Gauging the gauges

‘Tis the time of the season for corn planting.  And even an itinerant soybean person will plant the occasional corn crop if it means having somewhere to plant next year’s research plot.  And so it was I found myself aboard a modest sized tractor yesterday, planting kernels in nice rows.  This was the first opportunity of the season to have the planter in the field.  Before taking her out we did the necessary once over to be sure all the parts that should turn were turning (and in the right direction) and those parts which should not turn – well you see where this goes.  We had already had the tractor in the field to work ground, and she had been duly checked earlier.  So I fired her up and checked the gauges.  One doesn’t want to take off on a day of planting without fuel or ignorant of other engine issues.  All set… and off we go.

This would be a boring story if everything had worked as it should (and admittedly might yet be boring for some… my apologies if you find yourself yawning).  All started well, I got the planter adjusted for field conditions, plenty of seed in the hoppers… let’s get this done.  Two fields to plant – one across the road being the larger and likely to use more of the fuel.  This field runs to nearly ¾ mile from the barn at its furthest point.  A few hours in and the tractor starts making an odd sound, temporarily.  A look at all the gauges suggests nothing amiss, and the offending sound goes away.  No harm, no foul.  Within just a few more minutes however the first sound returns, accompanied by another more ominous whine and loss of power.  This warrants a stop – and the gauges still offer no clue.  As I start to shut it down it dies – just like an engine running out of fuel.  This is a diesel tractor.  Running out of fuel is not merely an inconvenience.  The fuel gauge shows more than half a tank… hmmm, it showed this amount when I started out.  The heart sinks.  Climbing down to check the fuel tank I found myself staring at the bottom of the tank.  Grrrr.  There is diesel fuel in the barn, but the barn is almost the full ¾ mile away.  My expressions for describing the gauge needn’t be recorded here.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of operating a diesel powered piece of equipment you might check for opportunities.  They’re awesome.  When learning how to operate one you should be admonished – don’t run it out of fuel.  Once run dry older diesel engines (ones using a siphon to pull fuel from the tank) must have the air bled out of the fuel line after the tank is refilled.  Not pleasant.  I am old enough to have used this sort of engine and the admonishment still echoes in my head.

Walking all the way to the barn mumbling about my situation I took a bit of solace in having started to shut down the engine before it died.  At the barn I got a couple cans of fuel and drove back to the tractor.  Being alone however meant that after all this I would have two vehicles nearly ¾ mile away – and so was still faced with another walk at some point.  But this trip, carrying ten gallons of fuel was not going to be on foot (and, if the fuel is NOT the only issue, driving this time gives me a backup).

After refueling I climb back aboard.  There sits the fuel gauge – spiked in the empty position, which is normal before turning the key… so it isn’t stuck.  Now for the moment of truth.  Turning the key part way the gauge panel comes to life, I hear the fuel pump pumping and on further turning the key it engages the starter motor.  It cranks for a few seconds, and I rock back and forth in the seat like I’m trying to egg it on (futile, but it makes me feel useful).  Just as I’m about to give up the engine makes a sound suggesting it tasted some fuel – but only for a moment.  I turn it off and watch in disgust as the fuel gauge returns to its normal ‘off’ position.  The gauge had gone up to the same position as before, suggesting more than half a tank of fuel.  Ten gallons is not close to half a tank for this tractor.  The float on the sending unit in the tank might be stuck… so the gauge itself is probably not at fault.  Trying a second time the fuel pump goes, the starter cranks, a nice little pop or two, a little belch of smoke, and the engine turns over.  Halleluiah.

The rest of the day went pretty much as it should.  The planter held up its end of the bargain, and the tractor seemed no worse for wear.  But I still had to walk back to the far end of the field to get the other vehicle.  Along the final hike it occurred to me that even with the inconvenience I’d just experienced, I had single handedly just planted more corn in an afternoon than my father’s whole neighborhood could have planted in a couple days when he was a boy.  Perspective has a way of keeping broken expectations from taking us too far down the rabbit hole.

And that sending unit (if indeed that is the issue) – it will have its day in court.  But not until more planting is done.  The gauge for now gets a reprieve, but also a duct tape reminder on the panel – “Look in the tank”.



  1. Ha, Great story! Saturday found me in similar form. I was cleaning out the barn and needed to put on the front-end loader. I spent an hour and half searching for the pins that connect the bucket to the loader. I always leave them in the bucket or hay spear. I even checked under the tractor seat…twice. Finally, Cindy got in her car to go buy more pins (quite expensive). I checked under the tractor seat for a third time and found them slightly buried under some debris.


  2. Amazing isn’t it, we always seem to find what we’re looking for in the last place we look.


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