Why CTL sales are up and how to get the most out of yours

Updated Feb 12, 2015

According to Equipment Data Associates numbers, compact track loaders accounted for roughly 20 percent of all financed equipment in 2014 by number of units. That’s a huge share.

We asked our sources what they thought was driving these numbers. Did customers have a newfound appreciation for the inherent advantages – greater stability, lower ground pressure, higher tractive effort – of CTLs? Had market conditions changed to favor these machines? And how were customers adjusting to the higher initial costs and higher O&O costs of CTLs compared to skid steer loaders and compact wheel loaders?

What we discovered is that as a result of the recent soft economy, successful companies have become much better at understanding their needs, finding the right equipment to fit those needs, and getting the most return on that equipment with high utilization rates and careful cost control. One result of this more sophisticated approach to doing business is that CTLs have moved into the spotlight.

CTLs aren’t the perfect machines for every situation; compact wheel loaders and skid steers still perform better in many applications. The biggest advantage to tires is travel speed, says Brent Coffey, loader product manager with Wacker Neuson. “Most CTLs have a top travel speed of 8 or 9 mph while skid steers top out around 12 mph. That doesn’t sound like a lot until you calculate the amount of ground covered in a day or a week or a month.”

Warren Anderson, brand marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment, agrees. “Machines with tires are quicker and have higher top speeds than tracked machines,” says Anderson, “and skid steers, especially, have an edge in maneuverability, making them well-suited for applications requiring tight turns.”

Why not get over-the-tire (OTT) tracks for a skid steer and have the best of both worlds? Mike Fitzgerald, product specialist at Bobcat Company, says CTLs have more track on the ground, which enhances performance of the CTL over the OTT-equipped skid steer. And tracks over tires can complicate tire repairs.

A better understanding

“The better understanding customers have about which type of loader they need to get their jobs done efficiently and profitably, the more growth the compact track loader market sees,” says Jonathan Ferguson, regional sales manager with Terex Construction Americas. He says that since CTLs and skid steers accept the same attachments and serve the same markets, the decision often comes down to the type of underfoot conditions.

But sometimes demand is fueled by customers willing to ignore common wisdom, including the belief that CTLs are best in soft underfoot conditions whereas hard surfaces favor skid steers. “While it’s true that operating on hard surfaces can accelerate track and undercarriage wear, some customers realize the benefits of track loaders for some hard-surface applications,” says David Caldwell, product and training manager with Takeuchi. He cites cold planning as one example. “A track system can provide a more stable platform, enabling the drum of the cold planer to maintain better contact with the surface being milled.”

The ability of CTLs to manage attachments well in a broad range of conditions adds to their appeal. “Operators are moving to smaller, multi-purpose equipment instead of investing in more specialized, dedicated machines,” says Ashby Graham, global product manager for skid steers and CTLs for JCB. “A CTL with a mulcher head can go into residential areas to clear trees and brush. With additional attachments that same machine can be used to trench a sprinkler system and transport and place boulders for a retaining wall.”

In 2014, Mother Nature also had a hand in boosting sales of CTLs. “Most of the United States, where CTLs are sold in high volumes, had very wet conditions in 2014,” says Tharen Peterson, construction products marketing specialist with New Holland. “Customers looking to add equipment when it’s rainy and muddy will favor a CTL. And those who own skid steers and are not ready to buy a new machine but have work to do in muddy conditions are likely to rent a compact track loader.”

Operating tips

Many skills that apply to the operation of skid steer loaders also work on compact track loaders, but CTLs do have some unique considerations. Full pilot or electronic controls are standard on some CTLs. Caldwell says operators accustomed to hand and foot controls on skid steers may have to adjust to these control types when switching to CTLs.

Gregg Zupancic, product manager of skid steer and compact track loaders with John Deere, says OEMs are working hard to make machines match operators’ expectation rather than forcing operators to conform to machines’ quirks. He says Deere offers both foot and joystick controls and that the joystick control pattern can be switched between ISO and H-patterns. He says modes for travel and work can be set to operator preferences and can be set independently. For example, travel speed can be set to creeper mode while the work mode is set to Production (fastest) when using a chain-type trencher.

Ferguson says many operators run their CTLs as if they were skid steers, but he says some changes are required in order to minimize wear and maximize productivity. He offers these four tips:

  • While CTLs can be maneuvered by counter-rotating the tracks, it’s a bad idea. On hard surfaces this greatly reduces track life. In loose conditions a lot of material gets pulled into the undercarriage, accelerating wear. “Three-point turns, rather than spinning or counter-rotating, will save on undercarriage wear and will also minimize ground disturbance.”
  • Maintain a 90-degree approach to transitions, such as curbs and ledges, to ensure both tracks retain maximum ground support.
  • Keep material in front of the loader to reduce the amount of material getting into the tracks. “Work the pile from the sides and then the middle,” says Ferguson.
  • When operating on inclines, move slowly and avoid sudden changes in direction. Carry loads low to maximize stability at all times.

Tim Boulds, construction product operations manager for Kubota, says that differences in weight distribution can affect handling. “While a CTL’s weight is typically split 60/40 rear/front, most SSLs are around 70/30 rear/front. Operators need to take it slow and easy as they learn how these differences affect operation.”

Operators with a keen feel for skid steer performance may need to re-learn that sense of feel with a CTL, says Brian Rabe, senior product manager for skid steer and track loaders with Gehl. “Because CTLs have more capacity for pushing and moving material, these operators may have to push the machines harder than they’re used to doing with skid steers.”

The footprint of a CTL is generally longer and wider than that of a comparably-sized skid steer, so operators need to be mindful of where their tracks are positioned relative to where the wheels would be with a skid steer, says Anderson. “Probably the biggest thing to keep in mind is that CTLs react differently to terrain. They’re very stable, even in varied terrain, whereas skid steers tend to move more in direct relation to changes in terrain.”

Despite differences in operating characteristics CTLs are, like most modern equipment, built to be intuitive and easy to operate and operators jumping from one type of loader to another should have little difficulty. “CTLs enjoy most of the same operating features and capabilities of skid steers,” Anderson says, “so it’s easy for contractors to make the switch.”

Coffey says operators’ main challenge is to understand their impact on service and repair costs. “There’s not so much a learning curve when moving from a skid steer to a CTL as it is developing operating habits that help minimize maintenance on the machine.”

Fitzgerald says that compact track loaders may be wider and heavier than comparably-rated skid steers, changes in towing equipment may be required for transporting a CTL.

Kevin Scotese, compact equipment product manager for Volvo Construction Equipment, says the side-entry design on the Volvo C-Series CTLs provides easier, safer cab access and improved visibility. “This feature eliminates the need for operators to climb onto and over the bucket or attachment, which can be muddy or slippery,” he says. “Side entry also eliminates the uncomfortable body turn required of operators in order to sit down in traditional cab designs.” The lift assembly is engineered to distribute the stress throughout the machine. (JCB pioneered this design and Volvo adopted it through a framework agreement with JCB in 2010.)

Service tips

Servicing a compact track loader is very much like servicing a skid steer loader or compact wheel loader until you get to the drive. The undercarriage and tracks that differentiate CTLs from other types of loaders also differentiate their service requirements. And since tracks and undercarriage maintenance are major contributors to the higher O&O costs of CTLs, controlling those costs helps reduce the overall cost increase.

“When CTLs first came on the market, it seemed everybody had to have one,” says New Holland’s Peterson. “Then the time came where the undercarriage had to be rebuilt and customers had sticker shock. My advice to customers is ‘Know what you’re getting into. Rebuilding an undercarriage is more involved than installing new tires on a skid steer. Make sure you have the right machine for your business.’”

“When replacing tracks, be sure to replace the sprockets,” says Caldwell. As tracks wear, sprockets wear to match them. A worn sprocket can cause premature wear and damage to a new track. “While a sprocket may be able to be used on another set of tracks, it will shorten the life of that replacement track.”

Moving the sprocket to the opposite side of the machine can minimize the effect of wear of the new track but involves another consideration, according to Ferguson. “There is a limited depth to the hardening on sprockets and once that hardened material is worn through, additional wear is greatly accelerated which, again, can result in rapid wear on new tracks.”

Peterson says that when buying a used CTL, it’s wise to get a quote on rebuilding the undercarriage. “If the idlers, rollers, and sprockets weren’t all replaced at the same time, you’ll have uneven, premature wear.” So inspect carefully, scrutinize service records, and consider the possibility of a required rebuild.

Fitzgerald says that just as OEMs strive to make machines more operator-friendly, they also work hard to improve serviceability and overall efficiency. Service access is improved and in the case of Bobcat CTLs, the number of hydraulic fittings has been reduced nearly 20 percent.

Keeping the undercarriage free of rocks and debris is essential. Depending on conditions, clean-out should be performed at least daily and possibly multiple times in a single day. “Rock caught in the rollers wears tracks from the inside out,” says Rabe, “in addition to accelerating wear on rollers and other moving parts.” Customers who don’t already have tracked equipment in their fleet will have to adopt this and other new practices; their service departments may require additional tools and training as well.

Cost considerations

Coffey says that a typical increase in upfront investment is 30 percent when comparing a CTL to an skid steer of comparable frame size and lift arm configuration. He says ongoing costs with a CTL are higher because there are more parts to maintain and replace with an undercarriage and tracks than with wheels and tires. “Costs for both time and parts will be higher with the CTL.”

According to Boulds, preventive maintenance costs for CTLs are comparable to those for skid steers, “as the grease points are almost identical and the engines are likely the same between comparable sizes. Repair costs are where the differences lie because of the additional wear parts on an undercarriage and the fact that replacement track prices are typically higher than prices for replacement tires.”

Zupancic says new tires for a skid steer typically cost $1,000 whereas new tracks might be $3,000 to $4,000 plus another $4,000 for replacing rollers and idlers once in a machine’s life. He says total life-cycle costs for skid steers are in the $1 to $2 per hour range while CTLs are closer to $4 per hour. Compact wheel loaders fall somewhere in between.

Just as with dozers and other tracked equipment, track selection makes a big difference in operating cost. Rabe says the development of one-piece bands, which have no overlap or seam, has greatly improved track life. These bands, made of steel or Kevlar or some combination of such materials, go into the mold when the track is formed. Track configurations vary (width, tread pattern, rubber compound and durometer, etc.) to match applications. Gehl offers tracks for construction and agriculture plus a four-season track for general purpose use.

CTLs can minimize site rehab costs because they cause less damage on soft, finished surfaces. “Repairing, sodding, and seeding are expenses once the contractor has finished the primary job,” says Anderson. “With lower ground pressure and less rutting, CTLs minimize that expense, increasing their appeal in landscaping and utility applications.”

Zupancic says the smoother, more controllable ride and precision placement and grading of CTLs help manage costs by reducing bucket spillage and material overruns and by minimizing operator fatigue.

If careful analysis leads to the purchase of a compact track loader and that CTL is used to its potential, the cost factors are absorbed in extra income. “Productivity gains and additional work gained from the ability to work in a wide range of conditions throughout the year greatly exceed the additional cost factors, making the tracked machine a great value despite its higher O&O costs,” says Graham.

By Richard Ries

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