Hydraulic Fittings: A Galling Metallurgical State of Affairs

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About Murray Thiessen

Murray's been a farm equipment mechanic since 1979. Three years specializing in orchard and vineyard equipment in California's San Joaquin Valley and the rest in Ontario's Niagara region. A student of international agriculture practices and striving to shape agriculture so it remains sustainable in a changing world.

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So it’s been a long spraying season and as you perform your annual maintenance you grudgingly admit that the hoses have given their all. Before you run out to get more of the same, give some thought to the hydraulic fittings (i.e. hose adaptors and couplers). Many feel that stainless steel (SS) is the best choice for hydraulic fittings: It must be, because it’s certainly the shiniest and most expensive choice! But before you opt for stainless, here are a few things you should know.

SS requires surface oxidization to resist corrosion. Oxidation forms a protective barrier called a “passivation layer”, but it’s susceptible to mechanical damage. It can be penetrated as abrasive powders flow past. The layer will reform when it dries, only to be sanded off again during the next spray. The wear is on-going. If the newly-exposed SS remains submerged in a liquid, the passivation layer will not reform. Without it, SS surfaces corrode at a high rate, and in extreme cases SS will even corrode inside of itself and become a hollow shell.

When two pieces of stainless steel are forced together, the passivation layer gets scraped off, allowing parts to gall (or ‘weld’). In fact, any similar metals in physical contact will naturally gall to each other, but stainless steel is especially susceptible. When disassembled, the ‘welded’ material must be torn apart. This destructive galling can be reduced with lubrication during assembly and avoided altogether by mating dissimilar materials (e.g. bronze and stainless steel). Technically, mating different types of stainless steels (e.g. martensitic against austenitic) could work, but it is possible that two different alloys electrically connected in a humid environment may act as a voltaic pile and corrode even faster. This is probably a moot point because many do not have access to different SS alloys when choosing fittings.

Sometimes we see black or galvanized pipe fittings on sprayers, but I don’t recommend either. Galvanizing is only slightly better than black pipe and since the threads are cut after being galvanized the threads are essentially black pipe, anyway.

So what about plated steel fittings? They’re available with swivels and can seal on faces and seats (rather than on the thread – which is much easier to assemble and disassemble). They can be crimped onto the hoses, eliminating the need for hose clamps that fail or snag and cut the operator. (As a related aside, hydraulic hose is not really compatible with most spray products – the steel wire inside the rubber begins to corrode and unexpected failure is common. Even when spraying above 200 psi there are better high pressure-rated choices than hydraulic hose.) Mechanically, these fittings are a great option, but unfortunately the plating is designed for oil, not pesticide. Within a year they rust internally and seize up. To add insult to injury, the flaking rust is notorious for plugging nozzles.

A better choice is brass (or even bronze) fittings (e.g. pipe, SAE 45° and hose barb). Just like the crimped plated steel fittings, brass SAE 45° fittings can swivel and seal on seats and they are easily assembled and disassembled over many seasons. Brass fittings are more costly than black or galvanized pipe but cost less than hydraulic or SS fittings. Conveniently, they’re available at most hardware stores.

While brass may be the best metal material for the sprayer fittings, I feel that plastic is the most economical and in many applications is superior to metal. But, that’s a topic for a follow-up article. So, before you spring for SS hydraulic fittings, consider cheaper and more effective alternatives like brass or plastic. And, if only for the sake of your mechanic, please don’t over tighten fittings. It is unnecessary and causes endless damage and frustration.