Tracked vs. Wheeled Excavators: Digging Into the Differences

Updated: Oct 17, 2019

Excavators have been, and always will be, key pieces of equipment on construction sites. Based on the jobs it can perform and the various functions that it is used for, tracked excavators are necessary for a majority of construction jobs. However, wheeled excavators may have them beat in certain areas.

While the excavators themselves look almost identical, whether they are tracked or wheeled makes a vast difference in functions and benefits. In the below article, we’ll highlight the various benefits of each type of excavator and detail which excavator works best in certain cases. From there, we’ll let you take your side on the “tracked versus wheeled” debate.

Wheeled Excavators

Wheeled excavators have been slow to take off in United States. Their prominence is more notable in European countries as wheeled excavators excel in urban environments. Here in the U.S., rural and rugged environments come more into play than urban environments do, which is where tracked excavators take charge.

While wheeled excavators can’t always do the heavy lifting that tracked excavators can, they have a multitude of benefits that might make them the right of choice for you.

Versatility. Whether it is the easy use of attachments or the ability to get in the nooks and crannies that tracked excavators may not be able to, wheeled excavators are widely known for their versatility. A coupler will have your wheeled excavator switching between attachments quickly, making it a highly efficient piece of equipment to bring along to your site.

Furthermore, tracked excavators are typically much larger and much more rugged than wheeled excavators. With that in mind, it would be much wiser to bring your wheels to an urban construction site, rather than your tracks. They are more maneuverable and ideal for tighter spaces. Not to mention, they able to go from digging and trenching to material spreading and snow plowing, while tracked excavators may have some issues doing so.

Transportation. This is a big one. Instead of having to dedicate extensive resources simply to move a tracked excavator from one point to the next, wheeled excavators can do it on their own. Some models of wheeled excavators can top 20 miles per hour, so it is possible to take them onto select roadways. You may be able to realize some hefty cost-savings by not having to get a truck and trailer to load, transport and unload your tracked excavator.

Cost Efficient. Saving money on transportation isn’t the only thing you’ll save on with wheeled excavators. While the initial prices of the wheeled is usually higher than that of the tracked, the total cost of ownership is far less. You’ll avoid expensive undercarriage maintenance costs associated with tracked excavators. Plus, many wheeled excavators offer great fuel efficiency, reducing your fuel expenses as well.

Lifecycle. Peripherals such as hubs, brakes and rubber tires are going to last longer with wheeled excavators. In return, your machine’s lifecycle will be greatly extended. Repairs and replacements are required less in general when it comes to wheeled machines, which will minimize maintenance cost and maximize the lifecycle.

Tracked Excavators

While tracked excavators are the more traditional choice, that by no means make them the worse option. Construction crews all around the world rely on the tracked excavator to get the job done time after time. It’s one of the most sough after pieces of equipment in the industry and that does not appear to change anytime soon. Here’s why you may want to opt into a tracked excavator over a wheeled one.

Digging Power. When it comes to raw digging power, you simply won’t find a better machine to do it than a tracked excavator. The stability and the strength that is found in tracked excavators, regardless of the size, is second to none. Wheeled excavators do not have the strength to perform certain large or heavy jobs that tracked excavators are made for. If the landscape or site size is not a concern, a tracked excavator should be the machine you use for the strength and digging power.

Ride and Stability. If you opt for a tracked excavator, your ride will be considerably better than your friend with a wheeled excavator. The long bases of tracks absorb the rugged environmental landscapes far better than a wheeled excavator does, thus resulting in a smooth and navigable ride.

Additionally, stabilizer bars make a tracked excavator more stable than their wheeled cousin. The larger footprint, lower center of gravity and the overall composition make a tracked excavator the better choice for a stable, more enjoyable and easy ride.

Consistency. If machine performance consistency is a concern on your end, tracked might be the way to go. Wheeled machines may experience issues with tire traction or machine stability depending on the landscape of the site; this is known as “power hop”. Not only can this be dangerous, but it is also highly inefficient and causes a lack of control, which makes the job much harder.

Tracked excavators, due to the nature of their composition and the operators’ control of the machine, don’t experience this. Furthermore, their performance is consistent day in and day out and the site landscape won’t affect the traction or the control of the machine. If most of your jobs are on rugged environments or in rural areas, you might consider going with tracked.

Weather Resistance. Playing into the consistency and control aspect, tracked excavators can be much more reliable in certain weather bouts. They are able to handle potential issues such as wet and slippery landscapes, high-water or muddy and unstable grounds extremely well. Wheeled excavators encounter trouble with all the above, as wheels sink in, get stuck or slip up in those conditions. In geographical areas where weather issues may be a concern, a tracked excavator might be the ideal machine.

At the end of the day, there is no one excavator that is perfect for all jobs. While contractors in the United States may still be skeptical when it comes to wheeled excavators, there are many situations where you should consider having one as your machine of choice. On the other hand, tracked excavators boast the power and ruggedness necessary for many jobsite conditions. Consider your past, present and future work sites and ask in-house experts at your favorite excavator brands to determine which type is best for you.

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