This article was originally published May 9, 2016 and was updated on October 2, 2020.
Proper maintenance of air tools used in mobile applications directly affects worker productivity, operations cost, and profit. When an impact gun or air grinder or jackhammer breaks down prematurely, equipment operators can’t do their jobs, causing work delays (and unhappy customers) and unnecessarily high tool replacement costs.
So, what can you do to ensure your fleet’s mobile air tools receive the care they need to perform at maximum efficiency, at the lowest total cost of ownership?
Here are five mobile air tool maintenance best practices they shared to help you boost productivity, lengthen tool life and, ultimately, bolster your organization’s bottom line.
1. Prevent dirt and moisture in the air stream from damaging the entire system
“Before tool operators connect the hose to the tool, the first thing they need to do is blow the line out – to vent it out,” said Mark Gilbert, former operations manager at Vulcan Demolition Tools, a supplier of concrete breaking air tools to Canadian dealers and the rental industry. “What often happens is that they’ll drop that hose on the ground and it lands in the dirt or mud, and the next thing you know, all that dirt gets blown into the tool.”
What happens if dirt collects inside the air tool?
While dirt may not cause an immediate breakdown, it’s likely to make the tool wear out faster, said Bill Goldberg, tool and hoist sales and service manager, Air Centers of Florida, an Ingersoll Rand master distributor, with facilities in Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.
“Take, for example, a construction tool, like a chipper, the tool you see on the street breaking up the sidewalks, which uses piston motors, similar to an automobile engine,” said Goldberg. “Imagine if grit and grime got into the pistons of your automobile engine. If you get enough dirt and grime into the tool’s pistons, it’s going to stop it up enough to the point the tool will quit – or, for sure, wear it out a lot quicker.”
Gilbert agreed. “Either you get a clogged throttle valve on the tool which can make the tool stop running, or if it’s an impact gun, the dirt could get into the rotors. It doesn’t take much dirt to stop an air tool.”
What happens if moisture collects in the tool?
“The water tends to create rust and scales inside the tool,” said Goldberg. “And depending on the materials used by the tool manufacturer and how long the water sits inside the tool, the moisture could cause the [rotor] vanes to swell, binding the motor up.”
When blowing out the line, remember to also regularly check the power source – the air compressor – to ensure the compressor’s air filter is not clogged or damaged (which would allow unclean air to flow downstream through the lines to the tool). If dirt bypasses the compressor’s air filter, chances are it’s not going to be filtered before it hits the air tool, unless you use something like an FRL (filter/ regulator/ lubricator), which offers an added level of protection, attached closer to the tool – to improve efficiency and extend tool life.
Adding a reservoir tank will also help eliminate water getting to your tool. Ensure you drain the reservoir and all airlines regularly/daily. Properly plumbing the airline to the tank will improve the effectiveness as well. For example, plumb hoses from the top of the tank so water cannot get into lines.
2. Check and replenish lubrication to avoid tool breakdown
Sufficient and appropriate lubrication is essential for optimal tool performance, otherwise the tool will break down prematurely from excessive heat and wear.
“There are parts of the tool that needs to be oiled and other parts that need to be greased, so pay attention to what the manufacturer’s recommendation is on lubrication for the tool – both on the type of lubrication to use as well as how often it should be lubricated,” advised Goldberg. “The type of lubrication for one impact gun, for example, may not necessarily be the same you would use for another impact. These manufacturers have spent a lot of time developing lubricants, particular for impact mechanisms, that would be sticky enough to stick to it and the right consistency to achieve the right slipperiness.”
How often should the tool operators check the oil and grease levels on their tools?
“Check oil [in the tool’s oil reservoir and FRL, if used], primarily when you start the shift, and then periodically, depending on how much the tool is being used, to make sure it’s full,” said Gilbert. If you do not have an inline lubricator, lubricate all air tools when you put them away at the end of your shift.
What about recommended grease intervals?
Goldberg said that depends on the tool, its manufacturer’s guidelines, and the duty cycle. “As a general rule of thumb, like on impact mechanisms, the tool owner’s manuals typically say to re-grease the impact with a specific volume of grease every 40 hours of use. So, if you’re using the tool eight hours per day, that 40 hours comes a lot quicker than, say, if you’re using the tool to change tires on a truck, occasionally, where it’s not a continuous duty application.”
3. Operate air tools within manufacturer’s guidelines to ensure peak performance, long tool life
Gilbert said a common mistake tool operators make is to boost the air pressure above the manufacturer’s guidelines, which is typically 90 pounds per square inch (psi) on most tools, thinking the extra pressure will help them get the job done faster. “The tool is made to run at 90 psi, not 120. You’re not really doing the job faster; you’re just doing more damage to the tool.”
Running the tool on lower than recommended pressure can also create performance issues that negatively impact productivity and tool life.
“The rule of thumb is that every 10-percent drop in pressure, you’re going to lose 10-percent performance in the tool,” said Goldberg. “So low air pressure may not directly affect the life of the tool, except from the standpoint that you’re going to have to run the tool longer to get the same amount of work out of it.”
4. Replace worn attachments, such as point, blades and sockets
“With a rivet buster, which is essentially a small jackhammer, tool operators need to replace the points where the chisel sits in regularly. Otherwise, the tool will eventually stop working because the piston will knock out the stopper at the bottom of cylinder,” Gilbert said. “That’s one type of tool that has a part you have to change every day or sometimes twice a day, depending on how much hammering you’re having to do.”
Gilbert also recommended that tool operators regularly check and replace sockets on their impact guns. “Some guys are using sockets that are probably 10 years old, that are worn and loose [on the gun]. When they try to unscrew stuff with loose sockets, they’re actually damaging the anvil, because of the harsh vibration from the loose socket that carries forth into the tool, ultimately damaging the tool itself.”
The bottom line: if your employee is working with an air tool that uses a socket, point or chisel, make sure that the attachment is not excessively worn or damaged before he or she puts it in the tool.
“These are the little things that have to be checked before they start working with the tools because they could end up causing damage to the tool or [as in the case of fractured blades and chisels] injuring themselves,” said Gilbert.
5. Educate operators on the importance of proper tool maintenance to save money
It’s one thing for technicians or equipment operators in the field to know what to do to maintain their air tools; but how do you actually motivate them to take care of those tools when you’re not out on the job site to supervise them?
Jim DeBoard is the lead service technician for Les Schwab Tire Center’s corporate headquarters, one of the largest providers of commercial truck tires in the U.S., headquartered in Bend, Oregon, operating a fleet of over 700 mobile service trucks.
“It often depends on how close the guy is to his air gun,” Deboard said. “If he knows he has to rely on the tool every day, if he’s a route guy and knows he is the one who has to go back to it every day, then it seems that those tools get a lot better care. But if it’s a general service truck, where you have anywhere from, say, 5 to 30 different guys jumping in and out of it every day, the air tool maintenance typically doesn’t happen.”
In terms of holding employees accountable to properly maintain tools, one idea Deboard shared is to educate employees on the importance and impact – both on the company and their compensation – of following maintenance best practices for their air tools.
“The more expense the company has to incur in tool repair and replacement, it’s going to affect the amount of money the company makes and what it can put toward, say, an employee profit sharing program.”
Deboard said that at some of the Les Schwab locations, they assign a service tech who is responsible for lubricating all the guns in the store at least once a day when the crew puts their tools away at night.
“But ultimately you have to rely on the fact that, hopefully, you’ve hired quality employees,” said Deboard. “And they have to be taught good maintenance practices to start with. Then it’s up to management to keep tabs on the numbers and address issues as they arise. If management sees they are going through more air guns that they should, then it’s up to them to address the situation as they see fit. In the big picture, if the numbers are right, management is doing something right.”
Four Strategies for Ensuring Proper Air Tool Maintenance
How do you ensure employees take care of your company’s air tools when you can’t supervise them out in the field? Here are four ideas to consider:
- Begin by hiring quality employees who are most likely to care for the tools or have them buy their own.
- Explain to employees how neglecting tool maintenance negatively impacts the entire company – and, ultimately, their income and job security
- Send out positive reminders on tool maintenance tips via email or text on a consistent basis
- Designate certain employees to check, clean and lubricate each crew’s air tools at the close of business or end of each shift.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to air tool maintenance best practices, Goldberg with Air Centers of Florida sums it up succinctly: “You need to deliver clean, dry, lubricated air at sufficient pressure and volume for the tool that you’re using. If you don’t do all those things, the tool is not going to run right or might not work at all.”
And when the air tool doesn’t work at the job site, neither does the tool operator – hurting productivity and profits.