Trying to bring a tiller back to life after a long winter

TOWNER, N.D. — As I write this, I’m surrounded by the strong scent of gasoline and carburetor cleaner, and enveloped in an aura of frustration. Anyone with a little intuition would correctly identify this malady as a small engine affliction.

I’m sure I’ve written about this before. Chainsaws, lawn mowers, generators — you name it. They’re enough to make you envy the exhausting, backbreaking days without power-anything.

Actually, once you’ve pulled the starting rope a hundred times, it probably would have been easier to do most of the jobs by hand.

The job at hand is one I usually enjoy, when things are working. It’s tilling the garden. Turn the soil so we can plant the seeds and harvest the goodness. But I can’t turn the soil if our tiller won’t start.

The worst part is I just bought this tiller last year. I got tired of our undependable $300 tiller so I went and bought an $800 tiller. The label on the side said “high performance, easy start.” It worked fine last year. We probably ran the machine a whole 10 hours. I even stored it inside last winter.

I dumped out the old gas, put in fresh gas, and stared at that “easy start” decal every one of the 100 times I pulled the starting rope before I came to the realization that my $800 tiller wasn’t going to give me a dime’s worth of satisfaction.

I bought my first car for $400 when I was 18 years old. It was a beater, an old American Motors Concord. Nobody would call it dependable, but it would at least start and run (for a while at least). Why can’t an $800 garden tiller run as good as that $400 car?

I remember my parents ordered their garden tiller from the Montgomery Ward catalog sometime in the late 1970s. They picked it up at the catalog store in Rugby, N.D., when it came in. It ran like a top. It stayed out in the garden covered with snow every winter and started every spring without a hassle. I think we ran it for 20 years and gave it to a friend who ran it for another 10 years.

I’m not a mechanic but I have a basic understanding of how motors work, and I have a few wrenches, so I talked to a shop guy from the dealership and he told me a few things to try. The fuel pump was fine, and the motor runs when I pour a little gas directly down the throat of the carburetor under the air cleaner. I suppose I could run it that way, but it’s hard to operate the tiller while balancing a gas can and pouring it into the motor to keep it running.

So I took the bowl off the carburetor, I didn’t see any water or gremlins in it and I went to work with a “professional size” can of carburetor cleaner. Clearly the only thing professional about this operation was the size of that can.

Like the straight shots of gas, the motor ran while I was spraying the carb cleaner into the outfit. Again, an unhandy, and expensive, way to till a garden. Rather than “professional size,” that would require the “absolutely fed up last resort” size can of carb cleaner.

The shop guy that I talked with said I might have to get a new carburetor. It only makes sense to replace a major part on an $800 tiller motor after 10 whole hours of operation.

In the meantime, I’m going to grab a spade and a hand cultivator and start turning the dirt so we can plant a few vegetables. It would be a good way for me to rest up before I start pulling the rope on that motor again.

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