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Preventing Combine Fires: A Success Story

Friday, October 27, 2017
filed under: Harvest/Storage

combine fire
One of two combines South Dakota producer Chris Bailey lost to a fire.

       A Google search during the fall of 2016 led to some big changes for Watauga, S.D., farmer Chris Bailey. After losing two combines to fires during sunflower harvest, Bailey was desperate for something to prevent another fire. He stumbled upon research by now-retired South Dakota State University ag engineer Dan Humburg. That research led to a number of phone calls, and eventually to Humburg building a system for Bailey this fall. 
Chris Bailey
       Bailey installed the system on his 8230 Case combine by himself.  “It took me about a day and a half to do the install,” he says.  “I made a couple of slight modifications, just because of my personal preference.  I’ve got a few things zip-tied together; I want to see how it works the way I have it before I make the installation more permanent.”
       But so far, as of early October, Bailey is happy with the system. Two days into harvesting his 2,500 acres of high-oleic sunflower, he called Humburg with good news.
       “I was pretty excited. It’s our first harvest using the system, and we had a really windy day — but no threats of fires to our combine,” Bailey reports.  “We had to shut down because of the high winds and the seeds blowing out of the trucks, but not because of the threat of fires. Last year, we would have had a fire for sure without the system.”
       The field Bailey was cutting was a dry one, too — with about 5% seed moisture. He says there were no fires and no smells of anything overheating. 
       That was music to Humburg’s ears. “His call really made my day,” the former SDSU?engineer affirms.
       It’s what Humburg has been working toward for the past five years. In 2012, he and his team at SDSU began a study on preventing combine fires. The study, funded by the South Dakota Oilseeds Council and the National Sunflower Association, had three main objectives: (1) to understand the basic characteristics of sunflower dust in the lab, (2) to see it in action in the field and how it interacts with different areas of the combine, and (3) to bring data together to suggest potential engineering solutions that could serve to change or interrupt one or more of the factors present when a harvest fire starts. 
       Their research resulted in a solution: a hardware system that’s added to the combine and prevents the ignition of volatile aerosol dust near hot exhaust components.
       Humburg built the systems and tested them on a variety of combines. He surveyed producers after the harvest and was pleased with the positive results.
       “By 2014, we figured we had answered the research part and didn’t ask for more funding,” Humburg explains.  “It was time to get to work building systems. Farmers were contacting me because they had heard about what we were doing or knew someone with a test machine who had great results. They wanted me to build them a system, and they didn’t care if they had to pay for it themselves. They were willing to spend the money to get this system installed and reduce their risk of having a combine fire.”
Dan Humburg
      Humburg, who retired from SDSU in 2016, had several leads on manufacturers who could produce his systems; but none of those leads panned out.
       “Last winter I realized we probably were not going to find a manufacturer. I hate to see our solution not be available to producers, because if you come up with something but then people can’t get it, you really didn’t come up with a solution, did you?”
       So Humburg took matters into his own hands. SDSU patented the device, but Humburg took on all the manufacturing. He already had patterns for several combine models — both Case and John Deere — and teamed up with a small manufacturer to do the laser cutting. Word of his project quickly spread.
       “I didn’t advertise it, other than a little blurb in the NSA newsletter and the Dakota Farmer. But word spread. I put a July 15 deadline on orders so I would have enough lead time to get the parts,” Humburg recounts. “I wasn’t looking to drum up a huge amount of business this first fall. I had three orders come in the previous year, and I needed to get those finished.  I got five more customers, so in all I delivered eight systems this year.”
       Humburg installed several of those systems himself.  “It’s not what I’m geared for.  I’m 60 years old!”               
       So when people like Chris Bailey say they’ll install it themselves, Humburg is happy to provide them with the kits and instructions.
       “Farmers are resourceful, and they’re used to tinkering with machinery. I’d like to put together YouTube videos to help them with the installation,” Humburg says. “I think that’s a lot more practical for a lot of producers who will install the systems themselves.They can play it back, see what they’re supposed to do, and then do it. That seems more practical than writing a manual for each model of combine.”
       Humburg is hoping to team up with a student videographer to record and edit the videos.  He says that could start as soon as this winter. Right now, he has patterns for CaseIH 8120, 8230, 9240, 8240 and John Deere 9770, 9760, and 9650.  He’s keeping a close eye on the newer John Deere machines, which he says have a system that is similar to his.
       “Deere added a system to all their machines to protect their diesel particulate filter.  This exhaust after treatment device burns up the diesel soot that it traps by periodically ‘regenerating.’  It gets very hot when it does that and was a source of problems until they applied this fix,” Humburg says. “But, they didn’t enclose the turbochargers.  I’d like to know if producers operating these newer John Deere combines (S670, S680 and S690) are still having fire problems.  If they are, that’s something we need to address and see if we can build our system to fit those machines.”
An overview of the fire protection system as installed on a JD 9770. 
      “I already told him if there are others who need help installing the system, I’d be happy to help,” says Chris Bailey. “It’s worth every penny I paid.”
       Bailey can’t help but think that this system might attract more farmers to grow sunflower.
       “There aren’t a lot of acres of sunflower in my part of the state,” he says. “I think a lot of guys don’t want to mess with them because the harvest can be so tricky. I have to admit, before I installed this system, I was thinking about looking for an alternative crop because I couldn’t afford to lose another combine to a fire during the sunflower harvest.  I’m not worried about that anymore, though.”
       Still, Bailey knows because sunflower is an oil-based crop, fine dust from sunflower plants poses a constant fire hazard — especially when conditions are dry. He will continue to follow protocol to reduce the risk, including blowing off his combine with an air hose daily.  But, he says, the newly installed device has him resting a little easier at night and has made harvest a lot less time consuming.  “You can just go.  I used to stop every couple of rounds to blow off the combine. I don’t have to do that anymore.”
— Jody Kerzman              
Tips to Reduce the Risk of Combine Fires
  • Keep a clean work area when harvesting sunflower. The fire potential is always greater when conditions and the crop are dry.  Blow the combine and grain dryer setup with an air hose daily. If dust collects on the machine, remove it regularly to eliminate the chance of fire — the potential for which is even greater when harvest conditions and the crop are drier. If possible, consider having a portable leaf blower on hand for this in the field.
  • Keep a small pressure sprayer or container filled with water on hand in the combine in case of fire.
  • If the threat of extreme dry conditions and combine fires persists, try nighttime harvesting, when humidity levels are higher.
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