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What to Consider When Selecting All-Terrain Vehicles for Utility Applications

Trooper PJH6094-WebAll-terrain utility vehicles (ATVs) are built to go where four-wheel-drive pickups and other conventional vehicles cannot, whether on steep hills, through soft mud or over water, to transport workers, supplies, and tools to remote areas for servicing and repairing power lines and other equipment along the right-of-way.

But when it comes to ATVs, one size does not fit all applications. Some are designed primarily as people movers that may also carry light cargo, while others can haul more than 40,000 pounds with heavy equipment, such as aerial lifts or cranes, mounted on them. Then there are ATVs capable of negotiating the steepest of hills in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and others that offer amphibious capabilities to cross deep waters in flooded lowlands.

With a vast range of shapes, sizes and capabilities to choose from, what should utility fleet managers consider to select the right ATV for the job? Here are six questions to help guide the process.

1. What’s the ATV’s job description?
“If [the ATV’s] job is to be a survey vehicle – to carry a two-person crew to inspect, say, a five-mile stretch of power line to make sure everything is up and running properly – we’ll likely recommend [a smaller-model ATV],” said Craig Simonton, sales and marketing, Hydratrek Inc. (www.hydratrek.com). “But if you have a lot of upcoming new projects with building new power lines, requiring large crews and heavier equipment, we'll point them toward a bigger vehicle so they can haul more material and more people in one trip.”

2. What’s the maximum number of people the vehicle will carry at one time?
The Hydratrek model D2488B, for example, can be configured to carry three to as many as nine passengers on the same size vehicle, depending on how much cargo space is required. The key is to strike the right balance between seating capacity and cargo area to achieve optimal productivity.

3. What are the payload requirements?
“Fleet managers have to take stock of everything they intend the vehicle to carry,” advised Bill York, utility vehicle sales, Prinoth LLC (www.prinoth.com). “If the machine is going to haul a digger derrick, crane or aerial unit, it makes sense to involve the heavy equipment upfitter who can help you determine precisely how much payload is required. This way, all parties [ATV manufacturer, equipment upfitter and fleet manager] can put their brains together to come up with the best fit.”

But also remember the little things that can add up. “Perhaps the fleet plans to mount a digger derrick that could fit on a 16,000-pound-capacity [ATV], but they also want to haul 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of extra gear that exceed the capabilities of the 16,000-pound carrier. In that case, you need to go one size up to a larger machine,” York said.

4. What type of terrain will the ATV be used on?
“If it’s hilly terrain, how steep of an incline can the machine safely navigate up and down? And what about sidehill capabilities – what degree or percent grade can the machine handle moving across the side of the slope? Every machine has different ratings for this,” York said.

Then there’s water. If the vehicle must operate in floodplains or other areas where water could be an issue, is it equipped to handle those types of conditions? Some ATVs can drive through a certain depth of water, almost fully submerged, so determine what that capability is for the vehicle you’re evaluating to ensure it’s sufficient for the job. There are also ATVs that offer amphibious capabilities, which can float, using a rear propeller system, to cross deep-water areas.

Additionally, keep in mind the vehicle’s ground pressure in terms of pounds per square inch (psi), especially in soft ground and environmentally sensitive areas along right-of-ways.

“This is one of the advantages of a rubber track system [versus wheels],” Simonton said. “Tracks are very important to keeping your footprint very light, which essentially helps the vehicle ‘float’ on top of mud, on top of wetlands, and keeps the vehicle from tearing up the ground in environmentally sensitive areas.”

But a light footprint doesn’t necessarily mean a light vehicle. York offers this frame of reference: “The average human male puts down 8 psi. Yet our biggest machine, fully loaded, weighing around 82,000 pounds, only puts down about 4 psi in ground pressure. So these vehicles can go places where we can't even walk over without sinking. This is because of the vehicle’s weight distribution, based on the design of the length and width of the track.”

5. Have you accounted for safety?
“Make sure the vehicles are [rollover protection system] certified to the highest standards to protect workers,” said Jim Blaze, national accounts manager, Polaris Industries (www.polaris.com).

Blaze also advised that fleet managers consider safety harnesses. “[Polaris] puts shock absorbers on safety harnesses because, in remote areas, where the ride can get real bouncy, the shock absorbers can help protect you from dislocating your shoulders.”

Side cab protection is important as well, Blaze said. “Consider a netting system to keep arms and legs inside the vehicle. In some cases, companies might order hard caps, which are like automotive doors for extra protection.”

6. How responsive is the manufacturer’s support network?
“Is there 24/7 availability for technical support? How easy is it to get parts? How far, how fast is that company willing to send people to help you if you have a machine break down in the field?” York posed. “Especially with large utilities, if a power line or transmission line is down, the amount of money being wasted is staggering, sometimes approaching as much as $100,000 per minute. And if [the all-terrain vehicle] that’s needed to help repair the line is also broken down, that creates a huge issue. So the key is how fast can you get that vehicle up and running? How fast can the [ATV manufacturer] get a tech out there to help you? These are the things that need to be considered up front. And the bigger your area and the more diverse the terrain, the more important manufacturer support becomes.”

About the Author: Sean M. Lyden is a nationally recognized journalist and feature writer for a wide range of automotive and trucking trade publications, covering fleet management strategies, light- and medium-duty trucks, truck bodies and equipment, and green fuel technologies. He blogs at Strategy + Writing (www.seanmlyden.com).

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