Listening to Your Tractor, Part 1: Colors

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Contributed Article

Listening to Your Tractor
by Curtis Von Fange

Years ago there was a TV show about a talking car. Unless you are from another planet, physically or otherwise, I dont think our internal combustion buddies will talk and tell us their problems. But, on the other hand, there is a secret language that our mechanical companions readily do speak. It is an interesting form of communication that involves all the senses of the listener. In this series we are going to investigate and learn the basic rudimentary skills of understanding this lingo.

Many older tractors like to talk in the form of colors. They leave this assorted array of rainbow hues that cover most of the spectrum on concrete floors and driveways. Since they are never in a real hurry this usually occurs overnight and shows up the next morning as puddles somewhere under the unit. Since the older iron has had years to refine this specialized form of communication it gives us every advantage in understanding what it is trying to say. For example, the puddles are under the part that is leaking. Well, hey, you say...duh! But when you think about it, the newer tractors and vehicles that travel at fast speeds tend to have the wind whip the leaking fluid, causing it to travel the length of the unit making it rough to find its source. High pressure systems designed to do things in a hurry can spray fluids many feet away from the real problem and send you on a wild goose chase to places youve never been before. They are in such a rush that they dont take the time to be user friendly and talk to us so we can hear them. We can conclude, therefore, that the term, gentlemans tractor, has more of a hidden meaning to it. Lets take a look now at the types of puddle colors our tractor is leaving and what it is trying to tell us.

Hues of Brown

Probably the most common residue left by our tractor on the floor is the color brown. Brown can cover many types of hues, from blackish to tan. Generally it is an indication of some type of oil leakage. The oil can come from the engine, transmission, final drive, hydraulic system or steering system. Take note of where the puddle is in relation to the tractor. If it is a lighter hue, has the consistency of a light maple syrup, and lacks the burned smell of combustion, it is probably from a leaking hydraulic hose from a front end loader unit. Look up above the puddle and examine hose fittings for drippage. Many hydraulically crimped fittings will leak over time and will be characterized by a prevalent drip on the fitting or an oily film covered with dust around the hose connection. Since a high pressure leak can shoot the fluid some distance to another unit component and dribble to the ground check for leaks with the tractor running and that particular circuit under stalled load. One can usually tell by this method whether the leak is just a slow drip or a shooting spray that needs immediate attention. Other areas on the hydraulics are hoses that have the rubber covering rubbed off, the pump at the front of the motor, the spool valves on the control assembly, or the drainage plugs at the bottom of the reservoir. A darker shade of brown that usually collects under the oil pan should be obvious. The engine oil will feel somewhat thicker and have that characteristic smell of being in an engine. It tends to leak out of front and rear seals or out of leaky oil pan gaskets. Oil tracers, or streaks on the engine block indicate the path that oil has traveled from parts further up, like on the valve cover or oil sending unit. After finding the location and determining the amount of leakage one can decide whether or not to make the appropriate repair. A blackish/brown color is characteristic of motor oil in an older engine that needs a rebuild. Excessive combustion blowby darkens the oil from contaminants and carbon residue. Examine the sample for the engine smell and identify the leakage point as sighted above. A dark brown oil can also be from the transmission or rear end. This sample will have the smearing qualities of molasses and smell like the 90 weight gear oil it probably is. If it is coming from the bellhousing then a front tranny seal is leaking. If it is found streaking the brake drums then it has rear wheel seals that are going bad. Housing gaskets can also drip oil as well as drain plugs that dont have a sealing compound on the appropriate threads.


On occasion there might be a spot of whitish oil on the pavement. Locate the correct housing and check the dipstick to verify. Whitish oil indicates water contamination in the unit. If in the engine, evaluate the operating habits of the tractor. Does it run for short spurts without ever really heating up? Does it have an operating thermostat in it that regulates the correct operating temperature? Does it have an internal cooling leak which is characterized by consistent low coolant levels? Does the tractor sit outside in a high humidity environment without periodic operations which warm it up to full operating temperatures? Do all the entry ports to the housing have the correct weather protection devices in place? All of these conditions will cause excessive water to collect or condense in the housing and emulsify the oil causing it to become milky white. If in a housing other than the engine look for water entry in open ports, missing bolts, and the like. Change the unit with fresh oil and focus on a more regular operating schedule with complete warm up of the unit in order to evaporate off excessive moisture.


Green puddles are due to antifreeze leakage. See if the fluid can be traced to the overflow tube coming from the radiator cap. If it is, check the rubber gasket integrity in the cap, the sealing surface on the radiator for nicks or grooves, and make sure that the pressure overflow spring is not broken. An overfilled radiator when cold will force extra antifreeze out when the motor warms up. Check to see if the radiator has a fill mark cast into the back of the radiator and fill accordingly. Look for bad hose connections in the cooling circuit especially where the hose ends meet the radiator. Sometimes overtightening the hose clamps will deform the inlet or outlet end causing a weak connecting spot. Misuse and build up of excessive sealing compounds cause high and low spots in the sealing surfaces which show up when the hose expands and contracts during operations. Remove the hose end, gently file off the build up of material and touch up with an emery cloth in order to restore the fresh brass surface. The raised lip encircling the radiator end is really what does the sealing so make sure that it is not crimped or dinged. Make sure the hoses are not hard and brittle but are pliable and go onto the radiator ports with a pressure that makes the hose mold to the lip. On proper hoses a sealing compound should not be necessary; make sure not to overtighten the hose clamp. Also check the radiator core for cracked tubing or leaky ends. Over time the tube ends that fasten in the top and bottom header will calcify and react with the brass causing weak spots that leak. If excessive, the core should be replaced as the internal integrity of the core itself is probably not worth salvaging. At the base of most water pumps is a hole which will leak antifreeze if the seal on the water pump is bad. This type of leak can be difficult to see because of its cramped location. Look for a steady but slow dripping or for antifreeze steaks down the front of the engine housing. Also check for the cooling drain plugs or cocks on the side of the engine to make sure it isnt slightly open or leaking around the threads. A good teflon tape or plumbers putty compound will stop the drippage. Another area that results in engine streaking is a bad head gasket, cracked block, or a casting plug which has lost integrity. Following the antifreeze streaking will help to identify those problems.


Most power steering circuits use automatic transmission fluid as the circulating oil. Check the owners manual of your unit for verification. These red puddles can be traced to leaky pressure lines on that circuit or to bad o ring seals if the steering system has steel lines and internal housing components. Exposed steering hydraulic cylinders can also have worn packing and seals which will cause high pressure spouting or idle drippage. Some newer radiators have steering cooling chambers as an internal component. They generally have external fittings and high pressure hoses which may fray or leak over time.


Blue puddles are from washer solvent. Unless your tractor has a cab and window washer unit on it you wont run into this one. But if you do, look for a brittle washer solvent line, a leaky washer pump or a cracked solvent container.


A yellowish fluid streak with fine powdery edges indicates a leaking battery case. The acid has run down a housing and done a little bit of corroding as it evaporated. If excessive it will drip onto a concrete floor and leave little pits as the acid reacts with the calcium in the cement. This can be caused by extreme battery overcharging. Check the acid level and then the charging circuit for proper activity. A cracked battery case results from a lack of proper tie down equipment or, perhaps, swelling from freezing. Either way the battery should be replaced.

Hopefully recognizing and diagnosing the assorted colors our tractor leaves on the ground will help develop a new working relationship with the unit. Maybe, in time, it might even start talking to us. Or does it already?

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