When it comes to keeping operating costs in check for skid-steer and track loaders, Todd Lynnes, product marketing manager for Caterpillar, offered this advice: Focus on the things that you can control.

With so many factors — the high cost of diesel fuel, for example — out of the control of equipment users, Lynnes urged attendees of the Green Industry and Equipment Expo in Louisville to concentrate on proper maintenance and operating technique to manage their operating costs. Lynnes' advice was part of an Oct. 23 educational session titled “Lowering Your Operating Costs on Your Skid Steer and Compact Track Loaders.”

“Equipment is your biggest investment,” Lynnes said. “One of the things that bugs me is people spend $70,000, $80,000 on a machine and they don't take care of it.”

It starts with fuel consumption
Controlling your operating costs begins with managing your fuel consumption. Lynnes cited a Caterpillar study that concluded that fuel accounted for 72 percent of the operating costs for a 262C skid-steer loader and 51 percent of the operating costs for a 287C track loader in the first 2,500 hours of use.

According to Lynnes, the factors that drive fuel burn are:

  • Engine horsepower.
  • Machine weight.
  • Operating technique.
  • Application (load factor).

When purchasing a skid-steer or track loader, Lynnes said that it's important to match the engine horsepower to the job requirements.

“Only buy as much horsepower as you need,” Lynnes said. “Because horsepower burns fuel.”

You also should look for a machine with an engine fan, he added.

Another suggestion: When purchasing a new machine, look for one with a foot throttle. Lynnes cited a study indicating that using a foot throttle versus full throttle saved from 25 to 40 percent on fuel consumption. If a machine isn't equipped with a foot throttle, you still might be able to run it at a lower rpm.

“If you don't have to use full horsepower, don't,” Lynnes said.

Lynnes also suggested running the machine “as light as possible” to maximize fuel efficiency.

“It's all about getting the work done at the lowest possible cost,” Lynnes concluded.

Take care of your tires
According to Lynnes, tires account for 15 percent of the overall operating costs for wheeled machines. To maximize the life of your tires, Lynnes said that it's important not only to select the right tire for the job but also to use proper operating techniques.

Lynnes suggested several operating techniques to maximize tire life:

  • Maintain proper inflation pressure.
  • Consider the load.
  • Take counterweights off when not needed.
  • Slow down when making turns.
  • Keep tire wear even.
  • Don't spin the tires when digging.

As for the last point, Lynnes noted that spinning causes wear and cuts, and it does not improve digging performance.

“If you see your tires spinning, you're just spending dollars,” Lynnes said.

Manage undercarriage costs
The operating cost of a track loader's undercarriage system is much higher than the operating cost of tires. However, the undercarriage also presents more opportunity for the operator to be proactive in managing costs, as the undercarriage is more “sensitive” to preventative maintenance practices and proper operating techniques, Lynnes noted.

According to a Caterpillar management guide for multi-terrain loaders, the factors that impact undercarriage wear are:

  • The job application. “Tough applications, like heavy digging and dozing, will cause maximum wear to the undercarriage components,” the guide says.
  • Material. “The materials you work in can have as much or more impact on the service life of multi-terrain loader undercarriage components than some applications,” the guide says. “In general, the more abrasive the material, the faster components wear.”
  • Terrain. “Working a multi-terrain loader on a level surface normally causes the least undercarriage wear, whereas working on rugged, heavily sloped terrain will cause components to wear faster.”
  • Operating technique. “Aggressive operation may help get the job done faster, but it also can increase the rate of wear and overall operating costs,” the guide says.
  • Maintenance. “ … [F]ollowing some simple preventative maintenance procedures lets you maximize service life and the value of the undercarriage components,” the guide says.

Typically, only two of those factors — operating technique and maintenance — are within the control of equipment operators.

“But they can have a significant impact,” Lynnes said.

In particular, operating technique “is one of the most influential factors that can affect undercarriage wear and operating costs,” according to Caterpillar.

One operating technique to consider: Make gradual, three-point turns.

“For example, you can make a quick change in travel direction by counter-rotating, but by doing so you might cause unnecessary wear of tracks and undercarriage components,” the Caterpillar guide says. “Turning without counter-rotating may take a second longer, but extends the service life of undercarriage components.”

Other operating tips from Lynnes and Caterpillar:

  • Take counterweights off when not needed.
  • Watch your speed. Operate at the minimum ground speed required to complete the task.
  • Take special care on slopes. Always keep the heaviest end of the machine uphill, avoid unusually heavy loads and avoid making direct 90-degree turns when operating on a slope.
  • Don't spin the tracks when digging. This causes wear and cuts, and it does not improve digging performance.
  • Take special care on transitions. If you must travel over transitions (any place where you encounter a change in slope or elevation), do so with the machine 90 degrees to the transition.

For more tips, read the complete story at http://govpro.com/news/skidsteerandtrackloadercosts/.

“A properly adjusted track not only maximizes the service life of the track, but it also maximizes the machine performance too,” the Caterpillar guide says.

The guide recommends that operators periodically check the track tension.

“A track that is too loose can allow the track drive lugs to jump over sprocket rollers. This condition, called ‘ratcheting,’ can cause accelerated wear or damage to track drive lugs,” the guide says. “A track that is too tight also causes accelerated undercarriage wear.”

Another important maintenance practice is undercarriage cleanout. Because the undercarriage often is exposed to mud, gravel, debris and other abrasive materials, Caterpillar suggests that operators regularly clean the undercarriage — usually on a daily basis. Use a pressure washer if one is available; if not, use a small shovel or a similar tool to remove foreign materials from the undercarriage.

“Cohesive and abrasive materials like mud, clay and gravel should be cleaned out as often as possible, even several times a day, to reduce unnecessary wear to undercarriage components,” the Caterpillar guide says.

In cold climates or whenever freezing temperatures are expected between work shifts, the Caterpillar guide recommends running the machine forward and reverse before shutting it down, to reduce moisture buildup and help prevent freeze-ups.

Read your manual
For operators of skid-steer and compact track loaders — and any other heavy equipment for that matter — the operating and maintenance manual is a must-read. Lynnes describes the manual as your “one safe source” for critical operating, maintenance and safety guidelines as well as the machine's specifications.

As if that isn't enough incentive to pay attention to the owner's manual, Lynnes noted that most manufacturers design their machines to the specifications of the recommended oils and filters — which are found in the manual. Replacing them with oils and filters not recommended by the manufacturer could impair the performance of the machine, increase your downtime and increase your operating costs.

“I would encourage everyone to read the operating manual,” Lynnes said. “If you do, it'll save you a lot of money.”

Lynnes' other suggestions for controlling operating costs included:

  • A daily walkaround. Conduct a thorough daily inspection before operating the machine. Check the tires/undercarriage for cuts, proper tire pressure, track tension and foreign objects, and clean as needed. Ensure that all guards, covers and caps are secured, and inspect all hoses and belts for damage. Look for any sign of leaks. Ensure that all safety equipment is on the machine and in working order. “It doesn't take a lot to walk around the machine and look for things, and it can save you a lot of money,” Lynnes said.
  • Scheduled sampling programs. Some dealers will take regular samples of machines' coolant and engine oil and analyze them for trends that could indicate maintenance concerns. In addition to optimizing the change intervals on your machine fluids and helping with your maintenance recordkeeping, the analysis “helps avoid catastrophes” by predicting repairs or replacements, Lynnes asserted.
  • Working with your dealer. Many equipment dealers offer preventative maintenance programs, training, support meetings and other resources to help keep operating costs in check.
  • Good recordkeeping. Keeping accurate records will help ensure that maintenance is performed on time and in accordance with the owner's manual.

“The bottom line: If you take care of your machine, it's going to take care of you,” Lynnes asserted.