Track options for compact excavators

Steel, Rubber or Hybrid?

From our cars to our electronics, we live in a world where customizing a purchase after a sale makes a big difference in its overall productivity and the way it is used. Contractors should be thinking the same way when it comes to the equipment they operate on a day-to-day basis. OEM standard features do not have to be a contractor’s only option for outfitting a machine when aftermarket parts and accessories can make it more productive. For example, replacing the rubber tracks on a compact excavator with hybrid or steel tracks for more versatility and productivity is a growing trend among compact equipment users.

In fact, it’s becoming so popular that many manufacturers are beginning to offer those configurations as an option from the factory. However, contractors may have to pay more for those factory upgrades than if they sourced the tracks from an aftermarket provider. Before making the switch, it’s important to understand the advantages of both systems and where a set of tracks will be the most productive.

Steel Track System Advantages

Steel tracks have been used on large excavators and dozers for decades, so most contractors are familiar with them. As industry trends have shifted to the use of more compact equipment, the preference of steel tracks hasn’t gone away, especially among contractors doing demolition or working in dirt, snow and/or ice. “Converting over to steel tracks is popular for compact excavators in the larger end of the compact segment, which starts at around 10,000 lbs,” explains James Cline, president of MWE, a manufacturer and distributor of aftermarket tracks and tires for the compact equipment industry. “Steel has a much longer life than rubber tracks without sacrificing flotation. And, steel tracks have better traction, which is a real benefit to operators that are using their dozer blade on a regular basis for backfilling.”

Cline says steel tracks aren’t right for everyone: “Steel is hard on turf when turning so they should not be used in ground-sensitive applications. Also, operators need to avoid running steel tracks on hard surfaces, like asphalt and concrete. That’s where a hybrid track system or the addition of bolt-on rubber pads is a much better option.”

Hybrid Advantages

Hybrid track systems combine the durability of steel tracks, with comparable ride comfort and versatility of rubber tracks. Hybrid tracks are a combination of heavy-duty steel chains with bolt-on hybrid pads. These pads are a combination of steel grousers and rubber pads molded into one integrated part, which bolt directly to the chain. Hybrid systems give contractors the best of both worlds — a replacement to a rubber track that when damaged can easily and affordably be repaired, while still having the versatility to perform the job of the rubber track.

“The rubber on hybrid systems is more durable than rubber tracks,” Cline says. “The design of the system doesn’t require the rubber to flex like a rubber track, so a harder rubber can be used, which will hold up better on hard surfaces and in applications like demolition, where sharp surfaces can destroy rubber tracks. And with hybrid systems, the pads can be replaced without having to change the steel tracks or chain, so contractors save on maintenance over the life of the machine. Like steel tracks, the hybrid system can do more damage to turf than rubber tracks because there are gaps between each grouser on a hybrid system that can leave impressions on sensitive surfaces.”

Conversion Process

A concern of many contractors is the process of converting their compact excavators over to a different track system. Cline says making a change is actually pretty easy and usually doesn’t require switching out any of the undercarriage components. “The installation process usually only takes around 20 to 30 minutes per side of the machine,” he adds. “It’s not much different than changing out one rubber track for another.

“The most difficult part is deciding what type of track is going to maximize a machine’s productivity, and our team has gotten very good at pointing customers in the right direction. From there, a contractor just has to let us know what model of machine they are running. Maybe take a few measurements.”

Availability and Pricing

The growing demand for hybrid and steel track systems is helping to increase the number of compact equipment and tire distributors that carry these product lines. However, most distributors do not stock the systems, so contractors should plan ahead or consider purchasing the system online and have it shipped directly to their shops. For those interested in making the change to tracks on their compact excavators, they can expect to pay around the same price for steel as they would for rubber tracks. Hybrid systems will run about 20 percent more for the bolt-on hybrid pads from an aftermarket provider like MWE.

Contractors looking to get more from their equipment need to change the way they think about their machines. They should no longer simply rely on a manufacturer to dictate the features available — aftermarket providers making innovative products can really improve the bottom line.

Todd Versteeg is a technical writer with Signature Style PR + Marketing.

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