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Tracks, Tires and Total Cost of Ownership: Selection, Maintenance Considerations and Best Practices for Tracks and Pneumatic Tires

Tracks and pneumatic tires represent a significant percentage of total cost of ownership (TCO) for any piece of landscaping equipment.

Proper maintenance and operating practices can go a long way to ensure that equipment owners are getting the most out of their investment, as well as working towards a safe and productive job schedule.

This article serves to identify some initial purchase considerations that will ultimately affect TCO over the course of a machine’s service life, as well as maintenance and operational factors that will extend the life of each asset and ultimately lower its TCO.

Initial Purchase Considerations Affecting Long-Term TCO

For this example, we’ll examine two machines that are very common in the landscaping business: skid steers and compact track loaders. The initial purchase price of a compact track loader with rubber tracks is notably higher than a more traditional rubber-tired skid steer — and there are some general truths about the type of application that both are suited for. While both are built of rubber, the type of surface each typically operates on affects their lifetime ownership costs.

A rubber-tired skid steer is better suited for working on improved surfaces (asphalt, concrete, hard-packed rock/gravel) as the tires will generally last longer than rubber tracks on these surfaces, and cost less to replace than rubber tracks when they do wear and/or fail. With a larger continuous square footage in constant contact with the ground, the rubber track and the undercarriage itself is more susceptible to abrasive wear and vibration, and therefore faster replacement rates.

Rubber-tracked compact track loaders, however, earn every bit of their added purchase price when working off-road and in soft/soupy operations. The low ground pressure inherent with compact track loaders results in less rutting and site cleanup at the end of the project – which saves in labor (time) and materials (less topsoil, seed, etc). Rubber-tired skid steers will typically tear up more of the ground than rubber tracks, resulting in added project costs.

Maintenance Considerations and Best Operating Practices: Tracked Equipment

The undercarriage of a tracked machine is a system of moving components consisting of sprockets, rollers, idlers, tracks and other miscellaneous parts. Proper operation is critical to controlling the cost of these wear items. Consider the following operating practices for tracked equipment:

  • Remember that proper operating procedures start before the machine gets to the jobsite. Check the ground conditions and the terrain to make a number of informed decisions (if you have numerous machines/track styles to choose from); such as the need to minimize travel, the use of steel tracks versus rubber tracks depending on the need to control ground pressure or navigate debris, choosing the narrowest shoe width possible to meet the required flotation, and discussions with operators about the proper operating techniques that match the terrain.

  • Counter-rotation, or pivot turns, cause accelerated wear and increase the potential for de-tracking of rubber-tracked machines. Operators should take wider more gradual turns whenever possible.

  • Constant operation on a slope or hill in one direction can accelerate wear to idlers, rollers and guide lugs by placing greater forces on one side. Travel straight up or down the slope when possible.

  • Turns are best performed on level ground. We understand some jobs require hillside work. For these situations, keep in mind that minimizing time on the slope will always payoff in reduced wear and load to the undercarriage.

  • Continuous turning on the same side can cause accelerated asymmetrical wear on the tracks. Operators should do their best to try and balance the direction of turns throughout the day. If it’s not possible, the tracks should be checked for wear more often.

  • Unnecessary spinning of the tracks can increase wear and decrease productivity. Also, higher speeds can cause more wear, as well as excessive and/or unnecessary travel in reverse.

Special Considerations for Rubber Tracks
Rubber tracks are an ideal choice when working in soft conditions and the jobsite dictates the need to minimize damage to the ground. With a rubber-tracked machine, there are several operating practices and basic maintenance items that can help ensure continued productivity and maximized TCO:

  • Traveling or operating in or around abrasive materials will shorten track life. Operators should avoid rough stone, jagged rocks, scrap iron or other recycled materials. Crushed rock, concrete or demolition rubble and rebar also pose a threat to uptime. Operators should also be aware of rough asphalt or concrete, as well as rock-laden jobsites or similar conditions that can damage tracks and cause them to de-track when stones or other materials can get stuck in the idler or sprockets.

  • Operators should also try to stay on relatively flat surfaces. Operating a rubber-tracked machine with the outside/inside edge of the track turned up can cause damage to the edges and lugs of the rubber track. It is also important to avoid traveling with the tracks on uneven ground, or surfaces with obstructions.

  • Given that rubber is weaker than steel, operators should not allow the sides of the tracks to contact curbs or walls to minimize damage and downtime. It is also important to note that rubber tracks are not direction-specific. In certain situations it is completely within reason to remove rubber tracks and swap sides or flip their directions when wear patterns become apparent.

  • Proper cleaning and storing of rubber-tracked machines also helps to ensure their longevity. Flush the tracks and undercarriage with clean water if the machine was used in areas with abrasive or corrosive materials. If being stored off of the machine, the tracks should be stored on their sides to avoid crimps where weak-points could develop in the material.

  • Once rubber tracks are worn and/or damaged, there is no real way to repair them. Damaged rubber tracks need to be replaced in order to minimize excessive wear to other undercarriage components.

  • Inspect the undercarriage for excessive or uneven wear, as well as damaged or missing components. Any issues should be immediately addressed to minimize further wear or damage.

  • Monitor track tension while the machine is in working conditions and adjust it accordingly. When the tracks are too loose it can create instability. It can cause the tracks to derail in the worst-case scenario. When rubber tracks are too tight, it can cause the tracks to stretch or break in addition to excessive roller and idler wear. Proper tension of rubber tracks also ensures the machine puts available power to best use. Check the operator’s manual for specific track inspection and tensioning procedures.

Maintenance Considerations and Best Operating Practices: Pneumatic Tires

Tires—much like steel and rubber tracks—are one of the most costly consumable components on a skid steer, wheel loader or any pneumatic-tired machine. There are, however, several operating practices and basic maintenance items that can help fleet managers and equipment owners maximize tire life:

  • Tread depth is one of the key indicators of the overall health of pneumatic tires, and should be monitored regularly in order to determine where a tire is in its lifecycle. It is important to consider that each type of tire has its own tread depth considerations, so equipment owners should consult with their dealers to determine the original tread depth and determine the point at which the tire needs to be replaced or re-treaded.

  • Inspect tires daily, noting any cuts, cracks, abrasions or uneven wear on the tires—these actions could lead to the replacement of a damaged tire before it becomes a bigger issue, or could possibly be an indication of another problem. The operator should also check for any damage to the rims, which could weaken the tire and lead to failure and costly downtime.

  • Tire pressure is another critical daily checkpoint. Improperly inflated tires can cause unnecessary wear and damage, and can wreak havoc on TCO. Tires should also be cleaned, and any debris should be removed from the tread whenever possible/practical.

  • Tires should also be rotated regularly—just like a car or truck, irregular wear can be present for an infinite amount of reasons, and the best way to minimize it is to follow the manufacturer-recommended rotation intervals.

Operating practices can also have a significant impact on the overall life of pneumatic tires. Operators need to be aware of the manufacturer-recommended load limitations of a machine. Exceeding the load limitations can cause unnecessary wear on pneumatic tires, in addition to other machine components. It is also important that operators do not run the machine at excessive speed, as pushing a machine too fast can cause unnecessary wear, and can lead to flat tires, damage to other machine components and downtime.

The bottom line is this: whether a fleet is primarily on tracks, tires or both, equipment owners and fleet managers who want to lower their TCO and get the most out of their investment should put these maintenance practices in place, and do everything they can to educate their operators on these core operating practices that maximize the life of some of the most costly — and important — wear components of an equipment fleet.

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