Simple solutions to common maintenance problems

By Gary Weidner January 1, 1999

Most short cuts are based on skillful application of common sense, so a typical reaction to a new tip is “Why didn’t I think of that?” Ideas for faster, easier, less expensive (and perhaps better) ways to deal with maintenance tasks deserve to be shared. That’s why Plant Engineering magazine publishes “Tips & Tricks” and “Simple Solutions.”

If you have one or more tips that you are willing to share with fellow professionals, see “How to submit suggestions” at the end of this article.

All submissions received during the year will first be considered for Plant Engineering’s annual September “Tips & Tricks” presentation, where entries voted tops by readers receive substantial cash awards. Whether they win a prize or not, ideas deemed useful will be published in “Tips & Tricks” or “Simple Solutions.”

It’s important to note that simplicity and widespread applicability are two criteria for suggestions. We often receive excellent suggestions that solve problems too specialized for widespread interest to readers.

We do publish tips that may be fairly well known within a particular trade and might be helpful to others outside that field. Originality is not a requirement; a good idea is a good idea regardless of where you picked it up.

As always, be sure to use appropriate safety equipment and procedures when applying tips. And exercise sound judgment. Plant Engineering cannot guarantee that a tip will work or be the best solution for all situations.

Moving pipes

Problem: From time to time, a cumbersome pipe spool or assembly must be removed from a piece of equipment such as an air compressor. Handling the unbolted assembly is difficult.

Solution: With the assembly in question installed, make a large hinge to swing it out of place when unbolted. Slide an appropriate pipe over a smaller pipe or square tube, and mount the inner pipe to the equipment. Weld arms from the loose pipe to the assembly to be moved.

Contributor: Gordon R. Watson, PE, Fluor Daniel, San Jose, CA

Got a screw loose?

Problem: There are stripped threads in metal, in a low-stress application.

Solution: Many of us have used a sliver of wood as a quick fix for a stripped out hole in wood. A similar technique works for low-stress machine screw applications.

Flatten an appropriate size piece of solid-core solder, slip it in the hole, and reinstall the screw. The solder binds to both threaded surfaces to make a quick low-test version of a threaded insert.

Contributor: Larry Baumgartner, Maintenance Technician, Stockpot, Inc., Redmond, WA

Substitute eyelet

Problem: A tarp or drop cloth needs to be lashed down. Eyelets are missing, nonexistent, or in the wrong locations. What to do?

Solution: Place a smooth stone or large marble at the desired location, gather tarp around it, and tie rope or cord around the lump.

Contributor: Ralph Dewey, Solvay Polymers, Deer Park, TX

Make leaks glow

Problem: Pinhole leaks are difficult to detect, especially in shell-and-tube heat exchangers. Searching for a minute amount of fluid in a large bundle of tubes can be very time consuming.

Solution: Mix a couple of packages of red Kool-Aid powder into the shell-side water supply and pressurize it. Use a black light to observe the insides of the tubes. Liquid leaking from the pinhole is fluorescent and easy to detect.

Contributor: Fred J. Berl, Sr., Facility Engineer, Inflation Systems, Moses Lake, WA


Problem: When finishing drywall, occasional raised (under-driven) screw heads are en- countered. The traditional “hammer head” on good taping knives is from the days of nails. What to do?

Solution: Press fit a screw gun bit into the handle of the taping knife. It provides excellent maneuverability and leverage in tightening screws.

Contributor: Larry Borsinger, IBM, Yorktown Heights, NY

Hand cleaning

Problem: After a maintenance job, grease is often deeply embedded into the hands. The usual grit type cleanser will not get it out.

Solution: Use ordinary dish washing detergent, especially one that contains lemon. First use detergent alone, then add a small amount of water. It does a remarkable job of grease removal. (Ed. note: volunteering to do the dishes at home gives similar results.)

Contributor: Ronald R. Gould, VP/Engineering, Advance Lifts, Inc., St. Charles, IL

Buzzing wires

Problem: Unidentified wires need to be traced between ends of a run.

Solution: Obtain a group of resistors in even increments of hundreds or thousands of ohms. Solder alligator clips to the resistor ends, and mark each assembly with the resistance value on a label. For each wire to be traced, clip a resistor between one end of the wire and ground. At the other end of the run, use an ohmmeter to identify each wire.

Contributor: Hal Rosser, Augusta Service Co., Augusta, GA

Color coding

Problem: During projects that require several size taps and tap drills, it is hard to distinguish which bit corresponds to which tap.

Solution: Simply color code the top ends of each tap and drill pair with paint. Use a different color for each pair.

Contributor: Eldon Hartman, Maintenance Superintendent, Vinylex Corp., Carrollton, TX

Locating plastic pipe

Problem: Locating plastic pipe underground is difficult or impossible. What to do?

Solution: When burying plastic pipe, run commercially-available conductive tape above it, or run a copper wire (#14 AWG or larger) and secure to the pipe with cable ties. Bring an end to the surface, terminate in a junction box, and mark with a small sign indicating that it is a tracer wire. This approach will allow use of a pipe locator.

Contributor: Gordon R. Watson, PE, Fluor Daniel, San Jose, CA

Key concepts

Many good shortcuts exist for dealing with common maintenance problems.

A properly applied shortcut saves time, money, and aggravation.

If you have a good idea, send it to us.

Editor’s offering:

Here are a couple of ideas we haven’t seen submitted.

Removing bushings

Problem: How can a tight-fitting bushing be removed from a blind hole?

Solution: We’ve already published suggestions to put oil or grease into the bushing bore and tap in the shaft or a close-fitting pin to pop the bushing by hydraulic force. Here’s a variation that may lend versatility in some situations.

Saturate a soft paper towel dripping wet with water or oil, and quickly and gently stuff it into the bushing bore. Tap in the pin to pop the bushing.

Changing oil

Problem: An oil change is needed on a small gearbox, crankcase, or similar item. The equipment is awkward to get to, and it’s difficult to catch the drained oil.

Solution: Create a self-contained, hand-powered oil sucker by modifying a pump style garden sprayer. Obtain a heavy-duty 2-gal. poly tank type sprayer. Disassemble the pump and reverse the check valves on the piston cup and cylinder bottom. Replace the spray wand and hose with nylon fittings and about 6 ft of 1/2-in. ID clear vinyl tubing. Insert smaller diameter tubing at the suction end, to fit through equipment filler openings. This device empties a crankcase cleanly and neatly with no handling of drained oil. Just carry away the old oil in the sprayer tank.

How to submit suggestions

Keeping in mind the guidelines at the beginning of this article, send ideas to: Gary Weidner, Senior Editor, Plant Engineering magazine 1350 E. Touhy Ave. Des Plaines, IL 60018; e-mail:; phone: 847-390-2689; fax: 847-390-2656.