Wheels vs. Tracks: 3 Ways to Pick Your Next Earthmover

Compact track or skid-steer loader? Discover how to choose one — or both.
Wheels vs. Tracks: 3 Ways to Pick Your Next Earthmover
Contractors requiring a machine to handle a myriad of attachments, such as pallet forks, grapples and this auger, are generally best served by a skid-steer loader. (Photos courtesy of Bobcat Company)

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Compact track loaders (CTL) and skid-steer loaders (SSL) have become essential earthmoving tools for onsite installation and plumbing professionals. Making an intelligent choice between a CTL and an SSL requires potential buyers to assess just what they want the vehicle to do, and under what conditions it will need to operate. 

Bobcat Company’s first SSL was introduced in 1959. Its first CTL was launched in 1999, a relatively recent addition to the product lineup. Mike Fitzgerald, loader product specialist with Bobcat, says customers are driving the evolution of loaders. 

“We keep adding attachments that allow the equipment to do something different, but whether we use tires or rubber tracks that convert the skid-steer into a dedicated CTL, we never change the cab, upper frame, engines lift-arms or the hydraulic and hydrostatic pumps,” he says. 

“The main difference is that on the skid-steer, the chain case drives the axle and the axle drives the wheels. On track loaders, two motors drive the sprockets that drive the rubber tracks.” 

1. Choose for the job

Fitzgerald says plumbers who install onsite systems don’t generally come into a dealership conflicted over a tough decision between an SSL and a CTL.

“They walk in saying they have a job to do and want to know what will do it best, given the application and the ground condition of the projects,” he says. “In the most general sense, leveling and digging and excavating primarily lend themselves best to a CTL, while multiuse machines that may require pallet forks, grapples or trench loaders, for example, are generally best served by an SSL.” 

The capital cost of the equipment is an obvious consideration. Buyers will need to calculate the advantage of buying one type of loader over another and factor cost into the type of contracts they’ll be able to complete with it. 

“Buyers will look to spend 25 to 35 percent more for a CTL over a skid-steer,” says Fitzgerald. “For contractors who know just how they’re going to use them, they can make up the extra cost by excavating a few more septic tanks or extending their construction season by weeks or months because they have those tracks at their disposal.” 

SSLs are somewhat lighter and faster than CTLs. However, the type of terrain in which the loader will be operating is also a significant consideration. Fitzgerald says contractors performing the same type of work in two different states might choose differently. 

“If you’re working in the sandy soil of Florida or your region has its share of mud and slopes, you’d be better off with a track loader, where more track on the ground gives you better traction and flotation,” he says. “If you’re excavating septic tanks in California, New Mexico or the adobe clay of Arizona, the hard ground will favor a skid-steer. Rocks, abrasive soil and even consistent contact with asphalt will cause premature wear to CTL tracks.” 

While CTLs are more maneuverable on soft or muddy soils, SSLs are more versatile on firm soils, allowing installers to more easily work on septic tanks to be built in tight locations. CTLs, on the other hand, can move on wet soil during spring thaws or after rain, without disturbing customer landscaping. 

2. Menu of attachments

Although all attachments for the CTL and SSL are mechanically interchangeable, Fitzgerald says it’s best to check which attachments are approved and recommended for each machine by the manufacturer. Common attachments include buckets, dozer blades, augers, trenchers and levelers. 

“Perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the attachments aren’t interchangeable,” he says. “A CTL weighs more than an SSL and can better take advantage of attachments that require a pushing force. A good example is a dozer blade that works best on a CTL because of the way that the track engages with the ground to create friction. Occasionally, attachments such as certain combination buckets are recommended only for the skid-steer.” 

Much of the maintenance of CTLs and SSLs is entirely similar from greasing to oil changes to changing oil filters. However, the chain case on SSLs and the drive motors on track loaders require individualized attention. The loader tracks need to be cleaned of muck, rocks and grime daily. 

“You also need to ensure that the track tension on CTLs is set properly,” says Fitzgerald. “We have a recommended track tension to provide the loader with best performance. If it’s too loose, the track could jump, but if it’s too tight, you will require more power to turn the track and could potentially cause premature wear to the sprockets.” 

Fitzgerald says that while SSLs continue to outsell CTLs at Bobcat, the CTL market continues to grow. 

“That doesn’t mean we expect the compact track loader to replace the skid-steer,” he says. “It means that buyers are beginning to understand the way they can use CTLs to maximize business opportunities. Into the near future, one machine will never handle all of your possible needs, so there’s plenty of room in the market for both types of loaders.” 

3. Removable tracks: the best of both worlds?

While installers may find themselves choosing between skid-steer loaders and compact track loaders, some suppliers offer removable tracks that can be fitted over skid-steer wheels. 

While they don’t offer the same maneuverability as a full-fledged CTL, or “float” quite as effectively on soft soils, the removable tracks can provide installers with a niche solution that may offer the best of both worlds.

Fitzgerald says it takes about two to three hours for an installer to fit the tracks over the wheels the first time. A specialized tool offered with each set of tracks helps to connect the track ends efficiently. 

“After the first time, the steel tracks can be installed in under a half hour and removed in less than 10 minutes,” he says.


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