Tools of the Trade

April 1, 2000
It has been more than 150 years since the introduction of the first percussion steam-powered rock drill. But this predecessor to the modern pneumatic

It has been more than 150 years since the introduction of the first percussion steam-powered rock drill. But this predecessor to the modern pneumatic handheld tool has changed our world and has affected almost every aspect of our lives, including our transportation, water and sewage systems. In fact, without the invention of the rock drill, the daily commute for many of us would be much longer.

Many in the industry would agree with this statement: The rock drill embodies more inventions for its volume and weight than any other machine of equal importance. This statement was true when it was ventured in 1889 and is still true today. Compressors and air tools help us run cables underground, allowing us to send e-mail and to telecommute.

Compressed air and pneumatic tools offer safe, reliable and expedient ways to get the job done. Larger tools such as the 90-pound class breakers have held their own, while smaller and lighter hard-hitting tools such as 35-pound class breakers, rivet busters and demolition tools have increasingly gained a spot in the marketplace.

Safety first While the durability of tools is paramount, operator safety is also important. Wearing the proper gear such as safety glasses, a hard hat, ear protection, safety shoes, gloves and dust protection greatly reduces the chance of injury on the job.

Proper tool usage * Properly size the compressor to fit the tool and adhere to the pressure and safety guidelines established by the manufacturer. Some manufacturers offer compressors with dual pressure options. While the high pressure is ideal for applications such as sandblasting, it damages the tool and creates more vibration. Even ergonomically designed tools will perform poorly if the pressure is too high.

* Use good-quality steel and bits. Make sure they are sharp and their striking surfaces are true and square. Also inspect the tool bushing and strike surfaces regularly to eliminate problems down the road.

* Proper lubrication is critical to tool performance and longevity. Generally, good-grade rock drill oil combined with the proper lubricator will also ensure long life.

* Check the tightness of the nut and bolt tool daily. It is a simple but frequently overlooked task.

* Inspect the air hoses and couplers to make sure they are not worn out or leaking. Even a small hose leak will cost wasted fuel dollars if overlooked. Check air hose connections to make they are secure and locked into position. Remember that the air hose is the lifeline between the compressor and tool.

* Finally, keep the tool at the work surface. Many times operators will run the tool while removing it from the work surface. Doing this will cause premature wear to the tool because it is basically running against itself.

Simplicity and ease of maintenance are also important because good service technicians are hard to find. Following the procedures outlined above will reduce the chance of operator injury, prolong the air tool's life and improve your bottom line. And if you follow proper tool usage, the air tool can mean rental profit for many years.

Crews all across the country are building new roads and refurbishing or rebuilding existing bridges. Storm and sewer networks are undergoing major repairs. Utility companies are repairing and replacing gas lines, and converting aboveground electric lines to underground lines. The industrial, commercial and residential repair boom shows little sign of slowing down, leading to a steady increase in percussion tools' usage.

"Customers still need a full range of tools for specific applications such as chipping hammers, rock drills, clay diggers and paving breakers, and customers expect quality and durability," says Harold Wagner, national Mobilair sales manager for Kaeser Compressors. "While the tool utilization rate is expected to increase significantly, new tool purchases are expected to grow approximately 3 to 5 percent this year."

The basic design for percussion tools has been refined rather than changed over the past 50 years. The primary advancements improved manufacturing techniques and product quality, while some metallurgical advancements have increased durability.

User trends are becoming harder to define. Utilities and municipalities have an increased awareness of and emphasis on safety. Users are starting to choose the 60-pound hammer over the 90-pound hammer for comfort and manageability. In addition, noise mufflers are becoming more commonplace to reduce noise pollution and prevent hearing loss. Concerns about nerve damage after prolonged exposure to vibration have also been an important focus. Today's new ergonomically designed percussion tools have vibration-dampening handles that protect the user while performing the same tasks as earlier models.