintenance. Here is where filter band wrenches come in, but you need to add drain pans and perhaps even some sort of used oil storage to the basic list.

Evans suggests a 4- to -7-quart pan for the coolant filter and a five-gallon galvanized drum for draining transmission and drive axle lubes, which are available at common auto stores like Auto Zone and NAPA. He thinks it’s best to use a plastic drain pan for coolant (not metal) because you frequently drain it while replacing a heater core or water pump, and plastic is easier to keep clean enough to put the coolant back in (no rust). Keep them upside down and covered.

Evans drains his oil into a large pan on rollers that is easy to get under the engine oil pan and back out. You’ll probably need one of 50- to 60-quart capacity to handle drain oil from a 14- to 16-liter engine. Evans actually had one made. To protect himself from burns, he installed a Fumoto drain valve on the oil pan of his Caterpillar. These are of the quick-open type and accept a hose for easy, safe channeling of drain oil into the pan. He later added a 250-gallon waste oil container. This size container will allow you to store enough waste oil that you’ll be able to get somebody to pick it up, possibly even without charging. The right kind of drain pan seals and allows you to use air pressure to force the drain oil into your storage tank.

Both Evans and Harring strongly suggest purchasing your engine oil in 55-gallon drums; it’s much cheaper than buying gallon containers. To use such a drum, you’ll need a simple pump with crank. Harring’s shop has an air-powered engine oil pump, which takes the work out of delivering those 50+ quarts into the sump.

For gearbox lubes, Evans recommends a 5-gallon “bucket pump” that fits onto the lid of the lube containers. They may cost as little as $22. A rubber hose attaches to the pump so you can get the lube in through the hole in the side of the housing.

Greasing requires a heavy-duty grease gun for standard zerk fittings. Most truckers need a large and rugged hand-held unit that takes grease cartridges holding enough NGLI No. 2 to fill up all those fittings without reloading too often. Air-powered guns that fit on top of drums of grease will increase your ability to do the job quickly and enable you to buy the goo in bulk if you start to add trucks later.

While we’re covering the basics, don’t forget a “good, solid” workbench about 6 feet long with a substantial vise, says Evans. He suggests mounting the latter at the end of the bench for clearance when working on larger items. Drop lamps, or fluorescent tubes designed with protection for shop use, with long extension cords, are also quite helpful. You can’t work on anything you can’t see well enough.

Tires and wheels
After oil changes, lubes and filter changes, Harring believes a great money-saver for one-truck owner-operators and small fleets is doing your own tire work.

Vajdic says air impact-type tools become essential the moment you decide to do tires. He reports that you don’t need a big tire mounting and de-mounting machine like truckstop tire shops use, but you do need to get some high-quality, specialized tools. Rugged as truck tires are when properly mounted and inflated, their bead areas are actually quite susceptible to abuse during mounting. Demounting and remounting need to be done with spoon-like tools that pry gently on beads while spreading the force to avoid damage. So buy a high-quality set of hand-operated tire tools and learn how to use them properly by studying and heeding enclosed instructions.

When mounting tires, you often run into a nasty problem getting the bead to seal by just putting shop air through the tire stem. The tire often just won’t pop on because the air leaks out around the bead just as fast as it can be forced through the stem. And forget about using the old exploding ether trick you may have heard about! Believe it or not, even a tiny dose of burning ether will weaken a tire in a serious way – usually in a manner not obvious till you have a blowout. Instead, use a device like the Cheetah brand bead-seating tool Harring’s shop owns. It’s a special air tank you pump up with your shop air supply. When the valve is opened, in goes a powerful puff of air and “pop” goes the bead onto the rim, Vajdic says.

Handling sets of dual wheels makes a wheel dolly designed for the purpose absolutely essential.

Of course, getting tires off first means getting that tractor up off the ground and then supporting it in an absolutely secure manner. Lifting and supporting the frame or axles opens up a number of repair possibilities, including tire rotation, wheel replacement and wheel stud repairs, brakes, wheel bearings, suspension and springs, and so forth, in addition to the tire work.

Owner-operators have used a wide variety of support devices to do their own work over the years, including hanging engines from tree limbs, but an 18,000- to 20,000-pound or heavier power unit needs tried and true commercial tools. A hand-operated floor jack, which uses hydraulic oil to increase the torque applied to the handle, is the most basic means of

An air-powered floor jack like this one will make jacking a tractor easy, so you’ll have more energy left for the rest of the job.

getting safe liftoff. Evans recommends something in the range of 10 tons. New they cost up to $2,700, but he’s found you can pick them up for $300-500 at auctions held at repair shops or trucking companies that are shutting down. He has a 1950 model that looks and works like new. Harring’s shop has one with a 10-ton capacity made by Central Hydraulics.

Once the tractor is up in the air, you need to lower it onto something as solid as a granite slab, not crawl under it while it’s just jacked up. Get four 12,000-pound jackstands and you’ll be able to safely suspend any tractor or trailer (48,000-pound total capacity). Harring’s shop has 10,000 and 14,000-pound units.

If later you get more prosperous, get more vehicles and do a lot of work, you may want to graduate to the kind of 10-ton air-powered frame jack Harring’s shop uses when their very substantial four-member electro-hydraulic lift isn’t available. Vajdic showed us his shop’s jack’s rounded support fittings for trailer axles, as well as the flatter ones needed for tractor axles. Its handle folds down to get under the axles when you use it.

Once into this level of work, you may next wish to graduate to the many special pullers and seal drivers used for wheels and wheel bearing-related parts. Vajdic says you’ll need an array of very large sockets for those wheel bearing retaining nuts, too. Repacking, installing seals and then setting wheel bearing preload is one of a shop technician’s most precise operations, but some of the really gung-ho owner-operator technicians like Evans eventually learn enough to be up to this exacting task.

Electrical
The electrical system makes much of the truck work – and keeps it legal for the DOT. A basic electrical tester like a multimeter or digital voltmeter that will measure voltage and current flow precisely will help you find trouble. Evans says that in today’s world full of exotic winter road de-icing chemicals, tightly sealed wiring connectors help more than ever. “With today’s winter weather chemicals, get solder and shrink tube connectors, not crimp-on connectors,” he says. He buys the tubing in spools that can be hung on a rack to get it cheaper. He also keeps 18- to 10-gauge wire around for running accessories.

Vajdic says you’ll need a wire crimpling tool for replacing the connectors on starter cables.
You’d also be smart to have a battery charger. Harring’s fleet uses a Honda ES600 gasoline powered 6.5-kilowatt portable unit to take the juice out to the trucks.

Electronic knowledge
Unless you’re computer savvy, you may not have thought of your PC as a shop tool. Harring says “knowledge is often more powerful than hand tools.” He greatly values “the ability to download information and monitor my engine and both tractor and trailer ABS brakes,” he says. “Extended warranties often last 350,000-450,000 miles. Diagnostics will give you a pretty good idea of whether or not a problem is likely to be repaired under warranty.” Even if it’s not under warranty, it can also help you decide whether or not to tackle it yourself. And, he adds, “If you can download information, you will often know a problem is coming before that breakdown happens.”

Since K.L. Harring Transportation runs a number of ZF-Meritor FreedomLine transmissions, Harring also uses the shop PC to monitor that unit’s function. Kenworth offers software that allows him to monitor certain tractor systems.

As far as cost goes, “You need the PC for your business anyway,” he says. “Software is available on disk from all the vendors. Occasionally, it’s available for free, and when you need to purchase it, the price is usually $300-$500.” All you need is the software and the download cable that allows you to connect the PC with connectors on the vehicle.

How about air conditioning? Harring says, “Forget air conditioning. We don’t even do A/C repairs here. You need to reclaim your refrigerant and keep a lot of records. It would hardly be worth it.”

Some advanced trucker mechanics pull injectors to take to an injection shop or for replacement with factory-rebuilt units. Many set their overheads. Working on injectors requires special pullers, while overheads need feeler gauges for the valves and some sort of special injector height tool or inch-pound torque wrench. You also need to be able to bar the engine over to precise crank angles.

In spite of the ample size, sophisticated equipment and substantial expertise in Harring’s shop (Vajdic has worked as a dealer service manager), K.L. Harring Transportation takes its late-model Cummins ISX engines to a dealer shop for this work. Harring believes injectors and related parts are so sophisticated today that only those with special training should get involved with them. Both these systems need far less attention than in the past, anyway.

Owners of older, simpler engines, however, may want to get these tools and tackle these two diesel jobs.

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