Tires or Tracks?

When investing your hard-earned cash into an expensive and
complicated piece of machinery, you want to make sure you pick the
perfect tool for the job. When buying a compact utility loader, that
will mean choosing from a growing number of options — the right dealer,
the ideal model, a quality brand and a good set of attachments.
Contractors will also need to decide on the right mode of
transportation for their compact utility loader operations. Do you want
tires or tracks?

Today’s compact
utility loaders are engineered as mini hydraulic power plants, designed
to run 70-plus different attachments in limited-workspace environments.
But in order to get to the jobsite without causing damage (to the
machine or the jobsite), your compact utility loader will need to be
fitted with the right set of wheels or tracks.

And since compact utility loaders have grown in popularity in the
landscape and rental industries, machines equipped with a dedicated
track undercarriage have become the units of choice.

“People really like the advantages of what the track units offer as far
as versatility,” says Greg Lawrence, product manager for Toro’s Dingo
line of compact utility loaders. “With tracks, you’ve got a lower
ground pressure because you’re dispersing the weight of the machine the
entire length of the unit. [Tracks] can be a little bit more turf
friendly. Rental houses also appreciate them because they’re less
intimidating for the users. The track units are really gaining in
popularity and are pretty much dominating the marketplace.”

Tracks are easier on lawns than tires. Operators who switched from skid
steers to compact track loaders know that. With a set of tracks, a
compact utility loader can

dispense its weight, the load and the attachment over
multiple contact points and the length of the track — instead of just four wheels.

Tracks also have much better flotation. You can get into muddy
jobsites, past snowy situations and over sand-covered conditions much
easier with a set of tracks. They just give better traction and
balance. Tracks also offer options in width. Depending on the machine
you purchase, you can find track widths from 6 to 10 in. and above.
Some manufacturers even engineer what’s called a variable track system
for certain compact utility loaders. A variable undercarriage is
designed to move in and out (like some of those small compact excavator
undercarriages), giving contractors more flexibility when going through
narrow openings or working up against buildings. The Boxer TD-327
model, for instance, has a variable track system that goes from 34.5 to
43.5 in. with the push of a lever.

It’s great for going through backyard gates.

Of course with tracks there is more of an initial investment in your
compact utility loader, and that means more money up front. Tracks will
typically cost you more in purchase price — $1,000 to $5,000 more.
Toro’s smallest Dingo wheeled unit model runs for around $11,000 (list
price). If you purchase the corresponding track model, you’re going to
pay around $15,000; of course, that does also include more engine
horsepower and other perks. Compact Power’s smallest unit (the
PowerHouse Prodigy) lists for about $10,000 wheeled and $11,000
tracked.

Along with a bigger purchase price, a compact utility loader with a
dedicated track undercarriage will have more cost of ownership issues.
Replacement costs for sprockets, idlers, rubber tracks and other
wear parts will be more expensive to maintain than a simple wheelbase
with four tires. There’s just more moving parts. A new pair of tracks
for a typical compact utility loader will cost around a $1,000,
according to the manufacturers CE surveyed. A new set of tires usually
costs around $400 to $500, including both wheels and wheel assemblies.

But while tracks might be more expensive to buy, they typically last
longer, depending on your application. If you’re not running around on
asphalt or hard surfaces all day long, the lifetime on a set of tracks
is estimated at about 1,000 hours. For tires, most contractors get
about 200 to 300 hours out of a set, depending on the job and jobsite.
And with tracks, contractors don’t have to worry about those pesky
flats.

“You don’t have the issues of tires going flat,” says Lisa McCarley,
dealer support manager at Compact Power, manufacturer and distributor
of the Kanga, Boxer and PowerHouse brands. “A lot of people are also
spending about $300 a tire now to foam fill tires to prevent them from
going flat, and for that expense, you can certainly buy a track. You
can also soft fill a tire with a liquid sealant that costs about $75
per tire.”

But if you’re thinking more about maneuverability
and faster cycle times than you are traction and flat tires,
a set of wheels is a good option. In fact, the wheeled units were the original models, so they have a
little more history and patronage in the industry.

“There are people who have been using [the wheeled units] for quite a
while that like the benefits of it,” explains Andy Lewis, marketing
manager at Compact Power Inc. “They also tend to be priced a little
lower than the track units. They’re easier to maintain as well.”

The wheeled compact utility loaders units are designed narrower with a
shorter wheelbase, so the models maneuver better than their tracked
counterparts. They are also faster — especially on hard surfaces. A
wheeled compact utility loader is a must if you’re traveling on firm
surfaces all day long like concrete, tarmac or asphalt. Wheels have an
advantage when operating around curbs and driveways too, where the
break-over point makes a track unit less desirable. Typically, there
are three choices in tires for compact utility loaders — turf tires and
medium- and aggressive-tread tires. Overall, the wheeled compact
utility loaders tend to feel a little more familiar to first-time
operators.

“People often prefer a wheeled unit, just because it’s what they know
compared to a skid steer unit,” says Lawrence. “The wheeled units are
also faster. If you are a landscaper, and by landscaper I mean someone
who is installing, you have a distinct advantage with speed and tires.
But they can be kind of hard on established turf.”

And
that’s the rub — tires slide on grass and tear up the turf, and tracks
slide on hard surfaces and wear down the tracks. More than likely you
will need to operate your machine on both surfaces, so what do the
professionals recommend? Go easy on the zero-degree turning with both
tracks and tires.

If it’s designed with four wheels turning, you’re going to cause some
damage to turf, flowerbeds and other delicate surfaces. Just make sure
your turns are as wide as possible. This equipment is light enough that
you are going to have minimal damage to the turf, but you still want to
take wide turns if possible.

Same
thing with tracks — drive in a straight line. Zero-degree turns will
not only hurt the track, but it will scuff up the concrete too. When
reputable landscape companies cross concrete with tracks, they go straight across instead
of making skids or turns because that leaves black marks. Operators
just need to understand their applications and their jobsite — that
will help them pick the perfect tool for the job.

“There’s a place for wheeled units and there’s a place for tracks,”
says Lawrence. “Most of the time, it’s going to come down to the user
and the user’s application.”

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