Machinery Chatter

Flood Damage: The Dirty Little Secret

Exercise extreme caution when buying a tractor from a flooded area. (Photo by Getty Images)

Massive floods like those in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico create hours of video showing cars and trucks under water. But, after the cameras are all gone and the rain stops, what happens to the water-damaged vehicles?

Most vehicles meet one of three fates: (1) hauled to the scrap yard; (2) disassembled, cleaned inside and out and returned to the owner; (3) sold at auction or by a dealership after a slight flood restoration that makes the vehicle look better. No. 3 is one for caution; a "buyer beware" poster should be pasted across the windshield.

Tractors are no different. Master detailers can clean up just about anything, at least outwardly. Scam artists can provide a clean title to a totaled vehicle. In short, they can turn a vehicle's "dirty little secret" into a sparkling dirty little secret. But remember, this beauty is only outward-appearance deep.

Many times, flooded tractors are moved away from flooded areas to different parts of the country in an attempt to mask their history. With a serial number, a manufacturer can tell you where the tractor was purchased, but not a lot more.

If you are interested in the "deal of the day" tractor that may have been flooded, the first step is too look for any signs of restoration. Ask for tractor history. Where does it come from? When was it moved or sold? Do not be fooled by the tractor's current location.

Then look inside into the tractor's hidden spaces, especially enclosed components, for rust, mud or other debris likely to be deposited by floodwater. Some areas will have the look of a wire fence after a flood.

Here are some clues that indicate a tractor was submerged:

-- Sniff test. An aroma of mildew and mold is one of the best tests. The smell is similar to when the air conditioner evaporator drain clogs up in your car or truck. If the tractor cab has the smell of an over-the-counter air freshener, be careful of that tractor. The owner is trying to cover something up.

-- Down under. Under the seat of a tractor is a good place to check for silt, small bits of grass and other debris. Although it is not unusual for these things to be in the cab of a tractor, if water has been mixed with them, they will not be as loose on the surface. Be sure to check out any curved areas under the dash that could have held water for finer-than-normal dirt and debris.

-- Paint bubbles. Newer tractors should not exhibit rust under bubbled paint.

-- Switched switches. Look closely for new switches in the dash or on the seat. New is an indication of new repairs and something that would not normally be found in newer tractors.

-- Water lines. Look for water lines on the cab, but perhaps more importantly look inside the rear wheels. Foggy headlights -- or headlights with water in them -- are another sure sign of deep water. It might be something the seller overlooked.

-- Winding tale. The alternator is a good place to check. Peek inside the back of the alternator and see if debris and silt have settled into the windings. Also, wiring harness junctions are a good place to check for water damage.

I have restored a few tractors from water damage. Most of them were left in a creek or river bottom or rolled over into a stock tank. I have learned that spending the time to make sure that the flooded tractor is thoroughly cleaned is a big job. Many insurance companies simply choose to total the tractor.

If you are trying to restore a water-damaged piece of equipment, time matters -- that is the time between the flood and when restoration begins. Silt is increasingly difficult to remove from any component as time progresses.

If the engine or transmission has been submerged, do not run the tractor, even if it will start. Try not to tow the tractor either, if at all possible. If engine parts move before cleaning, restoration becomes all the more problematic.

If you suspect that the engine and transmission were submerged, then the first thing to do is check to see if water and/or silt have entered these components. If dirt and water are present when you drain the engine and transmission oil, a complete teardown and overhaul is usually required. It's a different story at a disreputable auction. Just a simple flush will probably keep the tractor working long enough to go through an auction ring.

If no silt, water or dirt are found in the oil when drained from the engine and transmission, then more than likely these components were not completely submerged, and a simple change in fluid and filters should be OK.

Wheel bearings and planetary gears are subject to harm from floodwaters. The wheel bearings of two-wheel tractors should be removed, cleaned, packed and installed. Be sure to thoroughly clean the hubs and spindles. If the tractor is equipped with mechanical front-wheel drive (MFWD), remove and thoroughly clean everything associated with the MFWD, including all moving linkage and pivot points.

But, let me make a few things clear. If you restore a flooded tractor, know the life of the tractor could well be shortened. It is really difficult to know if you got 100% of the water and silt out of the components, especially if you were not able to begin the restoration process quickly.

A professional "makeup artist" can make it very difficult to detect that a tractor or piece of equipment has been totally submerged. The Internet is a good place to buy a dirty little secret with clean money. Look at every used tractor as if it had "buyer beware" written on the hood.


Editor's Note: You can read Steve's columns every month in The Progressive Farmer's digital edition (click on the "Resources" tab on to find the magazine and inside, Steve's Ask The Mechanic columns). If you have any questions for him, you can contact him at: Steve Thompson at Ask The Mechanic, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email