The Dirt on Earth Auger Maintenance

 Few pieces of equipment have an easy life. One of the main reasons for this is the environment in which they must work. Be it a construction jobsite, landscaping project, fence installation or a basic homeowner task, equipment is always exposed to the environment. And the dirtier the environment, the more one must worry about
maintenance concerns.

Now just imagine the plight of an earth auger that not only must withstand the rigorous conditions
inherent with most jobsites, but also spends most of its time digging in the very dirt that can cause so much equipment wear and tear. Fortunately, earth augers are simple machines. A power head (a.k.a. hole digger), which provides the mechanical function, attaches to the auger itself and burrows into the ground. These earth augers are built simple because they don’t need to be sophisticated and because manufacturers know they will have to withstand a lot of abuse.

Even with this basic and rugged design, earth augers are not without maintenance concerns. As with any other piece of equipment that includes an engine and moving parts, attention must be paid to wear items and consumables
(i.e. engine oil and transmission oil). This will not only maximize the earth auger’s performance, but will also ensure the owner is maximizing his or her initial equipment investment.

Don’t Bury the Manual

Before ever getting the earth auger out on the job, take time to read the manual. This may seem tedious to some, but manufacturers spend a lot of time and money putting a wealth of information into their equipment documentation. From operational procedures and application tips to safety standards and maintenance schedules, most manufacturers provide all the information you could ever need to keep an earth auger operating efficiently,
safely and profitably.

And this information isn’t only intended for the end-user, but the rental operator or equipment salesperson as well. If it can help better service the customer, then it’s worth the small amount of time it takes to review the provided materials.

Can You Dig It?

Following a review of the machine details, you should next review the details of the job itself. When dealing with the potential unknowns of underground digging, it’s important to have a
plan in place before going forward with an application. Stated simply, operators need to know what they’re
getting into.

Users must take the time to call an underground locating service before digging to find out if there are any buried obstructions in the area. These services are typically free and worth the effort given the operator safety and equipment concerns associated with striking an underground obstruction.

Also, consider the ground conditions present on the jobsite. Some soils, such as what’s found in the Northeast, are quite rocky and this needs to be taken into consideration before digging.

And there are some areas that pose such difficult conditions that it’s just not feasible to use an earth auger for digging. Earth augers are built tough, but they can’t dig through solid rock. You should know the equipment’s limitations before trying to force it.

Of course, most manufacturers never assume that operators will heed their warnings. Therefore, equipment is built with some foolproof measures to further protect itself and the operator.

For instance, with handheld earth augers, long handles constructed of a composite material help to absorb the shock associated with striking an underground obstruction. Additionally, a certain amount of slippage is built into centrifugal clutches to reduce both kickback to the operator and damage to the auger when encountering a material the machine was never designed
to handle. Furthermore, manufacturers typically build their equipment to be simple to operate and stronger than it needs to be. Even so, having a simple plan in place before digging can save on potential maintenance headaches…or worse yet, aches and pains for the operator.

Daily Digging Directions

With a plan in place, it’s now time to make sure the earth auger is ready for the job. This is where daily maintenance is crucial. Generally speaking, earth augers at rental centers and in equipment fleets throughout the United States are in a very poor state of disrepair. There are some
owners and operators who have a proactive maintenance program in place, but
most don’t give it the attention deserved. Whether it’s the rental operator or equipment owner, it’s important to take some simple, daily steps to make sure the earth auger is ready to perform and be profitable. First things first: clean the machine.

Yes, earth augers are designed to dig in the dirt, but it’s the dirt that many times can hide obvious problems. Cleaning the equipment
can reveal fluid leaks, cracks and other easily visible problems that dirt would otherwise hide.

Speaking of fluids, make sure the earth auger has all that it needs. It never ceases to amaze how many earth augers are being used without transmission oil. Because of shipping regulations, earth augers typically cannot be shipped with transmission oil already added. Therefore, most manufacturers will ship their machines with a separate container of transmission fluid. Additionally, bold warnings are listed frequently in the manual, on equipment decals and on tags fastened to the machine, indicating a need to add transmission oil before using. Even so, this is still a common problem.

One reason this goes unnoticed is that manufacturers are building their products more rugged to better withstand abuse. Some earth augers will run about one season
without any oil in the transmission. Of course, after a year of this type of use, components start to wear dramatically and the life of the earth auger is severely reduced. Again, simply taking the time to review the materials
presented by the manufacturer can help in avoiding some basic, yet serious mistakes.

Beyond the transmission oil, check engine oil levels on a daily basis. Make sure that not only the engine oil levels are sufficient, but that the oil clarity is satisfactory as well.

Additionally, with hydraulic-powered earth auger attachments and towable earth augers, make sure the hydraulic oil is clean. Though hydraulic systems are mostly trouble free, if contaminated or dirty hydraulic oil is being used, this will prematurely wear out the pumps and motors. Appropriate hydraulic oil levels are also important, helping to prevent overheating problems during use.

Bits and Pieces

Another daily maintenance routine is to do a basic
visual inspection of the earth auger, looking for loose parts and checking the condition of common auger wear parts, such as the screw bit and teeth. The screw bit or pilot point is the very tip of the auger. It’s critical that the screw bit is in good condition because this is what keeps the auger tracking straight during use. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to find earth augers in rental centers and on jobsites with screw bits that are either completely worn down, or worse yet, completely gone.

Using an earth auger without a screw bit would be like trying to drill a hole in a piece of steel with a broken drill bit. There’s nothing that’s going to allow it to track straight. This not only significantly reduces equipment performance, but also raises safety concerns for the operator.

Making sure the auger has adequate teeth is another commonly ignored maintenance issue. The teeth, located at the bottom of the auger flighting, are primarily responsible for digging, whereas the flighting is designed to push the loosened dirt up out of the hole. When the teeth are in good shape, the auger can aggressively and efficiently dig in most materials. But if the teeth are worn down or missing, the stress is then placed on the auger flighting to do the digging, which severely limits performance and
creates another wear issue.

All augers are designed to have a certain amount of wear clearance. Consider an 8-in. diameter auger. When the teeth are new or in good repair, that 8-in. auger will dig a 9.5-in. diameter hole — allowing the auger to be easily removed from the hole it just dug. As the teeth wear down, this 9.5-in. digging diameter decreases. If left unchecked, this digging capacity can decrease down to the nominal diameter of the flighting (8 in.) and the flighting itself is now doing the digging, not the teeth. Long term, the flighting will begin to wear down and start to taper, eventually looking like an ice cream cone. Once this point is reached, the auger will fail to dig straight holes and will commonly get stuck in the ground. Unfortunately, if this occurs, that nice expensive auger has effectively become an expensive boat anchor.

One reason this problem exists is that many earth auger owners don’t know what to look for to determine when the screw bit or teeth are worn out. Therefore, some manufacturers are working on developing wear indicators for the augers themselves.

Analogous to automotive brake pads that are designed to squeak when worn down, indicating to the driver that something is wrong, the idea behind auger wear indicators is to provide an obvious visual indication that something needs attention before
renting or using. Ideally,
this will greatly reduce the
occurrence of limited earth auger performance and tapered flighting, but again, it will require the owner or operator to take notice.

Annual Auger Activities

The daily auger maintenance issues are most critical, but you shouldn’t forget some of the annual concerns. Of course, there are the obvious issues, such as changing engine and transmission oil each season. Even though this is pretty standard across the industry with most pieces of equipment, you would be surprised how many owners rarely — or never — completely replace fluids.

More specific to earth augers, the centrifugal clutch will probably wear out once a season or once every other season, depending on usage. Again, one of the issues here is determining when a centrifugal clutch needs to
be replaced.

Today’s centrifugal clutches are basically bulletproof. They will function even when they shouldn’t, far beyond the point of when they need to be replaced. But as with other auger maintenance issues, keeping a keen eye on equipment performance will determine when the centrifugal clutch requires attention.

When a centrifugal clutch needs replacement, the digging performance of the earth auger will be greatly diminished. Basically, the horsepower of the unit is no longer effectively being channeled to the auger, which, in turn, won’t be able to dig effectively. Additionally, the clutch will prematurely slip when the auger encounters materials it should be able to handle.

Once again, the problem is that most operators don’t know the difference between a properly operating clutch and one that needs replacement. Fortunately, there are some basic indicators that point to clutch problems.

First of all, determine how long it takes to dig a hole.
As a general rule of thumb, in most parts of the United States, you should be able to dig a 3-ft deep hole in about 30 to 45 seconds. Now, if it’s taking 10 minutes to dig that same hole, this is a definite indication to check
the centrifugal clutch.

If the centrifugal clutch is in good order, then you should check the engine to ensure it is running at the
proper speed. Engines that don’t develop full, maximum rpm will never be able to allow the clutch shoes to firmly seat themselves against the clutch drum to transmit the maximum amount of torque and horsepower to the auger.

Another way to check the centrifugal clutch is to hold the earth auger up while the engine is idling. If the auger doesn’t stop rotating at this low engine speed, it’s an indication that the springs or shoes have worn out inside the clutch and it should be replaced.

Keep Your Head Out of the Ground

Beyond paying attention to the typical maintenance concerns, operators also need to watch out for other
common mistakes — which not only might cause embarrassment, but also the need for expensive repairs.

One mistake that manufacturers often hear about is when operators push an earth auger beyond its means. Many times people want to drill down deep, yet don’t take the time to use the proper full-flighted auger extensions. Inevitably, the augers end up getting buried in the ground. A buried auger is bad enough, but it’s the reaction to this problem that causes the most grief. Usually, the first reaction is to attempt to free the auger using pipe wrenches. When that doesn’t work, the bright idea to use a skid steer or backhoe to pull the auger out is often put into action — and that’s when equipment gets bent, damaged and broken. Again, it’s boat anchor time.

Additionally, with hydraulic-powered augers, many operators push the equipment too hard and fail to understand the damage that can occur to hydraulic systems when the oil gets too hot.

It’s important to understand that with a hole digging application, the hydraulic system is constantly being taxed during the entire process. When digging a hole, the earth auger is always working with maximum output, and this process generates heat. If the auger gets stuck and the
operator continues to push the machine, more and more heat is generated and eventually something has to give.

In the case of a hydraulic machine, the bypass valve has to open to redirect hydraulic oil flow, which in itself creates a lot of heat. Eventually, as the hydraulic oil heats up, the viscosity breaks down and premature pump or hydraulic motor failure is likely.

By gaining a basic understanding of how the earth auger works and exercising a bit of common sense, most operators should be able to avoid common mistakes like these.

Keep on Digging

As previous paragraphs have clearly indicated, proper earth auger maintenance is far from rocket science. Manufacturers intentionally build earth augers to be mishandled and abused. Unfortunately, even with these precautions, if owners or operators don’t take care of the equipment, they won’t experience the long-term performance or positive ROI that should be expected.

On the other hand, if the aforementioned maintenance steps are taken and misuse is avoided, the earth auger won’t just last a long time — it will last longer than the manufacturer wants it to.

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