Care and Feeding of Venerable Electric Tractors

Last updated 2004.06.14


(This document has been prepared as a result of Bill Gunn electing to get out of the Elec-Trak parts and support business. I hope some will find it to be of some use. This document is very much a work in progress at this point – June 2004.)

For those accustomed to arranging their lives around the eccentricities of obstreperous gasoline-powered garden tractors, it is necessary to learn that life with an electric tractor is relatively serene. It isn’t that the tractors are slower or less capable, just that they are less prone to failures and one simply comes to expect that the electric tractor will just work. It won’t fail to start because of lack of gas, or bad gas, or old gas, or bad spark plugs, or fouled plugs, or because the starter has failed, or the battery isn’t charged. It won’t deafen you with its raucous roar, or render you numb with its bucking vibration, or suffocate or you with its noxious exhaust. It will simply go about its business, without fuss or distraction. If you take the time to notice, which few of us do, you will be amazed by how to come to expect the low-maintenance, reduced impact on your life. You may even find yourself skipping routine maintenance, because it comes to seem so unnecessary.

However, once you come to accept this lifestyle, you may be rudely awakened one day by having this faithful beast fail you in some way. It may simply not go. And after the sense of panic subsides somewhat, you may suddenly realize that this machine is over thirty years old. And, more amazingly still, you are not prepared to resign it to the scrap heap and return to the stench, noise and stress of a gasoline-powered small engine.

This document is intended to help you keep your electric tractor in reliable running order, with tips related to maintenance, and how to fashion repairs as required (temporary and permanent), and where feasible, how to find or fashion replacement parts.

Simply because the topic is so broad, it requires some sense of organization to cover it in a reasonable manner, and to find information when it is required. Certainly, when one is desperate enough to come back to this site to find out how to fix something or find a replacement part, time is likely to be considered of the essence. I have arbitrarily arranged the information under the following headings, because I’m writing this document, so I can. My logic is that the life source for an electric tractor is electricity, so other than the initial topic (General Information), the rule of thumb is follow the electrons.

General Information

These are older machines. They are three-time orphans (abandoned by General Electric, WheelHorse and New Idea (AVCO)). So, yes it can be a challenge to come up with some parts. But don’t despair. Many of the parts are still in use by gasoline tractor makers (e.g. Toro). And you are not alone; there are others who are also determined to keep their electric tractors in operation, despite their age, rarity and lack of mainstream support.

Where possible, accumulate some spares. When necessary, share them with your compatriots – you may need the favour returned someday.

Harold Zimmerman, an Elec-Trak advocate, has a fair supply of replacement parts, and would be pleased to try to help you by supplying them on a commercial basis. Harold can be reached at 717-859-4234. He prefers calls after 5:30 p.m., Eastern Time (Pennsylvania).

If possible, get a copy of the Homeowners Maintenance Manual for the Elec-Trak. The troubleshooting instructions, photos and schematics are worth their weight in gold.

If you are really stuck for parts, the 36-volt electrical system tends to have a lot in common with golf-cart and electric lift trucks (batteries, cables, contactors, disconnects, fuses, etc). If there is a materials-handling service operation or golf-cart service company in your area, it is probably worth visiting them to see what they might be able to help you with.

There were three basic variants of the electric tractors built in the 1970s. The large frame tractors (including the Elec-Trak E12 to E20, and I-5, and approximate equivalents by other manufacturers), generally identified by their conventional layout and use of six golf-cart batteries. The small frame tractors (Elec-Trak E8 and E10). The ride-on mowers (E8R-36, John Deere 90, International Harvester Cub Cadet Model E95), which had no front hood, and typically used three 12-volt deep cycle batteries to store energy.

There is a 1987 Elec-Trak Price List available.

Publications that featured electric tractors.
Home Power Issue 96 - Page 68 - Solar Lawn Tractor by Christopher Zach
Home Power (1999) Issue 70 - Page 44 - The Elec-Track Rides Again by Mike Bryce

Charger

The charger is a ferro-resonant charger, designed to charge a 36-volt nominal lead-acid pack. When the pack is fully charged and still on charge, the charge meter should be well into the charging zone, and a volt-meter across the pack should read between 43 and 45 volts.

The main components on the charger are quite robust. If you find that your operating time is suddenly reduced, the charger is a likely point to check. (If batteries are brand new, or quite old, they might be the first thing to check. They are covered in the next section).

The most common failure item is a broken wire, or a connection that has come loose. It is usually necessary to remove the front battery on large-frame tractors to access these wires and connectors.

If the connections and wires all check out as good, the next likely culprit is the capacitor. The capacitor fails in two modes. If it fails closed, the charger will put out too high a voltage, which will typically draws excessive current and blows the fuse or circuit breaker in the mains (household) circuit. If it fails open, the charger will not provided the desired voltage, and the batteries will not be fully charged. Use a voltage meter to check the voltage from the charger, disconnected from the batteries. If it reads below 40 volts, or above 46 volts, this is a pretty good indication that the capacitor has failed and needs to be replaced.

There were two types of capacitors used in the Elec-Trak tractors. It is necessary to determine which one was used in your tractor, and to replace it with the equivalent unit. You need an AC capacitor rated for run (as opposed to start) operation.

Replacement Chargers

Some tractor owners elect to replace the OEM chargers with more modern units, either for additional features or simply to have something newer (and hopefully more reliable). One good bet for those on a budget is to find a used charger from the golf-cart market, which were typically designed specifically to charge 36-volts worth of deep-cycle lead-acid batteries. Typical brand names include: Lester (Lestronic), Exide.

Soneil

This is a brand of moderately-priced, moderate current, intelligent chargers designed to maintain batteries as well as charge them, and to be left plugged in. There is a model designed specifically for 36-volt charging applications. I have ordered one of these for my tractor, and will report on it when I have some experience with it. It appears like an ideal solution for a tractor that is stored remotely from me for weeks at a time.

Landis Charge Controller

Batteries and Cables

The batteries used in the large-frame Elec-Traks (and most of the commercially built electric tractors) are conventional 6-volt, deep cycle, lead-acid golf cart batteries.

Electrolyte levels

Specific Gravity

Voltage

Cleaning and checking connections

Cable sizing

Drive Control

OEM Control System

Key switch - what it controls, and what it does not control

Fuses - functions - automotive type (glass barrel)

Fuse holder a weak point on Ets - many owners have replaced them.

Disconnect - must be on for 36-volt chargers to work, as the switch breaks

the pack into two parts Safety interlock switches - seat and brake Reed

relays Forward/Reverse Relay Wiring numbering Gauges (instrumentation)

"Shunt"

Alltrax Controller

Curtis Controller

Drive Motor

The drive motor on Elec-Trak motors is a shunt wound, DC motor. On some of the smaller units, this may be a permanent magnet motor, but on the larger drive motors, it is a wound (wire) field.

Klixon thermal breaker

Reinstalling the Armature in a PM motor

Bearings



Gear Box and Drive Belt(s)

On the E12 and smaller units, there is typically a single drive belt connecting the pulley on the drive motor to the pulley on the gear box.

There were at least two different gearboxes used on the large frame Elec-Trak tractors. In both versions, reverse was provided electrically (reversing the motor), and not via the gearbox. These are actually Peerless (brand name) units. Look for a small aluminum plate on the gearbox casing to provide identification information. On the E12M, a 3-speed gearbox was used.

Drive Axle and Brakes

Wheels and Tires

Tires - sizes

Mounting in-board or out-board.

Chains

Wheel weights

Weight box / extra batteries



Steering and Front Axle

Main Power Take Off (PTO)

Auxiliary Power Take Off

Attachments and Accessories

(roughly in order of popularity, my perspective)

Front Lift

Lifts (run on 18 volts - actually automotive window winder motors designed

to run on 12 volts, so excessive use can burn these motors out.)


The same lift strap is used on both the front and rear electric lifts. The 1-inch wide strap is 51 inches long and folded over by 3 1/2 inches to make the loops on each end. The finished belt is 44 inches long.

Rear Lift – Electric

The same lift strap is used on both the front and rear electric lifts. The 1-inch wide strap is 51 incheslong and folded over by 3 1/2 inches to make the loops on each end. The finished belt is 44 inches long.

Rear Lift – Mechanical

Mower Deck – Front Mount

Mounting the deck - front mount

Mounting the deck - belly mount

Deck layouts - side vs rear discharge

Baffles

Rollers

Removing motors from decks

Removing flanges

Removing mower blades



Mower Deck – Belly Mount

Mower Deck Motors

For reasons I have not yet fathomed, the mower deck motors seem more susceptible to failure than the motors on other attachments. Perhaps it is because there are three mower motors per mower deck and only one motor on other attachments, or because the mower decks get more usage than other attachments (more uses, more mowers in use, longer run times), or maybe there is some other issue.

Plow (‘dozer) Blade

Snowblower – 42-inch

Snowblower – 36-inch

Rototiller

Rotary Sweeper

Front Loader

Sickle Mower

Ganged Reel Mower

Hand Cultivator

Chain Saw

Rotary Inverter

Hedge Trimmer

Hand Trimmer

Drill

Manuals and Other Documentation


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