By Buck Storlie
Choosing a compact track loader that excels at snow clearing.
By Buck Storlie
What’s better for clearing snow, a skid steer or a compact track loader? The common perception is that a wheeled machine would fare better, and it’s often true with many track loaders. It is why many compact track loaders are parked for the winter while their wheeled counterparts keep working. However, it’s possible to choose a compact track loader that not only excels in snow, but performs as well as or better than skid steers.
Operators have a lot to consider when looking for a snow-worthy compact track loader. Machine ground clearance, track surface contact, weight distribution and more can have a huge impact on performance, productivity and return on investment. Careful consideration of the machine’s undercarriage, the desired application, ROI possibilities and comfort could lead to a track loader that performs all year long.
The track system
The process for choosing a track loader for snow and ice clearing works best from the ground up, starting with the tracks. A variety of options exist, including some modern designs that feature extra length and width and an extremely effective bar-style tread to achieve maximum contact with the ground. The extra ground contact allows maximum traction on snow, ice and slush, running contrary to a perception that an aggressive track pattern is necessary for traction in winter applications. Dedicated snow tracks are offered by many manufacturers and may improve performance for some track loaders, but operators will see a higher return on investment by choosing a machine with tracks meant for year-round use that don’t have to be changed with the season.
Advanced suspension systems can improve traction even more by keeping the track in contact with the ground. Look for a dual-level system that features independent torsion axles between the undercarriage and machine, as well as bogie wheels that flex with the track. This combination not only minimizes vibrations to the machine and operator for improved comfort and ride quality, it also maximizes ground contact for extra traction. For example, when loaders without independent torsion axles engage the bucket, the front part of the tracks can lift off of the ground, reducing traction by leaving only the back end of the tracks to push the loader. Independent torsion axles in that same situation will push the tracks downward to maintain maximum ground contact. The same thing happens when the track flexes over small obstacles.
Purpose-built track loaders also feature optimal weight distributions compared to models converted from skid steers. Loaders converted from skid steers are often too back-heavy, affecting stability on slopes and reducing overall performance. The back of a back-heavy machine can sink and get stuck in deep snow as well as reduce traction and pushing force on ice because of uneven weight distribution. Look for a track loader with a 50-50 weight balance that spreads the machine’s weight evenly and allows for greater traction and pushing power.
Track bogie wheels also play a role in weight distribution and therefore traction in snow. Most track loaders only feature a handful of bogie wheels in contact with the ground. Consider choosing a purpose-built track loader, such as some all-rubber track models, which can feature as many as four times more ground contact points than steel-embedded models.
The combination of even weight distribution and increased track surface area improves flotation and provides the ability to virtually drive on top of the snow – similar to the concept of snowshoes – while a higher ground pressure is more likely to sink and get stuck. Ground pressure on a mid-sized all-rubber track machine, for example, can be about four psi while a similarly sized steel-embedded rubber track machine may be 5.5 psi. Loaders with a low ground pressure can even drive up snow piles, giving operators the ability to stack snow higher before needing to start a new pile.
Finally, choosing a loader with high ground clearance has year-round benefits. The greater the distance between the bottom of the machine and the ground, the less likely it is to get hung up on snow or other obstacles. It can also improve speed by reducing belly drag. Some purpose-built compact track loaders achieve ground clearances as high as 15 inches, almost double that of other models.
Consider the job
Contractors should think about what machine characteristics fit their most common jobs. Overall machine size is a big consideration. Many jobs would be suited to a mid-sized model, but sidewalks and alleyways may call for some of the industry’s smallest sit-in compact track loaders. Small loaders allow access to tight areas that may otherwise have required manual shoveling, snow blowers or other open-air equipment. This can improve productivity and allow contractors to move to the next job faster. Larger spaces such as parking lots naturally call for the largest track loaders. Also look at lift height and whether the desired loader will be able to load dump trucks.
Take speed into account for a machine that will allow faster job completion. The fastest track loaders on the market use internal drive sprockets with replaceable steel rollers that fit with molded rubber lugs to move all-rubber tracks. The system greatly reduces friction compared to steel-on-steel designs seen in many loaders, and therefore improves speed. It also eliminates direct wear between rollers and track lugs. Plus, individually replaceable sleeves mean operators don’t need to change out the entire sprocket when rollers are worn down.
Don’t forget about comfort. A cold uncomfortable cab could mean less employee retention for a contractor and higher fatigue for an owner-operator. Look for sealed, all-weather cabs with heating and cooling. Added features such as Bluetooth, cupholders and a radio can also enhance user experience.
Money well spent
Just like with any equipment purchase, it’s important to evaluate potential cost of ownership and return on investment. Selecting a track loader that excels in snow clearing is an ROI benefit in itself because the machine can be used during the winter months instead of being parked. The characteristics that make a loader ideal for snow also translate perfectly to operating on soft surfaces in spring, summer and fall applications, such as landscaping, general construction and agriculture.
In addition to selecting a machine with tracks that don’t need to be changed with the season, look for other characteristics that promote year-round use. Similar to how many manufacturers offer specific snow tracks, it isn’t uncommon to need to switch out a loader’s fluids and lubricants with the seasons. Either that, or a manufacturer may charge for a winter package. Evaluate whether any of the loader options come standard with all-season fluids tested to be able to handle both high and low ambient temperatures. Some manufacturers offer fluids and lubricants optimized for their equipment, allowing high performance at temperatures ranging from -30F to 118F. Other standard features to look for include engine block heaters and full temperature-range batteries.
Maintenance and upkeep are another cost consideration. Many loaders feature an enclosed tub design in which snow can become stuck, packed and difficult to remove. For ease of cleaning, look for a single-rail, open-undercarriage style compact track loader. This design leaves most components exposed, creating a self-cleaning undercarriage where material naturally falls out rather than getting trapped and wearing at components. This extends component life and makes clearing ice and snow out of the undercarriage a non-issue.
Not all compact track loaders are created equal. Quite a few track loaders are often parked for the winter because of poor performance, but with careful consideration, it’s possible to choose a machine that will fit right in with the skid steers clearing snow.
Consider machine characteristics like ground clearance, weight distribution, surface contact and overall ROI potential. Taking the time to look for an all-season machine means year-round profits and productivity.
Buck Storlie is product line manager at ASV Holdings.