Tires Versus Tracks

Jan. 1, 2005

When officials with the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority selected Elgin, IL–based Plote Construction to add lanes to one of its busiest stretches of road, they had a not-so-simple request: Get the job done right, and get it done as quickly as possible.

Plote crews obliged. They began the project to widen a roughly 2-mile stretch of the Northwest Tollway near Chicago from two lanes in each direction to three in early September and finished it before Thanksgiving. It was no easy task. The Northwest Tollway is a busy road, and Plote’s crews could only close single lanes from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily. Crews faced even more restrictions when it came to closing multiple lanes. Plote could do this only Mondays through Thursdays from midnight until 5 a.m. Crews, then, for most of the project had to divert the road’s steady stream of traffic to its shoulders.

How did Plote manage to finish its work so quickly? The company committed significant resources to the project, sending more than 60 construction workers and 20 vehicles to the site each day, says Dave Kueking, heavy-equipment parts manager for the construction firm. These vehicles included excavators, dozers, pavers, curb pavers, dump trucks, and others. The project also required something that many contractors spare little thought on: a wise use of tires, rubber tracks, and steel tracks.

Each of those options is perfect for certain jobs. Yet many contractors tackle a project without first planning for when to use tracks and when to use tires. This might not seem important, but using a track when a tire would work better, or vice versa, can prove costly. What happens when an operator tries to use a rubber-tracked machine on a hard, abrasive surface? That rubber track will likely split, resulting in costly time spent on repairs. If that machine instead had been equipped with heavy-duty tires, construction crews could have avoided delays.

Most of Plote’s vehicles on the tollway project featured rubber or steel tracks.

“The tracks provide us with better stability to the ground,” Kueking says. “They don’t get stuck, and they don’t leave ruts in the dirt.”

But Plote officials know when to use tires, too. The large front-end loaders, for example, run on rubber tires. Those machines have tires instead of tracks because their operators need to move them faster and maneuver them into and out of tighter spaces, and tires allow machines to make tighter, more controlled turns.

“It does help to know when to use tires and when to use tracks,” Kueking says. “They each have their place.”

Contractors who want their construction projects to move as smoothly as possible will follow Plote’s example and carefully choose between tires and tracks for their machines. Each option comes with its own benefits and challenges. Contractors who make the right choice will see it pay off in reduced downtime and increased efficiency.

“The applications are so different for tires and tracks,” says Mark Webb, parts manager for Intermountain Bobcat in Salt Lake City. “A track machine has very specific uses. Its flotation is unbelievable. A track machine has some great advantages, but it doesn’t compare to tires when you are working in a rocky environment. So you have to be careful. If flotation is not an issue—if you’re not worried about leaving ruts or damaging the ground—then tires are probably the way to go.”

Making the Right Choice
When are tires the right choice? When are tracks a better option? Enrique Alban, president of IMS Parts in Palm Bay, FL, has some thoughts.

Alban, whose company imports rubber tracks for mini-excavators, recently hired construction crews to build a new 4,200-square-foot house in Palm Bay for him and his family. The project turned out to be a long one, thanks to the hurricanes that pounded the state, running from October 2003 to September 2004.

At the start of construction, a crewmember used a loader fitted with tires to push away trees on the property. In Alban’s opinion—and because he was the property owner his was the only opinion that mattered—this proved to be the wrong choice.

“The wheels on that machine dug so deep,” Alban says. “We have a nice yard and there was a portion of it that we didn’t want to disturb. As soon as the loader with the tires started working, though, it made these huge, deep digs into the ground. All of a sudden we had these big track marks.”

Seeing this, the contractor soon called in a replacement, a rover track machine that pushed away the trees without leaving a hint of track marks in the ground. This is, of course, one of the main benefits of tracked machines; they provide superior flotation and are far easier on ground that needs to be kept in good shape.

The contractor’s initial decision to use a machine with tires, though, proved costly. He had to hire an outside operator to bring in a tractor to grade the tire-damaged land.

“That cost the contractor money to hire someone else to fix the problem,” Alban says.

This story shouldn’t suggest that tracks are always the better option. Many jobs require tires, especially those that take place on rocky, jagged ground. Tires are tougher than tracks, with the more heavy-duty varieties nearly indestructible. Tires also last longer than tracks, and so are more affordable for contractors tackling jobs on rough terrain.

“Our severe-duty tires are virtually indestructible,” says Kim Harris, marketing director with Piney Flats, TN–based Super Grip Corporation, a tire maker. “People wear out our tires long before they tear them up, so there’s little downtime when people are using them. If you have a track slip, then you have downtime. You have to wait on someone who knows what they’re doing to come out there and put the track back on the machine. That’s wasted time you don’t get when you are working with tires.”

Mike Giordano, national rubber-track department manager with Solideal Tire, says that the condition of the work site—whether a job takes place on concrete or sandy ground, for example—should be the main factor contractors consider when deciding whether to use tracks or tires. Tracks are better on surfaces that need to be protected. Tires work best in more challenging terrain.

“Any job that does not require travel on hard-packed abrasive surfaces is perfect for a rubber track to show its advantages. Asphalt, concrete, and hard-packed dirt are not the best applications for rubber tracks. The rubber will wear the same way that the rubber on tires will wear, thus costing a great deal more to operate because of the initial cost of rubber tracks,” Giordano says. “Some specific applications that are perfect for rubber tracks include muddy conditions, sandy applications, snow removal, landscaping applications, pool digging, commercial plumbing, and excavating. The list goes on and on.”

Positives and Negatives
Mike Staber, owner of American Enterprises in West Fargo, ND, uses both tires and tracks on many of his construction projects. Crews from his company recently built a new parking lot for Action Repair, a truck-repair shop in West Fargo. On the project crews relied mostly on skid loaders with tires. But if crews were working on wet or soft ground, Staber says, they would have installed rubber tracks on their machines.

“I actually prefer working with tracks, if possible,” Staber says. “They hold a machine more stable. They have better traction. But tires are cheaper in the long run, so we use them, too. A lot of it depends on what the conditions are when we are doing a job. If it’s wet, we usually put on the tracks.”

Staber’s example illustrates a significant point: Both tires and tracks come with their own benefits. Wise contractors recognize this and act accordingly.

“It’s kind of hard to compare tracks and tires,” Webb says. “They are different breeds. It’s like trying to compare a car with a truck.”

The main benefit of using tires is cost. Tires are less expensive than rubber tracks. In abusive conditions, then, the cost per hour of using tires will prove far less than if an operator were using rubber tracks. The durability of tires means that they are the better choice in rocky terrain, which can easily damage or split rubber track.

“Tracks are so much easier to damage,” Webb says. “When guys are going into nasty places tracks can come apart pretty easy.”

Even with proper care tracks don’t last as long as tires. According to Beartrac Manufacturing, a Cass City, MI–based manufacturer of tracks, says that depending on the conditions in which they are used, tracks typically last between 1,000 and 1,500 hours.

Tracks, on the other hand, provide better flotation and have less impact on soft ground than tires. Tracks provide more stability, too, eliminating the bounce that comes with tires.

“Tracks have better flotation so they put less pressure on the ground,” says Kurt Belinski, general manager of Global Track Warehouse. “They also have better traction in a high-moisture area. Rubber tires tend to spin if they are in a high-moisture area. Tracks have more rubber on the ground, so that means better traction.”

The manufacturers of tracks advertise their products as add-ons that will make life easier for machine operators.

“Basically, tires are what the machine comes with, but track is an enhancement that boosts the productivity of a machine,” says Gary Luther, sales manager with Grouser Products, a firm that manufactures steel tracks that fit over the tires of skid loaders. “After a while operators get used to that extra productivity from their machines. It’s like the difference between day and night running a machine with tracks and without them.”

Proper Care
Contractors get the most benefit out of both tires and tracks when they take proper care of them and choose the right product for the right job.

The Right Tire
Tire manufacturers’ Web sites typically contain pages of information designed to help contractors purchase the right tires, with several of these pages devoted solely to treads. There’s a reason for this: The right tread can drastically improve performance and prolong the life of tires.

There are several tread patterns. The common rock pattern is used to prevent cuts caused by sharp rocks and features a large ground contact area. The block pattern, with its wide tread and rounded shoulders, is perfect for muddy ground.

Then there’s tread thickness to consider. The Tire and Rim Association classifies tread thickness in three levels: regular, deep, and extra-deep. Treads classified with deep thickness are generally one-and-a-half times as thick as regular treads. Those classified as extra-deep are two-and-a-half times as thick.

Generally, the thicker the tread the more resistant to cuts and wear a tire is. That doesn’t mean, though, that operators should automatically choose tires with extra-deep treads. Thicker treads generate and retain more heat. Operators working in hot conditions, then, run the risk of having extreme heat cause tread separation. Different machines require different types of tires, as well.

There are a number of factors to consider before choosing a tire. For instance, because dump trucks routinely travel with heavy loads at high speeds over long distances, tires on them must be resistant to both heat and wear and tear. However, because front-end loaders often run on rough ground, their tires must be resistant to cut and wear. They also should provide as much stability as possible. Tire dozers require tires with strong traction capabilities because these machines are often called upon to push motor scrapers. Motor graders used to level roads need tires with high traction and directional stability.

The Proper Care of Tracks
You need to check the undercarriage of vehicles routinely to prolong the life span of rubber tracks. When components such as sprockets and rollers wear out or are damaged, the machine runs rougher on its tracks.

Additionally, your operators need to limit the use of tracks on sharp and rocky surfaces, on gravel, and in fields with a large amount of crop stubble. Moreover, your operators should avoid taking too many sharp and fast turns, and be careful not to get large objects tangled in their undercarriages.

“The responsibility for prolonging the life of tracks and tires really rests mainly on the shoulders of the operators,” says Intermountain Bobcat’s Webb. “It’s all about storing the machine in the proper place and about keeping it sheltered from the hazards of the weather. It’s about how the person running the machine operates it.”

Webb marvels at one operator he knows who takes such good care of his machines that he routinely logs far more than 1,000 hours on his tracks before they need to be replaced.

“He’s the only operator of that machine,” Webb says. “He takes great care of it and he operates it extremely carefully. If you’re paying the bill for those replacement tracks it makes a big difference in how you operate the machines.”

Giordano recommends that operators check the tension of their rubber tracks at least every 50 hours. This makes sense; tension is critical to the life and performance of a rubber track. When it comes to tires, Giordano says, operators should check their pressure every day. They should also avoid running their machines in areas filled with excess debris and drive the machine carefully. In other words, they should maintain the tires in the same way as they would the rest of their equipment.

Operators also need to avoid cuts and slices in their tires or rubber tracks. The best way to do that is with smart driving.

“Operators need to always be aware of their surroundings,” Giordano says. “They have to slow down when they are operating in areas of high debris. They should slow down and try not to spin the tires because spinning is more likely to cause cuts. Rubber tracks are not as likely to spin in wet applications, but caution and common sense here will help, too.”

A Growing Industry
The tire and track industry is growing and offers contractors a wide variety of products and options.

BLS Enterprises, for example, manufactures TUFPADS, polyurethane track pads that go over the steel tracks of machines. BLS entered this market because contractors asked for street pads for steel-track construction equipment that would protect working surfaces, but would not disintegrate or “chunk out” the way rubber tracks can.

Photo: Global Track Warehouse

Mike Wojtal, a sales representative with BLS Enterprises, says that TUFPADS help contractors stay more productive and spend less time dealing with equipment repairs.

“If you split a rubber track, your day is done,” Wojtal says. “That’s time down. You’re looking at money the contractor has to go out and spend on a replacement. That’s why I think a machine with steel shoes always has an advantage. If you throw a rubber pad over that steel-track machine your job is not over if you split that rubber pad.”

There are innovations in the tire industry, too. Super Grip’s heavy-duty industrial tires are one. The company originally manufactured tires for the mining industry. The tires had to be durable so that miners could get in and out of coal mines safely.

Eventually, Harris says, the company decided to make the heavy-duty tires for skid loaders, forklifts, wheelbarrows, and other construction equipment. “We consider these the bigger, better, badder tires,” he says.

Contractors are more aware of such innovations than they’ve ever been, say pros working in the tire and track industries. And this is good news: The more informed contractors are, the more likely they are to make the right choice when it comes to purchasing tracks and tires.

“The buyers and the renters of equipment are so much more informed than they used to be,” Webb says. “I think it’s the advent of the Internet and the fact that there are more publications devoted to the construction field. There is a greater access to information that people did not have 10 or 15 years ago.”

Industry pros expect the buying public to grow even more informed in the coming years.

“A lot of people out there are still running rubber tire all the time,” says Kurt Belinski, general manager of Global Track Warehouse. “They are not aware of what rubber-track loaders can do for them. The rubber-track machines are newer to the industry, so people don’t know as much about them. But they are learning. They’re learning all the time.”