By Treena Hein

The farming life is a busy one and it can be hard to keep up with all that needs to be done, including proper care of smaller pieces of equipment. But with a little diligence and just a few actions, many small motor issues can be avoided, saving you time, money and aggravation.

A close-up shot of a farm mechanic working on a small farm equipment motor

The trouble with smaller gas-powered 2-stroke and 4-stroke motors on the farm, from snow blowers, riding mowers and ATVs to pumps and chainsaws, is that most of them are stored for part of the year or just not used on a regular basis. 

“You might not use your chainsaw for two years and then an ice storm hits and you use it for a month straight to do tree clean up,” says Mark Gratzfeld, an instructor of small engine repair courses at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton. “That lack of use will result in seals drying up and other issues, so put it on the calendar and fire every single thing up at least once a month. That will keep seals and other parts from deteriorating and increases the chances these motors will work for you when you need them. Even a quick 30-second fire-up is enough.”

If the pieces of equipment you use less often have batteries, Gratzfeld advises using a battery switch to disconnect them because there’s always a small draw (which increases in the cold). Disconnection will prevent total battery drain, which shortens battery life or, in the winter, will kill the battery altogether.

Also, try and keep a notebook and jot down how many hours each machine is run every time it’s used. This helps to make sure you are on track with oil and filter changes, but, says Gratzfeld, you also need to deal with your fuel.

Fuel issues

Today’s alcohol-based gasolines (which, generally, are all those below premium) are hard on small engine longevity, particularly older engines. But there are actions you can take to circumvent potential problems.

“These types of fuels break down and absorb moisture over time, and that’s hard on seals, gaskets, fuel lines and other rubber parts, and carburetors,” Gratzfeld says. “The breakdown is worse in summer heat, but in the winter, you get condensation (on gas tank walls and ceilings), with droplets going into the fuel. Ask your fuel supplier if they have gas without alcohol, but if you can’t get any of that, add a fuel conditioner that’s rated for your gas.”

And if you have a gas storage tank on the farm, put a filter on it and also keep it full. “Less air in there means less condensation because there’s less water vapour and less fluctuation in temperature as well,” says Gratzfeld. “And keep the lid on your jerry cans when you’re not using them to keep moisture out.”

If you don’t think you’ll use a piece of equipment for a while, or if it’s going into seasonal storage, always store it in a cool, dry place with easy access so you can start it up once a month or so, he adds.

Also, and this might sound counterintuitive, but when you’re starting up a machine in storage, add only enough gas to do that job. It’s true that keeping a gas tank empty can lead to corrosion, just as it can in a large storage tank, says Gratzfeld, but adding as much fresh fuel as you can is always best. His point is that some corrosion is inevitable over time, but an empty tank in storage means no gas-absorbing water condensation or age-related degradation of the gas itself. “This is particularly important for firing up a snowblower or something else in cold temperatures,” he says. “As fuel ages, it loses the lighter-weight molecules that help with a cold start.”

Check the little things

Before starting a small engine up, especially if you’ve been busy and it’s been a while since the last start-up, check air filters, oil, oil filters and spark plugs. If you replace spark plugs before storage, they’ll likely degrade, and you’ll have to replace them coming out of storage anyway. “And check your safety switches too and make sure they are working,” adds Gratzfeld. “Also look for signs of mice and squirrels before start-up, even if it’s been a month. Check exhausts and intakes.”

Before storage, or on a semi-ongoing basis, clean your carburetors as well. “Clean as it goes into storage means it should be clean coming out, but again, it depends if your fuel is in good condition,” says Gratzfeld. “Most carburetor problems are from fuel degrading to a gummy viscosity.”

Lastly, keep a selection of fuel line, filters, mounting gaskets, spark plugs and oil on hand so that you can easily keep up with maintenance. “I also recommend a spark tester and a compression tester so that you have a baseline from when it’s running well to compare to when it’s not,” Gratzfeld says.