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How to salvage flooded machinery

Horrific floods that put farmland underwater will probably also submerge some machinery and vehicles. If not assessed properly, the damage and potential problems inflicted may shorten machinery life or jeopardize salvage efforts. 

Even if you are completely insured with replacement cost value, there may be some advantage to glean in following the steps provided here if the machine can be saved with a little work. If your operation has a limited amount of coverage, then it may behoove you to resurrect what you can and use the funds to replace the other equipment that’s too far gone.

Worse After Water Has Receded

When it comes to mechanical parts that were exposed to water, the most damage occurs after the flooding has receded. Engines, transmissions, and hydraulic systems degrade and begin to rust as they dry. 

Slow evaporation of the water introduces oxygen that, in turn, creates rust, corrosion, and pitting. This attack on close-tolerance components is what ruins them, while little damage occurs in complete submersion. The tendency to allow components to air dry in almost every instance assures that vehicle’s death.

For this reason, it is critical to get all the moisture out of systems as quickly as possible using compressed air and, if applicable and access is available, using products like penetrating oils (WD-40, for example), which are also water dispersants.

If possible, try to determine the level the water reached. It is very likely that it did not enter the engine, transmission, or any of the sensitive electronics on larger machinery. Most driveline systems are very well sealed and would only allow a minimal amount of water infiltration through a vent line or dipstick tube. 

In like fashion, most electronics on modern farm machinery are often potted – they’re considered weather-resistant but not waterproof. The difference? The first classification allows the device to be exposed to rain and snow. But they would suffer the infiltration of water if submerged, especially for any length of time. 

If the unit allows, open the case and cover the circuit board with uncooked white rice and place in a sealed plastic bag (as is often suggested when dealing with a submerged cell phone). The rice will act as a desiccant and pull the moisture from the circuits.


Floodwater can seep into multiple components such as filters, jeopardizing not only their use but also threatening engines and transmissions. For this reason they should be changed.

Don’t Start the Engine

When it comes to any engine, the most important thing is to not try to start it without first inspecting for water ingestion in the crankcase, induction, and fuel systems. You do not want to move the water around in the engine by starting it right away. The risk of hydro-locking the crankshaft is high along with the possibility of bending a connecting rod. Many engines would have survived a flood if no one ever twisted the ignition key.

Pull the dipstick and check for water. Even if this in inconclusive, drain the engine oil. If all looks good, then go to the induction path. Keep in mind that when the engine was shut off there were both intake and exhaust valves open on some cylinders. This let water enter the engine. 

With a gasoline engine it is best to remove all spark plugs and turn the crankshaft over by hand. Complete at least four revolutions of the crankshaft. Pay attention if any water comes out of the cylinders and if the crankshaft turns smoothly. Even if it got wet, the fact that it rotates smoothly is a very good sign. 

Do not be concerned that there is no oil in the crankcase; turning the crank by hand will not hurt a thing. If it passes muster, spray the cylinders the best you can via the spark plug holes with WD-40 to protect the cylinder walls and wick in any residual moisture. 

With a diesel engine, you’ll need to either remove the injectors or the glow plugs and follow the same procedure, though it’s much harder to turn by hand.

Inspect the Fuel

Move on to the fuel supply system. Both gasoline and diesel fuel tanks are vented in some way, and this will allow water to enter. It is imperative that if the fuel is polluted, you do not allow it to be pushed into the injection pump or carburetor. 

If the fuel tank has a drain, take a sample from there. If not, disconnect a fuel feed line to the engine and gently introduce some shop air pressure into the fuel tank through the fill point while blocking the opening with a shop rag. 

With the aid of a helper, take a sample of the fuel and inspect it. If in doubt, dump the fuel but do not put in any fresh fuel until other aspects of the engine are confirmed. 

Change all fuel filters and water separators if so equipped, once everything else checks out. 

When inspecting the hydraulic, transmission, differential, and braking systems, follow the same steps to determine the amount of moisture that has entered. You might be pleasantly surprised. I recommend changing those fluids, but not until you have confirmed whether the engine runs.

Use a Borescope to Look Inside

An inspection (borescope) camera is an excellent tool for looking at cylinder walls and other internal parts to check for water damage. Keep in mind that farm equipment and vehicles have a good deal of subsystems that can cause problems such as the HVAC, instrument panel, lights, power windows, charging circuit, etc. Just because the engine runs, the machine can still end up being unreliable. 

Do not neglect the mechanical systems (brake shoes and pads, clutch mechanism, and so on). They may be hydraulically fine but rusted solid. If so, they need to be disassembled and cleaned.

If you do end up saving the machine and an electrical issue turns up as time goes on, pay attention to ground circuits and wiring harness pin connections. They can corrode, so they may be the source of the problems. 

The most vulnerable part of a wiring harness? The terminal ends – the rest of the wire is benign to being submerged. In many instances you can purchase terminal end pigtails from the original manufacturer that allows you to cut off the old plugs and solder and shrink-seal the new wires into place with a factory-crimped terminal. 

Wheel and other bearings and chains such as those on a combine head or platform are very susceptible to water damage and can often take a real effort to replace, due to the complexity of the system. 

Similarly, it can take a good deal of time to confirm the integrity of other electrical components such as engine sensors or those used on a planter or sprayer, electronic seed meters or even mechanical ones. 

Solenoids are another weak area since they are electromagnets. It doesn’t take much moisture and only a little bit of air for internal rust to form on them.

Only you can determine, based on your farm’s situation, what should be saved. Sadly, there is no way to truly predict the reliability of any machine or engine just by going on the partial indicator of how it first responds.

Buying Flooded Iron

An additional concern of mine is how many of these repaired units will end up on auction lots with a new interior? People have short memories, and an unscrupulous person can buy flood-damaged equipment from an insurance company for salvage value and send it to a part of the country where there was no weather event such as a flood. 

This may very well need to be an additional area of concern when shopping auction lots in the future.

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