Maintain before you dig

January 14, 2012 -  By

By: Dennis Von Ruden

As the last remnants of another winter melt away, another season of landscaping and tree planting is about to begin. Soon it’ll be time to dust off the shovels, wheelbarrows, pruning tools and fertilizer bags. Of more immediate concern, it’s the time of year to attend to some preseason maintenance for various pieces of powered equipment.

There’s no escaping the fact that equipment is constantly exposed to an outdoor environment in this industry. Some tools happen to get more acquainted with Mother Nature than others just by virtue of their function. One such machine is the earth auger, which obviously gets its fair share of the dirty work as it tackles its primary job of digging holes for planting trees and shrubs.

Manufacturers understand that earth augers will take a decent amount of abuse. That’s why most augers are built ruggedly to withstand the wear and tear that can come from burrowing through soil day after day. They are also designed to be simple. A power head — or hole digger — provides the mechanical function, while the attached auger drills into the ground.

But as simple and tough as it is, the earth auger is still a piece of machinery with an engine and moving parts. And it still needs some basic preseason maintenance checks to ensure it will operate at peak condition once the new season swings into action.


1. Start with some light reading. There’s no better source for proper hole digger maintenance information than the operator’s manual. Reading through a manual may not be the most enjoyable way to prepare for a new season, but it can be a big help in remembering the various maintenance issues that should be addressed. Manufacturers put a lot of time and effort in covering just about everything there is to know about their equipment in the manual. Take advantage of it.

2. Clean it up. Getting an auger ready for the tree-planting season begins with a fairly logical task — cleaning. Because an auger is always digging through soil and getting dirty again anyway, many users neglect to clean it up from time to time. But dirt is capable of hiding some rather obvious problems. A good cleaning may reveal fluid leaks, cracks and other visible issues that may not have been otherwise discovered.

3. Inspect and repair. After cleaning, give the entire machine a thorough visual inspection for noticeable problems that need immediate attention. Ideally this entire clean-and-inspect process would have been taken care of as part of a post-season routine. Even if it was, repeating the procedure can only help to ensure the auger will remain reliable as the new season gets underway. Keep a close eye out for loose parts and pay special attention to common auger wear parts like the screw bit and teeth.

It’s extremely important that the screw bit, or pilot point, be in good condition. This bit is the very tip of the auger and is responsible for keeping the auger tracking straight while digging holes. Surprisingly, this vital part will sometimes become worn far past the point of usefulness before being replaced. In some cases people even continue using an auger with no screw bit at all. Make sure the screw bit is present and in good shape to maximize overall performance and keep your auger drilling straight.

A well-maintained auger can be an amazingly productive landscaping tool. But when the auger’s primary digging components, teeth, are worn down or missing, productivity can be substantially reduced. Check the condition of the teeth prior to the new season to ensure they’ll be able to dig aggressively and efficiently as intended.

Failure to replace inadequate teeth will put stress on the auger’s flighting and force it to do the brunt of the digging, when really the flighting is designed only to push loosened dirt up out of the hole. If the situation is not addressed, the auger’s wear clearance will decrease in diameter and eventually the flighting will start to taper. At this point the auger won’t be able to dig straight holes and will frequently get stuck in the ground.

Some manufacturers have begun to assist end users with wear indicators that help determine when the screw bit or teeth have worn out. While this development should aid operators in addressing maintenance issues, it is still a good practice to check an auger’s wear items as part of a preseason maintenance process.

4. A fluid situation. As with most pieces of mechanical equipment, an earth auger needs to be supplied with a number of lubricants and fluids to work properly and avoid damage or excessive wear to its components. One of the most common oversights with earth augers is the failure to use transmission oil. This is typically more of an issue when a hole digger is first purchased, as shipping regulations usually dictate that the equipment cannot be delivered with the transmission oil already added. Unfortunately, operators often neglect to fill their new diggers with transmission oil before putting them to work.

Once an auger gets digging, a lack of transmission oil may go unnoticed for a while because manufacturers are constantly engineering their products to withstand more abuse. Some earth augers have been ruggedized to the point that they will run an entire season without oil in the transmission. But this type of use can’t continue. Eventually the hole digger’s components will experience significant wear, and ultimately the life cycle of the machine will be greatly reduced.

The easiest way to avoid mistakes relating to a lack of transmission oil is to simply make a point of changing the transmission oil prior to the beginning of a new season. This way, whether an auger is getting ready for its first job of the year — or its very first job ever — you can rest assured that the transmission is supplied with an adequate level of oil.

Occasional changing of the engine oil is a must for any engine-powered piece of equipment, and earth augers are no exception. Before firing up your hole digger’s engine again, change the oil. Even if engine oil levels are adequate, the oil clarity may not be satisfactory after the machine has been sitting in storage for a while. The best policy is to start a season with a clean slate.

Hydraulic oil is another fluid of concern for operators using hydraulic-powered earth auger attachments or towable earth augers. Hydraulic systems don’t usually pose any problems when the hydraulic oil is clean, but if it happens to be dirty or contaminated it could cause unnecessary wear to the pumps and motors. Change the oil if there’s any doubt about its cleanliness. Also make sure the hydraulics are filled to appropriate oil levels to protect against overheating issues.

5. Come through in the clutch. Although it would be ideal for every auger user to handle fluid replacement prior to each season, the oil change is a common enough task that most operators will think to address it later, if not during the preseason. The same can’t always be said about other annual checks that should be performed on augers, such as inspection of the centrifugal clutch.

What makes this task more difficult is determining exactly when the clutch needs to be replaced. Manufacturers have made the centrifugal clutch increasingly durable, and often it continues to function well after it should have been replaced. But at some point the clutch will no longer allow the hole digger’s horsepower to be effectively channeled to the auger, and an operator will notice diminished digging performance if there’s a problem. The clutch will also slip prematurely, even in materials that the auger would normally handle.

Before committing your auger to a full day of planting trees to kick off the season, give it a test run. In most soil conditions, an auger should be able to dig a 3-ft.-deep hole in no more than 45 seconds. If there’s a problem with the centrifugal clutch, this same task will take much longer, maybe even up to 10 minutes.

That being said, the centrifugal clutch isn’t the only culprit for poor auger performance. If the clutch is found to be in good shape, check the engine to ensure it’s running at the proper speed. If the engine can’t produce full rpm, it won’t allow the clutch shoes to firmly seat themselves against the clutch drum in order to transmit the maximum torque and horsepower to the auger.

Beyond a digging test, another way to evaluate the centrifugal clutch is to hold the earth auger up while the engine is idling. If the auger does not stop rotating at this low engine speed, it’s a good clue that the spring or shoes have worn out inside the clutch and it must be replaced.

Final preparations
Once your auger has been deemed ready for another full season of digging holes, take some time for a little preseason refresher for your operators. Have them re-familiarize themselves with equipment controls, operating instructions and safety procedures. The combination of a well-maintained machine and prepared operator is far more likely to be successful on the job.

Remember, an earth auger isn’t just the tool that makes way for a tree to be planted. It’s an asset that helps drive your business. Give it the proper attention before the landscaping season gets started and you’ll reap the rewards of performance and profits all year long.

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LM Staff

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