Wheels vs. Tracks: The Debate Over Compact Loaders – Part 4

April 5, 2015

To Share or not to Share
According to Murphy, there’s a 40% overlap in uses of the skid steer and the CTL. With interchangeable attachments, it’s no wonder. Sometimes they share more than just accessories.

Komatsu and Bobcat use the same platform for both machines. Fitzgerald considers it an efficient method of production. “The cab, upper frame, and lift arms are essentially the same,” he says. Bobcat installs a bolt-on undercarriage for track loaders or a chain-case driveline for skid steers. They are both, he adds, designed to handle the rigors of a CTL application.

Not all manufacturers agree with the shared platform theory. New Holland and Terex ASV design the two machines separately, with individual dedicated systems for each. Harris explains that Terex ASV CTLs are “purpose-built machines designed from the ground up to run on a suspended rubber track for maximum traction, flotation, ground clearance, and balance.” Takeuchi builds only track loaders. Steger says they are “purpose-built to withstand the forces of adverse conditions and sloped terrain.”

Making one platform—or machine—do double duty is a controversial subject any way you slice it. However, because work is no longer defined by the seasons, but instead is extending into near year-round scheduling, it’s important to be able to work in any conditions. But can one machine do it all? “There is no ‘combo machine,’” insists Hughes.

“We do not recommend aftermarket track systems that bolt the track to the axles and replace wheels,” says Beesley. “It only drives off the rear axle, so there’s a lot of added stress on the rear chain. The system is prone to wear.” Because the axles are supported by the side of the machine, the extra weight can bend the frame where the axles bolt on. Major damage can result. Before it gets to that point, though, contractors lose 40% of the machine’s power due to diverted energy to turn the tracks.

Instead, Beesley considers “track over wheels” a good option and says Komatsu sells them. At a cost of $3,000 to $4,000, the steel tracks take less than an hour to install. He says the rubber tracks “slip a lot” and aren’t as popular, but Fitzgerald cautions that the steel over-the-tire tracks can leave marks on sidewalks, roads, and curbs.

Everything in life has trade-offs, Murphy acknowledges, and trade-offs can be expensive. In addition to downtime for swapping out systems, he says the track-laden wheels are heavy, provide reduced performance and lose operational capacity because of the added weight. Fuel costs are increased, as is wear, due to the metal-to-metal contact.

Nevertheless, many contractors believe the tracks-over-tires provide the benefit of both worlds. They’re attracted to the aftermarket tracks because of the lower cost, Steger claims. “But you must consider how long they’ll last. The quality is not the same as OE tracks.” In addition, Hughes says, aftermarket over-the-tire track systems increase stress on the machine due to the extra weight. “You’re accelerating wear without getting the full benefit of a track machine. They improve traction, but they don’t offer the same flotation or stability. My advice is to make both machines work. If money is the issue, Case offers financing options, such as skipping winter payments, leasing, and long-term rental.”

JCB doesn’t offer over-the-tire tracks because they aren’t as productive, and Giorgianni doesn’t recommend them. “The traction isn’t as good because the machine weight is still on the four tires. It’s a lot of investment for a compromise solution.”

Some in the industry hope to prove him wrong. George and Marilyn Loegering, owners of Loegering Manufacturing Inc. in Casselton, ND, manufacture the Versatile Track System, a complete rubber-track undercarriage that bolts directly to a skid steer’s standard hubs. Placing the front idler significantly ahead of the front hub position helps the machine maintain flotation and adds stability when digging and when hauling and dumping heavy loads.

The VTS tracks provide bidirectional suspension that can be adjusted independently. The suspension automatically applies the track undercarriages to the ground for maximum track footprint and improved stability on uneven terrain. In addition to increased traction and flotation, the rear idler positions the track underneath the ballast of the machine.

Wheeled machines can be converted into track machines in an hour or less. Loegering claims the conversion provides better traction, unmatched stability, a smoother ride, superior grading ability, and ultimate versatility.

Six years ago, Larry Bair, owner of Bair Products Inc. and Bair Excavating Inc. in Louisburg, KS, bought a skid steer with rubber tracks. As he tells it, “a part on the rubber track—the drive lug—tore off, so the machine wouldn’t move. I got an idea for a replacement lug.” Thus was born the Larry Lug. Word got out, he says, and business boomed. “We sell 1,000 a day.”

Made of a composite plastic reinforced with Kevlar, the patented after-market device replaces broken, worn out, torn, and delaminated rubber drive lugs on MTL-type machines. Bair contends that the installation takes as little as 10 minutes and can be performed in the field without any special tools. The track does not need to be removed in order to install the new lugs. In addition to reducing down time, Larry Lugs eliminate costly shop repairs. “Replacing track costs up to $2,800. This repair component is like a patch.” The lugs can be removed and reinstalled on other tracks as needed.

The process of bolting them on makes the laminate stronger because they pull multiple layers of rubber and Kevlar together to prevent delamination. In addition, Bair says, they make a machine better than new because they include a provision to grease the wheels, which the factory doesn’t.

Because, as Bair says, “people have the mindset that track can run over anything,” but track isn’t drivable in rock, he and other contractors have found a need for an inexpensive, quick fix. “We’re not a think-tank company,” he says humbly. “We make things to satisfy our own problems.”

One of those problems was that the undercarriage wasn’t durable enough. On certain models, he says, the clearance between the lug and frame is very close. As the rubber on the rear idler loses its diameter through wear, the lug strikes the frame and eventually breaks off. Bair’s solid, aluminum alloy wheels help solve that problem. “It has better life than OEM.”