Farmers and ranchers across the Midwest continue to work recovering their equipment damaged in the spring 2019 flooding. The safety team at the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center reminds those working to restore equipment to consider personal safety at each step of the process.
Exposing farm equipment to any kind of water can result in serious problems and can turn a normally safe piece of equipment into a safety hazard.
Submerging electric and internal combustion engines or electric appliances in floodwater only adds to the potential for damage and complicates cleanup. Look for a dirty water line on the equipment to get an idea of how high the floodwater rose.
“If you have an internal combustion engine under water, get it out of the water and dried out as quickly as possible because the integral parts of the engine will quickly corrode,” said University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator Steve Melvin, an expert in irrigated cropping systems. “Drain oil out of the crank case and fuel out of the fuel system. Replace all the filters.”
Injectors or spark plugs must be removed to ensure there is no water in the cylinders. With electric motors, make sure they are completely dried out, free from any dirt, sand, or other flood debris, and grease motor bearings by removing the relief plug and adding grease until the old grease is expelled.
Whether an engine is internal combustion or electric, all parts must be thoroughly dried out before attempting to start it. Any water remaining in the cylinders of the engine could cause the engine to lock up if not drained, and any dampness in an electric motor may result in damaging electrical shorts and potentially hazardous electrical shocks.
Once the motor has been taken apart, it can be placed in a warm (not too hot) oven to speed drying. Ideally an electrical or internal combustion professional can inspect the motor before it’s reassembled to ensure it’s safe to operate.
Because floodwater contains a wide range of particles such as sand, silt, and contaminants that include an abundance of fuel, pesticides and other chemicals, carefully inspect engine parts for traces of contamination. Always wear gloves to protect yourself when handling contaminated parts. Ensure that those working around you are aware of possible contamination. Always keep children away from flood-contaminated equipment.
“You could use compressed air or something similar to help clean the engine,” said University of Nebraska Extension Educator Troy Ingram. “If it’s an electric motor, the water may affect bearings, windings and rotor. It’s best to take electric pump units to an electrical shop to have them evaluated, since you rely on them all summer to keep water on crops.”
There’s good reason to believe most internal combustion engines and electric motors can be restored after being submerged in floodwater. However, it’s possible an engine could suffer enough damage that it requires a complete rebuild.
“If a center pivot is submerged in water, you’ll want to inspect every electrical component to make sure floating debris didn’t crash against it and damage wiring or tear things loose,” Ingram said.
Components of a center pivot that should be checked include the wheel and center drive gearboxes, center drive motors on electric drive pivots, tower boxes if the water reached them, and the pivot panel. Hydraulic drive pivots would still need to have wheel gearboxes checked, but the hydraulic system should be OK as long as the pump and/or oil reservoir were not submerged.
“With gearboxes, drain any water that’s present,” Melvin said. “If the oil appears contaminated, drain it and refill with new oil. The center drive motors should be inspected to make sure they are dry and free of debris. That may require removing the stator housing from the motors.”
If water reached the pivot panel and/or the tower boxes, it’s recommended to have a service technician or electrician inspect them.
“Be sure they are completely dried out before servicing them,” Melvin said. “Both basic and computer panels may operate after drying out and cleaning, but sometimes they need to be repaired or replaced.
“It’s also a good idea to contact your local well or pivot company service technicians and involve them in the system inspection. If something was missed, additional damage could occur by operating the system.”
To help protect irrigation equipment from floodwater, consider moving it to a side hill (if there’s one in the field) or set the system as far away as possible from creeks, rivers and known flood plains.
“If it’s set on a side hill, the center pivot may be more susceptible to wind damage,” Melvin said. “But that would help keep it out of floodwater.”
Farmers who pump irrigation water out of a creek or river typically move irrigation equipment away from the water source when it’s not being used, helping to protect it from flooding.
“In those situations, the farmer is likely to be accustomed to watching for signs of a pending flood,” Melvin said. “Any type of equipment you can protect from potential floodwater will help avoid a nighttime trip to move it or deal with costly repair or replacements caused by floodwater.”
Once a center pivot’s power unit has been checked for damage, the well should be inspected, too. Wells with an open discharge pipe that is not plugged or connected to a gravity irrigation system are of more concern. Wells with proper backflow valves should be less susceptible to contamination and collection of debris.
“Make sure the well pump turns freely before operating it or you could incur damage to the impellers,” Melvin said. “Once the power unit is operable, it’s probably helpful to pump any contaminants out of the well or shock chlorinate it to kill any bacteria that might be present.”
Well gearheads are usually sealed. However, it’s advisable to drain the oil, flush if possible, and refill it with new oil.
Melvin also noted that securing propane or diesel tanks or moving them to higher ground helps keep them from floating away, keeping everyone safer in the event of a flood.
Often, insurance policies don’t provide coverage for flooding. To thoroughly understand the details of equipment coverage, consult your insurance agent and request specific information about whether or not your policy includes coverage for flood-damaged equipment. It may be helpful to request a written statement of specific coverage details.
“Above all else, stay safe when you’re working in a flood damaged area and when repairing damaged equipment,” Melvin said. “Make sure all power is shut off to these engines and center pivots. Double check to make sure that’s done. Don’t attempt to use a system that hasn’t been thoroughly restored and inspected.”