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While there are countless welding machines on the market, engine drives remain a mystery for a lot of entry level welders. Why are they so big? What are they used for?
Although engine drives are not necessary for the average welder, they offer distinct advantages over their smaller counterparts. You may have seen them on service trucks, but how exactly do they work?
This guide will cover the pros and cons of these machines, and should help you decide if one will be helpful with your welding endeavors.
Pro #1 – Mobile Power
Engine drives have their own engine that lies within the machine housing. These engines vary in terms of quality and weld output, but they allow for mobile power no matter where you are. Most of these engines are gas powered, but some higher end ones run on diesel.
Although these engines are marketed as part of the machine itself, they are produced separately by brands like Kohler, Kubota etc.
Not only do these engines provide a welding output, they also provide auxiliary power for tools and even smaller welding machines. You can run a MIG welder and a grinder at the same time – pretty cool, right?
Most engine driven welders come with 4 smaller 120v outlets. These are the type of outlets that you will find in any US household.
Some higher end machines will provide larger 240V outlets as well. These are capable of running a MIG welder or a TIG welder.
In recent years, engine run times have been improved by larger gas tanks and better fuel efficiency throughout the machine. Some Bobcats (Miller) and Rangers (Lincoln) can run for 20 hours or more before you need to refill the gas tank.
The run times vary greatly based on weld output, and how many tools you are powering.
Longer run times provide better efficiency on the job site and allows welders to work for longer hours. For mobile welders, it is a huge advantage as well. You can stay on the jobsite without having to run to the gas station as often.
Pro #2 -Portability
Although engine drives can weigh upwards of 1000 pounds, they can be mounted on a truck bed or a trailer pretty easily. This allows welders to travel from jobsite to jobsite without much hassle. Oil changes can often be completed without having to remove the machine from your vehicle.
Once the machine is mounted, you will be road ready for just about any job you can handle. If you get a call that is hours away, your welder is mounted and ready to hit the road.
Truck mounted setups tend to be a more sensible option. Having to hook up a trailer for every job can be a bit cumbersome.
Pro #3 – Welding In Any Weather
These engine drive machines tend to run well in adverse weather conditions. If you are in a colder climate, a good engine drive should still start every time. Extremely hot climates will also pose little threat to a good engine drive.
Companies like Miller Electric have recently introduced technology that allows for their machines to start even when it is below zero degrees. This electronic choke (E-choke) technology removes the need for a manual choke.
Since these machines use a battery that is similar to a cars, they can be trusted to start without fail. However, it is recommended to test your battery periodically – it won’t last forever.
With all this in mind, you can feel confident welding no matter where you’re located.
Allowing your engine drive to warm up is a great way to keep it healthy. Let it idle for 5 minutes before you put the welding current to use.
Pro #4 – Multiple Weld Outputs
Although older engine drive welders were only meant for DC+ (electrode positive) stick welding, newer models have a range of outputs.
You can now run AC (alternating current) which allows you to burn AC stick electrodes. It also comes in handy for aluminum welding.
You can also switch newer models to “wire mode” which will send the correct output to your MIG machine. This means that you can use a MIG setup while out in the field.
You can also switch to DC- (electrode negative) if you want to run a TIG setup off of your machine.
Although these extra machines can get pricey, the option is always there if you want to be mobile with all processes.
Pro #5 – Long Lasting Durability
Since engine drives are meant to be used outdoors, their construction is top notch. They can sit on service trucks for years and still run strong.
Protective covers are also available if you live in a wet climate.
The hour counter on your machine tells you how many hours it has been used since it was new. Similar to an odometer in a car, this will also tell you when to service your machine.
For example, my Miller Bobcat requires an oil change every 100 hours. These intervals are easy to keep track of and will ensure that your machine gets maximum life.
Although there is no set rule for how long engine drives last, a well maintained machine can last for 5,000+ hours. That is a lot of welding!
Con #1 – Expensive
Since these welders are built with many components and a high end engine, they are not cheap.
An entry level Miller Bobcat or Lincoln Ranger starts around $4,000. Specialized pipe welding machines like the Miller Pipe Pro can run upwards of $15,000.
However, considering the going rate for mobile welders ($70-$100 per hour), you can earn back this initial investment without a doubt.
With this being said, you can still find some great used machines for more reasonable prices. It is just essential that you know how the machine has been maintained during its life.
If you don’t plan on being a mobile welder or a rig welder, then it is probably best to look at other machines that are meant for shop work.
Con #2 – Heavy
If you don’t have a truck or a trailer, then having an engine drive doesn’t make much sense.
Even the smaller Bobcats are almost 500 pounds, so you’ll need a hoist and a good mounting system to install it on a truck.
If the machine needs a serious repair, you’ll need access to a hoist or a lift so the mechanic can get access to it. It can also be a pain to transfer the machine if you end up needing a new vehicle.
Although engine driven welders are heavy, once you mount it – it should stay there for awhile. The hardest part is just getting it installed and set up.
Con #3 – Noise
As you may have guessed, these machines are not very quiet.
Although the noise level has come down in recent years, they are still louder than, let’s say, a lawnmower.
The cool thing is that most new machines have a run/idle mode. With this setting, the machine will idle quietly until you start welding or turn on a tool. Once it senses a welding arc or tool, it will turn up the rpm’s and run in full force. This allows for more noise minimization while you aren’t actively welding.
If you are doing jobs in residential areas, it is best to check with local ordinances to see which times you can run these machines. If you are welding early in the morning or late at night, you’ll probably get some complaints.
For rural areas and farm work, the noise isn’t really an issue. Just make sure you’re aware of your surroundings and try to avoid confrontation.
Con #4 – Maintenance
All welding machines will require repairs somewhere down the line, but engine drives are a bit more involved than the average machine.
If something goes wrong with the engine, you’ll have to get it repaired through an authorized shop for that specific engine brand.
If something goes wrong with the machine itself, then it is most likely run through the manufacturer (Miller, Lincoln, Hobart, etc.)
These separate warranties can be a pain to deal with at times.
With this being said, most of these machines come with stellar warranties. Millers warranty reputation tends to be better than Lincolns, but both are great machines.
If you perform regular maintenance such as oil changes and replacing filters, you shouldn’t run into many problems. However, neglecting your machine can add up to a costly repair down the line.
Con #5 – No Use For Shop Work
If mobile rig welding is your cup of tea, then an engine drive is a great choice. However, shop welders will need a machine that is meant to stay put in a specific location. In other words, a “regular” welding machine.
Having a dedicated shop machine that runs quietly off of 240v power is a big bonus. It will allow you to fabricate without the added fumes of the exhaust (that an engine drive puts out).
All things considered, plenty of shops have both engine drives and normal machines. The field welders use the engine drive welders on their trucks, and the shop welders use the shop machines for fabrication.
If you plan on welding projects in your home or workshop, then an engine drive is not the best choice. Plenty of hobbyists will be happy with a small MIG or TIG machine.
Hopefully this article gave you a better understanding of engine drives and how they are used. The technology is always improving, and todays engine driven welders are some of the best ever seen.
For more info on models and price points, check out the links below.
Thanks for reading!
Featured image credit : US Marine Corps