Researching Rubber-Track Loaders

The rising popularity of rubber-track loaders in the construction equipment category marks a dominating force in an industry blanketed with an array of equipment brands, styles, features and technologies. So how do you decipher the differences and find the best machine for your needs?

Many buyers believe that purchasing a rubber-track loader is just like purchasing a skid steer, but that's not the case. While they may know exactly what to expect when investigating a skid-steer loader, a rubber-track loader buyer will discover vast differences from manufacturer to manufacturer.

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According to Brad Lemke, ASV's director of new product development, who has been designing and building rubber track loaders for more than a decade, the differences are something buyers should take seriously.

“Choosing a rubber-track loader certainly should take some research,” said Lemke. “We are not talking about minor differences you'd find in skid steers — we're talking about major design and technological differences that impact both machine performance and their suitability for use on sensitive surfaces like landscaping and turf.”

DISCOVERING THE DIFFERENCES

Rubber-track loaders come in many different sizes. Buyers who believe one size fits all can be disappointed if they don't research and understand the machine differences.

Rubber-track loaders also vary widely in terms of technology; thus, they will vary in terms of their ability. Rubber-track loaders are specifically designed for digging and earth moving, and the tracks allow them to have more traction than wheeled equipment. In addition, they have the ability to work on a wide range of ground surfaces, work with minimal damage to the ground or turf and can maneuver in small areas.

WHY YOU WANT ONE

Grounds managers are using rubber track loaders for a wide range of jobs, including lot clearing, earthmoving and digging, and general site preparation. Versatility is the key to what makes rubber track loaders ideal for these jobs. Manufacturers have several models that are extremely popular with customers, but the medium-sized machines are the most popular for a broad range of markets, ranging from construction to landscaping, contractors to large property owners, and hobby farmers to grounds managers.

Manufacturers have increased options for these loaders to make them even more appealing. Rubber track loaders now feature exclusive independent and multi-suspension undercarriages as well plush interior cabs. Manufactures are also offering high-performance hydraulic systems, higher ground clearance and precision-balanced chassis.

Because grounds managers are consistently faced with changing seasons and weather, another benefit of rubber-track loaders is their ability to adapt to the many conditions that result from the weather: snow, wet turf, dry turf, mud, etc. Users of rubber track loaders reap the benefits of exceptional traction and low ground pressure as well as interchangeable work tools and attachments.

“In terms of traction, power-to-weight ratio, ground clearance, impact on the terrain, maintenance, agility in tight places or productivity, there are virtually no areas where skid-steers would have an advantage,” said Lemke. “Skid-steers have been more entrenched in the industry, but that is gradually changing.”

According to Lemke, these are the differences grounds managers need to understand because not all compact track loaders are created equal. Different manufacturers make different recommendations on use, and make different promises on performance — all stemming from the fact that the technology differs widely. As a result, what may be true for one manufacturer is not necessarily true for another.

There are two broad categories of undercarriage design philosophy within the rubber-track loader category. On one side are manufacturers who design tracked loaders that have an internal drive system with a fully rubber track and suspension system and undercarriages. On the other hand are manufacturers who utilize a rigid undercarriage with a rubber track composed with steel inserts. Sales are split relatively evenly between the two segments.

WHAT DO YOU NEED?

There are five questions to consider before purchasing a rubber-track loader:

  1. What terrain will I be working on?

    Before buying, you should first consider all of the different terrain on which you will be operating. If it calls for operating on turf, pavement, environmentally sensitive areas or uneven ground, you should consider a machine with suspension and full rubber tracks. These are less damaging to turf and environmentally sensitive areas, as well as more comfortable on uneven terrain. If you are operating exclusively on flat and hard terrain, your choice in equipment can be more forgiving.

  2. Will I need to work on uneven surfaces with obstacles?

    Ground clearance is an important factor in the buying process of a rubber track loader. If you are operating on soft terrain or on terrain with stumps, rocks or other obstacles, a machine with the highest clearance will work best. Take a close look at how much clearance the machine offers. On flat terrain, clearance will be less important.

  3. Will I need to transport the machine or work in tight quarters?

    One thing to look at while considering your rubber-track loader is width. If you are working in tight areas, and it's important to be able to transport the machine with smaller trailers, look for machinery that has a relatively narrow width.

  4. How is the undercarriage designed?

    Some manufacturers have a suspension system, while others maintain a rigid undercarriage system. Factors to consider will be the terrain and rider comfort issues in making a buying decision. Specifically, ask about contact points, internal drive systems and suspension.

    Contact points (bogie wheels) are what transfers the vehicle weight through the track into the ground. By having more contact points, more area of the track is transferring vehicle weight, thereby allowing much more traction. Having more contact points also reduces the amount of weight per wheel. Weight per wheel, inside the track, is what is actually transferred to the ground as the machine travels across it. By having less weight per wheel, there is less ground damage on turf, asphalt and other finished surfaces.

    Internal drive describes sprocket design, which impacts these features:

    • Speed. Speed is not limited by internal drive, nor are there any increases in wear associated with speed.

    • Track integrity. Because there are no holes in the track for the sprocket to mesh, the track can be made with composite materials rather than with a steel skeleton. These composite materials are more flexible, do not corrode or rust and generally allow the tracks to last much longer.

    • Friction. An internal drive experiences less friction than an external drive.

    Suspension offers many benefits, including more traction, longer track life and longer machine life due to less vibration. Most importantly, it makes for a much more comfortable and happy operator.

  5. Is the track system part of the original design of the machine, or is it added later to an existing skid-steer frame?

    A good point of consideration is whether or not a machine has been built to be a rubber-track loader. Look for a machine where the tracks and the machine chassis have been designed and built from the ground up to work as a system. The benefits include better stability, higher ground clearance, less overall machine width and better overall performance.

Consider renting a variety of rubber-track loaders before buying, and then settle on the machine that gives you the most comfort, productivity and flexibility. Grounds managers will likely prefer machinery that has higher traction and more power, but is also gentle on sensitive terrain. They also provide a smoother ride, making it much easier for someone to operate. Ground clearance, the ability to work over uneven surfaces and working in tight areas are also maximized with such machinery.

While compact track loaders generally are more expensive than skid-steer loaders, saving valuable turf surfaces may very well be worth the extra cash.

Brian Anderson is an associate at Carmichael Lynch Sprong, which represents ASV, Inc. (Minneapolis, Minn.).

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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