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Proper Operation Key to Extending Skid Steer Tire Life

Mon April 09, 2007 - National Edition
Chris Ono

Skid steer tires are the Rodney Dangerfields of the construction industry’s most versatile vehicle — they get no respect. When working well, they are taken for granted. But when there’s a problem, such as a productivity draining flat, the tire receives all the blame.

Spending their service lives on hazardous construction locales, these job-site juggernauts are all too familiar with abuse, but the question remains: do they deserve much of the blame for poor performance or is there more one can do to extend product life and performance? For the most part, the solution to better tire performance lies with the operator.

The most obvious reason to care about the longevity of tires is price. Skid steer tires, no matter what the type or style, are expensive — anywhere from $100 to $800 per tire. Even with these prices, it’s not the cost of replacement that most concerns the end user. Rather, it’s costly downtime that they fear most. Be it a flat tire or a lack of traction due to nonexistent tread, the result is lost productivity, and with today’s ever tightening project deadlines and demands, time is something that’s never in surplus.

Therefore, it’s important for one to know what he or she can do to extend tire life and, in turn, maximize the productivity of both equipment and personnel. But before doing so, it makes sense to review the available tire technologies on the market since each requires a different maintenance approach.

Wheels of Fortune

There are four main types of tires available for skid steers: pneumatic, solid, foam-filled and semi-pneumatic. Of course, with each of these, there are several varieties to match different vehicles and job-site demands, but, for the most part, each type can be boiled down to some basic pros and cons.

Pneumatic, or air-filled, tires are by far the most commonly used because they come standard with most, if not all, brands of skid steers. The benefits of pneumatic tires are that they’re the most inexpensive of the available types and because of their air-filled nature they provide the smoothest ride on bumpy or uneven surfaces.

But it’s the fact that they’re air-filled that leads to the biggest downfall of pneumatic tires: flats. A four-letter word when it comes to job-site productivity, a flat reduces a skid steer from a reliable workhorse to a stubborn mule. There’s no way of working around it without taking the time to repair or replace the tire, which is time and effort most contractors don’t have to spare. And no matter how much a pneumatic tire is reinforced, as long as they’re still filled with air, the chance for a flat will be present.

Solid tires arrived on the scene as a response to the flat-prone characteristics of pneumatic tires. As the name suggests, a solid tire is not filled with air — it is one solid piece of rubber. The obvious advantage of solid tires is there are no chances for flats. They wear longer than other tires because they have no tread, which makes for a larger contact area with the work surface. (With other styles of tires, the treads alone provide the contact area with the work surface and, being a smaller contact area, wear faster than tires with no tread at all.)

Though they are completely flat proof, be prepared for a bumpy ride. Because there is little to cushion the blow between the work surface and machine, solid tires are far from the operator’s choice when it comes to working in rough terrain — not to mention the additional wear caused to the skid steer itself. Add to this the fact that solid tires don’t have tread and the lack of traction further reduces the effectiveness on challenging job sites. Lastly, because they use more rubber than other tire types, solid tires are the most expensive.

Even with these drawbacks, solid tires are ideal for recycling yards and other locations that feature unavoidable, aggressive-wear objects, such as broken glass, metal shards and concrete rubble. These applications typically offer smooth, flat surfaces on which to work, so the lack of tread is not an issue.

Pneumatic tires offered a smooth ride, but with the danger of flats, whereas solid tires solved the flats problem, but at a cost of comfort. Therefore, the industry responded with foam-filled tires.

Hollow rubber filled with polyurethane foam, foam-filled tires attempt to bridge the gap between pneumatic and solid-rubber tires. Virtually impervious to flats, foam-filled tires also provide a more comfortable ride than solid tires. Additionally, they offer the treads that solid tires don’t, meaning they are much more effective on demanding terrains. Though more expensive than a standard pneumatic, foam-filled tires are much less costly than a solid rubber tire.

Even with these efforts, foam-filled tires still leave a lot to be desired in terms of a smooth ride. Additionally, there are concerns with dependability. If the tire experiences enough damage in a challenging environment, the foam can leak out of the tire causing it to be unusable.

Semi-pneumatic tires are the most recent development on the skid steer tire scene. An attempt to combine the best of all worlds in terms of other tire styles, semi-pneumatic tires are not filled with compressed air, but instead built with strategically placed holes in the rubber to provide shock absorption.

The result is a design that is flat proof and provides more cushioning than a foam-filled tire. Also, the semi-pneumatic tire design allows for a deeper tread, which makes for a longer wear factor.

The only clear disadvantages of semi-pneumatic tires are that they still don’t provide as smooth a ride as pneumatics and they are much more expensive than these air-filled options — approximately three times the price per tire. But with that extra price comes longevity. Some manufacturers claim that semi-pneumatics have an average life span that is three times longer than the average pneumatic tire.

Armed with the knowledge of the different available tire styles, one can better understand the steps needed to achieve maximum tire life with each type. The first to consider are the pressures associated with owning pneumatic tires.

Under Pressure?

Given the air-filled nature of pneumatic tires, the most important step to ensure maximum tire life is to keep the air pressure at manufacturer recommended levels. This is often overlooked by operators, but tire pressure that is too great or too anemic will result in accelerated and uneven wear while increasing the likelihood of flats.

To make sure tire pressures are acceptable, one should first consult the vehicle owner’s manual to determine the ideal air levels. Otherwise, a tire distributor should be able to help determine the right air pressure based on the manufacturer’s recommendations and how the vehicle is being used.

Once the correct air pressure is determined, tire pressure checks should be performed regularly. This should be done daily for vehicles that are in constant use or weekly for vehicles with less demanding schedules.

Always check tire pressures before the machine has been operated that day to ensure accurate pressure readings and make sure valve caps are replaced following pressure checks.

If the work schedule is too demanding to check pressures on a regular basis, the way the vehicle is reacting can tell an operator a lot about the current air pressures. If the tires are over-inflated, the skid steer will bounce and be difficult to control. On the other hand, if there is too little tire pressure, the machine will feel unstable, especially when the loader arms are lifted.

Don’t Hesitate to Rotate

Though tire pressure is only a concern for pneumatics, something that should be conducted to extend the life of all tire types is rotation.

Following the same principle of automobile tire rotation, the goal behind this practice is to extend tire life by keeping performance even between the front and rear set of tires. With automobiles, this is primarily necessary because most vehicles are either front- or rear-wheel drive, meaning that one set of tires is always under more stress.

In the case of skid steers, more stress is placed on either the front or rear set of tires based on how one typically uses the vehicle. It is impossible to place a specific time frame on when rotation is necessary since the vehicle’s condition, tire type, work environment and operational tendencies all factor into the equation. But a good rule-of-thumb is to regularly inspect the tires and at the first sign of wear difference in the tread — rotate. Failing to do so will eventually result in one pair of tires wearing at a much more accelerated rate than the other pair, which reduces the service life of the entire set.

Keep Four on the Floor

One common issue that accelerates tire wear for the rear tires and makes rotation a more immediate concern relates to how operators address loads with the bucket.

More often than not, when an operator has a load in front of him, there is a tendency to dig the bucket as far as possible under the load. Typically, this practice results in the front end of the machine being lifted up, taking the front two tires slightly off the ground, which results in all of the load stress being concentrated on the rear two tires. Simply put, the back two tires end up doing all of the work while the front two tires do nothing at all. In fact, the weight of the front tires itself adds to the stress on the rear tires.

Obviously, operating the skid steer in this way results in accelerated and uneven wear to the rear tires. The solution to this problem is rather obvious as well — keep all four tires on the ground when lifting and carrying loads. It is usually unnecessary to lift a load in such a way and avoiding this practice will extend tire life and reduce the frequency of rotation.

Location, Location, Location

Outside of wear-promoting operation techniques, perhaps the biggest mistake operators make that results in aggressive tire wear is the location they choose to run the skid steer.

For the most part, skid steer tires are designed for off-road use, but all too often operators drive the vehicles on road surfaces. Just as a standard automobile tire is not designed for off-road use, most skid steer tires are not designed for on-road travel. Again, the result is accelerated and unnecessary wear, not to mention poor performance.

Therefore, operators should be cognizant of where they are driving skid steers. Being creatures of habit, people are naturally drawn to driving on a road surface, but it’s a compulsion that should be resisted if extended tire life is of interest. Driving on surfaces that are not ideal for the tire’s design is not always avoidable, but bear in mind that there’s a reason most of these tires have deep, aggressive-action treads and it’s not for operating on smooth, paved surfaces.

Hitting the Rim

In addition to trying to operate skid steers on surfaces for which the tires were designed, end users need to pay extra attention to obstacles that may be in their path. This may seem like an obvious point, but given the rough and tumble nature of skid steers, many tend to treat them as indestructible. This attitude can have a detrimental effect on tire life.

One issue that is specifically related to tires other than pneumatics involves the rim. Non-pneumatic tire styles utilize a completely different type of rim than pneumatics. The tire is actually pressed onto the rim and a retaining ring holds the tire in place.

A relatively common problem results when operators who are not paying close enough attention to their surroundings snag the rim on an obstacle, which can result in the retaining ring popping off.

Worse yet, many times operators do not realize quick enough what has happened and they end up running over the retaining ring.

Fortunately, this is not an expensive mistake. A retaining ring can be repaired for a nominal fee and quickly pressed back on. Again, the primary problem is the cost of downtime. Not only is the skid steer unusable until the tire is repaired, but this type of service usually requires a tire dealer to get involved, which means more waiting.

The key point to remember is that, although flat-free tires are built to be virtually indestructible, they can’t always counter a lapse in common sense.

Keep It Clean

One final point about tire maintenance is something that operators should practice with any piece of construction equipment: keep it clean. No matter what the machine, dirt and grime can conceal obvious problems. The same goes with its tires.

Following any use that results in a significant amount of accumulated filth, one should hose off the vehicle and tires. Thoroughly cleaning the tires allows for a proper visual inspection and could reveal minor problems before they become serious, such as signs of irregular wear, bubbles and bumps, cracks, or foreign objects stuck in the rubber.

Though some flat-free tires, such as semi-pneumatics, are designed to clean themselves of foreign objects stuck in the tread or air holes, it’s still a good idea to remove any excess dirt and mud. For instance, if mud is left to dry within the air holes of a semi-pneumatic, the hardened dirt clumps could promote excess wear.

This is not a serious problem by any stretch of the imagination, but since one should already be cleaning the equipment, the extra few seconds it takes to clean off the tires are worth it.

Extending skid steer tire life is by no means sophisticated. It just takes a commitment. If proper tire maintenance is not a concern and the operator’s actions reflect this, then tire life will likely be minimized and overall productivity is lost. But if the slightest concern for tire longevity is exhibited, the operator is rewarded with extended reliability and performance. It simply requires a little common sense to achieve uncommon results.

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