Get a grip

A typical set of Pewag chains has twisted links forming the cross-chain. The clip is installed on the third link to get the tension right.

On many roads routinely plowed for snow, you may be able to run safely with no more traction than that provided by tires in good condition. But in the mountain passes of California, Washington and Oregon, it’s a different ballgame, says Eric Sullwold, business development manager at Pewag International, one of the oldest makers of tire chains. In Colorado, he notes, “fines are high, and after Sept. 1 they will even fine you for not having them on hand when there is no snow.”

Furthermore, conditions often change fast, especially in mountainous areas. Unless you never run where it snows, buy chains that fit, maintain them and take the time to chain up properly before you get into trouble.

The National Association of Chain Manufacturers sets minimum standards for tire chains. All chains that meet these standards will work, and Pewag’s “cheap” chains, as Sullwold calls them, are good for very infrequent use.

“You’ll pay $250 for a set of quality chains, $80 for a cheap set,” Sullwold says. “In hard use, the quality chains will last five times as long. Thus, you’d spend $400 replacing your cheap chains versus the $250 cost of good chains, plus you’ll be safer.”

Cheap chains, often manufactured in China, are of case-hardened, low-carbon steel. “They’re tough on the outside only,” Sullwold says. “The chains we make in Europe are of different alloys and this makes them hard both in the interior and on the exterior.”

The difference between low-carbon chains and high-carbon alloy designs boils down to: “Pay me now or pay me later,” says Ed Leach, owner of White Mountain Chain. “Just like buying a $1.99 screwdriver you use five times versus something that costs a little more and lasts a lifetime.” He says you can identify the chain type by rubbing a file on it. With a chain made out of a high-carbon alloy, the file won’t get a grip and will just slide off.

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You can save weight and cost with simple cable chains, which substitute steel cables for the chain composed of separate links most often used. But running a single-axle tractor, as many less-than-truckload fleets do, you may not be approved to run with them in the mountains. Leach says that if the 600-lb. chain weight you should be carrying for snowy areas is an issue, his company has a special light-weight chain that is still durable.

Dave Trask, sales manager at Wallingford’s Inc., says there are three basic types of tire chains. The most simple, the twisted-link chain, has plain links across the tire tread. Another kind, the V-bar chain, has a V-shaped bar welded to each link on the “cross chain” that runs across the tire tread. The most aggressive type is the studded chain, best used in off-road situations. In fact, oil field and logging people normally put studded chains on when leaving the highway and take them back off when returning to paved roads.

Trask recommends V-bar chains in all severe conditions, such as navigating mountain passes. The twisted-link type is OK where it’s relatively level and snow is not too heavy. Some states don’t allow certain types, and this often includes studded chains. Michigan, for instance, disallows studs. In other jurisdictions, state troopers are more likely to fine you for not removing studded chains as soon as the snow is cleared than other chains. Also, studded chains will restrict your speed more when the roads start to clear. Over-the road freight companies don’t usually run them. Some unusual designs can be more complex, but they often ease the job of removing and installing chains.

“All manufacturers have a fit chart. Buy by tire size,” says Trask. A number of tire sizes will be fitted properly by a single part number, but the chain normally adjusts enough to fit well.

Sullwold says, “Provide the dealer with the tire size, and they can find the right chain.” But “check that they fit before you need to use them,” he adds. In cases where a chain might be short because it’s at the bottom of the list of sizes covered by one part number, Trask says there is a simple solution: Just remove a single cross chain.

Tim Joyce, general manager of Insta-Chain, says his company’s products are fitted by giving the selling dealer the truck model number and complete data on the type of suspension used.

To maintain chains, hang them up so they won’t get tangled. Let them dry, then inspect all links. Broken links can be fixed simply with repair links, which are readily opened and re-closed with chain pliers, a special tool normally sold where tire chains are sold. In the event that a cross-chain fails, it’s easy to replaceit with a new one, connecting it at either end with a repair link.

Joyce says the Insta-Chain mechanism should be greased whenever the rest of the truck is greased, and that it is smart to remove the wheels and chains in summer to minimize load on the articulation arms. Individual chains that have been damaged are easily and cheaply replaced.

Most drivers don’t realize chains, like tires, wear unevenly. Don’t keep hanging them on the same side of the truck, says Leach. Rotate them from side to side, instead, and they’ll give you longer life.

Best installation practices
Installing chains isn’t the most complex of truck maintenance jobs, but because it involves safety and critical moving components, it’s worth doing right. Before heading up mountain passes or into blizzards, those unaccustomed to snow should practice installing chains.

BE PREPARED FOR DARK AND COLD. Keep onboard a warm jacket and a flashlight in good condition.

PICK A SAFE SPOT. “Even designated chain areas are often busy and slick,” says Tim Miller, senior marketing specialist at Goodyear. “Look for level ground and, above all, stay out of the flow of traffic.” Finding a level area is so critical because “on an incline, heat from your tires can cause your truck to slide on the ice.”

STAY TOWARD THE REAR OF THE CHAINING AREA. “You want to be able to move forward and retension your chains before leaving,” Pewag’s Eric Sullwold says. Don’t drop your trailer, either, even if you’re in a tight spot. Either piece of the combination may slide and “put you in a position where it’s very difficult to hook back up,” Sullwold says.

LAY CHAINS FLAT ON THE GROUND. You want to be able to pull forward or back over them rather than attempt to jack up a loaded rig on what is often soft ground. For example, when you pull forward, stop when about 11/2 ft. of chain is in front of the tire. Doing so will allow you to pull the chain over the top of the wheel and connect either end. Make sure to position the V-bars facing downward.

Sullwold says Pewag offers a tape that will show you how to install chains by laying them over the top of the tire with a special clip. This installation process is ideal in confined space, with little room to roll forward or backward.

PUT V-BARS UPWARD. They should face out and away from the tread. If the V-bars or studs bite into the tire, the casing will likely be ruined for retreading purposes, Sullwold says. “Hook the inside first, then do the outside.” Both Pewag chains and those from Wallingford’s have a clip that tightens as it closes. Trask says it “has a concentric cam that looks like a swan.” You adjust tension by moving the cam clip to a different attaching link on the other end. Sullwold advises that you should be able to put about three fingers in between the tread and a cross chain – no more, no less. “The tire and chain have to work like a handshake,” he says. If the chain is too tight, “it wears a spot in the tire.”

RETENSION CHAINS. Move the truck at least one revolution of the wheel or more before retensioning. This allows the cross chains that were trapped under the tire to stretch out so they run straight across the tread. (They normally start out in a circle around the contact patch).

Others say retightening is helpful later in the process. Guy Walenga of Bridgestone Bandag Tire Solutions says, “Chains can destroy a tire if they come loose. They’ll move around and chew up the tread. Chain up, drive a while, and then stop and readjust them.” White Mountain Chain’s Ed Leach agrees and recommends retightening again after half a mile. Goodyear’s Miller recommends using rubber adjusters if necessary. “Loose fitting chains can damage close fitting body panels and moldings,” he warns.

How to install triple chains for duals
Grab them by the long middle chain, which will cause them to fold in half, Leach says. Lay the entire set over the outer dual with the center long chain between the duals and the other two long chains on the outboard side. Then grab the long chain that’s on top and move it over to the outside of the inner dual, in effect unfolding the assembly.

Fewer pains with chains
Some chain makers have newer products designed to make it easier to put chains on and take them off.

“The Snap-On chain process, which is patent pending, has greatly reduced both the time and effort normally required to chain up,” says John Beecroft, Snap-On president. “This is made possible by a metal disc, which is mounted permanently between the dual tires.”

Numerous slits around the disc’s circumference enable you to snap each cross-chain onto the disc. “The chain set is then tightened from outside the wheel with a tightening clasp that is very similar to those used with many traditional chains,” says Beecroft. “This process enables the user to apply the chains without moving the vehicle, and application normally takes no more than a minute or two.”

Tim Joyce, general manager of Insta-Chain, describes the Automatic Ice Chain, air-operated by a switch on the dash, as a total eliminator of installation headaches. “The driver doesn’t even get out of the cab,” he says. “A 71/2-in. wheel articulates against the side of the inside drive tire. Friction causes the wheel to rotate, and this causes either 6 or 12 lengths of chain to swing under the tire.”

Only the inner dual gets the lengths of chain underneath, but since the chains lift the tire 31/2 inches off the road, the inner duals carry all the weight during the time the chain mechanism is engaged, thus ensuring adequate traction. The 12-chain setup is especially recommended for a lot of stop-and-start driving and speeds far lower than the usual maximum of about 25 mph.

Joyce claims Insta-Chain’s product is legal in every state with chain laws and is most effective in 4 to 8 inches of snow. “When you get to 14-18 inches, the roads are normally closed, anyway,” he says. All this costs about $1,750 per axle.

“You can disengage these whenever you want to,” he says, and this means longer life, which can help justify the high cost. Also, you can even engage them within a second if you suddenly find yourself on black ice, which has the potential to prevent a serious accident.

The cost can also be lowered if you’re handy enough to install them yourself.

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