Side by Side: Tracked vs. wheeled excavators

When it comes to high-production digging, you just can’t beat an excavator on steel tracks. Wheeled excavators can’t dig as aggressively as their tracked cousins, but with a quick coupler and attachments they can perform a surprising variety of jobs and maneuver in places where any other type of heavy equipment couldn’t.

European contractors use wheeled excavators much more than their American counterparts. Part of this is because American contractors do more pioneering – digging and clearing raw land – and Europeans work more in urban environments. So we asked Lars-Inge Larsson, Volvo Construction Equipment’s product manager for excavators, to compare the tracked and wheeled versions of these machines.

Tracked excavators have a considerably larger footprint than the contact patch of four tires on a wheeled excavator. And the undercarriage weight helps stabilize these machines. Plus the center of gravity is lower with a tracked excavator. But with its outriggers deployed and its dozer blade on the ground, a wheeled excavator can be just as, if not more, stable than tracked versions, says Larsson. “The outriggers today have a very wide stance,” he says.

The tracked machine is designed primarily for digging. It can also be outfitted with a hammer, crusher or shear and do demolition and quarry work. The wheeled excavator can do all these things as well – but it can also do them on hard surfaces a tracked machine would otherwise destroy. That gives wheeled excavators access to urban environments, paved roadways, building slabs and parking lots. With different attachments, wheeled excavators not only dig and do demolition work, they move concrete barriers, clean ditches from the road, mow, cut asphalt and grind trees. When faced with mid-sized construction applications in an urban environment most American contractors turn to a backhoe, Larsson says, but compared to a wheeled excavator a backhoe has a larger footprint and less reach, power and dig/lift capacity.

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Tracked excavators crawl along at 4 to 6 mph. And you need a truck and trailer to haul them from site to site, or even to cross a road. Wheeled excavators can travel up to 22 mph, Larsson says. This mobility improves productivity when you have multiple tasks to achieve around a large worksite.

Lifecycle costs
Crawler undercarriages are expensive. Once they’re worn out, replacing or refurbishing them is likewise an expensive and time-consuming task. The wheels and brakes used on wheeled excavators last longer, cost less and are fairly easy to replace, Larsson says, giving these machines a low operating cost.

“Americans tend to look at wheeled excavators as a niche machine,” Larsson says. “In Europe, the wheeled excavator is considered a good tool carrier.” If it’s hard digging you want, then the tracked machine will do what you need. But keep the wheeled excavator in mind if you work on jobs in urban or paved areas, or you’re looking for a versatile tool carrier with more power and capacity than a backhoe.