On or Off Track?

Jan. 1, 2010
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Some contractors think that a compact track loader is merely a skid-steer on tracks—but beware of that oversimplification. Equipment manufacturers emphasize that these are indeed very different machines with differences in applications, operational techniques, and maintenance requirements. So, what are the advantages and idiosyncrasies of being on or off track? Choosing correctly between the compact track loader (CTL) and the skid-steer loader (SSL), and understanding the operational requirements of each, will pave the way toward optimal cost-efficient operation.

With that said, how is your CTL/SSL knowledge? Is it on or off track? According to a recent Bobcat case study, even the experienced contractor can benefit from “a good, old-fashioned machine operation lesson.” The job story outlines what happened when a landscaping contractor purchased his first CTL without a full understanding of the machine. The buyer regretted letting the dealer assume that he knew the differences between the CTL and the SSL. Upon delivery of the track machine, the contractor says to himself, “It looks like a skid-steer, operates like a skid-steer, does much of the same work as a skid steer, plus a bit more. And I can run it just like I do my skid-steer.” That line of thinking, he came to realize, led to costly, premature maintenance headaches. Today, this contractor stresses, “An investment in a track loader can certainly pay off, but you should know what to expect, what questions to ask, how and when to use it, and how to maintain and operate it.”

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If you do your equipment history homework, you’ll find that the first skid-steer arrived on the scene in the 1950s—long before its rubber- or steel-track counterpart. According to Caterpillar engineers, the skid-steer is still the best fit for many applications, mostly due to the speed and productivity its wheels will provide when working on surfaces that aren’t particularly sloped, rugged, or wet. Larger loaders with a two-speed option can travel as fast as 12 miles per hour in high-speed mode. Skid-steers are also ideal in applications where compaction is desired.

Alternatively, the CTL excels in wet and muddy conditions that would keep wheeled machines sidelined. Its undercarriage provides low ground pressure and excellent flotation. The machine is ideal when working on grades, or when traveling over curbs and sidewalks which could be damaged by other machines. The ground pressure on the compact track loaders is substantially lower than that of the wheeled SSLs.

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Certainly where the CTL and SSL have similar strengths is that both can be valuable workhorses in excavating, grading, site development, erosion control, landscaping, and concrete and asphalt paving.

“For everyday work, the skid-steer can grade very well,” says Dan Hollowell, owner of APEX Excavation and Services Inc. of Meridian, Idaho. “Any time we have a crew of concrete guys behind us, we can outrun a grader.”

APEX was chosen to field test the Cat 279C and 289C CTLs, which feature a steel-embedded rubber track and steel undercarriage components. When compared with the rubber track on the Cat multiterrain loaders, the steel provides extra strength and durability. Hollowell says that he really sees the difference in an ability to bring the horsepower to the ground. “We’re seeing more ability to push with it, and we think it has to do with the concept of gearing, or the track system they’re running.”

Hollowell also stresses that the Cat CTLs add durability to the fleet. “With these track machines, there is less wear and tear,” he says, adding that tires on skid-steers don’t always survive the rugged and varied job sites his crews visit. “Nowadays, tires cost more than $200 each, so when they go flat, it’s really costing you. Also, the track system picks up less debris, so we have less rock we have to deal with going through the system. These are good, solid tracks, and we’re getting a lot of life out of them.”

“The biggest difference I’ve found with the Cat compact track loader is the horsepower change, which is roughly 10 but feels like 20,” says Steve Hutchison, an operator with Mike Dusselier Concrete Flatwork Co. Inc. in Olathe, KS. He noticed the power when digging, grading, removing driveways, and loading buckets.

Additionally, Hutchison credits the standard two-speed motor on the machine with helping him thrive in the tight spots. “You can use the snail mode, which slows the track speed down so you can get right up against the house. Some other machines can get jerky and cause damage under similar conditions,” he says.

Selling Points
For many contractors, the biggest selling point of the SSL is its lower price when compared to the CTL. On the other hand, the increase in production offered by the CTL is its main selling factor.

“With a wide array of attachments, skid-steers do a lot more than lift and load,” says Dave December, brand marketing manager for SSLs and CTLs at New Holland Construction. “Easy-to-change attachments—ranging from grapples, bale spears, and snow blowers to pallet forks, brooms, and hydraulic hammers, to name just a few—expand the machines’ versatility and increase productivity,” he says.

December explains that New Holland’s range of SSLs features a patented Super Boom vertical lift design that increases productivity by providing high lift capacities, long forward dump reach, and fast cycle times so that the operator can do more in less time. Furthermore, he says, the vertical lift’s maximum hinge-pin clearance provides more forward reach than radial lift designs to more effectively fill high-sided trucks and hoppers and place material into the center of the truck.

“New Holland compact track loaders offer the same array of attachments as the skid-steer models. These units feature wide, durable tracks and a rigid track frame with less undercarriage components and fewer moving parts, which reduces maintenance costs compared to suspension track systems,” says December, who adds that the CTL is considered a “work-season extender” due to its ability to continue to perform in wet conditions. “More time to carry out work means more money for the contractor,” he says.

Scott Sikkink, product marketing specialist for Terex ASV, agrees that the CTL will deliver a longer, less interrupted working season. “You need to consider ground pressure and traction needs. Waiting for a job to dry out after a rainy day means wasted productivity time. The compact track loader exerts low ground pressure on a surface, be it soft, sensitive or muddy—so there’s less damage to pre-existing grounds, even after rain,” he says.

While the SSL is less expensive to purchase than the CTL, Sikkink says that the CTL is usually more cost effective. “A typical compact track loader pays for itself in approximately 18 months. If maintained properly, CTLs will pay for their upkeep as well.”

“In these current economic conditions, many purchasing decisions are based on price, the availability of funds, and the qualifications for various financing options,” says David Steger, national product manager for Takeuchi Manufacturing. He also cautions contractors not to think of the lowest price option as always being the best. “Instead, consider how a machine can expand your services to existing and new customers. The CTL can do anything a skid-steer loader can do and more. Diversification is an important factor,” he says, pointing out the all-weather work capability of the CTL. “Also, the track loader undercarriage offers a firm and stable platform for carrying and operating attachments, and many operators have experienced these benefits in unconventional applications where the increased production outweighs any additional maintenance costs.”

Jim Hughes, brand-marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment, says that the key strengths of the compact track loader are maneuverability, visibility to the cutting edge, versatility with attachments, and high-flow hydraulic options. As to specific compact loader types, Hughes says, a radial-lift CTL is a better digging machine, whereas a vertical-lift CTL is a better “lift and carry” machine. “It really depends on your application. If you are doing a lot of truck loading or unloading of pallets of sod, a vertical-lift machine may be best. If you are doing a lot of site prep by digging and finish grading, a radial-lift machine may be better. However, both machines will perform all of those tasks on the job site,” he says.

Importantly, Hughes stresses, buying a machine with features that will help you expand what jobs you do will also increase the resale value of your equipment when it’s time to trade it in. “A highly optioned machine will hold its resale value longer than a standard piece of equipment,” he says.

“Resale value on all equipment has been artificially low due to the current economic situation, but overall CTLs maintain their resale value quite well. We feel that our Takeuchi track loaders consistently have longer machine life and as much as 15% higher resale value over competitive machines,” says Steger who feels that investing in the CTL over the SSL is absolutely justified any time a contractor is looking for reliable day-after-day production. “If a contractor needs a machine for occasional use in a supply yard to move and load materials on a hard surface, then a skid-steer may be adequate. But if a contractor wants to make a living with a machine based upon how much work it can do in a set time period, then a CTL is the best choice.”

Steger goes on to support the choice of the CTL by discussing owning and operating costs. He says that the better way to compare the cost of ownership between the CTL and the SSL is to examine the costs per hour and factor in the work performed within that hour, which can be the number of tasks or jobs completed, or the amount of material moved within a set period. “This gives you a more accurate representation of what it actually costs to do the work, and it’s a great way to uncover whether one is busy versus being productive. You may also want to factor in the number of days or weeks that wheeled skid-steers are left idle due to job-site conditions—while the CTL is out doing the work.” As to specific operating costs between track and wheeled machines, Steger acknowledges that tracked machines generally have slightly higher operating costs per hour. “However, when you factor in the greater productivity, the overall owning and operating cost can actually be lower since it requires less time, less fuel, less labor, and less depreciation to accomplish the same task,” he says.

The bottom line, Steger says, is to try before you buy. Talk to other contractors about the benefits of owning the CTL or the SSL. But as an admittedly pro-CTL professional, he says, “Most contractors wonder how they ever got by without the compact track loader in their fleet. In a lot of ways, it’s like your computer, cell phone, or four-wheel drive. You don’t realize how much you depend on it until you’re without it.”

Operation and Maintenance Tips
According to Steger, one very important factor when comparing the CTL and the SSL is rated operating capacity (ROC). These numbers are calculated differently for each category but are based off of tipping load. For skid-steers, the ROC is 50% of the tipping load, he says, because these machines are generally operated on hard, flat surfaces. The ROC for track loaders is based on 35% of the tipping load, which provides an additional safety factor since track loaders are generally operated on softer ground that may not be level or smooth.

New Holland’s December says that most new operators tend to operate a CTL much like an SSL. And although that can be done, he suggests some driving tips to help extend the life of the undercarriage and belts to improve operating costs.

  • Minimize 360-degree rotations from a stationary position when possible.
  • Avoid driving sideways on a slope.
  • Hard surfaces like concrete and rock will accelerate the wear of the belts.
  • Clean undercarriages at the end of the workday.

Similarly, Bobcat product engineers report that developing a different work pattern that includes more radius-style versus “skid” turns reduces wear on the tracks and undercarriage—and also on the tires, if operating a skid-steer. Bobcat also suggests that when maneuvering and doing a lot of work with a CTL on asphalt or concrete, sprinkle a little material down to let it slide. Also, taking gradual turns will minimize wear on tracks and undercarriage components.

Regarding undercarriage maintenance, Steger claims that it’s pretty straightforward. “The most critical item is the track tension and condition. On most brands, track tension and adjustment can be easily made in less than 15 minutes while certain makes and models may require more time and effort,” he says. As to the skid-steer, he points to problems with drive chains, which cause costly downtime and can easily damage critical components. “Because our track frames are rigidly mounted directly to the frame, we don’t have issues of axles breaking as you may find on skid-steers when working in demanding applications,” he adds.

Ongoing Improvement
Manufacturers are continually making strategic improvements on CTL and SSL models. Some of these upgrades include more options and standard features, additional capabilities, greater fuel efficiency, longer maintenance service intervals, and more operator comfort features, such as better seats, higher capacity heating and air conditioning systems, and hydraulically activated attachment couplers that allow the operator to stay inside the cab when changing attachments.

For Dan Hollowell of APEX Excavation and Services, the new comfort features are very important. “I have to give my employees what works best for them. If I ask my employees to choose the tools they’re most willing to work with, they’re happier and I’m happier.” As such, Hollowell has gone with enclosed air-conditioned cabs on his Cat 279C and 289C Compact Track Loaders. Importantly, he doesn’t view comfort as a perk but as a key feature that helps operators stay fresh and focused—and that, he says, boosts safety and productivity.