Whether you run a big farm or a small one, having a functioning tractor can be invaluable. Unfortunately, as with anything that has an engine, occasionally it breaks down. You can hire a mechanic to come out to your farm and repair it, or you can pay to have your tractor towed to a repair shop. Both of these options can be expensive, though.
To save a little money, why not try troubleshooting your engine problems yourself? What should you look for in an engine that’s malfunctioning, and what sort of troubleshooting can you do at home, even if you don’t have diesel engine experience?
Identify the Type of Tractor
First, take a look at your tractor. Does it run on diesel fuel or gasoline? Diesel engines are more common in tractors, but some newer models do run on gasoline simply because it’s cheaper in the long run. While it can save you money on fuel, gasoline tractor engines tend to be more complicated and have more parts that can break down. For the sake of argument, we’re going to focus primarily on diesel tractors.
Once you’ve identified the type of tractor, it’s time to break out your notebook. Make sure you note all abnormal symptoms as you’re trying to start or use your tractor. Even if you can’t figure out what’s wrong with it, it will be an invaluable tool for your mechanic.
Problem — Engine Won’t Turn Over
One of the biggest problems you’ll encounter is that your engine simply won’t turn over. It won’t get anywhere close to starting. You might hear a click as you turn the key, but that’s it.
The most common cause for the engine not turning over is simply the battery. Either the battery itself is dead, the terminals are corroded so the current can’t travel through them, or the battery cables themselves are damaged.
Inspect your battery terminals and cables, and test the battery. If you don’t have a load tester on hand, you can pull the battery out and take it to nearly any auto parts store — most of them offer free battery testing.
Problem — The Engine Turns Over But Won’t Start
If your engine is turning over but just can’t get enough juice to start, there are two primary problems you should be looking for — and both are related to fuel.
First, check the fuel filter and the fuel lines running from the tank to the engine. A clogged fuel filter or fuel lines can prevent the diesel from getting to where it needs to go, effectively choking off your engine’s energy supply. Cleaning or replacing your fuel filter is often all you need to clear out the obstruction.
The other fuel-related problem could be the fuel control lever on the engine itself. If it’s jammed closed, it will keep the fuel from getting to the engine even if the fuel filter is clean. First, determine why it is jammed. If it still moves, consider spraying down the moving parts with lubricating oil to get it moving again.
Problem — The Engine Starts, Then Dies After a Moment
If you have a tractor that runs on diesel fuel, you don’t want to put anything in it but diesel fuel. If your engine starts dying after a moment, it could mean there is something else in your fuel. Gasoline and diesel ignite in two different ways — diesel ignites under compression, so when the piston compresses the fuel-air mixture in the cylinder, it automatically ignites. Gasoline requires an additional spark to ignite — hence the addition of spark plugs in gasoline engines.
This is going to sound odd but … go sniff your fuel tank. Diesel fuel and gasoline have two very different odors. So if you smell gas in your diesel tank, you need to drain it and flush out the fuel system before refilling it with diesel fuel.
Problem — The Engine Is Overheating
Engine overheats are almost exclusively a problem with the cooling system. So, let’s get away from the engine for a bit and look at the radiator.
First, a warning: Do not ever try to open your radiator cap when the engine is hot. The coolant gets pressurized, in addition to being very hot, and can send your cap flying while scalding you with hot steam. We’ve seen radiator caps go flying through windows, into people and high into the air — just don’t do it.
Next, make sure your radiator actually has coolant in it. An empty radiator can’t do its job, after all. Don’t use tap water to fill your radiator — it’s often full of minerals that can clog up your radiator and create even bigger problems. Instead, use a 50/50 mix of the correct antifreeze mixed with distilled water.
You can blow off the radiator’s fins with compressed air if they’re dirty or muddy. Dirty fins keep the radiator from being able to lower the temperature of the coolant effectively but make sure you don’t bend any of the fins while you’re cleaning it off.
If basic troubleshooting like what we’ve listed here doesn’t fix your problem, it’s time to call in a professional. Make sure you keep a list of everything that you’ve tried so they have a good idea of where to start.