How to Install Rubber Tracks

  • Written by Luis
heavy mechanic installing a rubber track on a Kubota CTL

If your work depends on an excavator or other piece of mobile machinery, then you know the care and maintenance of your vehicle’s rubber tracks are essential to finishing the job.

When your vehicle is down, then you are not working –the work will not get finished, the customer will be disappointed, and you will not get paid. Read on for more information on maintaining your rubber tracks and, when necessary, how to replace them.

arrow pointing to a worn out section on a rubber track

Sometimes the truth is painful, but here it is. Every piece of machinery or tool you work with will eventually wear down. Constant use – crushing and moving concrete, excavating large tree trunks – and exposure to the elements day in and day out, exact a heavy price to pay. An excavator, large or small, is often the go-to piece of heavy machinery on every job site, and the rubber tracks – the treads that give it impressive mobility – are bound to wear down over time. Here are signs to watch out for.

  • Sprockets are missing the lugs when the vehicle is in motion. Think of the sprocket and the tread as two gears that must engage one another for the excavator to work properly. Constant use results in wear and tear, meaning the track will eventually become loose or the sprocket appears work, resulting in them not engaging each other smoothly and skipping. Worst case is the rubber tracks derail all together.
  • Cracks are bad. This is an obvious sign your rubber tracks are wearing down and should not be ignored. Cracks will happen if you are moving over rough or uneven terrain, or if you accidentally bump into a walls or cement curbs.
  • A track loses tension. Remember how snug your shoes fit the first time you wore them, and how they felt a month later? The same applies to rubber tracks. Keep watching for noticeable sag between top of the track lug and bottom track roller; you can do this by raising the track frame off the ground and visually inspecting the rubber track and whether it appears loose.
  • Lugs are damaged or missing. A lug nut is a type of fastener used to secure the rubber track to the vehicle and can get damaged by debris – dirt, concrete, construction materials – that rubs against the undercarriage.
  • The rubber tracks disengage completely. This, of course, is the worst-case scenario. You are working on a job site, almost finished, when your excavator comes to a grinding halt. Why? Because you did not follow common sense tips to maintain your rubber tracks. A lug may be missing or cracked, but nothing is more of a sign to replace a track than when it is falling off your equipment.
Follows these Tips to Maintain your Rubber Tracks
rubber tracks on a mini excavator

Reliable, long-working equipment is a key component for many types of jobs, especially those involving the use of compact construction equipment like a skid steer or mini excavator. If you use an excavator on job sites where there is uneven terrain, gravel, broken concrete, or other debris, you know the kind of pounding your vehicle’s rubber tracks can absorb every day. While you can never guarantee the condition of your work site, you can take steps to prevent unnecessary wear and tear to rubber tracks.

  • Track life. How long your rubber tracks keep working depends on many factors – like frequency of use and job site conditions – but it is still impossible to say for certain how long treads will last. In normal conditions, the life expectancy for rubber tracks on an excavator or skid loader is about two to three times that of a comparable pneumatic tire.
  • Maintain your vehicle’s undercarriage. As undercarriage components begin to wear out, replace them as soon as you are able. Common enemies of rubber tracks far and wide are work sprocket teeth pulling out from track links, and cuts in the track caused by worn rollers which can result in severe damage. Cleaning your vehicle undercarriage with a pressure washer also is a good idea, as this will keep dirt and small debris away from recoil mechanisms and track cables.
  • Maintain proper tension of the rubber tracks. Many customers handle routine maintenance chores, and one of the most important is avoiding too much tension in the tracks. As always, refer to the operator’s manual for the right tension because different machines have different levels. Check tension levels each week. Also keep in mind that tracks that are too tight are just as dangerous as tracks which are too lose, ultimately causing damage to the cleats surrounding the primary drive wheel. Think of it like your car tire: Driving on an over- or under-inflated tire is dangerous and can cause unnecessary wear.
  • Do not drive your vehicle if the rubber treads are completely de-tracked. Yes, an experienced operator may know maneuvers to re-establish a partially de-tracked tread, but once it is off the vehicle, shut it down till repairs are made.
  • Watch out for curbs. While your excavator is designed to handle challenging work site conditions, running over a concrete curb should be avoided. This kind of maneuver will damage the undercarriage and lead to the rubber treads becoming de-tracked. If the tracks stay intact, there also could be unseen damage such as stress fractures to the rubber or internal steel cords.
  • Steer clear of contaminants or other ground obstructions you are not sure of. Things like chemicals, salt, oil, agricultural manure, or other abrasives should be avoided. Each of these cause damage to the rubber, and eat away the undercarriage. If contaminants are unavoidable, wash them off as soon as possible.

Drive carefully. Mechanized equipment like excavators are powerful equipment that can handle a variety of work site challenges – but they are not indestructible.

Common Tread Types and Benefits of Each
close up of the tread pattern on rubber tracks on heavy equipment

Rubber tracks come in a variety of types and tread patterns, and it is important to choose the right rubber tracks which meet the demands of your work site and the job you have been tasked with. Like different styles of tires for your automobile, different tracks are made to handle better on paved surfaces, while some are better in mud or snow. Generally speaking, there are four kinds of treads to choose between.

  • Staggered Block Tread. This is the standard pattern option delivered direct from the factory by all the major manufacturers, including John Deere and many others. This perhaps the most commonly used and most popular rubber track tread pattern. Though the design is considered by many to be general purpose, it offers outstanding performance on multiple surface types, including gravel and paved highways. This tread pattern is likely the most durable for vehicles which spend long hours hot, paved surfaces where you may change direction frequently. There are other tread types for specific surface conditions, but the staggered block tread works well on hard surfaces, causes minimal damage to finished lawns, and is adaptable for work on sand, clay, mud, gravel, dirt, and asphalt.
  • C-Lug Thread. Similar to the naked eye to the staggered block tread, this tread presents a sideways “C” shape thanks to notches cut out of each block. If you use your excavator or other vehicle on- and off-road, the C-lug thread offers the most flexibility across multiple terrain types. Thanks to its large number of cutting edges, this tread is highly durable, offers increased traction, best-in-class handling, and improved performance. Designers kept in mind the need for a tread that performs well on many different surfaces, including asphalt, clay, concrete, mud, gravel and sand.
  • Straight Bar Tread tracks are designed to offer exceptional traction and are known for high performance in muddy, wet, or otherwise challenging environments. A vehicle utilizing treads with this design are less likely to get bogged down in mud when compared to C-lug or staggered block tread patterns. The lower durometer rating of this tread also means that it has less chance of damaging finished lawns or other surfaces, giving you the ability to maneuver at low or high speeds without scarring underlying landscape.
  • Multi Bar Tread tracks give the operator confidence in traveling back and forth between hard surfaces, where a smooth ride is desirable, and loosely packed ground cover, where increased traction is more important. This rubber track design provides a smooth ride across multiple terrains, including those with freshly fallen or loosely packed snow.

It is important to find the right tread type for certain ground conditions and applications. Keep in mind there really is no all-for-one rubber track design to choose from, though most will provide ample control on dry and solid surface conditions. If you know your equipment and the kind of work you expect to be called upon to handle, then you also understand the importance of prolonging the life of your treads.

All Rubber Tracks have Common Enemies

As an experienced excavator operator, you have the knowledge necessary to meet your job goals while maintaining your vehicle’s performance, but what if you are tasked with training someone new to this type of work? Can you explain in plain language what to avoid when operating your vehicle? Or what not to do to keep your rubber tracks in tip-top shape? Here are some “refresher” tips to think of in all circumstances.

  • Know the operator’s manual inside and out, including all recommended safety procedures.
  • Do not attempt to “show off” when you are running an excavator or other mechanical device. Remember, it is hard to impress someone if you are seriously injured by taking unnecessary risks.
  • When driving, try not to cut across a sloped area; instead, go up or down. These sorts of unnecessary maneuvers will cause damage to your vehicle’s guide lugs, rollers, idlers, and other components.
  • Do not make pivot turns or spin turns. These may increase the risk of de-tracking or loss of tension. Instead, go for the wide turn where possible.
  • Avoid travelling with one track on a level surface, and the other on a slope or uneven surface or object. This could drastically alter the vehicle’s center of gravity, creating a higher risk of a roll over accident. Such maneuvering also may result in damage to the steel mandrills in the tracks themselves, thanks to cracking near the rubber at the edges.
  • Avoid rubbing the sides of the tracks against concrete curbs, walls, or other solid objects or surfaces. This could result in cracked or damaged tracks and lugs, leading to expensive replacements.
  • Do not travel on recycled materials like iron rods, scrap iron, broken stone, jagged base rock, or other debris. Rubber tracks are tough, but not impervious to harm.
  • Rubber tracks also can be weakened over time by the presence of small stones or other objects stuck in the drive sprockets or idlers. This means to avoid constant use on surface conditions with a heavy stone makeup.
  • If possible, avoid using rubber tracks in quarries, or for recycling or demolition tasks. They also are not suited for cold weather applications on a regular basis.
  • Crushed asphalt and concrete could be a problem, too, especially when combined with frequent turns and back and forth motions. These types of surface conditions will damage the rubber tracks and lugs, neither of which can be repaired.
  • Mechanical vehicles with rubber tracks should be driven in a straight line, and the operator should avoid regular, sudden turns. If you have to turn, alternate going right or left.
  • Damage to the vehicle’s undercarriage may also result in damage to rubber tracks and related components.

The best way to avoid the common enemies of rubber tracks is knowledge, common sense, and experience. If you have been entrusted with using an expensive, powerful, multi-ton machine, do so in the safest manner possible. This will ensure success on the job, and help extend the life and usefulness of your rubber tracks.

How to Replace Rubber Tracks
heavy mechanic adjusting the track tension on a John Deere mini excavator

If you have used a mini excavator, then you should be familiar with not only its operation and safety precautions, but also in the replacement of key components as necessary. Perhaps no component takes on greater importance than rubber tracks. Like other components, they can become damaged or otherwise break down, and replacing them yourself can be accomplished through hard work and determination. Here are basic guidelines to follow, but also refer to the operator’s manual.

  1. At this point, it is assumed you can deal with getting your hands dirty. Now, use a wrench to remove the grease fitting. You also need to release the track tension, which can be accomplished by stepping down on the bottom side of the track and collapsing the idler. While you are doing this, take a few minutes to inspect the grease fitting and decide if it is a candidate for replacement.
  2. Tip the rubber track up by pushing down on the excavator’s front blade. While seated behind the controls, rotate the cab and lower the boom, thereby lifting up the other end of the track and suspending it.
  3. None of this work should be done without a co-worker standing by or helping. As such, have your co-worker place heavy-duty jack stands of the appropriate tonnage to support the undercarriage. This is a safety precaution to help prevent issues with the machine’s hydraulic systems.
  4. Ideally, you now should be able to free one end of the rubber track being held in place by the sprocket teeth. If not, try and use a pry bar to guide the track off the sprocket’s teeth while your co-worker drives the excavator slowly forward. Double check to make sure there are no bystanders nearby or other risk factors at play.
  5. Now, remove the rubber track from the unit. Your co-worker can use a forklift at this time to lift the track away and put it elsewhere. Now is the time for inspection of the vehicle undercarriage, checking for any signs of damage or wear and tear. Take note of other components that may need to be replaced, and use a power washer to clean away any dirt, grime, or other debris.
  6. With your new rubber track beside the excavator, you and your co-worker can now attach the track to the sprocket teeth in the rear of the unit.
  7. Use a pry bar to get the track into the right position on the front idler, while your co-worker guides the track forward.
  8. With the rubber tracks in place, allow them to rotate a couple times around to make sure they are moving properly. This also gives you the chance to determine there is no binding or ill-fitting that requires readjustment.
  9. While at the controls, gently lower the back of the track to the ground by lowering the boom. Also, do not forget to lower the front of the track down to the ground by lowering the blade.

Congratulations. You have now successfully installed the track.

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