Because they are a valuable investment, hydraulic cutting and crimping tools should be used properly and maintained regularly.

Hydraulic tools are the biggest and most complex items in a contractor's tool chest. They are certainly the most expensive and the most costly to replace on a regular basis. As such, good preventive care and maintenance will extend tool life and increase worker productivity. By investing a little time in staff training and nominal amounts of money for maintenance, you'll be repaid many times over with good hydraulic tool performance.

The following guidelines should help you in maintaining these valuable tools.

Cleaning

The primary cause of premature hydraulic tool failure is dirt and contamination. Usually, pistons and rams are the areas on a remote head where dirt and contamination enter (unless the hydraulic fluid reservoir is left opened, a procedure generally not recommended in a field operation). As such, these are the areas where you should take most precautions. To combat their intrusion, the following preventive maintenance steps should be taken.

* Wipe clean all hydraulic connections before inserting them into a hydraulic pump or remote head.

* Clean hydraulic heads with non-petroleum solvents whenever possible to minimize contamination of traveling surfaces and hydraulic interfaces.

* Check the tool yearly for proper operation and output and bleed out any air.

Not all makes of hydraulic tools use the same types of seals. For example, O-rings on pistons and ram followers may be a type of rubber or neoprene that is negatively affected by certain petroleum-based products. As such, specific solvents may be required with some makes while restricted from use with others.

Non-petroleum-based solvents are safe to use in virtually every application. Among those generally recommended are SAVISOL[TM] or consumer-type green cleaners like Simple Green[TM]. If unsure about what solvent to use, double check with the tool manufacturer.

When cleaning tools, always use fiber brushes, never metal bristled brushes. Metal can score a piston, creating an area for dirt and other contaminants to collect and migrate into the hydraulic fluid. This increases the chance of compromising the tool's rings, ball seats, and the pump itself.

Avoid the use of caustics and flammables such as gasoline and mineral spirits for operator and tool safety reasons.

Adverse conditions make hydraulic tool cleaning and maintenance even more important. An application where salt water is present is perhaps the worst situation. While most tools are tested in salt-spray chambers during design and can withstand exposure up to 24 or more hours, it's still important to clean a hydraulic tool after each use. Most manufacturers recommend flushing the tool with clean water and wiping the tool with a recommended solvent. If not done, long-term damage will result. Also, the "dirty" tool might contaminate other tools stored in the same case.

Proper usage

Another cause for tool failure is misuse or abuse. It's not uncommon during repair and reconditioning to see a hydraulic tool that was used for hammering or prying. In other instances, extension handles or "cheaters" were added to a tool to "improve" its performance. Such handles actually do not improve operation since the tool's output force is fixed. As a result, undue stress may be placed on the tool. More importantly, extension handles may compromise the dielectric properties of the tool, since these handles can cut into the tool's insulation. In short, no mechanical advantage is gained at the compression or cut; instead, the tool becomes prematurely fatigued.

Abusing tools causes expensive repairs that can void a warranty. Occasionally operators may try to use a tool for a purpose other than its original intention. One example is using a soft-metal conductor cutter to cut reinforcing bar at a construction site.

In addition to tool failure, individual pieces can shatter and break away, causing potential injury to a worker. (Even when using a hydraulic cutting or crimping tool properly, always wear eye protection.)

Incorrect selection of tooling, dies, and connectors also can negatively impact the performance a tool. If a connector from Manufacturer A is used with dies from Manufacturer B in a tool from Manufacturer C, compatibility and the resulting connection are in question. As a result, you should verify the tool's acceptance of available dies and/or connectors because liability may come into play when mixing such elements. Check with the connector manufacturer's published data and verify which tools and dies are recommended with a specific connector.

Maintenance schedules

Most mechanical tools, such as ratchet tools and 4-bar linkage or pop tools, will last 10 to 20 years in normal daily use with proper maintenance and adjustments. To obtain this useful life, it's recommended that mechanical tools be checked for adjustment once a month.

Self-contained hydraulic tools will last 5 to 15 years with proper care and maintenance. Their system operation should be checked yearly.

Electric-powered pumps will have the same life expectancy as self-contained hydraulic tools. Their system operation also should be checked yearly. The single best pump preventive maintenance procedure is an annual hydraulic oil change.

Hydraulic hoses (both insulated and non-insulated) should be checked for cracking or leaks yearly. Most electric powered crimping tool manufacturers have hydraulic hose care manuals that should be referenced prior to and directly after tool usage. Note: Do not attempt to repair a hydraulic hose.

Mike Brunelli is Group Leader, Application Tooling Section, Burndy Electrical, Manchester, N.H.