Wheels vs. Tracks: the Debate Over Compact Loaders
While many manufacturers believe there is no definitive deciding line on the better machine,
every single one of them has an opinion about which to use where and when—and if one
machine can be configured to do the work of both.
Since its inception roughly 40 years ago, the skid steer has risen to become the largest single selling piece of equipment in the construction industry. This versatile workhorse is considered an industry staple, relied upon by virtually all contractors and included in fleets sized small to large. But in recent years, it has faced some tough competition from the increasingly popular compact track loader (CTL). Despite the added expense, tracks are establishing a new trend with contractors.
Caterpillar acknowledges that skid-steer loaders (SSLs) are the lowest operating cost solution where approximately 85% of the operating cost, excluding the operator, comprises fuel and tires. Skid steers excel in applications where the ground conditions are firm and higher travel speed is required. An SSL weighs less than a track unit, allowing for more flexibility to transport. According to Caterpillar, an SSL also requires the lowest amount of maintenance to minimize the O&O cost.
It’s important to match the right machine to the job duties, site conditions, and geological area. Because there are so many options, choosing the right machine can be a confusing decision. In order to make the right selection, the contractor needs to know the job-site application, advises Bob Beesley, product manager for Komatsu in Newberry, SC. The problem is, he admits, no two sites are alike, so it gets complicated.
The general consensus maintains that skid steers work best on paved or hard surfaces, landscaped areas, or concrete, while the CTL excels in loose, wet, muddy, snowy, sloppy conditions and on slopes and uneven terrain. “While uneven terrain, slopes, and muddy or snowy ground conditions can be very challenging and tough on skid-steer loaders, compact track loaders are designed and built to handle these types of conditions,” states Rick Harris, senior product manager, Terex Construction.
|Photo: John Deere
The John Deere 320 looks forward to this year’s Skidsteer Smackdown.
The CL35’s flotation allows it to work where wheel's won’t go.
Ground conditions are often closely related to geological areas. Because rocky and abrasive conditions cause excessive wear, Mike Fitzgerald, product specialist for Bobcat, indicates that “a skid steer may be the most cost-effective choice for those locations, which are typical in the Southwest and mountainous regions.” For wet or sandy conditions common in Florida or many northern regions of the continent, a compact track loader will perform better.
Tracking the Benefits
The compact track loader was created in an attempt to increase the versatility of the skid steer, claims Mike Murphy, global product marketing for manager dozers and wheel loaders with New Holland in Carol Stream, IL, because it can “operate in worse underfoot conditions, flotation, softer, wetter conditions.” Supporting that idea, David Steger, national product and training manager for Takeuchi in Pendergrass, GA, sees the CTL replacing the skid steer because it’s more versatile in wet conditions. In fact, Chris Giorgianni, general manager product marketing for JCB, says the CTL now comprises 30% of the market.
Because compact track loaders use the same attachments (buckets, dozer blades, mulchers, augers, trenchers, levelers, box rakes, snow blowers, etc.) and perform in the same applications as skid steers (construction, landscaping, rental, forestry, and agricultural applications), Harris considers the most distinct advantage of a CTL its superior maneuverability in adverse ground conditions. “CTLs provide exceptional operation in muddy or snowy conditions where skid steers would not be able to work at all.”
Approximately 95% of the operating cost of a tracked machine, excluding the operator, comprises fuel and undercarriage. A track unit will require a higher level of maintenance in order to minimize the O&O cost of the unit. Track units excel in applications where ground conditions require the highest level of traction and floatation while providing minimal ground disturbance. This extends a customer’s working season by providing a machine that can work even when an SSL can’t. Track units also provide higher operating capacity versus comparably sized wheel units due to their more stable footprint. Caterpillar track units also provide the benefit of a suspended undercarriage. This provides better traction in uneven terrain while providing a more comfortable ride for the operator.
The CTL’s flotation allows it to work in areas wheels can’t go, such as wet or muddy soil. Beesley relates a tale of driving a Komatsu track loader into soft ground conditions, climbing out and sinking to his knees just in front of the machine, still perched on top of the much. That kind of flotation means that even on dry soil, the ground isn’t disturbed. “It doesn’t make ruts like wheeled machines, and it can get into areas inaccessible to a skid steer.” Because there’s less ground disturbance, there’s also less ground repair and cleanup, so crews can get off the site more quickly.
They can also get in sooner. As Harris notes, “Waiting for the job site to dry out after a rain day means wasted productivity time.” Compact track loaders are designed and built to handle wet, soft, sensitive, or muddy conditions. They exert low ground pressure on a surface, so there’s less damage to pre-existing grounds, even after rain. “This means you’ll have a longer, less interrupted working season.”
The reason the track machine works better in sloppy conditions, explains Jim Hughes, brand-marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment Co., is that its weight is evenly dispersed over a larger area so that the ground pressure is lessened. In essence, it has a broader “wheel base” because it has more contact with the ground than a wheeled machine does. A CTL spreads its weight on the ground over the length and width of both tracks, while a skid steer puts all its weight on the four wheels.
“The more track on the ground, the more stability you have,” Steger confirms. “[A CTL] is more stable than a wheeled machine. The track machine ‘floats’ over holes and bumps. It’s easier on the land and the operator.”
The Terex ASV CTL machines use more bogie wheels than other brands, which helps distribute the machine’s weight even better, contends Rick Harris, with Terex Construction. “As a result, you have lower ground pressure, more traction, and generally better performance. In fact, Terex ASV machines have the industry’s lowest ground pressure and exert one-tenth the pressure of skid-steer wheels.”
Terex is also the only compact track loader manufacturer to offer three different track options: general purpose tracks for the majority of conditions; smooth turf tracks for ultimate care and protection of sensitive surfaces like finished landscaping; and extreme-terrain tracks with aggressive treads and 10% more width for additional gripping action in snow, mud, or other extreme conditions.
Another benefit of being able to work in sloppy conditions is that the CTL can work more days. “In a calendar year, they work more because they can do a variety of jobs in wet conditions, rough terrain, soft ground, and on slopes,” Giorgianni says. “The skid steer is not as versatile.” Steger adds that some landscapers use it for snow removal in the winter by attaching special snow tracks, blades, blowers, and buckets. “The key benefit is you can use it more days a year.”
But some would argue about where the CTL can be effectively used. “We used to say ‘not on asphalt,’” Steger recalls. However, he’s finding that many Takeuchi customers prefer the stability of a CTL when working on asphalt, despite the toll it takes on the tracks. Asphalt accelerates wear of the rubber track. The average life of a track is 750–800 hours, he estimates. Rental machines will get considerably less—roughly half that amount. However, “if you’re running primarily in dirt, you can get 1,000 hours.”
|Photo: New Holland
New Holland’s 50B Compact Wheel Loaders are new to North America.
The new 420 Case has more horsepower and torque.
Typically, the CTL costs more to purchase and maintain. “Maintenance costs, especially if it’s used on pavement, are high,” Murphy reiterates. Pavement isn’t the only threat to the life of a track. Giorgianni points out that operators can wear out a track system by performing tight maneuvers. Harris recommends gradual turns. “Avoid making quick turns by counter-rotating. This will not only scuff turf and other sensitive surfaces, but can cause tracks to wear faster.”
Another way to quickly ruin a track is by not cleaning the undercarriage after usage. Mud and debris (rock, gravel, etc.) should be cleaned from the undercarriage daily. Track tension should be routinely checked to ensure optimal performance and long life. Beesley reminisces about early models that required pressure washing. Although those are largely gone, it still pays to keep them free of dirt and debris to avoid excess wear.
To further reduce wear, Komatsu designed a triple flange idler at the front. Most loaders have a single flange, Beesley explains. It’s a high-wear item because they run metal-to-metal on steel pins. Komatsu’s design puts the weight on the outside two flanges that ride on rubber. That reduces wear and provides a better ride. Customers get 1,500–2,000 hours out of the tracks, he says.
Once the track is worn or damaged, the whole thing has to be replaced, which can run anywhere from $1,100 to $2,000 and take up to 1.5 hours to do. “If you’re capable of using a wheeled machine,” Beesley advises, “it’s usually cheaper, in cost and maintenance. Tires are cheaper than tracks.”
While the skid-steer loader is less expensive to purchase than the compact track loader, the CTL is usually more cost effective, Harris counters. A typical compact track loader pays for itself in approximately 18 months through superior productivity and versatility. Basically, Giorgianni summarizes, “the choice depends on where you’re going to use the machine. But if money is no object, get the CTL. It offers more applications.”
Freewheeling Toward the Future
Together, the skid steer and the compact track loader are an integral part of the industry, making up 40% of the construction and excavation market. Despite the rising popularity of the CTL, skid steers remain the top seller—although that might be changing. Pointing out that the CTL is newer, Hughes believes the industry is just beginning to understand how to utilize it and suggests that track loaders should supplement fleets, not replace skid steers. The industry seems to be catching on. “Growth [of the CTL market] is starting to outstrip skid steers,” he says.
However, the advent of the CTL era doesn’t ring the death knell for the skid steer. Giorgianni considers it the “Swiss Army knife” of the construction industry and a vital entry-level piece of equipment for new contractors. He still believes skid steers may be better suited for long-term jobs. “Maintenance costs are lower, they’re faster, they can do tight turns and they minimize ground disturbance, which makes them particularly good for landscaping applications.” Landscaping is a common application for skid steers, but Steger says they’re also adaptable to perform “some residential excavation” and are suited for agricultural applications, from feedlots to vineyards.
Caterpillar is the only manufacturer that can provide a best-fit traction solution from one of three traction platforms: a skid-steer loader, a multiterrain loader, or a compact track loader. These options allow a customer’s application to be matched with the correct machine in order to provide the solution offering the highest productivity, for his application, with the lowest owning-and-operating cost. Whether tracks or wheels, each solution provides unique advantages.
Popular Case models 450 and 465 are also effective for work on roads or bridges, according to Hughes, because of their mechanically self-leveling loader linkage. In addition, he says, they have the fastest cycle times on the market, and their high-horsepower engines—83 net horsepower—provide exceptional torque and lift capacity.
Skid steers continue to offer many advantages. Because they can do “spin turns,” they can speed up work and work in tighter areas, adding to their versatility. Hughes says they’re simply more effective in ground conditions that are more damaging. “Stone wears out track, but wheels roll over it.”
Another advantage they have is in the used market, where resale values are well established and names are known. “The used market for skid steers is visible and dynamic,” Murphy says.
Fitzgerald considers the skid steer a better choice for multitasking, multi-operator, utility duties, as opposed to the CTL, which “tends to be more of a production machine.” Murphy agrees. “If versatility is key, a skid steer is the best choice. If production is important, a CTL is the better choice. The more specialized and consistent the application, the more a CTL makes sense, but for versatility, transport and modest investment, a skid steer is the place to start.” In fact, he recommends most contractors start with a skid steer, eventually graduating to a compact wheel loader if they get big enough. “A compact wheel loader [CWL] can do things a skid steer can’t.”
The skid steer can’t stockpile, because it’s too closely coupled, but a CWL can. The compact wheel loader can load and carry because of its wider wheelbase, which also provides a smoother ride and more stability. It features a higher payload and larger bucket capacity, and has higher ground speed—more than double that of a skid steer, up to 22 miles per hour. They are more stable and have better lift because of the amount of track on the ground and the weight of the undercarriage.
Popular New Holland compact wheel loader models include the W50B and W80B, although Murphy estimates that they still sell track loaders 20 to one over wheel loaders (and skid steers seven to one over track loaders). “It’s new in North America,” he says. “The market is only one-tenth of the skid-steer market. There’s some growth, but not as fast as the CTL.”
Maybe that’s because “it’s big and expensive,” he speculates. It’s about one-and-a-half times the cost of a skid steer, and maintenance is more expensive than on the skid steer or the CTL. Because it’s 10,000–15,000 pounds heavier than a skid steer, it needs a different trailer; however, it can drive a couple miles to a new job site.
On the plus side, the CWL offers a great deal of productivity. Because crawler loaders have a 35% tipping load, they can lift more than skid steers. “It does a better job truck loading because of its reach and wheelbase.” Its longer wheelbase also gives it an advantage over the skid steer in hard digging applications. “The harder the digging,” Murphy says, “the less benefit a skid steer is.”
In addition, Murphy says, it has a nicer cab arrangement for better visibility and there’s more distance between the bucket and operator, enhancing both visibility and safety, particularly at transfer stations, where operators are moving boards and rebar. Since the operator sits high, he can see the work area better. Its superior suspension and enhanced creature comforts provide a better operating environment in poor conditions such as dusty transfer stations or contained agricultural applications. He considers it a valuable addition to a fleet, particularly because it is designed to accept universal skid-steer attachments.
To Share or not to Share
According to Murphy, there’s a 40% overlap in uses of the skid steer and the CTL. With interchangeable attachments, it’s no wonder. Sometimes they share more than just accessories.
Komatsu and Bobcat use the same platform for both machines. Fitzgerald considers it an efficient method of production. “The cab, upper frame, and lift arms are essentially the same,” he says. Bobcat installs a bolt-on undercarriage for track loaders or a chain-case driveline for skid steers. They are both, he adds, designed to handle the rigors of a CTL application.
Not all manufacturers agree with the shared platform theory. New Holland and Terex ASV design the two machines separately, with individual dedicated systems for each. Harris explains that Terex ASV CTLs are “purpose-built machines designed from the ground up to run on a suspended rubber track for maximum traction, flotation, ground clearance, and balance.” Takeuchi builds only track loaders. Steger says they are “purpose-built to withstand the forces of adverse conditions and sloped terrain.”
Making one platform—or machine—do double duty is a controversial subject any way you slice it. However, because work is no longer defined by the seasons, but instead is extending into near year-round scheduling, it’s important to be able to work in any conditions. But can one machine do it all? “There is no ‘combo machine,’” Hughes insists.
“We do not recommend aftermarket track systems that bolt the track to the axles and replace wheels,” Beesley says. “It only drives off the rear axle, so there’s a lot of added stress on the rear chain. The system is prone to wear.” Because the axles are supported by the side of the machine, the extra weight can bend the frame where the axles bolt on. Major damage can result. Before it gets to that point, though, contractors lose 40% of the machine’s power due to diverted energy to turn the tracks.
Instead, Beesley considers “track over wheels” a good option and says Komatsu sells them. At a cost of $3,000 to $4,000, the steel tracks take less than an hour to install. He says the rubber tracks “slip a lot” and aren’t as popular, but Fitzgerald cautions that the steel over-the-tire tracks can leave marks on sidewalks, roads, and curbs.
Everything in life has trade-offs, Murphy acknowledges, and trade-offs can be expensive. In addition to downtime for swapping out systems, he says the track-laden wheels are heavy, provide reduced performance and lose operational capacity because of the added weight. Fuel costs are increased, as is wear, due to the metal-to-metal contact.
Nevertheless, many contractors believe the tracks-over-tires provide the benefit of both worlds. They’re attracted to the aftermarket tracks because of the lower cost, Steger claims. “But you must consider how long they’ll last. The quality is not the same as OE tracks.” In addition, Hughes says, aftermarket over-the-tire track systems increase stress on the machine due to the extra weight. “You’re accelerating wear without getting the full benefit of a track machine. They improve traction, but they don’t offer the same flotation or stability. My advice is to make both machines work. If money is the issue, Case offers financing options, such as skipping winter payments, leasing, and long-term rental.”
JCB doesn’t offer over-the-tire tracks because they aren’t as productive, and Giorgianni doesn’t recommend them. “The traction isn’t as good because the machine weight is still on the four tires. It’s a lot of investment for a compromise solution.”
Some in the industry hope to prove him wrong. George and Marilyn Loegering, owners of Loegering Manufacturing Inc. in Casselton, ND, manufacture the Versatile Track System, a complete rubber-track undercarriage that bolts directly to a skid steer’s standard hubs. Placing the front idler significantly ahead of the front hub position helps the machine maintain flotation and adds stability when digging and when hauling and dumping heavy loads.
The VTS tracks provide bidirectional suspension that can be adjusted independently. The suspension automatically applies the track undercarriages to the ground for maximum track footprint and improved stability on uneven terrain. In addition to increased traction and flotation, the rear idler positions the track underneath the ballast of the machine.
Wheeled machines can be converted into track machines in an hour or less. Loegering claims the conversion provides better traction, unmatched stability, a smoother ride, superior grading ability, and ultimate versatility.
Six years ago, Larry Bair, owner of Bair Products Inc. and Bair Excavating Inc. in Louisburg, KS, bought a skid steer with rubber tracks. As he tells it, “a part on the rubber track—the drive lug—tore off, so the machine wouldn’t move. I got an idea for a replacement lug.” Thus was born the Larry Lug. Word got out, he says, and business boomed. “We sell 1,000 a day.”
Made of a composite plastic reinforced with Kevlar, the patented after-market device replaces broken, worn out, torn, and delaminated rubber drive lugs on MTL-type machines. Bair contends that the installation takes as little as 10 minutes and can be performed in the field without any special tools. The track does not need to be removed in order to install the new lugs. In addition to reducing down time, Larry Lugs eliminate costly shop repairs. “Replacing track costs up to $2,800. This repair component is like a patch.” The lugs can be removed and reinstalled on other tracks as needed.
The process of bolting them on makes the laminate stronger because they pull multiple layers of rubber and Kevlar together to prevent delamination. In addition, Bair says, they make a machine better than new because they include a provision to grease the wheels, which the factory doesn’t.
Because, as Bair says, “people have the mindset that track can run over anything,” but track isn’t drivable in rock, he and other contractors have found a need for an inexpensive, quick fix. “We’re not a think-tank company,” he says humbly. “We make things to satisfy our own problems.”
One of those problems was that the undercarriage wasn’t durable enough. On certain models, he says, the clearance between the lug and frame is very close. As the rubber on the rear idler loses its diameter through wear, the lug strikes the frame and eventually breaks off. Bair’s solid, aluminum alloy wheels help solve that problem. “It has better life than OEM.”
Weighing the Benefits
Every OEM has a pitch for the advantages offered by its brand, which can help a contractor make a decision, or further complicate the choice. Terex ASV CTLs are lighter weight, Harris indicates, which helps increase speed and efficiency. “Most of our competitors use a rigid track technology with steel-embedded tracks mounted on an existing skid-steer chassis. Our machine-specific designs include a patented Posi-Track undercarriage system.” By using more bogie wheels, Terex ASV CTLs provide maximum ground-contact area, with the lowest ground pressure on the market. That increases flotation while increasing traction, even in wet, muddy, or snowy conditions. Additionally, the internal positive drive system has less friction than external drive systems, which contributes to smooth, efficient operation at higher speeds.
Constructed of composite materials rather than steel, the tracks do not corrode or rust, resulting in longer life. Terex ASV undercarriages feature two types of suspension: single level, where the entire undercarriage is suspended from the chassis of the machine by torsion axles, or dual level, with a second level added to allow the bogie wheels of the machine to flex as well, creating exceptional ride comfort and traction. Independent torsion axles reduce vibration and shock associated with running over rocks, curbs and other rough terrain for a smoother ride.
Steger says Takeuchi is known for frame strength. “Skid-steer manufacturers adapt the track undercarriage to the frame, but we use thicker material—stronger, more durable—and put cross-beams where needed.” Engineering a unique undercarriage design around the track system enhances durability, he says. Other advantages of the powerful “red and gray machine” are its serviceability, thanks to simple hydraulics and electrical system and ease of access, as well as a focus on operator comfort that includes a roll-up door so operators can work with it open or closed.
Similarly, Case loaders (including eight skid-steer models and four compact track loaders) are built as welded, one-piece chassis, making them, as Hughes describes, “robust.” Additional benefits he lists include loader arms that rest low on the chassis so energy goes through the entire machine.
That translates into less flex and more “power behind the push.” Puncture-resistant steel fuel and hydraulic tanks dissipate heat, keeping it away from the operator. They are also easier to clean than plastic tanks, which can become impregnated with algae growth introduced by the water and moisture in alternative fuels.
The horsepower and torque have been increased on all Case models—up to 53% on the 420, Hughes notes. But power isn’t the only focus. Cabs are bigger, more comfortable and more ergonomic for optimal operator comfort, which, in turn, leads to increased productivity. Another feature that contributes both to productivity and safety is Case’s exclusive side lighting: 360-degree visibility for night work.
With 12 skid-steer and seven CTL models in its lineup, Bobcat has also placed more emphasis on enhanced operator comfort. “Our new M series loaders are quieter,” Fitzgerald says. They feature a pressurized cab that has been moved forward for better visibility, an adjustable seat for more legroom, and three control options (foot, hand, and selectable joystick).
Horsepower, operating capacity, and size are critical and are typically the first questions contractors ask. What some contractors don’t think of initially is width. Some Bobcat models are only 36 inches wide, allowing them to fit through gates and into other tight spaces. Weight is another important aspect, due to trailering requirements. In addition to answering those questions, Fitzgerald alerts contractors to look for features like a transversely mounted engine for easy single-side service, a center-mounted chain case for higher ground clearance and an all-steel undercarriage that’s solid-mounted to the frame for durability. Bobcat also offers a choice of radial- or vertical-lift arm configurations.
Radial-lift arms rise in an arc, but Beesley explains that they are not efficient for loading trucks, because the arm moves back in an arc. Vertical-lift arms allow an operator to dump into the center of a truck because the bucket stays the same distance from the machine from the ground up. With a change of attachments, forks can move straight up like a forklift. “Radial is better for digging,” he says, because there’s “more weight on the cutting edge.”
Rather than radial or vertical, JCB customers are asking one arm or two? The JCB monoboom skid steer has a sturdy arm that’s bigger than the competitor’s, with 50-50 balance left-to-right, Giorgianni claims. “It’s beefy, robust, and structurally strong.”
It’s also safer, he contends, because the operator can get in or out on the left side instead or at the front. Because there’s only one tower and a low-slung arm, operators enjoy 360-degree visibility.
Is That Your Final Question?
Before they ask equipment dealers detailed questions about the equipment, contractors need to ask themselves what kind of work they’re performing: loading, dirt work, time-sensitive production? What are the site conditions?
A contractor must evaluate his business now, in the past, and in six months, Giorgianni specifies. “If you’re working in wet ground conditions 30% of the time, you need a track machine.” Hughes agrees: “Guys are always looking for new stuff—the latest and greatest—but think about what you’re doing today and what you’ll be doing tomorrow and what you really need.”
Size matters. Giorgianni asks, “Where are you working? If there are tight quarters or confined areas, you may need a smaller piece. You have to factor in the work envelope.” Projects with tighter work areas and closer lot lines have led to growth in the compact equipment market in the last 10 to15 years. However, no one wants to give up horsepower or capacity.
You have to carefully tabulate operating capacity. Steger explains that a skid steer is rated at 50% of tipping load: a 4,000-pound tipping load equates to 2,000-pound operating capacity. A CTL is rated at 35% of tipping load: the same 4,000-pound tipping load equals 1,400-pound operating capacity. “But,” he emphasizes, “you must understand the numbers. On a hard surface, the numbers could be the same.”
Hard surfaces mean higher maintenance costs, cautions Murphy, although Harris disagrees and claims Terex ASV CTLs have a longer track life than skid steers “in most all conditions.” Whatever the conditions, operators must keep the track area clean and free of debris. “It’s incumbent on the operator to check,” Harris insists. Similarly, skid-steer operators must monitor tire wear, the biggest maintenance cost associated with wheeled machines. If tire pressures are low or uneven, wear is accelerated, fuel consumption is higher and productivity decreases.
Whichever type or brand of machine you’re considering, Steger advises setting up head-to-head demonstrations. “Get in the machine and try it in actual conditions.”
Writer Lori Lovely focuses on topics related to transportation and technology.