Call to Traction

| September 29, 2009

Before winter arrives, choose the proper chains and know how to install them


Installing chains is the one trucking operation almost guaranteed to be required in the worst weather.

“Installation is never easy because it’s done in the worst conditions,” says Eric Sullwold, business development manager for chain manufacturer Pewag International and a former trucker. “It’s cold, it’s snowing, it’s miserable, plus you have cars whizzing by driven by people who don’t think they need chains.”

To prepare for chaining, take along a few pieces of equipment to keep yourself safe, Sullwold recommends. Get a reflective vest that can be seen in white-out conditions or at night. Carry a sturdy flashlight or battery-powered lantern. Also, pack a good pair of gloves, coveralls and a rain jacket or parka to protect you from the elements.

If possible, pick a spot far off the roadway, such as a pullout or rest area that is well-lit and has adequate space. Try to find level ground to keep from sliding on ice. Truckers often will procrastinate and think they can make it to the next pullout before chaining. “Be safe and pull into the next area and put your chains on,” Sullwold says.

There is no one right way to lay the chains. The most popular method is simply draping them over the top of the tire. Make sure the latch is on the outside of the tire and the connecting C hook is on the inside, away from the tire. Move the truck forward or backward a foot or so to get as much of the chain under the tire as possible. “You’re left with the tail of the chain on the ground away from the tire,” says Claudio Massini, assistant manager at Western Equipment Ltd. “The idea is to loop it to the other end and fasten it. Fasten the C hook first and then the latch side. When you slide the link on and pull it down to fasten the latch, it will tighten the chain that much more.”

Many chains have tightening cams along the side chain. The cam is a half-moon-shaped disk that you tighten with a key that cinches the chain tighter.

If you have a V-bar chain, make sure the V-bar is pointing away from the tire. Same goes for studded chains. Otherwise, the studs will dig into the tread.

Once you’ve applied the chains, you’ll want to move your rig a distance to allow centrifugal force to center the chain on the tire. In some chaining areas, you may not have much space, so you may have to retension the chains at the next pullout or chaining area. Don’t drop your trailer, since it could roll.

Retensioning adjusts the tightness to get a better fit. If the chain is too loose, it will bang the pavement ahead of the tire and cause premature wear or break a link, Sullwold says. Or it can roll around the tire and wear the tread, Massini says. Too tight – which Massini says is rare – and the chain clings too closely to the tire and could cause damage to the tread, sidewall or shoulder.

When you’re driving with chains, speed is critical. Any speed above 25-30 mph will accelerate chain wear, and it will increase your stopping distance dramatically. Sullwold says most of the time you’ll only drive 40 miles on your chains before removal.

At the end of the season or after each trip, check the chains for broken links. You can repair cross chain pieces with a chain plier, which opens and closes hooks. “You can do maybe a half-dozen cross chains,” Sullwold says, “but if you’re going to repair a whole chain, you’ll find the cost of your time and materials would be more than the cost of a new chain.”

When removing chains, find a safe place away from traffic. Sullwold recommends hanging them on your truck in a way that you’ll be able to put them on quickly and easily the next time.


Installing triple chains for duals

If you grab the middle chain, or rail, of three, the chain set will fold in half. Drape the entire set over the outside dual with the center rail between the duals and the outer rails on the outside. Grab the rail that’s on top and pull it over to the outside of the inner dual.

Tighten the middle rail first, says Claudio Massini, which is the C hook rail. The inside and outside rails will have latches. Tighten the C hook and then tighten the latches, also known as “boomers,” to tighten the chains.


Chain maintenance
Before summer turns to autumn, inspect your chains. Before the first snowfall, check for broken or missing links or wear spots that will reduce traction. Make sure your chains fit your tires and that you have the proper number of sets. A minimum number for a 3-axle tractor pulling a trailer in California is a couple of single sets and a couple of “triples” for dual tires. A maximum would be enough triples to cover the entire drive axle of your tractor. Washington State requires that you carry a spare set.

Pewag’s Eric Sullwold advocates carrying chains year-round, especially in the West. A former truck driver, he’s encountered a snowstorm on the Fourth of July in Colorado. Remember that Colorado, which is bisected by the Rocky Mountains, requires truckers to carry chains beginning Sept. 1. Other western states follow by requiring chains in October or November. “California probably has the most stringent chain requirements – they stop trucks to make sure they have chains when winter conditions are happening,” Sullwold says. “They will also tell you how to chain up, because they have certain conditions with minimum and maximum chaining in a major snowstorm.”

It’s also a good idea to hang your chains on opposite sides of the truck to extend their longevity. Even so, a trucker driving in northern states “will be lucky to get a couple of seasons out of a set of chains,” Claudio Massini of Western Equipment says.


Chain choices
You have a choice of three basic types of tire chains, ranging from the simple twisted-link chain to a studded chain, the most aggressive. A third choice is a V-bar chain.

The twisted-link has plain links that lay across the tire. They are suitable for highway driving and situations where the need for traction is less dire. They are the cheapest type and will wear out the fastest.

V-bar chains have a V-shaped bar welded to each cross chain that runs across the tire. They are recommended for highway driving, particularly mountain passes.

Studded chains are used most often off-road, such as for logging and at oil fields. If used on highways, they supply good traction but can be hard on road surfaces and tires. Check with the state patrol or highway department in the states where you drive to know which chains are permitted. Fines can result if you’re caught with the wrong ones.

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