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Walk into any welding and metal cutting workshop in town. Chances are, you’ll see plasma cutting machines that need some upkeep. Many DIY and professional fabricators neglect their equipment for a number of reasons.
Maintenance takes time and entails cost. If you’re working in a garage, you probably don’t think you’re working that much to ever need to inspect and troubleshoot equipment. For professionals working in major fabrication shops, they expect the owner to take care of maintenance, but you’ll be surprised to know that many fabrication shops have no regular maintenance schedule in place. Even those who do maintenance don’t do so properly.
The mistake is to limit maintenance to simply replacing parts. Replacement of electrodes and nozzles is definitely an important aspect of taking care of your plasma cutting system, but there’s much more to keeping your equipment in shape. Plasma cutter maintenance involves several tasks, some of which you have to do daily and others you may do a few times in a year.
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Maintenance Tasks Before and After Cutting
Purging the Air Source
A lot of guys just start working without checking the air source or cables and they also finish their work without checking their equipment. For instance, purging the air source isn’t a customary task in many metal cutting settings even though it’s a precaution that keeps moisture in check. Moisture can build up overnight in warm and humid environments, and moisture isn’t something you need in plasma cutting. As you might have known, moisture creates a weaker arc and reduces your equipment’s lifespan.
Purging your air source is a maintenance task you ought to do as soon as you have your plasma cutter set up and running. But you also need to do purging after your task, as there may be residual gas left in the pipes. Purging gas after your cutting task ensures any air left in the pipes is ejected and, hence, won’t cause flare-ups when you start your next cutting task.
When purging air, you should also check air quality for moisture, oil, and other contaminants.
Realigning the Torch
It’s not uncommon for the torch to be misaligned during operations. You may have to stop cutting, depending on how serious the misalignment is. Nonetheless, if you notice loose parts or worn areas on the hose, you have to fix them before you use the torch again. You will have to take the torch apart to replace certain components.
Weekly Maintenance Tasks
Checking the Electrodes
Most plasma cutting electrodes have tips made of hafnium. You’ll see this silvery metal around the hole in the electrode. Its ability to shed electrons is vital in plasma cutting. Repeated use of the torch uses up the hafnium tip. Small pits at the tip of the electrode indicate significant hafnium loss, which means it’s time to change your electrode.
Checking the Start Cartridge and the Nozzle Tip
You can’t strike a good plasma arc with a worn start cartridge. There’s a reason seasoned fabricators test the cartridge before cutting anything. That’s to see if the torch creates a smooth arc in a blink of an eye. When the cartridge wears out, you will notice a delay in the arc formation or a weak arc.
The nozzle tip, on the other hand, is crucial for precise cutting. It should have a perfectly round hole. If you’re using your plasma cutter a few times a week, you need to check that hole and see if it remains round. If it’s losing its perfect roundness, then your arc is losing its precision. Also, if the hole assumes a shape of an oblong, then your nozzle tip will wear out faster. Worn nozzle tip means poor quality cuts.
Checking the Air Pressure
The air compressor is another crucial part of plasma cutting. Some plasma cutters have built-in compressors, while others don’t. In any case, it’s vital that you check whether the compressor provides the right air pressure. Weak air pressure creates a weak arc, if at all, compromising your work. It pays to measure the pressure of the flowing air at least once a week (1).
Occasional Maintenance Tasks
Checking the Ground Clamps
Ground clamps don’t get a lot of love. A lot of guys just toss them aside after work. You can’t fault them, though, because ground clamps hardly ever wear out too soon. While they don’t need work often, they can get dirty or rusty at some point. It makes sense to check them every 4 months or so. When checking, make sure the springs look okay.
Inspecting the air filter
Because your plasma cutter’s air dryer or filter works to remove moisture as well as oils and other contaminants from your air supply, it will eventually accumulate unwanted stuff. A dirty air filter may have to be cleaned, serviced, or replaced. If you’re in a busy workshop, you may have to inspect the filter and empty the moisture trap weekly.
Cleaning the power supply
The power supply is where metal dust can accumulate. Metal dust can cause contacts or relays to malfunction.
The Bottom Line
Plasma cutter maintenance involves a number of small tasks you need to do from time to time. Maintenance keeps your machine working the way it should and prevents costly repairs down the road. Keeping your equipment clean is basic. More than that, you should also find time to lubricate gears. Some machines may have unique maintenance needs, but doing the tips above should be able to lengthen the life of your plasma cutter.