Weigh Track Loader Economics

Today’s competitive market requires that fleet managers carefully scrutinize every purchase. With the compact equipment market starting to rebound, one area that deserves close attention is whether a skid steer or compact track loader makes more sense.

Either loader type can usually accomplish a particular task. “But each definitely has its arena within which it excels,” says Brian Rabe, track loader product manager, Gehl.

Choosing the right tool becomes a numbers game. “Experience has taught customers that to improve their profitability, application management (matching the right task to the loader) of their fleet is very important,” says Jamie Wright, product manager, Terex Construction Americas. “Applications in certain ground conditions, such as hard surfaces like concrete or rock, can be done at reduced cost when using a skid-steer loader.”

A track loader can cost up to 25% more per hour of usage vs. a skid steer in applications such as demolition or road building due to excessive track wear.

“We’ve seen growing demand for track loaders in more applications. But as some owners unfortunately find, there are jobsites not really fit for track loaders,” says Kelly Moore, skid loader product manager, Gehl. Underfoot conditions with larger aggregate, rocks and/or debris can significantly shorten track life. “A skid loader equipped with severe-duty tires is better suited for these conditions.”

Calculate price vs. capabilities

“You have to be careful when comparing skid-steer loaders and compact track loaders to make sure you’re really looking at machines that have very similar specs,” cautions Curtis Goettel, marketing manager, Case Construction.

“There will naturally be differences in comparing a common-sized skid loader to a track loader,” adds Moore, “dependent upon the tires and bucket on a skid loader as compared to a track loader.” Operating capacities are also rated differently. “Skid steers are rated at 50% of tip capacity, while track loaders are rated at 35%.”

Then there is the cost difference. Manufacturers quote initial purchase prices ranging from 20% to 35% more for a compact track loader vs. a comparable-size skid steer. Most of this is due to the added cost of the undercarriage components.

But purchase price is only part of the equation. “You have to consider what this machine will do for you,” says Mike Fitzgerald, Bobcat. There are additional costs in purchasing on the front side, but there are a lot of benefits and features of a track loader.

“Operational cost per hour on a track loader is going to be a little more because of track wear and additional fuel use, but you are going to get more work done in that hour also,” he states. “Making buying decisions on basic and simple cost analysis can be misleading. Owners need to look at the wider scope and understand that it is possible to move 25% to 50% more material in a given amount of time, or that they can work on soft ground or in wet conditions that would have otherwise shut their operation down, before they make final judgments on the extra operating costs.”

“Based on customer surveys, it is estimated that track loader owning and operating cost comes in around $35 per hour of operation. Track replacement is generally 4% to 6% of this cost, depending upon the application and conditions,” says Rabe. “It is generally understood that the owning and operating costs will be higher for a track loader. However, for certain applications, this additional cost can be significantly offset if a skid loader is unable to get into the jobsite or won’t perform relative to conditions.”

Wright agrees, adding, “While the skid-steer loader is less expensive to purchase, the compact track loader is usually more cost effective. Because compact track loaders perform using the same attachments and applications as a skid steer, the most distinct advantage a compact track loader has is its superior maneuverability in adverse ground conditions. Compact track loaders provide exceptional operation in muddy or snowy conditions where skid steers would not be able to work at all.”

While acknowledging the higher operating costs, Wright notes, “Most compact track loaders will give you added productivity and versatility, which means more for your money. Costs can be minimized with proper operation and machine maintenance. A typical compact track loader pays for itself in approximately 18 months.”

Manage tire and track costs

Tires are the single highest cost replacement item for a skid steer. “A good general-purpose tire for a skid loader is going to be $150 to $300, depending upon the size and type of tire,” says Fitzgerald. “A set of tires would be between $600 and $1,200. depending upon which you choose to use.”

Severe-duty or solid rubber tires are more expensive, but can help extend tire life in abrasive environments. “They run around $800 to $900 per tire. So you would be spending $3,200 to $3,600 per set,” says Fitzgerald. “While initial costs are higher, these heavy-duty tires can reduce cost per hour because of less frequent replacement cycles.”

Moore adds, “[Tire life] is very dependent on the surface conditions, as well as the amount of skid steering in the variant of these conditions. Basic flotation, lug-style tires will not last as long as severe-duty tires. Some tires could wear in as little as several hundred hours, while others could readily exceed 1,000 hours.”

General-purpose tires typically last in the 600- to 800-hour range. “There are owner/operators and dirt work operations that get to 800 to 1,200 hours on a set of tires,” says Fitzgerald. On the other end of the spectrum, skid steers with general-purpose tires that work next to milling machines may see 100-hour tire life.

Like tires, rubber tracks represent a compact track loader’s highest cost replacement item. “In addition, the replacement of carriage parts, such as rollers and idlers, come into play,” says Moore. “Overall, the owning and operating costs on track loaders will be considerably higher than comparable-sized skid loaders.”

Consider a skid steer where replacement tires costs $600 to $1,200 a set. “Tracks for similar-sized machines range from $2,500 to $3,500 for a set,” says Fitzgerald. “So without adding productivity into cost analysis, it is more to buy tracks vs. tires.”

But tracks offer greater service life than most tires. “It has been said that a new set of tracks can be estimated for 2 1/2 times the typical life of tires on a given skid loader in the same application by the same operator,” says Moore.

Track life does vary with the application. “The typical life span for tracks is hard to determine,” says Wright. “Given the level of experience of an operator, the life span can improve dramatically. Everything being equal, tracks working in gravel and hard pack conditions would last about half as long as tracks working in soft, loamy material. The same factors and conditions affect the life span of tires as they do for a compact track loader.”

Fitzgerald estimates an average track life of between 1,200 and 1,600 hours for general-purpose, general-use machines. Track life for loaders used strictly on dirt or soft clay may exceed 2,000 hours. Those used on hard ground may see life in the 800- to 1,200-hour range. Frequent operation on concrete or asphalt may drop this down to 400 to 800 hours.

“The life span on a set of tracks is generally dependent on three factors: operation of the machine, the types of ground conditions the machine is operated on and proper track tensioning and carriage maintenance,” Moore explains. “When a track loader is closely monitored for proper operation in clean soil conditions, [you] may possibly reach and exceed 2,000 hours on a new set of OEM tracks. On the reverse, a set of tracks can be damaged and/or worn down in a matter of several hundred hours with mis-operation and non-recommended use.”

Under the Operator influence

“Tracks and the undercarriage for a compact track loader can make up 15% to 20% of the total operational costs, depending upon the manufacturer,” Wright comments. “This cost can be managed and reduced if the operator cares for and maintains the undercarriage and is well trained on application management and proper operation of the loader.”

Bob Aldous, owner of Bobcat Bob, Olympia, WA, knows from past experience just how costly track replacement can be. His fleet includes a Bobcat T320, as well as Bobcat skid steers and compact excavators. “I had one of the first Bobcat 337 excavators that came out. I had to put two new tracks and all new rollers underneath,” he says, noting he replaced 10 rollers at $360 a piece. “It was $3,600 plus the tracks. I was into the thing for $9,000.”

Extending track life through careful operation can dramatically lower the operating cost. “I have been doing this my whole life. If you watch me run my [compact track loader], you are not going to see me spin it around on itself,” Aldous states. “With the track machine, if I have to work on sharp rock, I will make gradual turns. A lot of guys don’t realize that if you get on that sharp rock, it is easy to cut the tracks. Keep a smooth path when loading trucks.”

Through careful operation, Aldous asserts he has gotten 3,000 to 4,000 hours out of his tracks. “I think the track life all has to do with the operator,” he states. “It is all about who is running that machine and who takes care of it.”