What to Do When Your Equipment Breaks Down

What to do when your equipment breaks down

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Equipment breakdowns are not just inefficient for a construction schedule, either. They’re stressful for the operator, aggravating for the supervisor and a pain for the entire construction crew who are interdependent on all the machinery on the job to function properly as a team.

The loss of operation of one single piece of machinery can bring the job site to a standstill and remain that way until repairs or replacement of the equipment take place. That downtime still has to be paid for in the project, too. Other equipment and resources continue to absorb costs while idling by and waiting for the cause of the breakdown to be established, a heavy equipment repair procedure worked out and that piece of equipment brought back into service.

Take a single excavator on a small commercial construction site for example. Poor maintenance of the systems can result in the machine suddenly going dead in its tracks. It sits there while trucks line up and drivers stand around. Other workers stop their tasks and stay dormant while the operator and mechanics begin troubleshooting the cause. Just because the excavator’s hour clock has stopped doesn’t mean the others have, and what starts with a few hundred dollars of interruption quickly leads into the thousands.

Troubleshooting is the first step in the heavy equipment repair process. It sometimes takes the longest, especially if the people involved are not familiar with that piece of equipment or with the necessary sequence of events to follow in quickly and efficiently finding the root cause, making a repair action and returning the equipment into service.

Equipment breakdowns will happen to any construction company on any job site, but the chances are reduced and effects are minimized if the company has prepared itself with a proper preventative maintenance program and an effective troubleshooting system.

Here are the logical steps to troubleshooting equipment breakdown, the main causes of equipment breakdown and the basic parts to a proper equipment preventative maintenance program.

Guide to Troubleshooting Equipment Breakdown

Troubleshooting is a method of finding the cause of a problem and correcting it. The ultimate goal of troubleshooting is to get the equipment back into service as quickly and as fully as possible. Time is of the essence because the entire operation depends on the troubleshooter’s ability to solve the problem efficiently and economically. Troubleshooters on most job sites are the mechanics.

Troubleshooting is a method of finding the cause of a problem and correcting it

Although the actual steps in troubleshooting may vary from case to case, there are a few general guidelines to follow. Sometimes it’s a familiar piece of equipment that breaks down, and the problem can be solved and rectified quickly. All too often, though, the root cause is buried deep in the equipment’s systems, and it turns into a lengthy and frustrating exercise before the machinery is dependably functional again.

The troubleshooting process doesn’t need to be complicated if a logical, step-by-step process is followed that is specific to the problem at hand. Here are the five basic steps to troubleshooting equipment breakdowns:

1. Verify a Problem Actually Exists

The troubleshooting process begins with symptom recognition. That involves the equipment operator, equipment indicators, controls and the technical documentation about the equipment and its systems. Contacting the equipment operator should be the first action taken as they’re usually the most familiar with the equipment and can supply the primary details about the breakdown circumstances.

To get the most information, the troubleshooter should ask:

  • What are the operator’s indications of the trouble?
  • How did the operator discover the trouble?
  • What were the conditions at the time the trouble occurred?
  • Is the trouble constant or intermittent?

Next, the troubleshooter should observe the equipment or system to get a first-hand impression of what’s wrong. During this, the troubleshooter should note all abnormal symptoms, evaluate what’s observed and examine the equipment’s log or other documentation. Working with the operator to determine exactly what the problem is will lead into isolating the cause.

2. Narrow Down the Problem’s Root Cause

The second step of the troubleshooting process heavily relies on the troubleshooter’s technical skills, experience and intuition. The troubleshooter is responsible for narrowing down the root cause of the problem. This is done by using testing equipment and reading the equipment’s instruments. Disassembly may be required if nothing results from making any adjustments to the equipment’s components. It also involves mental activity such as logic, reasoning and evaluation.

The second step of the troubleshooting process heavily relies on the troubleshooter's skills

The troubleshooter’s specialized knowledge plays a key part of the isolation process, and they follow a safe and effective procedure. Troubleshooters isolate causes by:

  • Looking at low maintenance items first and examining all convenient possibilities to save time
  • Familiarizing themselves with any specific modes that could help in troubleshooting such as built-in self-tests and diagnostics
  • Complying with all field safety protocols
  • Making sure systems are de-energized and off-line before dismantling
  • Identifying obvious items but also being aware of those that are hidden

Almost all pieces of construction machinery have operation manuals and/or equipment logs. Many have troubleshooting checklists and guidelines. This should be a main source of information for the troubleshooter and can help to eliminate much of the “educated guess-work” that’s used in eliminating issues and drilling down to the cause of the problem. Once the cause is isolated to a specific component, the construction equipment repair can take place.

3. Correcting the Cause of the Problem

This step involves rectifying the problem by performing the construction equipment repair or activity that eliminates the issue. It can also involve calling in a temporary replacement or a backup piece of equipment such as a rental or spare machine. This should be part of the company’s overall breakdown preparedness program.

Sometimes the construction equipment repair is as simple as turning a switch or adjusting a valve, but often it involves replacing a major component or occasionally the entire machine. In an attempt to fix the issue, the troubleshooter will test, analyze and retest the equipment. It’s vitally important that the cause of the problem is eliminated rather than just fixing the component that’s affected. Failing to deal with the actual cause such as adjusting another component to compensate for the problem will always lead to further complications and future breakdowns.

4. Verify the Problem Is Corrected

Testing the component to verify the cause of the breakdown is always done before the machinery is returned to active service. Typically, it will be necessary to double-check the same components that alerted the operator to the initial breakdown.

Testing the component to verify the cause of the breakdown

The purpose here is to prove that the issue no longer exists. and must be thorough. When there are both quick and long procedures available, the longer method is preferable even if it may take more time. This helps ensure the problem is rectified and not masking another issue, which will repeat the breakdown.

During the verification process, these observations should be made:

  • Check all as gauges, readings and physical operation that related to the repaired item
  • Perform manufacture’s recommended process to verify the component’s integrity, the system or the entire piece of machinery
  • Using approved procedures, establish normally operating conditions and check the equipment while running

By thoroughly verifying the equipment’s proper operation, the operator and the troubleshooter are relatively assured that the problem has been correctly resolved. To help ensure the problem doesn’t reoccur, a follow-up is normally done.

5. Prevent Future Issues By Following Up

The fifth and final step in troubleshooting is the follow up that will limit and prevent future issues. Making recommendations and taking precautions will keep the piece of equipment from breaking down again. Actions may include:

  • Altering the preventive maintenance schedule or procedure
  • Recommending procedure modifications for more dependable performance
  • Conducting operator/maintainer awareness training
  • Changing suppliers of components or services
  • Completing proper and detailed documentation of the problem and repair in the equipment logbook to assist while troubleshooting similar problems in the future

Although the system test, retest and preventive measures may not seem as important as isolating the problem, fixing it and getting the machine back in operation, the time spent is vital to long-term productive performance.

Causes of Equipment Breakdown

Most problems an operator or troubleshooter face are relatively simple to analyze and repair. Usually, when equipment or an associated component fails, the reason for the failure is obvious. The component is fixed, and the equipment goes back into production. The job can then carry on.

Usually, when equipment or an associated component fails, the reason for failure is obvious.

There are times that breakdowns occur sporadically, however, and this is called intermittent failure. This leaves a sense of unreliability about the machine and can lead to sudden stoppages and a frustrating loss of time as well as costly delays.

It’s important to know the three causes of intermittent equipment breakdown. This is enormously helpful to the troubleshooting process. Most intermittent breakdowns fall in one or more of these categories:

Thermally Induced Failure

Thermally induced failure is a problem that usually happens when there is a huge fluctuation of temperature such as when the machinery is cold and being warmed up or if it’s been overheated. Weather is another factor. Extremely hot days or freezing conditions are big contributors.

To isolate a thermally induced failure cause, the equipment is put through a cycle test where it is allowed to cool off and then be observed as it’s warming up. Once the problem appears, the stage will be evident, and the cause is eliminated through corrective actions.

Mechanically Induced Failure

A mechanically induced failure is relatively easy to recognize. This type of failure occurs when the equipment breaks down as the result of vibration, mechanical shock, collision or operator abuse by pushing the machine beyond its design or climate limits.

Unfortunately, mechanically induced failures can be catastrophic and expensive in time, resources and construction equipment repair bills. They are almost always prevented through proper operation and maintenance.

Erratic Failure

The most difficult problem to diagnose is an erratic failure, and this is nearly impossible to predict. These failures occur randomly and under various operating conditions. Many times erratic failures are caused by sudden overloads on electrical or hydraulic systems, especially with today’s computerized components that seem to lock-up and baffle even their designers.

The most difficult problem to diagnose is an erratic failure, which is nearly impossible to predict

Finding an erratic failure solution is not easy. Most of the time, the problem cannot be isolated through recreation and requires a component-by-component replacement approach until the right one is identified, and the problem disappears. This is not a practical approach, however, sometimes trial and elimination is the only solution to fixing equipment breakdown.

10 Issues of Equipment Breakdown

Most of the causes of equipment breakdown come from ten issues surrounding the overall operation of machinery. These ten preventable problems account for well over half of field breakdowns:

1. Untrained Personnel Operating Equipment

Without a doubt, the majority of breakdowns come from human error. Outside of proper preventive maintenance, the lack of operator understanding of how a piece of equipment works and what it’s capable of doing leads to damage and unnecessary repairs. This includes the operator not being aware of the equipment’s limitations.

A lack of proper training and supervision is normally behind this expensive issue, and it’s far more common in hired personnel as opposed to owner-operated machines. The time and money spent on training equipment operators are one of the cheapest returns on investment made in any construction company.

2. Ignoring Warning Signals

This is usually a spin-off from poorly trained operators. Most machines have an assortment of gauges, dials, overload reliefs, warning buzzers and alarms. Untrained operators or operators who are impaired by fatigue, illness or other sources may not be paying attention to what the machine is telling them.

Training is the best defense against costly heavy equipment breakdown repairs. Knowing what to watch for on the machine as well as keeping a mandatory service and operation logbook offers a safeguard and forces operators not to ignore dangerous warning signals.

3. Failure to Read the Owner Manual

The third neglect on a machine operator’s part is not taking the time to read the equipment’s owner manual that lays out all the acceptable tolerances under which the machine can be operated and how it must be maintained.

The machine’s owner manual is also a great source of troubleshooting information, and when read and understood by the operator, it makes them much more aware of how to operate the machine and what warning signals to be aware of.

4. Overrunning the Machine’s Capability

This serious and expensive issue is not prone to inexperienced operators only. Often an operator will be forced into a situation where they push their equipment beyond the design load or the weather limitations just to “get the job done.”

Overrunning isn’t limited to putting excessive strain on metal, hydraulics and electrical systems. It’s often from overrunning the required and recommended maintenance periods that leads to abrasive conditions and failure of the equipment’s fluids.

5. Improper Maintenance

The single most important issue that causes equipment breakdown is the lack of proper maintenance. This leads to a sudden component or system failure. It’s also the easiest issue to prevent.

The single most important issue that causes equipment breakdown is the lack of proper maintenance

The equipment’s owner manual will have the prescribed service intervals whether they be by hours of operation, seasonal or job-specific. Regular lubrication and filter changes are critical, as are inspections of mechanical, electrical, hydraulic and other systematic equipment components.

6. Not Replacing Worn Parts When Needed

Extending the equipment’s maintenance program goes beyond routine servicing intervals. Replacing parts is expensive, but the failure of a major component can have a domino effect on having to replace other parts that still have a serviceable life.

Inspection is the key to the prevention of major component failure, and the inspection process is ongoing. Most competent and experienced operators inspect their machinery on a daily basis and don’t wait for a total failure before replacing worn parts. It’s not just good business. It’s common sense.

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7. Component Misalignment

Pulleys, drives, sprockets and tracks are only a few of the mobile components that need to be kept in proper alignment to prevent premature wear and tear on their related components. Misalignment is a major cause of equipment breakdown.

Pulleys, drives, sprockets, and tracks are only a few mobile components that need proper alignment

A big part of a machine’s routine maintenance program includes regular checks on component alignment. Realigning is far easier and more economical that letting breakdown occur from this lack of care.

8. Poor Electrical Connections

Regular inspection of battery terminals, fuse terminals and electrical device connections is something many equipment operators overlook. Vibration, dust, dirt and grime are the biggest culprits in equipment breakdown caused by an electrical failure.

Checking and tightening electrical terminals and watching for aging wiring is a simple part of daily machine operation. This, too, is cost-effective breakdown preventive maintenance.

9. Improper Weather-Related Use

Weather can be a brutal force on construction equipment. Outdoor job sites are exposed to heat, cold, wind, snow, rain and ice, not to mention the mud, dust and potentially rough terrain.

Poor weather conditions put an immense strain on the wear and tear of construction equipment. Pushing a machine past its operating conditions is an expensive risk to take. Keeping a machine running during inclement weather should be avoided if possible.

10. Improper Equipment Storage

When not in use, construction equipment should be cleaned and properly stored. This reduces the effects of corrosion and weather-beating that severely reduce the equipment’s life span and lessens the chance of unexpected breakdown during operation.

When not in use, construction equipment should be cleaned and properly stored

Interior storage is the best solution. This, of course, depends on the size of the equipment and its mobility. Most job sites today have portable equipment storage containers as well as protective tents and sheds.

Preventive Maintenance for Construction Equipment

Preventive Maintenance (PM) is a program address and anticipates and changes or wear and tear on items. It is performed continuously in order to keep up with corrective actions. This ensures that machines remain reliable and perform properly. All PM’s should include actions that control and plan for maintenance items like inspections, adjustments, lubricating parts, and replacing any non-functioning components. PM for CAT equipment repair also includes regular testing and analysis on the equipment’s performance such as diesel fuel system maintenance and testing.

The point of PM is to ensure items are caught before a breakdown happens. Successful PM practices extend the equipment’s lifespan and minimize the unscheduled downtime that comes with unnecessary CAT equipment breakdown. Benefits from a proper PM program include:

  • Improved equipment and system reliability
  • Decrease in expensive parts replacement
  • Improvement inventory control and management
  • Reduction of an unexpected breakdown
  • Extended equipment life
  • Improved resale value

There is more to preventing and troubleshooting construction equipment breakdowns than straightforward maintenance like greasing, oiling and filter changes. A proper PM program is an all-inclusive approach to equipment management from the moment the machine is purchased to the end of its useful life.

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The total PM package that will increase a machine’s lifecycle and greatly reduce the chance of unexpected breakdown looks like this:


The right machine for the job is paramount. Buying the right machine in the right condition, whether it’s new or used, is the starting point.

Operator Training

The time invested in properly training equipment operators has the highest return on investment in equipment purchasing. An operator who knows the machine, its abilities, its limitations and its required attention greatly reduces the chance of breakdown.

Technician Training

A mechanic who is trained in the operation, maintenance and CAT equipment repair is essential. Troubleshooting is usually the technician’s responsibility, and any time spent in their training will pay back when a breakdown occurs.

Scheduled Maintenance

Regular maintenance should be scheduled for when the machine is not required in use. There’s an industry saying, “maintenance should be on straight time, not on overtime.”

Fluid Analysis

Diesel fuel system maintenance and analysis are critical. A machine’s fluids tell so much about its condition. Fuel, engine oil, coolant and hydraulic oil tell a specific story to those who know what to look for. Chemical fluid analysis is often contracted to third-party expert analyzers.


Having a stock of the right oils and filters as well as rubber products like belts, hoses and tires is an effective and important component to a proper PM program. Bulk purchases ensure no lost downtime occurs when servicing is due.

Fleet Sizing

A construction equipment fleet needs enough units to meet production demands, but it must be properly utilized. Many fleet managers budget for additional equipment when primary machines are being serviced or in the event of an unexpected breakdown.

Machine Disposal

Eventually, even the best-maintained equipment wears out and comes to the end of its life cycle. Part of a good PM program is recognizing when it’s time to dispose of equipment, especially before it begins to nickel and dime the company.

Protecting and Repairing Your CAT Equipment

Costly CAT equipment breakdown on a construction site can be inevitable even with the best-trained operators and the best-maintained machinery.

Having a proper preventive maintenance program, knowing the principal causes of breakdown and avoiding them, as well as having a sound handle of troubleshooting steps will go a long way in knowing what to do when your equipment breaks down.

Contact H.O. Penn for service and repair requests when your equipment breaks down, or visit one of our six convenient locations in Holtsville, Bronx, Newington, Poughkeepsie, Bloomingburg and Medford.

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