By Steve Sturgess, Special to Transport Topics
This story appears in the Dec. 9 print edition of Transport Topics.
“Slapping that iron,” a trucker’s term for adding snow chains to vehicles during winter months, is one task that drivers generally dislike. However, there are several alternatives to traditional chains that take at least some of the hard work, mess and cold out of the unwanted but necessary — and sometimes dangerous — task, according to producers of these devices.
They also said they expect to see more of their products on over-the-road trucks in the future.
One such alternative is an automatic chain system offered by suppliers such as Onspot of North America Inc., Insta-Chain and Rud Chain Inc.
John Atkinson Jr., president of Insta-Chain, based in Springville, Utah, said that, while trucking has not been an early adopter of automatic systems, over-the-road fleets have shown more interest in the devices in the past few years.
And Patrick Freyer, president of Onspot, based in Stratford, Conn., said that there are four prime markets for automatic chains — fire trucks, ambulances, school buses and municipal snow-removal operators.
“We refer to them as municipal, since it is all tax money [that pays for the devices],” Freyer said. “But the biggest potential is what I call the commercial market.”
He added, “It’s also the hardest sell.”
However, at least one device maker is dubious about capturing many fleet customers. Teague Rakoz, general manager at Laclede Chain Manufacturing Co. in Vancouver, Wash., which is a member of the National Association of Chain Manufacturers in Tucson, Ariz., said in an e-mail, “We do not expect the use of currently available alternatives to see a net sales increase in the trucking sector. The alternative traction devices all come with a trade-off, or usually multiple trade-offs, which can include price, traction/safety, durability, ease of installation and [Department of Transportation] approval.”
But Freyer offered another reason for devices such as Onspot’s gaining acceptance among truckers: The devices contribute to driver safety by eliminating the need to add or remove chains at the side of the road.
“Not having to risk being run over at the side of the road is a big plus,” he said, “and drivers today expect more consideration from the fleets.”
The Onspot device is a rubber, disk-shaped chain wheel with lengths of chains attached. The device is mounted to an arm that is attached to the truck’s drive axle. When needed, air pressure in the device’s chamber rotates the arm downward and sets the chain wheel next to the inside sidewall of the inside tire in a dual-tire set.
The subsequent rotation of the chain wheel flings the attached chains out into a circle that passes under the truck wheel, providing the necessary traction to keep the vehicle moving in ice and snow.
The device might appeal to drivers, Freyer, acknowledged, but it could be too expensive — $2,500 per truck — for some trucking companies.
“For them, it’s all ROI, ROI, ROI,” Freyer said, adding, “For a regional company, the economies of not having to stop and chain offers a quick [return on investment].
“Consider the haul from Sacramento, Calif., to Reno, Nev.,” Freyer said. “That’s a California chain-control route and, if chaining is required, a driver is going to have to stop on the way up the Donner Pass and then again on the return trip. If he has to chain and unchain one more time [beyond that], he’ll never make the round trip in the hours he has available, and he’ll never finish the loop.”
Both Insta-Chain and German company Rud have similar products at prices competitive with Onspot’s. In fact, both companies once were distributors of the Onspot traction device, which is a Swedish product.
Insta-Chain’s Atkinson said that, although “an installed system may cost about $2,000, there’s a growing realization that the speed of deployment — within a second or so — makes for far greater safety on black ice.”
He added, “There’s also time saved with drivers not having to get out and chain and unchain, losing as much as four or five hours in a day, which adds up fast at $60 an hour, as estimated by the fleets.”
Atkinson also said his company’s device has grease fittings on both the swinging arm and the chain wheel that allow for the purging of old lubrication and the road grime and salt in which these chaining devices work.
Rud’s Rotogrip CS is available to U.S. truckers through its American subsidiary, Rud Chain Inc. of Hiawatha, Iowa.
This device offers more chains under the tires because of the many strands at each of the spinner attachments.
Jim Saunders, Rud’s director of RotoGrip operations, said the device provides a “chain carpet” to ensure traction stability whether going forward or in reverse.
“The speed can be as low as 5 mph for the chains to flair out and under the wheels,” Saunders said. “The system also allows higher speeds without excessive vibration.”
A benefit of all these wheel-driven chain systems is that if a chain breaks, it is left on the ground. With traditional chains, a breakage often will wreak havoc with the truck fenders, wheels, flaps and anything else in the trajectory of the broken chain. In part, this is how the suppliers justify the significantly higher price of these fully automatic chain systems.
Another alternative-traction device is GoClaws. Flex-Trax Advanced Traction Systems, based in Cleveland, Tenn., markets the polyurethane product for “large commercial vehicles,” according to its website.
Beth Bright, vice president of sales and marketing at Flex-Trax, said the device has been available for 15 years.
“GoClaws’ most attractive feature is that it can be fitted to the vehicle with the minimum of fuss, without having to move the vehicle,” she said. “It takes only about five minutes at each wheel to attach and less time to remove. All you need is the pry-tool that is included in the nylon-bagged kit, along with the instructions. We also have videos at our website to show how easy it is to install the device.”
GoClaws are suitable for heavy trucks and are approved for use in California and Colorado, Bright said.
She said the device sells for a top price of $279.95, but a volume discount is available.
The company justifies the price by the long life of the devices, Bright said, noting that she has customers who have used them for as long as 10 years
A textile-traction device also is being marketed for vehicle combinations weighing more than 10,000 pounds with a maximum of five axles, according to the website www.autosock.us, run by AutoSock AS, the Oslo, Norway-based company that makes the product.
“The AutoSock is manufactured from a high-tech textile that has been purpose-formulated for this application,” said Chuck McGee, president of Denver-based McGee Co., an equipment supplier for tire service shops that sells the product. “It provides enhanced traction on snow and ice.”
McGee said AutoSock already has been approved for use on heavy trucks in Washington state and California, and AutoSock AS said in a Nov. 26 press release that its product has been approved in 45 states.
The device is easy to place over wheels, McGee said, adding that there’s even a size to fit over single wide-base tires.
In slippery conditions, the sock is eased over the top of the tire and around the sides and centered as much as possible. The truck then is driven forward a yard or two so the driver can pull the elasticized rim of the sock over the wheel. The sock centers itself as the truck is driven.
McGee said AutoSocks cost significantly more than traditional chains, but their ease of handling, light weight and good performance make then very popular with drivers.
Despite their traction prowess, however, they have to be removed immediately when not driving on snow or ice to prevent damage from the pavement.
For fleets with lighter vehicles, a make-it-yourself tire-traction assembly kit is offered by Italian company Mita Chains, which has given exclusive North American distribution rights to Chainco Inc., which is located in Edmonton, Alberta.
The Mita Anti-Skid Device includes sections of triangle-shaped metallic plates and interlocking hooks that are attached to the grooves in the tire tread.
“Not only do Mita Snow Chains add to the safety of winter driving by improving traction and grip on snow and ice, but consumers can be confident that the product will not damage a vehicle’s expensive alloys or wheel arches, which is common when using traditional snow chains,” Chainco vice president Cory Charles said in a press release.