How to Take Care of Your Construction Equipment's Undercarriage

Ryan Whisner
Updated Mar 18, 2022
Case 1150
There are many things you can do to affect the lifetime owning and operating costs of the undercarriage.
Case Construction Equipment

Depending on the type of machine, whether it’s an excavator, a dozer, or a compact track loader, between 40% to 60% of its lifelong owning and operating costs are tied to the undercarriage.

On a recent Case Live event, product managers from Case Construction Equipment went over some of the best practices for proper care of your undercarriage.

Whether you're a fleet manager, a business owner or the equipment operator, there are many things you can do that will affect the lifetime owning and operating costs of that undercarriage on your machine.

What to consider

On machines where you have a choice between rubber tracks or steel tracks, rubber tracks will wear out faster and require replacement, but they'll also allow you to move across asphalt, concrete and other finished surfaces. Knowing how that fits into your operation is important.

Case product manager Jeremy Dulak says matching track style to the work you do will go a long way to ensuring productivity and proper machine operation. He says the general rule for steel tracks is the narrowest track gauge with the narrowest shoe width for proper flotation and traction. For example, for firm ground conditions with minimal slope, long tracks are the best fit. Narrow track gauge and narrow track shoes provide high ground-pressure and the best traction.

 “When it comes to firm ground conditions with more varied terrain, wide tracks are the preferred track option,” Dulak says, noting that their wide track gauge and wider track shoes provide lateral stability and the best flotation in sloped areas. Also, he said low ground-pressure tracks are the best-suited for soft, swampy conditions.

Excavators do not share the same formal naming conventions as dozers, but width length and grouser height matched to the most common ground conditions will typically lead to more success. 

“There's also a general consideration to think of as you're buying a new machine, and that's the machine size and weight,” Dulak says. “We know some people operate by the bigger is better mantra, but if your application doesn't need the largest machine available, you can complete your work with a smaller, more midsize machine that will obviously have a lower initial purchase price.”

He notes that one thing about weight many people don’t consider is, the heavier the machine, the more stress and strain is being put on the tracks, leading to higher lifetime maintenance and repair costs. “For many, it's the price of doing business but given these considerations at the time of purchase can help keep some of those maintenance costs in check over the life of the machine,” Dulak says. In addition to maintenance costs, a smaller machine also is easier to transport.

CaseOperating heavy machinery does not mean you're on a racetrack, you don't always have to turn left, it's bad for the tracks and undercarriage wear.Case Construction EquipmentOperator habits ... good and bad

Operator habits on all types of undercarriages play a big part in how fast you experience wear and maintenance. Here are a few tips offered by Case commercial sales trainer Jon Wint to improve the undercarriage life:

  • Operating rubber tracks on improved surfaces – “Concrete, asphalt and hard packed gravel, all tear up rubber tracks when consistently used on these surfaces,” Wint says. “The vibration, the abrasion, it's all going to wear on those rubber tracks. Now, obviously, we're not recommending that you operate steel tracks on concrete and asphalt, but this is more of a note related to avoiding extensive use of rubber tracks on these hard surfaces if possible.”
  • Counter rotation – “Every operator does it and there may be a specific reason in some applications, and it can be the quickest way to turn around a machine,” Wint says. “The counter rotation of a machine in one spot puts all sorts of unnecessary stress and strain on that undercarriage. Where possible, we highly recommend wider turns or even wide turns to prevent excessive wear.”
  • Avoid track spinning – “This is particularly applicable to dozers and CTLs but don't operate in a way where you put too much of a load on the front of that machine to the point where you can't push effectively and the tracks just spin in place,” Wint says. “Adjust the bucket and blade load accordingly. It will increase your productivity as well versus sitting and engaging in unproductive work.”
  • Always turning in one direction – Put simply, it is not advised. “While we do have a new partnership with World of Outlaws racing, where lefthand turns are the norm, we recommend our machine operators alternate turning direction on tracked machines, if at all possible,” Wint says. “Constant turning on one side will lead to asymmetrical wear.”
  • Operating on hills and slopes – Wint recommends working directly up and down a slope and minimizing any sideways work. “Operating sideways on a slope places greater pressure and wear on the side of the track that's downhill,” he says. “Operating in this way consistently, always with the same side downhill will accelerate the wear on that one side in comparison to the other side.”

Other common behaviors that increase wear are consistently fast speeds and consistent operation in reverse. Wint says both types of operations increase wear rates on pins, bushings and sprockets.

“Operation in reverse wears an undercarriage nearly twice as fast as operation in forward gears as well,” he says. 

In reverse, you have roughly 50% less pin to sprocket contact. “When you're going forward the way that track goes over the rear sprocket, you have better tooth to bushing retention,” Wint says. “When we start going in reverse, physics is kind of working against us, and we have less tooth of the sprocket to the bushing retention.” Also, material packed into that track and that undercarriage can even further reduce bushing-to-tooth retention. 

“That is really the physics or the nuts and bolts as to why we wear faster in reverse than we do in forward,” Wint says. “I think it highlights the importance of a job plan and trying to minimize your overall reversing operations.” He says if operators eliminate driving in reverse to start their next pass, they should make sure they’re making equal left and right turns and not counter-rotating to start the next pass.

“As much as anything else, wear is a function of speed and distance traveled,” he says. “Operating deliberately and with fewer long runs or pushes will help extend undercarriage life.”  

Case CX450Some people don't realize there is a proper front and back to excavator tracks. Best practice is to not set-up digging operations over the sprocket.Case Construction Equipment

Work smarter, not harder

Case product manager Nathaniel Waldschmidt says upon arriving at a jobsite, it is important to set up the flow of the site in a way that minimizes machine movement as much as possible.

“Ask yourself, how can I complete the job in as few passes as possible? Or with minimal machine movement?” he says. “Taking that time will help you better run a jobsite and help minimize wear on your equipment.”

The plan concept applies to any of the machines. For excavators, Waldschmidt says, the jobsite should be set up for optimal digging conditions. Unlike dozers, excavator tracks are built a little more for moving from point A to point B, instead of active tractive effort. 

“I think some people don't realize that there's actually a proper front and back to excavator tracks,” Waldschmidt says. “You never want to dig over the sprocket and, similarly, don’t set up digging operations in a way that you’re digging over the side of the machine, as that will put unnecessary stress and strain on that side of the excavator.”

Another way to reduce the amount of wear and tear on the dozer undercarriages is with machine control. While there is no actual connection to the undercarriage or the tracks itself, the idea behind machine control is improved overall operation and completing grading using fewer pass, which means fewer hours on the tracks.

Wint says machine control, especially 3D machine control, helps operators visualize the jobsite clearly. “You can look at the plan and get a really good idea as to where material is going to be cut, where it’s going to be filled, and you can make a plan for that job.” 

He notes that the idea is to work smarter, not harder. 

“There's still the same amount of work to be done, that's the common bottom line, but you can get that job done quicker and put less passes on the machine, less maintenance, less fuel burned. There really are just a ton of benefits to using machine control,” Wint says.

Also, Case SiteWatch telematics comes standard on all new Case heavy equipment as part of ProCare and will allow operators to keep better track of hours and service as it relates to the lifetime undercarriage needs.

Day-to-day maintenance

Pre- and post-operation checklists are a great place to start. “Even a visual inspection at the beginning and end of each shift can go a long way in identifying wear patterns, damage or areas that may be vulnerable to wear or failure,” Dulak says. “Making that visual inspection consistent will help you identify anything out of the ordinary as it comes up.” 

Another thing to confirm during a regular inspection and during service is that the tracks are properly aligned. Correct track alignment is necessary to prevent wear of the undercarriage components. “Misalignment problems will affect more undercarriage components than any other issue,” Dulak says. “Track links idler flanges, track and carrier roller flanges, sprockets and rock guards can all suffer from increased wear when the tracks are not properly aligned.”

An often-overlooked task is cleaning undercarriage and tracks. “A clean undercarriage will help you spot wear easier as well as signs of premature failures, or catch problems when they are small before major failure like oil leaking from a failed seal on a pin or bushing,” Dulak says. “It's a good thing to do for a few reasons, impacted dirt and rock act as an abrasive as the undercarriage works, so removing as much of that as you can at the end of the day helps support less wear.”  For those in colder climates, materials can freeze onto parts, which is particularly harmful and opens the door for more component damage, misalignment and accelerated wear. 

The undercarriage should at minimum be cleaned daily, however, the recommendation is to clean it even on breaks if large packs of dirt are observed. “It's easier to do it, the more often you do it,” he says. “If you let it go all day, it’s going to get more packed in and actually harder.”

One thing that can be checked daily is track tension. When steel tracks are too tight it creates added load on contact areas, which accelerates component wear. “A track that is too tight also robs the machine of its power and fuel efficiency as it actually takes more effort to turn the track,” Dulak says. “If a track is too loose, it can create instability and potentially cause the tracks to derail while also causing wear on other components of the undercarriage.” 

The recommendation is for track tension to be checked daily, with a SAG adjusted to the recommended measurement for each machine. One of the most important times to check the tension is when changing material types you’re working in.

Also, while it sounds like a daunting task, undercarriage measurement is another service that has huge payoffs. Most contractors will partner with their dealer on this service, but an experienced fleet manager or mechanic likely can do it as well. 

Wint says undercarriage measurement involves measuring just about any moving component of the undercarriage.

“This activity measures things like track pitch, external bushing diameter, link wear, track roller treadwear and grouser height,” he says. “One of the main reasons you should do this is that it may help you catch small problems that can be easily corrected or fixed before they become major downtime events with related repair and replacement costs.”

The process also offers an opportunity to coach operators to avoid practices that can be detrimental to the undercarriage. In addition, regular undercarriage measurement assists in being better able to plan for maintenance and replacement of the undercarriage. “Taking those measurements and keeping track of the pace of wear will help you understand how much time your undercarriage has left and helps you plan for that replacement cost,” Wint says.

Lastly and as always, he says, read the manual and keep up with any maintenance scheduled and charts provided by the manufacturer.

“Every application, every soil type, every operator is different, so that's not a guaranteed schedule,” he says. “You need to put in the work and monitor performance and wear and service, but the manufacturer provided guidelines and schedules point you in the right direction”