Wheeled Excavators versus Excavators with Tracks

When most people see a large, mobile machine at a job site, the first thing they notice are the huge tracks and the platform upon which the housing sits. But guess what? Wheeled excavators such as the JCB JS145W are just as tough, durable, and versatile as their tracked cousins like the Komatsu PC200.

In today’s world, anyone responsible for moving dirt or debris, or transporting tools or equipment within a job site, knows the key to success is multi-tasking. Employees are often expected to juggle multiple roles; the same goes for equipment. A single purpose-built machine is great for achieving a specific task, but excavators that are wheeled or tracked may offer the most return on investment.

Wheeled Excavators – Slowly Rolling Toward Acceptance

First, the basics. A wheeled excavator is simply a mechanized piece of construction equipment that is made up of a boom, stick, cab for the operator, and a bucket – all propelled by wheels, rather than steel or rubber tracks. Everything else is the same in terms of core functionality.

Who Uses a Wheeled Excavator?

Few pieces of large construction equipment – yes, even a 2-ton compact model qualifies as large – are as vital as an excavator. An excavator has a wide range of uses across an impressive list of jobs and industries. A wheeled excavator is a cornerstone among many kinds of fields of work:

  • Forestry
  • Construction
  • Mining and quarrying
  • Utilities
  • Gas and pipeline installations
  • Demolition
  • Farming
  • Landscaping
  • Snow removal
  • Infrastructure
  • Waste and recycling
  • Rental businesses
The Benefits of Using a Wheeled Excavator

Wheeled excavators such as the Hitachi ZX190W-6 or the Hyundai R55W-9A are no less versatile or durable than a tracked version. These versions of excavators are:

Simpler to Operate

When driving a wheeled excavator, the operator has to activate the brakes less often thanks to auto-brake systems and an axle-oscillation lock capability when the machine is prepped to dig.

Fuel Efficiency

Most of today’s excavators include highly fuel-efficient engines with engine-idle shutdown systems, and engine control hydraulics and fan pumps which allow double-digit percentage fuel efficiency compared to older generations of machinery.

Smoother Operation

Unlike lumbering tracked excavators which need to be transported by trailer between locations, a wheeled excavator operator can drive the unit on a paved road as the wheels are surface-friendly across multiple surfaces, including dirt, grass, and large indoor surfaces. This feature contributes to greater operator comfort, and fewer complaints about body pains often associated with driving in tracked machinery.

Faster Between Point A and B

Most tracked excavators are limited to a top speed of four to six miles per hour, while some lumber along at a tortoise-like two or three. A wheeled excavator, on the other hand, is a virtual speed demon as some models can achieve a top speed of about 22 miles per hour.

More Mobile

In work areas that are crowded or in tight spaces, such as between other vehicles or structures, a wheeled excavator cannot be beaten. More maneuverable and nimble, wheeled excavators are ideal for residential projects, construction or demolition work on narrow roads.

Excavators with Tracks: Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

In many locations with wide open spaces or large work zones – especially North America – tracked excavators have been the preferred machine of choice for construction, demolition, and large-scale agriculture, among many other industries. Somewhat brutish and overwhelming, and a bit more expensive to maintain due to the use of rubber or steel tracks, these excavators have not given up without a fight. As manufacturers have reckoned with competition from wheeled versions and struggled to meet consumer demands, they have dedicated themselves to high-tech features to ensure the survival of wheeled excavators.

The Benefits of Tracked Excavators
The Benefits of Tracked Excavators

More Digging Power

This is not due to the size of the excavator itself or engine design, but rather the presence of stabilizer legs that can extend from the sides to contact the surface upon which the unit sits.

Greater Stability

Besides digging power, stabilizer bars make a tracked excavator more stable than a wheeled cousin. Why? Mostly because of a larger physical footprint. The overall stability is enhanced because tracked machines have a lower center of gravity as the excavator is lower to the ground compared to wheeled units. Because tracked excavators have a large ground contact area, it is not unusual for an operator to say that it seems to float over the ground.

More Traction Depending on the Surface

On any type of surface that is soft, wet, or slippery, the excavator of choice is a tracked model. According to various “coefficient of traction” studies by industry professionals, a tracked excavator offers better ground control on most surfaces, including wet clay, dry clay, loose gravel, wet sand, compacted gravel, ice, and packed snow. The two surface conditions where tracked excavators struggle? Asphalt and concrete.

Better Control on Slopes or Unstable Ground

Rubber or steel tracks are known to grip sloping surfaces or unstable ground better than wheels. This is due to friction created when the machine tracks makes ground contact, resulting in the force of gravity pulling the excavator downward and a bit sideways.

Ask Before You Buy

Whether you rent or own, investing in a wheeled or tracked excavator will likely involve a significant cash outlay. The same applies to buying new versus used or renting for a single job or leasing for months or years. Regardless of your decision, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • What about potential ground conditions. Tracked excavators are challenged by concrete and asphalt, but what types of surfaces do you expect to be working on most often?
  • From a mechanical standpoint, both types have the same core parts – an engine, undercarriage, cab, boom, and standard and optional attachments. Know how each component operates and ask a sales professional about potential repair or replacement costs.

Finally, understand the final operation expense, from purchase to insurance to repairs and the cost of human operators.


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